“First United Church of Philippi, part III”
Rev. Tony Romaine—October 25th, 2020
As we continue our four-part series going through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, let us be reminded that Paul wrote to the Philippians, and to our modern-day church, with a two-part, over-arching framework in mind; that we should be focusing on what truly matters the most and that we must be active Christian citizens. With this in mind, the tone of Paul’s letters so far have been fairly cordial and muted, with greetings, extensions of thanks, and directions for focus and purpose.
However, with this third chapter, Paul’s tone changes quite a bit. From what we can gather, there must have been some opponents of Paul’s church in Philippi or even division from within that were causing trouble and Paul needed to make sure this was addressed. The extent of the beginning of this third chapter thus deals with speaking out against false teachers and those who “mutilate” the flesh, i.e. circumcision, but do not actually follow the Spirit of God. Those who see circumcision as just another physical determination whether someone is holy or not, and so perform this ritual, yet do not actually follow the faith of Christ Jesus. As we hear Paul arguing that “confidence in the flesh” is not what matters, but that the Philippians have received the spiritual marks they need through worshipping in the Spirit of God and boasting in Christ Jesus.
Paul then goes on this diatribe that may seem self-serving, but is actually a verbose way of him trying to tell the Philippian church, and all of us, that if anyone were to be boastful and be someone who should know about how to keep holiness laws and rituals, it would be him. For he was once a Jew who brought gentiles or Judeo-Christians to be prosecuted and sometimes executed in the Sanhedrin or the Jewish court. Paul, when he was Saul, was an upright and holy Jew who followed all of the “righteous” ways of living and was “righteous under the law.”
And yet, when he was on the road to Damascus and Jesus appeared and blinded him and converted him right then and there to become one of the most important followers of Christ our world has ever known, Paul knew that at that moment everything leading up to that point was a loss. For everything before this point was a mirage. It was as if he was living a false life, it was as if he was following only the laws of the world and of the flesh and not truly listening or following the laws of the Spirit or the laws of God; who, if we truly listen, is calling us to more than the designations of what our flesh can demonstrate, calling us to be more than what we can say about one another, calling us to worship in ways which are beyond our human understanding, and calling us into being so much more than our current way, shape, or form. Calling us to truly focus on what matters most.
This is why Paul counts all of his pre-Jesus experience as loss, because the person he is now, is not just a person of the flesh, but one who has been saved by Christ and thus should live into this faith. Whereas, the person he was before was only concerned about how to separate and delineate, not bring together, call together, and live by faith. In this manner, Paul had to die to his old self, just as Christ died upon the Cross, in order to be brought into the new life which is the salvation Jesus gave to Paul and is the death that Paul talks about joining in which provides for a resurrection upon his death.
Paul reminds us that this goal of perfection and resurrection, which he freely admits he has not yet attained, will indeed not be accomplished until the day we die. This does not mean we do not pursue it; rather, we should be working and striving toward that perfection like an athlete, not living in the past which has faded away and we can never relive, but striving toward the future and the “heavenly calling in Christ Jesus.”
This “heavenly,” or “prize of the calling from above,” in the Greek, is such wonderful language, because once again we are being given this higher designation than the place where we currently stand. That Jesus is calling us upward, or maybe forward would be even better, to look beyond our past and current circumstances into a future which cannot yet be seen or experienced, but is one filled with a promise yet to come. This is something that Paul longs for the Philippians to be focused on, not the wayward teachings of the evildoers among them who instead seek to turn their attention to the earthly laws and rituals which will detract from the goal of unity and perfection.
This leads into one of the most important points of this short chapter and again one of Paul’s over-arching principles for the church: the idea of Christian citizenship. It sometimes seems like Paul is being egotistical when he writes to the Philippians and commends them for acting like him or exhorts them to act like him. And while I can understand the obvious ego in these statements, what Paul is actually doing is calling a young church to follow his example of Christian citizenship. He is not saying, “Worship me,” he is saying, “Live like me, be a Christian like me,” “Follow Jesus like I have.” For if you do, that will mean that you oppose the enemies of the cross, you oppose those who would seek to leave people out of the church based on their dietary laws, their ability to be holy, or their pasts which do not dictate their futures.
It would mean that you would count as loss the laws which seek to keep people from truly experiencing the unity and love of Christ and that you would oppose those who seek only to satisfy their flesh and not live into the Holy Spirit. And if we follow where Paul is leading us, it will mean that we are Christian Citizens whose residence is heaven. Let me say that again because it means so much in our current day and age: Our citizenship is in heaven; we are Christian citizens of heaven! This exposes an important tangent implicit in this chapter that we need to explain and make clear:
It is not popular to say that our country does not matter or our city does not matter or our state does not matter; and in fact, I would argue that Paul is asking us to be active parts of all of those areas. But, if our duty to any entity whatsoever gets in the way of our ability to love as Christ loved us, if our worship ever becomes more focused on an earthly idol, person, or country and that prevents us from being able to welcome our brothers and sisters in unity, to live as Christian citizens of heaven and truly know what matters most in our lives; then that entity, person, or state is of the “evildoers.”
It may not be popular or easy, but the righteous way of living is to be in line with, and have faith in, Our Savior who takes all of the humbleness of our humanity and transforms it, the Greek word that Paul uses here in verse twenty-one actually means “will transform,” meaning that our bodies change and mold into Jesus’ through his sacrifice; so that our humbleness is glorified and made perfect through him. But to do this means we must think differently, act differently, and be different citizens than what some in our world may want us to be. Which is why Paul calls us at the beginning of chapter four and where we will go next week to “stand firm” in Jesus in this way…
What way is that you might ask again? The way that follows through on that Spirit moving through you right now! That you know how to act, talk, be, and love. That you know when Paul asks us to focus on what matters most; that you know what matters most. That when Paul calls us to be active Christian citizens, you know what it means to be a Christian citizen. That what we are being called to do is deny the flesh and live into the Spirit of God’s love in our world. That the earthly things so many desire of fame, fortune, pride, greed, jealousy, power, prestige, and popularity…that all these things whither and fall away, but our citizenship in heaven is eternal and will never falter.
This is what we are to safeguard against the evils of our world, this is why we are to turn away from the evildoers and false Christians who live counter to Jesus’ call. The false teachers and followers of Christ who do not live lives full of love for all God’s creation and love for all God’s people, but who focus instead on how they can divide the world to make themselves more populous and more popular…all the while, sullying the name of Jesus and using God’s name in vain as they promote and promulgate their own profane vanity.
And perhaps this hits close to home today, perhaps we are being called to be like Paul and count our old ways as loss as we look into the mirror and realize that we are sometimes the very people we detest. If that is so, I would say to us, let us lose it all for Christ then. Let us lay everything down for Jesus who is calling us to so much more than we could ever imagine. Let us press on toward that goal of the heavenly prize Paul talks about and declare once and for all that we are transformed into the glory of Christ and we will safeguard what matters most, protect our Christianity from falling into false hands, and be active Christian citizens who will call our world to be the earthly representation of love that is perfected in heaven.
And if we are afraid of losing it all, perhaps even our friends, family, or places of power and prestige…let us be reminded that losing it all for the glory of God so that our world would know the love of Jesus is not loss at all, but gain. For we are transformed in the process from all that we once hoarded in the flesh into all that we now gain in the Spirit. As we indeed possess heaven and live into all the gifts that the love of Jesus provides. Or as Paul ends our chapter for today and begins our chapter for next week with: the joy and crown of standing firm in the love of God; the joy, my beloved, of Jesus.
So let us indeed focus on living into the love of God that matters most; let us be living examples of citizens of heaven, Christian Citizenry whose hands and feet are filled with the hope, joy, and love; and let us indeed stand firm united in love, united in Jesus, those whom God loves and longs for, Amen!