Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of my favorites. It is full of positive, uplifting theology, like “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice (Phil. 4:4 ). It’s a feel-good kind of letter. Today’s passage from Philippians is chock full of great stuff and I could get at least 10 sermons out of it, however I will settle on one.
The first four verses, in which Paul piles up the ifs, are one long conditional sentence in Greek. When we hear if, we think then. We are much more linear in our thinking than were the early Christians. If could be translated since. Another way to look at these verses is “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ (and you have), if his love has made any difference in your life (and it has) and so forth. This makes for a more persuasive argument. The focus of these four verses is to agree with each other. Everything that follows is how that can be accomplished.
Let’s put each if and then together to make it a bit easier to follow.
If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, then agree with one another.
If his love has made any difference in your life, then love each other.
If being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, then be deep-spirited friends.
If you have a heart, then don’t push your way to the front and don’t and don’t sweet-talk your way to the top.
If you care, then put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage, but forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
If this sounds repetitious, it is. Paul is hammering away, using various expressions to make his point. Based on your relationship with God and me, live in harmony as the people of God in community. Their Christian community life should be characterized by unity of mind and love.
The content of Paul’s appeal to the Philippians is found in our thens or dos. First are expressions of our human fallenness that conspire against unity in the church; pushing your way to the front and sweet-talking your way to the top (V. 3). Secondly, we have the virtues necessary for unity in the Spirit to happen: putting self aside and helping others, humility, thinking of others more than ourselves.
The basis of Paul’s appeal is the Philippians’ relationship with God, shared by Paul and the Philippians together and secondly Paul’s and their relationship to each other. In this way, Paul begs these people that he loves so much, to keep on doing what they had been doing. They are to have the same love for one another that they have already experienced in God’s love for them. The Philippians had love for one another, but there was the danger of it being eroded by internal friction.
The thing is, this was not a brand new church, but a well established one. Initially, everyone gets along well with each other. But over time, the better we know each other, the more likely we are to have disagreements. The congregational enemy of internal dissent raised its ugly head. Here Paul is concerned with internal harmony, which can be insured through humility. Humility is not false modesty or putting yourself down. To be truly humble means awareness of one’s weaknesses and one’s strengths while making neither too much nor too little of either. It is not self-focused, but rather forgets oneself long enough to lend a helping hand (v. 4). “The accent rests on the community: it is only as the people of God together that God’s people fulfill the divine purposes” (IVP New Testament Commentary Series).
In the middle of today’s reading, we have what is referred to as the Christ hymn. It may have been used as a song in the worship of the early church, but we don’t know for sure. Here we have a poetic way of Paul telling us Christ’s own story as the model of what he urged in the first part of today’s reading.
Jesus willingly put aside his life in heaven and “became truly human,” as we confess in the Creed. As the Message expresses this process, “He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death…”
Because of being brought low, God exalted Jesus. All will acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ to the glory of the Father. Such worship comes from love because Jesus showed humanity a love that they could not resist.
In most translations, near the end of today’s reading of Philippians, we hear “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…” (v. 12). Oh my, I thought we were saved by grace through faith. After all, isn't that what the Reformation was all about?
The way the Message translates it expresses the essence of Paul’s message, “Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God.” But even if we used one of the other translations, we need to keep reading and not take those words in isolation. If we read far enough, we find out that it is God’s work in us that accomplishes everything.
We are great at hands on activities that demonstrate our care for humanity. But when it comes to verbally sharing our story of God’s work in our lives, we clam up. We shy Lutherans can have the boldness and power we need to share our faith and invite people to come to know Jesus and his people, the church.
God calls us by the power of the Holy Spirit to work in and with the community of faith to seek and do God’s will. In baptism, we are empowered and equipped to accomplish that which pleases the Almighty. “Fear has been replaced by faith, trembling by power, aloneness by community and death be life” (devotion by Dave Westphal).
May God grant us the grace to live our lives together so that the whole world may know of Jesus and his love through us.
The IVP New Testament Commentary Series