Monday, May 25, 2009

Philippians Part 3

We come back again this week to Paul's letter to the Philippians. We will be moving through this book together for some time until we have finished it. I have mentioned already about how encouraged I am to be looking at this together with you because this letter was written to a young church in a lively urban setting. To be sure we are separated by time, the cultural and political situation is very different from ours in some ways but similar in others. But, two questions that Paul was concerned with are two questions we are very concerned with: (1) how to follow Jesus in faith and repentance in the Christian community and (2) how does one follow Jesus as a good citizen of one's broader community, working for the common good, while understanding one's fundamental loyalty to be to Jesus and one's citizenship to be registered in that domain? It could do us some good to stop for just a moment here and note that these questions ought to give us pause on a regular basis. They are questions that should stimulate our prayers and imagination. But if we are honest we will admit that we all too often show a certain dullness to what God is doing and yearns to do in the church for the world; and, we betray that dullness by not lingering prayerfully over these and other important questions which Paul and the other New Testament author's ask and answer in their application of the gospel to our mundane lives. It is this sort of dullness that Paul wants to guard against among the Philippians, thus he starts with prayer. It is instructive and encouraging to find Paul praying for and encouraging this church before he enters into the body of the letter where he offer a good deal of challenges. It demonstrates that Paul understood the importance of prayer and of modeling prayer for the community. It also shows that he knew that praying for the community would place him in a properly humble posture - the only posture appropriate for a minister to assume regardless of the occasion.

The next Sunday or two we will be looking in some detail at this short prayer but this week we just took note of one thing: Paul's use of the prayer to remind the Philippians of the awesome and weighty work of God in which they are participants and partners. Their participation in the gospel is for the praise and glory of God, a reminder of the weighty and awesome life to which we are called in Christ's kingdom. Now, for a few thoughts about motivating God's people by reminding them that their salvation brings glory to God.

In this context we understand that God is glorified when the gospel brings forth the fruit of the world to come. God is celebrated and glorified because he has shared his glory in glorifying those who have followed Jesus in faith and repentance: their lives and their fruit are the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ. I point this out because there are some who talk about God's glory in terms that almost make God sound like he has an ego to be satisfied. Some, for instance, say that everything God does is for the foundational purpose of bringing glory to himself. Many of these folks go so far as to say that God brings glory to himself when he consigns people to hell because his justice is satisfied and his glory is honored in their condemnation. This is not the place for a lengthy excursus but it needs to be pointed out that this way of thinking about God's glory is what happens when theological arguments are allowed to run roughshod over the heart of the gospel. Behind the gospel is the God who shows his love by adding glory to his people and his creation through Jesus' work.

Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar at Asbury Serminary, has some helpful remarks about this topic from one of his blog entries: "I was recently reading through the proofs of a new book on New Testament Theology, and it was stated that the most basic theme or thesis of NT theology is --'God magnifying himself through Jesus Christ by means of the Holy Spirit'. There were various nuances and amplifications to the discussion, but the more one read, the more it appeared clear that God was being presented as a self-centered, self-referential being, whose basic motivation for what he does, including his motivation for saving people, is so that he might receive more glory. Even the sending of the Son and the work of the Spirit is said to be but a means to an end of God's self-adulation and praise. What's wrong with this picture? How about the basic understanding of God's essential and moral character? For instance, suppose this thesis stated above is true-- would we not expect John 3.16 to read "for God so loved himself that he gave his only begotten Son..."? Or again if this thesis is true, would we not expect Phil. 2.5-11 to read differently when it speaks about Christ emptying himself? If the Son is the very image and has the same character as the Father, wouldn't we expect this text to say--'who being in very nature God, devised a plan to glorify himself through his incarnation' if God really is so self-referential? In other words I am arguing Christ, the perfect image of God's character, reveals that God's character is essentially other directed self-sacrificial love. God loves people, not merely as means to his own ends, but as ends in themselves..... Or re-read Hosea 11 where God explains that his love for his people is not at all like the fickle, self-seeking love of mere human beings. But rather God keeps loving his children, whether they praise or love or worship him or not..... Let me be clear that of course the Bible says it is our obligation to love, praise, and worship God, but this is a very different matter from the suggestion that God worships himself, is deeply worried about whether he has enough glory or not, and his deepest motivation for doing anything on earth is so that he can up his own glory quotient, or magnify and praise himself..... I like the remark of Victor Furnish that God's love is not like a heat-seeking missile attracted to something inherently attractive in this or that person. Rather God's other-directed love bestows worth, honor, even glory. Notice exactly what Psalm 8.5 says--God has made us but a little less than God (or another reading would be, 'than the angels') and crowned human beings with glory and honor. Apparently this does not subtract from God's glory (see vs. 1) but simply adds to it. God it would appear is not merely a glory grabber, but rather a glory giver (Ben Witherington from his blog).

I bring this up because I do want to make the argument that Paul is reminding the church that the end, or telos, of salvation glorifies God. Furthermore, I want to argue that this ought to motivate them and us to take more seriously the work of the gospel of which we are partners and in which we participate as we follow Jesus in faith and repentnace. But I want our motivation to come from a celebration of the God who displays his glory by giving himself to others so that through his son we might be a harvest of righteousness.

Questions for discussion:

1. What role should prayer play in our lives, particulary in reference to our tendency to grow dull to the weightiness of the gospel?

2. What sorts of patterns of thinking lead you to become, in the words used above, dull towards Christ's glorious work in the world? What helps you turn from those patterns of thinking?

3. If you had to explain to someone who was not a Christian why we believe that glorifying God is important, what would you say?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Philippians Part Two

If you were here last week you will know that we are going to move through Paul's letter to the church at Philippi over the next few weeks if not the rest of the summer. Philippi is located in Northern modern day Greece; the church began in about 50 AD when Paul met some Jewish women worshiping Yahweh by the river of this city. The women became persuaded that the gospel story, the meaning of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, was the fulfillment of the promises Yahweh made, beginning with Abraham and continuing through the prophets, to bring the promised restoration of Israel and through her the redemption of the world. Thus, the church at Philippi was born.

I have been eager to move through this book with you as it was written to a church that was relatively young in age, in a city, along a trade route, full of hustle and bustle. There will be many times I hope where the words of encouragement, exhortation and sometimes admonishment will leap off the page and into our hearts helping us to understand how we are to live faithfully as citizens of the kingdom of God and citizens of Chicago.

This Sunday we picked up on the theme from last week - of the partnership that the Philippians had with Paul. We also continued to approach the letter by asking it this question: what do you have to say to us about what it looks like to be a healthy church community? We noted that Paul chose to talk of his relationship to the church by emphasizing four separate times in the first few verses that when he thinks of them he thinks of "all of them - all of you".

* He says he is praying for all of them
* He says that the way he thinks about them (with affection and hope) is regarding all of them
* Because all of them share, or are partnered with him, in his ministry
* And he longs for all of them with compassion

We asked why he might be going out of his way to make specific that he was talking to and about all of them. One clue that sheds some light is the recognition that this letter is the form of a friendship letter, typical of the letters written between friends in the Greco-Roman world. Gordon Fee remarks: "'hortatory letter of friendship' is only part of the story.... for in Paul's hands everything turns into gospel, including both the formal and material aspects of this letter. Most significant, friendship in particular is radically transformed from a two-way to a three-way bond between him, the Philippians, and Christ... Paul's and their friendship is predicated on their mutual participation in the gospel. This involves them in most of the conventions of Greco-Roman friendship, including especially social reciprocity; but it does so in light of Christ and the gospel (Fee)"

In other words, Paul's friendship with the Philippians and the Philippians' friendship with him is one that neither they nor he called into existence; their relationship is because of Christ. So, his love is for all of them because it is Jesus who has brought all of them together.

In our culture, friendships have become more and more about common interests which is not all bad. As human beings we are gifted by our creator with unique interests. It is good that I have some friends who like to watch football; otherwise I would be doomed to watch alone. But if affinity based friendships take up almost the whole of our relationship-space are we not simply reflecting the narcissism of our culture in ourselves and within the basis of our friendships? We must ask God for the grace to expand our relationship-space to include those relationships with "all" in the life of Christ's church so that the mysterious work of the gospel might work more effectively in us and our world.

1. In the different seasons of your life have you noticed any negative impact to you when you have not been able or willing to embrace "all" of the Christian community? If not, does that mean that you don't need to be concerned about heeding Paul's example discussed above? Clearly, we could just answer this by saying we ought to do it because God's word says to and this is a good response to the admonition from the letter to the Hebrews to not forsake the assembling together, etc. But God does not require certain things of us without showing us why. So, let's explore the rationale by asking why, even if you imagine that you will be OK without being involved meaningfully with "all" of the Christian community, is this not OK?
2. Does this teaching mean that you have to be really good friends with everyone in the church? What do you think it means for you to be involved meaningfully with the "all" of the church that Paul has in mind?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Philippians 1

This Sunday we began a series from Paul's letter to the Philippians. As a kind of introduction we considered the passage from Acts, Luke's account of the embryonic beginning of the church at Philippi. In Acts 16:11-15, Paul, on what is commonly referred to as his second missionary journey, met a group of Jewish women living in Philippi. Because there was no synagogue in Philippi (the likely reason being that there were not the required 10 men needed to form a synagogue) the women worshipped and prayed by the river. Having sought them out according to his pattern of bringing the good news of Jesus to the Jew first and then to the Gentile, Paul preached the meaning of Jesus' life, death and resurrection to Lydia and her friends. Lydia, a merchant and a woman of some means, converted, and invited the disciples to stay in her home; in her home the church at Philippi was born.

We think Paul's' visit that resulted in the birth of this church was around 50 AD and we think that the letter, Philippians, was written when he was imprisoned in Rome, about 62 AD. I mentioned in the homily that I was very enthusiastic about moving through this letter with our Grace Chicago Church community because it was a letter to a relatively young church; I expect us to find lots of practical exhortations in Philippians that will find resonance with our Grace Chicago community!

One of the approaches I intend to use in moving through this letter is to ask of it this question: what clues does it offer us as to what a healthy church community looks like. When we approached its opening verses this Sunday looking for these clues here are some of the things we noted.

Paul's thanksgiving for the Philippians offered us our first clue. "I thank my God every time I remember you". It is hard to imagine Paul not having in mind here the initial hospitality received from Lydia and her household, for it is certainly there where we find the birth of this church (see the passage in Acts referred to above). When God's grace is experienced it begets hospitality and without hospitality the gospel does not flourish in any community. Paul tells us that he is also thankful for the Philippians sharing in his ministry of the gospel from the first day forward to the present. The word sharing is the translation often offered in this passage of the Greek word, koinonia, or things in common. It is the word we often translate into fellowship but here it could just as well be translated, "partner with". What he is really thanking the Philippians for is there partnership with him in the ministry of the gospel; in other words, they were more than cheer-leaders, more than sympathetic with the cause - they were invested with their lives and resources (c.f. 2 Cor. 8:1vv.).

Finally, we noted that Paul's motivation to the Philippians to keep on keeping on is all of grace and hope (I am confident that he who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ). It is the constancy of God's grace that sustains us as we look to him to enable us to embody these characteristics of being hospitable and being vested partners in the work of the gospel.

Questions for discussion:

1. What does Philippians 1:6 teach you about how to view your life in its various seasons? How can we appropriate in the midst of our mundane life this hope in the promise of God's future? Does Paul's writing of these words of encouragement so early in this letter tell us anything about what we need to hear on a regular basis?

2. What does it look like for you to give hospitality to others? What form does it take? How often do you practice hospitality to others? Do you like practicing hospitality or is it a struggle? How can you find a way to do it so that it blesses you and those who receive it?

3. What does it mean to be a partner in the gospel? How is being a partner different from being sympathetic with the cause and cheering it on? Of what benefit is being a partner for the person who is vesting herself? How would you know if you are actually partnering with the ministry of the gospel (what things could you point to that would tell you that you were?)?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

but we had hoped....

Tom Wright, in his little commentary on Luke (Luke for Everyone), suggests that Luke frames Jesus' ministry with stories of two couples who are befuddled by Jesus' actions. In the beginning we meet Mary and Joseph as loving parents baffled by the strange behavior of their child who has hidden himself away at the temple while they and the rest of the family begin the journey home. When, after three days they had found him, they asked him what on earth he was thinking. Jesus replied simply: "Did you not know that I had to be in my father's house?" And at the end of Luke we meet another couple, separated from Jesus, befuddled by what had become of him on the cross. His reply to Cleopas and Mary on the road to Emmaus is similar to his strange reply to Mary and Joseph. To Cleopas and Mary he says: "was it not necessary that Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory"? In effect, Jesus, who says, I am doing my father's work when he is the temple is now saying to Cleopas and Mary the same thing: the suffering on the cross is God's work even though Cleopas and Mary have not understood it to be up to this point.

Wright speaks of Cleopas and Mary in this way:

"Their slowness of heart and lack of belief in the prophets had not.... been a purely spiritual blindness. It had been, a matter of telling, and living, the wrong story—or, at least the right story in the wrong way. But now, suddenly, with the right story in their head and Hearts, a new possibility—huge, astonishing, and breathtaking—started to emerge before them. Suppose the reason the key would not fit the lock was that they were trying the wrong door? Suppose Jesus’ execution was not the clear disproof of his messianic vocation but its confirmation and climax? Suppose the cross was not one more example of the triumph of paganism over God’s people but was actually God’s means of defeating evil once and for all? Suppose this was, after all, how the exile was designed to end, how sins were to be forgiven and how the kingdom was to come? Suppose this was what God’s light and truth looked like, coming unexpectedly to lead his people back into his presence? As this strange realization began to creep over them, they arrived at their house and invited the stranger to stay with them. He quietly assumed the role of host, taking, blessing, and breaking the bread. They recognized him, and he vanished. And with that recognition the story of the last hour itself suddenly made sense. “Were not our hearts burning within us when he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us” (24:32). And their testimony to each other turns into eager testimony to the others as they hurry back to Jerusalem, where their own news is met with answering news from the eleven: The Lord has indeed risen—he has appeared to Simon (24:34)! Then they told what had taken place on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread (24:35)."

And so we find ourselves with Cleopas and Mary, hoping for God to work in our lives and this world. Cleopas and Mary were, like many of their contemporary Jewish brothers and sisters, likely hoping for God to make himself known by overthrowing the Roman Empire and giving Israel imperial status. But for us: we must ask ourselves, what are our misplaced hopes? How have we read in the wrong way the story of God at work in the world through Jesus? Have we woven our own hopes into God's story in such a way that we have placed the weight of our deepest hopes and longings in the wrong things? Have we placed our deepest hopes and longings in career aspirations, in our children bringing us nothing but happiness, in finding the perfect spouse, etc.? Or, more darkly, but no less really, have we been disappointed enough with unmet hopes that we have covered up our longings for God by turning our hearts over to various addictive life-styles (e.g. escaping into work, obsession over material possessions, sexual obsession, or co-dependant behaviors where other people leave little room for God's freeing grace to be at work in our lives)?

Jesus comes to us just as he did to Cleopas and Mary and speaks words of grace, reminding us, as he did them, that the cross is at the center of what God is doing to redeem the world. Jesus is, in so many words, saying to us: "it is for the hope of the world that I died on the cross; you have been listening to the wrong story; let me take the story of your life into my story of the redemption of the world; let me teach you that the hope that does not disappoint is grounded in my love for you. Your satisfaction and peace in this life will come from knowing that you are given the most treasured place of dignity, for to you is given the the mission of giving the love that God has given to this world through me, to you, to others. You are called and graced by God to give forgiveness to friends and foes, to serve and give out of your resources to others; and all those enemies of human dignity that you have used to deaden your hope.... well, as you get to know my stubborn love you can begin to see your identity not as a victim, not as one who has hoped in the wrong things, not as an addict of this or that.... but your understanding of yourself will grow and continue to change as you begin to know yourself as my adopted younger sisters and brothers, loved by God forever.

Jesus story has become our story as our lives find meaning, hope and direction in his life in this world; didn't you know?

Questions for discussion:

1. Wright suggests that Cleopas and Mary were reading the right story in the wrong way (see above). Give an example or two of how we tend to the same sort of thing when we think of the story of God's promises to bring redemption? Think of examples of the contemporary Western church in general and perhaps offer examples of how you and your friends tend to read the right story the wrong way in your personal lives (these might bleed over into the next question).

2. It is suggested in the homily that we sometimes hope in the wrong things. Some examples were offered. Can you offer some other examples?

3. It is suggested in the homily that there is often a correlation between disappointed hopes and the embrace of certain ways of thinking, being and loving that are pretty much designed to numb the pain of hopes dashed by offering escapes, fantasy vacations, etc. How does the gospel speak healing to this dynamic?

4. Give examples of unhelpful responses (responses not saturated by the gospel) to any or all three of the following mistakes Christians often make:
(a) when we realize that we have either read the right story the wrong way; (b) when we realize we have put the hope we should have placed in God and his love in the wrong things; (c) when we realize that we have embraced sinful and self-destructive patterns of dealing with the pain of hopes dashed. Sometimes it is helpful to see what an unhelpful response is in order to be more grateful for a gospel-based response.