Monday, October 19, 2009

the big story

We have been studying Paul's letter to the Philippians together for quite a while now. We are taking our time with it, looking at it verse by verse. While this approach is a great way to study God's word there are some drawbacks that need addressing. For example, looking at Scripture in bits and pieces like this can result in a scenario where one can't see the forest for the trees. The forest, in this case, is the great story of what God is doing in the world through the gospel. In Jesus' life, death and resurrection, God has revealed his love to all; and, through the church's embrace of the gospel, God is bringing redemption into this world through the transformation of individual lives. Though Paul tells it in many ways, the story, that God is in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, is the big story in which all of the bits and pieces have their meaning. Let's look at some examples of what we are talking about.

When we come upon an exhortation by Paul to imitate him (3:17vv.) we ask ourselves, "how does the bigger story help me understand this somewhat cryptic challenge?" The answer, of course, is that the only sort of imitating of Paul that would make sense within the bigger story would have to be an imitation of Paul's love for God's forgiveness and mercy which is found in the cross of Christ. Rather, than fumbling around for ideas of what a wooden imitation of Paul would like (e.g. Paul was a preacher, we should take stock and ask how we can imitate this in our lives; or, Paul made lots of sacrifices and so should we), we are invited to imitate Paul in his neediness and vulnerability. The one who counted everything for loss that he would have - at one point - counted for gain, lives very near the foot of the cross. When we imitate his proximity to the cross of Christ we are brought to the place where we may receive the same grace and power Paul did so that God's love might come to animate us in our unique skin and in our particular life-circumstances.

Take another example: Paul urges Euodia and Syntyche to be unified (4:2). With this verse we ought to ask, "why and how?". Here, Paul's version of the "big story" peculiar to his letter to the Philippians (Philippians 2:1-11) is immensely helpful; for, when he urges Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind, he is echoing the big story. In 2:2&5 we are to have the same mind as Christ Jesus by participating in his self-giving love, regarding others as better than ourselves. Hence, Euodia and Syntyche are given a rationale and means for reconciliation: they are to show the gospel to be at work in their community by participating in the gospel as it relates to their disagreement. There is no room for private agendas in the work of the kingdom because Jesus's self-giving love is pulling us to work together, setting aside our private agendas for the common good. Euodia and Syntyche are to love one another as Jesus has loved each of them.

For Paul, the truest and most fulfilling life consists in living in joyful response to God's redeeming work in the world.

Suffering is to be endured because our suffering does not mean that God's love for us or others will be thwarted. Rather than becoming crippled by suffering and turning inward, God's work in us through the gospel gives us the joyful strength to love and be loved in the midst of extreme adversity. (Philippians 1:12-30)

Rather than limiting our growth and development by what we can imagine we are capable of given our intellectual, religious, emotional, and moral resources,the gospel invites us to ask God to give us newness of life. Amazingly, when we quit managing our sin according to our calculus of self-justification and self-loathing, love and creativity take over where they never lived before. (3:7-14)

Finally, we are to live the whole of of our lives not in fear of failure or in absurd self-reliance but in humble joy; our future belongs to the Lord. This is what Paul means when he says that we are working out our own salvation (2:12-14). In sobering awe (my paraphrase of fear and trembling), we respond joyfully to what God is doing in the world because he is in the one at work in our midst. We are those who know where we are going because the one who has gone before us is the one who also meets us along our way (3:20-21) this is the big story.

Questions for discussion

1. How can the idea of the big story discussed above help you think about your life's circumstances when you get bogged down in the miry clay of sin, disappointment or failure?

2. What are some ways we devise to keep ourselves from living in joyful response to the big story? What are some lies that we tell ourselves that keep us away from a joyful response to God's work in the world? Your answer will vary according to individual circumstances, of course, and if you are doing this in a group discussion think about what is appropriate to share for the whole group.

3. When suffering and adversity come upon you how do you respond? Sometimes, suffering and adversity call into question in our hearts and minds whether there is a big story at all. What do you do when you feel yourself questioning at that level?

Monday, October 12, 2009

unity in the church: Jesus cares about our relationships

We came this past Sunday to the passage in Philippians where we meet two leaders in the church who are apparently in need of reconciling to one another. Their names are Euodia and Syntyche. Here are the passages I read prior to the homily:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3-8)

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. I hope therefore to send him as soon as I see how things go with me; and I trust in the Lord that I will also come soon.(2:19-24)

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone.(4:2-5)

Most New Testament teachers agree that the conflict between these two sisters in Christ is a conflict related to the working out of the mission of the church in Philippi (in other words, it is most likely not foremost a personal conflict with two people over something personal in nature). It is certainly helpful for us to consider what we might learn from how Paul addresses this sort of conflict since, as a young church, we are bound to wrestle with these interpersonal issues in the life of our church. However, there are things that we can learn from how Paul addresses that particular issue that are generally applicable to situations where we are in conflict with others or are witnesses to those who are in conflict. So, now let's take a look at how Paul approaches the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche.

Were Euodia and Syntyche reconciled? We don't know. But what we have here is a treasure of an example of how to approach a difficult circumstance that so often occurs in the church - when people get sideways with each other. Note, Paul does not presume to adjudicate the situation and declare one person right and one person wrong. This is not to say that there are not times to offer clear judgment for the protection of the peace of the church and the well being of the people. But this example reminds us that there are a great many instances when strained relationships have arisen from mistakes made on both sides; to bring the weight of judgment on the front-end of the process of reconciliation would actually be harmful because it would short-circuit the process of God's work in the hearts of those who have become estranged. Instead, Paul leaves room for the Holy Spirit to work. For example, through participation in Jesus' self-giving love in the power of the Spirit (see discussion below) each or both of the estranged parties might come to see her own mistakes more clearly while simultaneously acknowledging a mis-perception of the motives of the other. Or, through God's work of mercy and grace one might come to desire so powerfully to forgive the other that the need for judgment of right or wrong simply disappears in the renewed relationship, love covering a multitude of sins. In any event, Paul knew that true reconciliation can only come through participation in Jesus' self-giving love, through the Spirit's empowering presence. So, how does he encourage reconciliation based on this?

First, by appealing to both of them based on his love and respect for each of them. He showed respect by not rushing to judgment or taking sides (see above), and his love for them is implicit in Paul's naming their names. Far from shaming them (which is how naming their names might appear to us because of our cultural distance), friends were named in this way in ancient letter writing because of mutual affection and concern for the well being of the relationship. What we can learn from this is that many times a person will come to his senses when he is reminded that he is loved. Also, an aspect of showing his love and respect is manifested not just in his refusal to judge but in his refusal even to take sides or suggest that his "loyal companion" should take sides. He dignifies Euodia and Syntyche by asking them to work things out rather than telling them what they should do in a hand-holding or patronizing way. Secondly, he encourages reconciliation by appealing to another friend, the loyal companion, to help. In appealing to his "loyal companion", Paul is signaling to Euodia and Syntyche that their disagreement is not a private matter but is taking its toll on the peace of the community. Sometimes it takes a realization that our sins of omission or commission are hurting others in order for us to come to our senses. Now, let's look at Paul's specific exhortation to the two women.

He urges the two of them to be of the "same mind in the Lord". This language about being of the "same mind in the Lord" may seem too flowery, sentimental and ethereal to offer any substantive application. However, we realize this is far from the case when we note that Paul is deliberately echoing his exhortation from chapter 2 when he says, "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus". The appeal, then, to Euodia and Syntyche is in substance to look to Christ's self-giving love as the pattern and means by which they should re-approach each other. Without knowing specifics I could imagine an approach where pattern and means are thought about in this way: pattern - that each of them should follow in Jesus' cruciform pattern of setting aside his own interests for the interests of others. In this spirit each of them should be willing to humble herself so that she might find out how much pride and selfishness have contributed to the rift. By means, I mean that each of them should seek, in diligent prayer, God's superabundant gift of Jesus' self-giving love so that each of them would be empowered to express to the other a desire to be reconciled and then begin the hard work for reconciliation in that same power.

As we said earlier, we do not know if Euodia or Syntyche were reconciled. But what we do have here is an example of how to honestly work for reconciliation. Sometimes, we work for and desire reconciliation for our entire lives without seeing it come in some situations. While not giving up in our hearts, we may reach a point where we realize actual reconciliation is likely not going to happen in this life. But even in those instances, Paul's example offers guidelines that enable us to live in managed hope, reminding us that (a) we are to treat those with whom we disagree with respect, refusing to demonize them, and (b) to ask the Lord to be at work to bring his grace and mercy to bear on the relationship, trusting the future to him.

Finally, behind all of Paul's concerns above are some assumptions about community that we need to make sure we share as a church.
the common good is more important than the desires of any one individual (for example, if I can take a moment of personal privilege to illustrate this point, as the founding minister of the church I can say with confidence that if it were up to me I would give way to my individual desires for Grace Chicago Church but instead I deliberately set those aside for the common good, and work with a plurality of opinions and advice to help give shape to the culture and programs of the church)
the self becomes who he or she is supposed to become through the process of being in a church community where a strong value is placed on regarding the others' needs as more important than one's own
authority in the church is manifested in the spirit of self-giving love and in the patient bearing witness to the gospel

Questions for discussion:

1. What might we learn from Paul's refusal to take sides in this matter between Euodia and Syntyche?

2. Drawing from some of the ideas mentioned above, please explain why it is important to be patient when involved in helping two people be reconciled. Also, if you are trying to be reconciled to someone, could you explain why it is important that you be patient in that process?

3. Would you say that you have a healthy concern for being reconciled to people when their is a fissure in your relationship with them? If so, what has taught you to pay attention to this area in your life? If not, how can you work on this aspect of your life?

4. How can you know when it is appropriate to stop actively seeking reconciliation if the other party is unwilling? How can you stop actively seeking reconciliation and guard against bitterness and other sins?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

friends of the cross/enemies of the cross

This past Sunday we came to this passage in our series on Philippians:

Philippians 3:17~21
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you
have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I
tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame;
their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we
are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that
it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things
subject to himself.

In this passage we meet Paul with a broken heart. Why is his heart broken? Because many have chosen a life of stubbornly resisting God's love found in the cross of Christ. For Paul, there are two ways to live: to glory in oneself or in the cross of Christ (or, as Bob Dylan put it, "you got to serve somebody; it may be the devil or it may be the Lord but you got to serve somebody".) To glory in the the cross is to acknowledge regularly our need for forgiveness and love; and to confess that our reason and desires left to our own understanding will lead us to self-destruction. To glory in the cross is to offer our desire to love and be loved to the one who can love us the best. To glory in the cross is to desire Jesus' self-giving love to come to control our choices and attitudes more and more, having the same mind as Christ Jesus => that he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but gave himself away even to death on the cross. And, to glory in the cross is to repent of the occasions when we attempt to find in cheap substitutes the life and love that only God can give.

My colleague, Chuck DeGroat of City Church San Francisco, through a discussion of the fruits of the spirit has offered a helpful way of understanding the difference between the true life Christ offers and the life where we attempt to create our own glory and satisfaction to our shame:

Chuck: "I’ve found that my prayer in recent years has become a simple one: Hide my life in yours, Jesus. It comes from St. Paul: For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. This is vintage ‘New Exodus’ Paul. It’s the death-to-life pattern of Jesus, living out the Exodus pattern of Israel. We were lost in the wilderness, but now we’re found – found to God, found to others, found to ourselves.

I hide in a thousand other things. I avoid God, and in doing so avoid myself in the many false selves and false identities I live out of. After a while, I’ve forgotten myself, and feel lost to God. Descending into the wilderness, I am stripped of these counter-identities, and reminded of my Eden-born identity as God’s image, never completely lost but hidden as a treasure in God’s heart. The lessons of the wilderness are hard. I find that I’m stripped of reputation, identity-through-achievement, love when I want it, progress on my terms, and more. But as we’ve said before, it is a stripping down which actually reveals our hidden life in God, our real selves, our deepest identity.

The journey up and out of the wilderness leads to the freedom of life as it was meant to be lived. And St. Paul gives definition to that, as well. He calls it “fruit” – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Love, once mis-directed to a thousand false loves, is now re-directed and renewed in its First Love. Joy, once found in a temporary pleasure that could be bought or controlled at will, is now found in longing, sometimes without immediate gratification, for the greater Joy. Peace, defined as conflict avoidance and repressed desire, now becomes a verb – the renewal of shalom, the re-ordering of relationships and the reconciliation of those at war with one another. Patience, replaced by remote-controls that falsely convince us that we can control pleasure and quick spiritual fixes which sell us on 3 steps to our best life, now finds renewal in a heart that waits longingly for a deeper satisfaction. Kindness, domesticated in fixed smiles on Christian faces, now becomes a risky compassion (suffering with another) that deepens relationship and bestows dignity on another. Faithfulness, crushed into definitions mandating dogmatic certainty at the expense of relationship, now flourishes in commitment to living out (delightfully) the command to love our neighbors and relentlessly pursue (rather than demonize) those we differ with. Gentleness, exposing our need to power over and control, invites a vulnerability which may in fact expose our weakness but show Christ’s strength. Self-control, rather than a behavioral call to pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps, actually manifests in surrender to God, which can feel like being out-of-control to control freaks like me.

These are the fruits of the New Exodus journey." - From

Questions for discussion:

1. Paul urges and imitation of him as a way of not being an enemy of the cross. But what does the one who said that he regards everything as loss have to imitate? Use this passage as a way of thinking about what imitating Paul would like:

"Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith." Philippians 3:7-9

2. Pick one of the fruits of the spirit that Chuck talks about above and use it as a framework for talking about why it is difficult to embrace life according to God's gracious rule and provision. In other words, why do we prefer our own fruit to God's?

3. Paul says that he is weeping over those who are enemies of the cross. How does his emotional response help you think about your own emotional responses to your sin and the sins of others?