Scripture: Philippians 3: 4b – 14, 17 – 4:1. (NRSV)
When you hear Paul’s words in Phillippians today, it doesn’t sound like someone who has lost hope. Paul writes from strength, and impresses on us an urgency to press on…straining forward to what lies ahead. Paul is in prison here when he writes this book.
My husband notes that the majority of the New Testament was either written from prison, or people on their way to prison, or those who just got out of prison. Does following Jesus mean we might end up in prison?! Loving Christ may not put us in prison, but it may place us in situations or circumstances that we might not otherwise have known—and for the sake of Christ. My favourite thing about the church is that it puts in the same room with people we might not have found on our own. Think about it—if you have a workplace or a neighbourhood and you haven’t moved in awhile—those are the people you know, and where you’re known—and we don’t often stray too far out of those zones. But, church places folks from all different occupations, hobbies and ethnicity right in the same spot doing the same thing—loving God and seeking life together through hope and service to God and God’s people. When you come to the communion table later in this service, we call come on the same ground. It's level here—no one is higher than the other. No one is lower. We’re on level ground with Christ, and all are welcome. All are accepted.
Some may say it’s not worth following Jesus. They may shrug at the thought of coming to church. Remember a few weeks ago when we talked about the devil tempting Jesus. He didn’t tempt him by saying, “follow me and your life will be destroyed.” Rather, he made the temptation attempt to be a rising up, not a falling down. The devil made it sound that if Jesus gave in to him, then everything would go his way…and perfectly so. Following a way other than God’s does not lead to perfection, but rather leads to the destruction of your life. Following God, however, does not eliminate pain and suffering, but you are following a God who entered into pain and suffering himself, so that you might find comfort and peace and eternal hope.
This letter of Paul’s to the church in Philippi, is one of his most personal letters to those whom he loves deeply. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said we meet in community because “the Christ in your brother or sister is stronger than the Christ in you.” We gain strength in God from one another, and from Paul, even as he writes from a prison cell.
On these Fridays in Lent, a few of us gather to pray for Ukraine. We mostly pray in silence. It gives us space to stop. The hour goes by too quick. It doesn’t seem enough. And I know those of you who are unable to come on Fridays, find time in your own days and weeks to pray. I especially appreciate the silence—sitting still and listening to God, and praying to God. I focus on my prayer in a way I don’t normally do. I know that when the hour is done, I feel like we’ve just begun. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s words “Where will the Word be heard? Not here. There is not enough silence.” Don’t be afraid to sit in silence with God. In the church, we need to leave space for God to speak to us, including the silence.
Paul tells us in today’s Scripture to Imitate him. That seems like a bold thing to say. He must be pretty sure of his faith to say such words, right? Think about it. Would we want someone following us around all day long, learning our ways, hearing our words and following our every footstep? Or, are there some areas where we’d prefer to have no one try and imitate us? Paul was firm in his words, and in his stance as a disciple of Christ and believer of God. He talked the talk…but he also walked the walk.
You can tell that Paul loves the people he writes to. The Scripture ends with the words of loving and longing for—to be reunited again—stand firm, he writes—from the lonely prison cell. Even as he writes, he writes with tears in telling of those who are enemies of the cross. The NASB version reads “even weeping.” I tell you of the enemies of the cross. Those whose minds are set on earthly things. Paul urges the church to see beyond earthly things, and claim our citizenship in heaven.
How do we imitate Paul? How do we live into this faith that we hold so dear? This past week, there were a few us gathered in the lounge around lunchtime. For some reason, we all started to practice different accents—I think it started when I said “Y’all” in my most southern way. But language is one of the first ways we learn to imitate, isn’t it? What do we do with a baby who’s learning to talk—we teach by saying the word, in hopes that the child will repeat it. Taking first steps is another milestone! When they are first learning, however, they watch as we walk. They listen as we talk. Then, they slowly begin to try it out on their own.
Paul is trying to explain that there is a special kind of relationship between a teacher and his pupil. A burden is placed on the teacher and on those being taught and led, and few are willing to accept the burden. The burden to live like you believe! To walk the walk…with Jesus! Paul does this, and as the Philippians look to Paul for teaching, he urges them to imitate his ways. There is a fundamental point in this: the behavior and lifestyles of a person has a profound impact upon others! The characteristic s that gave the enemies of Christ their identity was their conduct and their lifestyles. Paul urges us to act and live as Christ would have us do. And we can’t learn such behavior, without living and imitating those who also live in the light of Christ.
Aristotle used for an analogy of moral behavior learning to ride a horse. You can’t learn to ride a horse by reading a book. Will Willimon refers to this by saying that “you learn to ride a horse by watching someone else who’s good at it, by being led step by step by that person, by imitating the moves, coaxed into it, criticized, guided, until those moves, the feel of the reins, become yours.”
As we are in the heart of this Lenten season, I am reminded of a song a friend of mine wrote simply called “Stand.” “The truth of the matter,” he writes, “is still the same. It’s that you and I, we will not be here forever. And I’m ready…I’m ready…I’m ready, to stand.” Paul tells the Philippians how much he loves them, calling them his joy and crown, and then he directs them to stand…stand firm in the Lord in this way. For someone just may be imitating you! Amen.