On this harvest Sunday we find ourselves going into the second half of our series of sermons going through Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi. When we receive a letter or email, we normally read the whole thing in one sitting, so it might seem a trifle odd to break what is a short letter up into nine separate chunks. It does give time, though, to see how themes develop and to ponder the richness of what Paul is saying.
Paul continues from where he left off last week, as it were, talking about the narrow escape that has befallen his comrade Epaphroditus. This man had been sent from Philippi to find Paul in prison and care for him, but he himself had fallen grievously ill and had nearly died. Paul is grateful to God for sparing him “sorrow upon sorrow”, and sends Epaphroditus home for his health’s sake. Other sorrows that he has previously mentioned are that he is locked up in prison and on trial, possibly for his life. There are rival Christian leaders who seem to be making hay while Paul is out of circulation, preaching Christ out of a desire to do Paul down.
He continues on a familiar theme, that they (and we) should rejoice in the Lord. He writes this, he says, to safeguard them. This returns to another theme mentioned earlier, that we will all be presented before Jesus on the day of his second coming; Paul wants them (and us) to be living lives worthy so that he (and we) will not be ashamed on that day. That will be the true harvest day, when the good seed is revealed.
You will recall from two weeks ago that we saw that a rejoicing heart is a trusting heart. The opposite of this is to grumble and complain which indicates a heart that is not at rest, trusting Jesus. Paul talks all the time of the need to rejoice. This is not because he was of a naturally sunny disposition and everything was going well. Rather, the more that things went badly, the more that he calls for us to rejoice.
The immediate context is his concern about religious people who had somehow missed the truth. He warns against the dogs, the evildoers, the mutilators of the flesh. Paul is talking here of people sometimes described as Judaisers. They are members of the church, but insist that to be a true Christian one must also follow all the traditional Hebrew laws, as found in the Hebrew Scriptures. This is an impressive use of the Rule of Three, which is an old trick used by orators. First, dogs in the ancient near East were not the pets that we have today, but were regarded almost as vermin; Jews often described gentiles as dogs. Second, the Jews regarded themselves as custodians of the law of God, and as naturally living lives that were better than those of the nations around them. Third, the defining mark of a Jewish man was to be circumcised, and this had become almost a badge of right standing with God. Paul brilliantly turns all three of these around. These people who call others dogs are “dogs” themselves; these who are proud of their righteous behaviour are actually “evildoers”; these are folk who cut themselves - they are no better than pagan priests who slash their bodies as part of their rituals.
Jesus has addressed this attitude when he told the story about the landowner and the vineyard, and how the tenants rejected the owner. He was saying that the whole nation had missed the point of their calling and seemed to have declared independence. They were very religious and very sincere. They had allowed their religiosity to get in the way of a loving trusting relationship with God.
No, Paul says, it those who depend entirely upon Jesus and all that he has done for us, and is doing in us by the work of his Holy Spirit, who are truly marked as belonging to God. We worship God by his Holy Spirit, and we glory, we boast in Jesus Christ. We have no confidence in our own ability to serve God or please him.
Paul himself has an impeccable list of seven attributes that should put him on the highest level of being able to please God. He is as Jewish as it is possible to be, and was filled with zeal to live well. If anyone could have confidence in himself it was Paul. But he acts now like an accountant or a liquidator. Here is a list of assets which have now become worthless. Kodak have amassed all this stock of film, but no one wants it because they all have digital cameras. We have all these slide rules but now everyone uses calculators. It is worse than that; we have all this stock of frozen fish but someone turned off the power and all we have is stinking fish to get rid of. We thought we had a container of pure gold, but it turns out to be full of sewage. Paul is saying that the very thing that seemed such an advantage before is now seen to be a distraction and a problem.
Paul returns to an earlier theme. Do you remember that at the beginning of chapter two he urges us to have the same mind-set as Jesus Christ? Jesus abandoned all claim to any rank or position, making himself humble and obedient, even to death on a cross. Therefore God raised him from the dead and gave him the place of highest honour. From his prison cell Paul writes that he is on the same path. Anything that he might have looked to which might give him rank or position are seen for what they truly are, distractions from the real work of following Jesus. When things seem to go against us, we rejoice in God. We praise him because we are discovering that beneath the froth of everyday “happy” life there is a reality to be experienced. You will recall from the story that Jesus told that some of the seed fell on shallow soil and was fried by the sun of persecution, and some of the seed fell in weedy soil and was choked by the cares of this world. Some, however, fell in good soil and produced a good crop.
How do we get to be that good soil? By living lives centred on Jesus. We allow his Spirit space to work in us, the Spirit who is known for love, joy peace … We boast in Jesus and all that he has done for us. This is the path to the true harvest.
1. “If ye love me, keep my commandments”. How, in the light of this section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, would you suggest that we attempt this?
2. What parallels can you suggest between the Judaisers of Paul’s time and people today?
3. What can you find in this passage which suggests how Christians might respond to the fact of suffering?