Paul would probably never have seen the white star Alpha Centauri or its blue white companion Beta Centauri. It’s not because they are dim little stars hard to see without a telescope in fact they are amongst the brightest stars in our night sky. Amongst the first to appear in the falling dusk and the last to fade with the coming of dawn. Rather Paul lived his life in the northern hemisphere and they are a feature in our southern sky. We know these two stars as the pointers.
We value them because they point towards the southern Cross, the constellation that is at the heart of our identity as people of the southern hemisphere and as a nation. You can always find the southern cross by looking for those two bright stars Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri
I think Paul would have loved these stars because they exemplify the image he uses of God’s people living in unity, being like stars shining in the dark sky. Not only do Alpha Centauri and beta Centauri stand out as beacons of light, they point us to the cross. Like our unity, our treating each other with the mind of Christ, our doing everything without grumbling or arguing does as well.
This winter we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. It’s a thank you letter for the support they had sent him while he is in prison. But more than that it is Paul encouraging the church to stand firm in their faith. To stand firm as they face storms of persecution from without and trouble within. But its more than that Paul encourages them to know the fullness of Joy that is in the Christ regardless of circumstance. While it is a letter written to them there and then it speaks equally to us here and now as we stand firm facing difficulties within and from outside the church on our joyous journey following Jesus.
Again the reading we had from Philippians this morning starts with the word ‘therefore’ it links us back to what Paul had been saying to the Church. He had been speaking of the importance of Christian unity. He had said it was central to our ability to stand firm against persecution and pressure from outside. Then he had turned to speak of achieving Christian unity within the Church by treating one another with the mind of Christ, looking at each other through the cross: with a servant heart and sacrificial love, in a healthy way putting other peoples needs above our own. Now Paul turns to finish talking about unity with some very practical advice that we should do everything without grumbling or arguing. He prefaces that with some directives in verse 12-13 and follows it up with incentives to do it in verse 16-18.
I want to focus on without grumbling and arguing. But before we do that lets look at the directives Paul gives and then the incentives.
Ok firstly the directives…Paul tells them they should be obedient just as they had been when he was with them, and they should work out their salvation in fear and trembling. These raise questions for us.
The first is who is Paul saying the church should obey. The inference is that it is Paul who was with them but is now absent. But Paul is not saying they should obey him because of his position or status in the Church. Paul's introduced himself in this letter not as the boos but as a servant of Christ. This isn’t a power trip, because that would fly in the face of all Paul was telling the church at Philippi. rather Paul is asking them to obey the gospel he has taughtthem. As he had spoken of his affection for the church at Philippi it was because they had responded so quickly and fully to the Gospel, his joy in chains and with opposition in the church was that the gospel was being proclaimed, and the gospel was the center of certainty in his uncertain future. Here his directions to the church are to continue living it out. But that cannot be divorced from Paul himself, he is aware that not only had he proclaimed the gospel to them, as they see Paul living it out he is the example to them of the Christian life. In 1 Corinthians 4: 16 Paul had told “his readers to imitate him and therefore be imitators of Christ.” People see Christ and know what Christ was like in the way we act and react to others around us. It is a real challenge to Christian leaders and to all of us. People know the love of God because they see it in us. God’s forgiveness because we forgive. Joy because we rejoice.
The second question that Paul’s directives raises is about salvation by grace alone. Paul says we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. However in the next verse (v4) he says God works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his Good purposes. These verses have got caught up in the in’s and outs of large theological debates about the nature of our salvation. Is it the work of God or is it something we have to work for? The answer I think is to be found in the ins and outs of it. It is God’s work in us that makes us justified before God, that brings the forgiveness of sins that reconciles us with God, makes us God’s children and his people, God works in us to bring that fulfillment. How we work that out in our lives is what we must do with fear and trembling.
That fear and trembling is not being afraid of God, that we are not going to live up to God’s standards that we are going to be written off and dismissed. Rather it’s because we have been given something so precious, the right to be God’s sons and daughters, we have been given something so amazing, new life with Christ, the Holy Spirit indwelling us, that we are very careful in how we work it out in our lives. A good example was at the parade for the America’s cup on Thursday the guy from team New Zealand who was responsible for the old mug was the only one wearing gloves, he had to work very hard to keep it safe. Doing everything without grumbling and arguing is like that.
Then quickly Paul’s incentives for doing it. In verse 16 Paul tells them that at the day of the Lord he will be able to boast and rejoice because they have kept God’s word. They are the evidence that he has not laboured in vain. Paul you have to remember had the possibility of immanent death hanging over his head and he is looking back and asking questions about was it all worthwhile. The answer for him is if these people show God’s love for one another and live in a manner worthy of the Gospel yes it is. Not only that but his readers then and there and down through he ages will be able to join in the rejoicing of knowing that Joy as well. We will hear well done good and faithful servant enter the rest I have prepared for you. The Americas cup has been in the news this week, because we won it again. It’s interesting listening to the team members speak, they’ve won the prize through innovation, hard work and most of all team work… team work… that is the thing that has got them through, that allowed them to risk and make what grant Dalton called wild west decisions… that is what makes their joy at the end more complete.
Ok let’s move on to look at grumbling and arguing. I was speaking to a college during the week about what I was preaching on this Sunday and he said “oh, I try not to read those parts of the bible”, but my wife keeps reminding of them”. It is difficult to talk about do everything without grumbling or arguing… I’m going to take a bit of a risk here and start with a piece of humour built around one of the areas in modern churches where there is often conflict resulting in grumbling and arguments… Worship styles…
This is from Tom Kreouter’s book ‘Guiding your Church through Worship Transitions’ and it’s a piece called ‘The Perfect Worship Service’, supposedly written by a church leadership team to their congregation…
“After listening carefully over the past several years, we believe we have finally determined what those who attend our church really want in music. Following are items that come up most frequently whenever the topic is discussed.
· More fast songs in the opening praise time and more slow songs in the opening praise time.
· More of those wonderful, lovely old hymns and less of those stupid, dead old hymns.
· A longer and shorter time of praise at the beginning of the service, and a longer and shorter time at the end.
· Songs to flow quickly into each other and long periods of time between songs for reflection.
· More repetition of songs so they can be learned and meditated upon while singing, and less repetition of songs because it gets boring singing the same thing over and over.
· More of those lovely arrangements with extra instruments and less of those showy arrangements with all those instruments.
· To sing good old songs more often and to stop singing those same old songs.
· Songs to be sung in higher and lower keys.
· The band to play in the middle of the platform where they can be seen, back behind the plants where they won’t be a distraction, louder, softer, faster, slower more often and not at all.
In the end I think it is one of the challenges to our unity that comes from being the church in a time when we have experienced one of the fastest and most significant cultural changes the world has ever seen… a small Part of what Leonard Sweet calls being ‘the church in the perfect storm’.
When Paul says do everything without grumbling and arguments, he is not saying that there will not be conflicts and difficulties and disagreements, that is part of the human condition. Grumbling and arguments in the Greek have more of a sense of things being done out of selfish ambition. The words warped and crooked generation echo the words at the end of the book of Deuteronomy about Israel’s journey from Egypt through the wilderness. God saved them about bought them out of Egypt to be his people. Note that was God’s saving activity, there response was not continued thanksgiving and honour to God but to continue grumbling about God’s provision, God’s leader, instead of living as god would want them to they moved forward with that eye over their shoulder, we want to go back to where we were, this way seems harder. Paul is saying that because of Christ we have been made into God’s new people and we are to live different than that. We grumble and argue because we want it our way not God’s way. We want to be served but the Christian life calls us to serve, we want to be first, but Jesus said the first shall be last and the last shall be first, we want it our way, our likes, our tastes our ideas, but we are a community who together discerns God’s way forward for us.
It says somethings about how we handle conflict. In the Alpha marriage Course they recommend that conflicts and points of tension be dealt with sitting together on the couch with the issue out in the open on the table in front of the couple not on the couch between them. Grumbling normally means the problem is not out in the open to be dealt with. When we deal with a conflict as a church we have it out in front of us and we are all together on the pews to deal with it. Our primary commitment is to the fact that we are one in Christ, we have been won by Christ, Christian ethics come out of our theology. We are determined to preserve that costly unity. We are going to continue loving each other with that problem and conflict, through its resolution and afterwards as well., even if we can’t get it sorted and we have to trust it over to God. Sometimes that takes a lot of time, some outside help.
One of the best chapters I read when I was at knox was in a book I can’t remember the tile of by an author I can’t remember. But the chapter was called learning to fight like Christians. In it the author said in all conflict there are rules of engagement, like the Geneva convention in wars, in boxing there are rules, even in UFC, which some people have likened to legalised prison violence there are rules, in rugby there are rules. So it when Christians deal with conflict. In that chapter he went through some of those which I found useful. Listen to the other side and different views. Respect what is said. Don’t speak over and shout down, start by showing enough love to be able to reflect the other persons opinion and view point and feelings before you go on. Remember the common ground, the cross and common goal, unity. The flip side of Paul talking of the fullness of joy at he day of the lord is you know if we can’t get along here and now, what does that say about eternity.
Let me just finish by saying that sadly the Churches witness is dimmer than it should be. On a big scale we find ourselves divided into denominations and different groupings. Yes there are some important theological issues at stake, a lot of it is also history and geography. The world is waiting to see us truly love one another. The church is an amazing global family, made up of some many people from diverse cultures, generations, socio-economic backgrounds and the bright shining light for the world is if in Christ we can work out not how to simply live with tolerance but genuine love for each other. On a local level we are a microcosm of that and we seem to be good at rubbing each other up the wrong way, we are good at grumbling and arguing. Paul's call is that we work at truly loving each other, forgiving each other and being unified, and reconciled you know what that is the beacon of light for a broken and hurting world that will point them to the power of the Cross. That is at the heart of our witness and our joy.