Monday, August 14, 2017

Being Christlike...even in a catfight (Philippians 4:1-3)

How you deal with conflict has really stepped to the fore on the world stage this week. The whole North Korea, US conflict, with threat and counter threat. Watching it unfold has been like watching one of those fence wire strainers, ratcheting up the tension, and if it’s not handled properly and the tension keeps mounting at some stage things are going to break. Neither side seem capable of stepping away from their sabre rattling postures, when the rattle we hear is not swords in  scabbards but nuclear missiles in silos it’s frightening. We can see the potential destruction that unresolved conflicts between entrenched positions can inflict.

Mahatma Ghandi said that “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but being able to cope with it”.

Ronald Regan went a step further and said “ Peace is not the absence of conflict, but being able to deal with it by peaceful means”.

The Church is not immune to conflict, sadly we are a very human institution and have been full of all kinds of conflict, over all kinds of issues at all kinds of levels. The challenge is how do we resolve those. Our witness to Jesus Christ in the world around us is that we can resolve those conflicts in a Christlike manner. It is part of the hope we bring to our hurting world. In the passage, we had read out today, Paul deals with a conflict between two people in the church at Philippi, two church leaders whose conflict is having an adverse effect on church unity and joy and its ability to witness to Christ and it gives us some helpful insights on conflict resolution: The hope for peace in being Christlike in the midst of a catfight.

This winter we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, a letter he has written to thank them for support and financial assistance while he is in prison. A letter where he takes the opportunity to encourage his readers to stand firm in their faith, in the face of opposition from without and trouble within. For Paul this standing firm is not teeth gritted, white knuckle hanging on for dear life rather it is knowing the fullness of Joy, a word he uses sixteen times in this epistle, in Jesus Christ. encouragement not just for his readers then and there but also for us here and now.

The passage we are looking at today starts with Paul rounding off the section he had started way back in chapter 1 v 27 when he had told the church to stand firm together for the gospel. Then moved on talk of the importance of Christian unity for that joy and having the mind of Christ as the attitude to achieve that unity: Putting the other persons needs above our own. He finishes with the same language to address his readers as he started. Calling them brothers and sisters, the basis of their unity is that they are family  through the life and death of Jesus Christ. He calls them beloved; in the NIV it’s translated “you whom I love and long for”, that theological basis for unity also has a practical person outworking in his brotherly love for them. There is a future element as well, that he sees them as his Joy and crown, that they are the proof of the gospel’s effectiveness through him. Because of those things he extols them to stand firm in the Lord.

This section starts with a therefore, which connects it back to what has gone before but also signals a change in the letter. In all Paul’s letters there is a therefore, where he moves from theology to ethics. From belief to behaviour. From the principles of the faith to the practise of faith. From proclamation of the gospel to practically living it out. Paul applies all he has said in this letter so far to a very specific situation. A conflict between two women in the church, Euodia and Syntyche.

We don’t know what the conflict between these two women is, it could be theological as Paul had  talked of the false teaching of the Judaisers,  maybe one of them was starting to be prone to this ‘Christ Plus” teaching. Way back at the beginning of his letter he had talked of people having different reasons and motives for sharing the gospel, they may have had a conflict over how the gospel was to be done in Philippi. It could have been personal we don’t know. I wondered if it may have something to do with their names which eman "success" and "lucky" in English, one maybe a very organised deteremined process person, the other a more intuitive, go with the flow, pull it all together at the last minute person... But it was effecting the Church, because these women were in leadership roles. Paul addresses them as co-workers who had contended at his side for the gospel, along with a person named Clement who we only meet in passing here. We know that they have suffered for the gospel because Paul tells us their names are written in the book of life, which in scripture is used to talk of people who have faced persecution.

Before we look at conflict resolution it is important to look at Euodia and Syntyche, because they are part of what Gordon Fee calls the “mute” evidence of women in leadership in the New Testament. It’s important that we hear their story.

Firstly, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Women in leadership in the church at Philippi, Macedonia was one of the places in the ancient world where women were accepted into the public realm, they  owned property and contributed to public life and the economy. Statues in Macedonia have been found honouring women for their contribution. The Church at Philippi started with Lydia, a women of great means who was a saler of purple cloth. There was no Synagogue in Philippi, which means that there were not many jewish men in the city,  so Paul goes and finds a place of prayer down by the river and Lydia a gentile god fearer is there and she is leading that group. Lydia becomes a believer and leader in the Church, at least its patron, as a rich woman she would have had a house where a large group could gather and meet.  The next story of Paul’s time in Philippi recorded in acts is where Paul delivers a women who is being exploited for money as a fortune teller. The church at Philippi tarts as a women’s story.  

We don’t know Eoudia and Syntyche’s story but we do know they were involved in evangelism with Paul.  Sadly with the church becoming more and more an institution it becomes male dominated and their stories got lost. In fact early translations of Paul’s letter from the Greek actually put a masculine ending on these Greek names. The translators were not comfortable with women in leadership roles in the church. It’s the same as in Romans 16 where many women are mentioned and for centuries Junia which is a women’s name and who is said to be an apostle had her name changed to have a masculine ending. It is a great blight on the Church that they moved away from this acceptance of women in leadership, that they came to reflect the culture around them rather than the gospel and the example of people like Paul and the Church at Philippi. It is only recently that we have begun to change, it’s a continuing blemish that there is still a long way to go.

Paul didn’t have these issues, yes there are texts that need to be wrestled with like Timothy 2:11-15 which has been used to deny Women the ability to teach and lead in Church, but from Philippians and Romans and Acts we see Paul valued and loved his women co-workers. In the passage we are looking at today it seems the church leadership was a balance of men and women. The way he deals with the conflict that they are having reflects the high regard he has for them. He does not put them down for their conflict, suggest it’s because they are women, in fact we know from Acts that Paul himself had had a conflict with his co-worker and his mentor Barnabas over the suitability of John Mark to go with them on the missionary trip that lead to Paul going to Philippi, we have evidence that while he was in prison that conflict was resolved as in 2 Timothy 2, he asks Timothy to bring John Mark with him when he comes as he is useful to me. We know from Ephesians 2 that Paul had had a conflict with Peter as well that had threatened the Christian witness and had to be resolved. Paul knows from painful personal experience about the impact that conflict can have on the witness of the Gospel.

That leads us back to conflict resolution.

The first thing to note is that Paul’s motivation for the resolution for this conflict is his love for those involved and his commitment to a higher common good. We saw it in the way he addresses the church at the start of this passage. These two things are the basis for conflict resolution, having a common higher good and a commitment to the good of those involved.

Paul deals with the problem in a timely manner, it’s not left to get worse and worse. The breakdown of their relationship hasn’t got to the point where Paul has had to speak to the church about factions as he had to the church in Corinth or where they have taken each other before civil courts like had happened in Corinth. Paul’s teaching in chapter 2 on grumbling and arguing may have been a reference to the effect this conflict was starting to have and that it was bubbling away under the surface.

To the Church at Ephesus Paul had given the command not to let the sun go down on their anger, but to seek to be reconciled. Athletes will talk about muscle memory, that by continually repeating actions that the body then does them automatically, by reflex. The heart is a muscle as well and if we keep turning away from someone we are in conflict it will that action can become instinctive. In Exodus it talks of pharaoh hardening his heart, over and over again refusing to let the people of Israel go. Then finally it says God hardened his heart. That hardening of heart leads to greater and greater disaster for pharaoh and his people. We need to deal with conflict in a timely manner.

Paul does not take sides or associate blame in this conflict. He treats each women the same. He address the two women individually and identically. I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche. There is an impartiality which hopefully enables them to hear what he has to say. In conflict resolution that impartiality is important. Much of the talk before the super rugby final last week between the crusaders and the Kings was that the ref was going to be South African rather than a neutral referee. Was he going to be fair. I don’t want to start a conflict here, but TVNZ announced this week that Mike Hosking is going to adjudicate the leaders debates on TV in the run up to the election and there has been an outcry that he is biased, his political views are well known. When dealing with conflicts maintaining impartiality, and love and respect for each party is important.

Paul’s plea to them is that they might have the mind of Christ. He had articulated what he meant by that, that Christ while being equal with God, did not deem it something to be held onto, but emptied himself and took on the nature of a human being, became a servant, obedient even unto death, death on a cross. In conflict resolution Paul is not giving them an answer rather he is pleading with them to adopt an attitude or pasture where by the issue can be resolved and the relationship mended. In a marriage, even a good marriage, there is that uncomfortable silence after an argument, which ironically seems just so loud, and no-body is prepared to start the healing process. “I’m right! I’m not going to say sorry, I’ve done nothing wrong…” where it needs someone to go first for the sake of the relationship. Not to always simply give in but start the process of talking again and getting it sorted. I love the illustration from the marriage course of sitting together on the couch and getting the issue out on the table in front of you, not between you.

The other thing that Paul does in this situation is he asks a person, whom we simply know as the true companion, to help these women be reconciled. When we are conflict it’s hard to see the way forward and it is often in those situations that we need a third party to facilitate a way forward. It is easy to want to come in with an answer and a solution, but that probably has more to do with our personality rather than what is needed. The picture from scripture that fits here is what Jesus calls the Holy Spirit… the councillor, the advocate, the friend with training who comes alongside. We need people who are willing to train in mediation and reconciliation. The blessed peacemakers of the beatitudes. The ultimate example of a mediator for us is Jesus Christ… who reconciled us with God. 

One of the most frustrating things about biblical scholarship is we only get a glimpse into the life of the early Church, we are left wondering about the outcome of this conflict, just as we are unaware of the substance of this conflict or the name of the person who is asked to help out. But that leaves the story open for our story. We can find ourselves in this story. Alongside Euodia and Syntyche in conflict with relationships tearing or broken, we can hear Pauls Plea to adopt the mind of Christ. But all of us can hear Paul’s plea to be a true companion, to be the Holy Spirit’s agent to come alongside and help, to be a peacemaker. Our witness is not to be perfect but to stand firm in our faith, which does not mean an absence of conflict but that we cope with it, not just in a peaceful way but a Christlike way.  A witness that can then speak to the wider issues of this world.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Forging ahead to Maturity (Philippians 3:12-21)

I don’t know if many of you will know the name Karl Sim. He is a well-known New Zealand artist who died in 2013 at the age of 89. Do any of you have one of his paintings...? well you may have you just might not know it.  When I said well known I don’t mean famous rather infamous. You see Carl Sim is possibly New Zealand most well-known art forger.

In one interview he gave there was a list of well over fifty famous painters whose work he had forged. They were the ones he could remember.  He came to notoriety in the mid 1980’s when he was convicted on forty charges of forging Goldie and Petrus van der Veldun paintings. He was fined $1,000 and made to paint the Foxton town hall and public toilets as part of his 200 hours community service. Not paint a picture of them but paint the buildings themselves. He changed his name to Carl Feodore Goldie so he could legitimately sign his Goldie paintings without fear of prosecution. When he moved up to Orewa an antique dealer bought his Foxton flat and made it into an antique shop called Goldie’s Junk n’ disorderly so that Goldies memory would live on in the town. In one of his last Orewa shows there was a rather well-done Mona Lisa signed by C F Goldie.

It’s interesting that copying the masters and their works wasn’t considered a crime until art work became such an expensive commodity. It was rather seen as a way for budding artists to learn their craft. To learn the technique and brush strokes of the masters and so get better. When they tried to pass off their copies as the real thing it stopped being learning and became fraud. However George Bernard Shaw says “imitation is not just the greatest form of flattery it’s the sincerest form of learning”. In the passage we read from Philippians three today Paul tells his readers new believers in a fledgling church to imitate him as the way to forge ahead to Maturity in Christ.  

This winter we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. A letter where he thanks the Church for their concern for him and gift to him while he is in Prison. It’s a letter where Paul encourages the church to stand firm in the faith and to find joy in knowing and being known by Jesus Christ. The same encouragement Paul gives to us as we stand firm on our joyous journey following Jesus.

As I said before in the passage we are looking at today Paul exhorts the church to follow his example, to imitate him as an example of Christian maturity.  Paul had done this in the tail end of a section where he is warning the Church against false teaching. A group who were teaching ‘Christ Plus’ that for gentiles to be put right with God they needed not only to believe in Jesus Christ but they needed to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. Paul had refuted that putting the focus totally on what Christ had done for us. In doing that he had talked of his own religious privileges, being born a Jew of Hebrew parents and achievements, being a strict Pharisee who kept the law and said they were like rubbish to be tossed away compared to the surpassing greatness of Knowing Christ.

 It might be easy for people to think Paul is telling them to imitate him because he is perfect that he doesn’t do anything wrong, that he has made it spiritually, but that is not the case. In fact Paul is very quick to let people know that he hasn’t made it he is not perfect, from the enemies of the cross that Paul talks of in this  passage whose God is their stomachs and who glory in their shame, he is very cautious not to fall in to another false teaching that had effected the church at Corinth, that because we are put right with God by Jesus Christ, that we are perfect, we’ve made it spiritually and that what we do with our bodies has no impact on that. That our faith in Christ does not need to be reflected in our behaviour. It’s called antinomianism, it means that no laws apply. Paul equally refutes that.

So what is it that Paul is wanting people to imitate as a way of forging ahead to maturity? It isn’t his moral perfection but rather his journey to spiritual maturity. It’s not a moral and spiritual perfectionism, but rather coming to the place of discerning what is Godly wisdom and what is earthly wisdom and to follow the former and not the later.  That is maturity.

Firstly, for Paul that forging ahead for maturity is not working for our salvation rather it is working out our salvation. Paul is steadfast as we saw last week on the fact that it is only Jesus Christ and what Christ has done that puts us right with God.  His spiritual journey is to take hold of Christ because Christ took hold of him. That encounter on the Damascus road told three times in the book of Acts is central for Paul. He tells the church in v20 that our citizenship is in heaven, that our life is eagerly awaiting a saviour to come the Lord Jesus Christ. We have those things because of Christ. The journey he is one is the upward calling of Jesus Christ. it is the journey fo his life to reflect Jesus in all he does. Because he knows Jesus more and more.  

The second thing for Paul is that paradoxically, the only people who can become spiritually mature are the people who realise that they haven’t got there yet. Not that I have obtained all this says Paul in verse 12 or have already arrived. That’s the first step to know where we are and that we need to keep growing. That change needs to happen. I am preaching through the Psalms of ascent at the services I take up at Edmund Hilary Retirement Village. They are a collection of fourteen Psalms that were used by pilgrim’s coming to the three religious  festivals at Jerusalem, they were said to be said one on each of the fourteen steps up to the temple. The first one Psalm 120 speaks of a holy discontent, that is no willing to live amongst the tents of the people who are not for peace. Who find their security in wealth and military might. It’s a willingness to move on from there and grow. In the news this week we’ve heard of the retirement of Lauren Boyle one of the New Zealand’s greatest swimmers, for her its been coming to the hard decision that because of a hip injury she can no longer keep her own standards at training that allow her to compete. She said that she will contribute to swimming in a new way. It’s a sign of maturity that it’s time for change. This week I’ve also found myself being challenged about areas of my Christian life and walk that I need to work on, I didn’t want to preach on this passage because it speaks to me. In our Christian life it’s easy to cruise or just plateau and be happy walking on the flat land, rather than the upward call of Christ Jesus…

The next thing Paul says s that he does not look at what is behind him… here is using the imagery from the Olympics of a runner who keeps looking behind them and loses sight of the goal. In our spiritual journey it’s easy to have our eyes focused behind us. Theologically its easy to look back at and thing all this Jesus stuff was way back then and over there, and not see that Jesus invites us to move forwards towards him. The focus of the passage in Philippians is not the past but the future. Our lives are seen as living in eager anticipation of the coming of Christ. Our hope is that we have a saviour coming for us. That Christ will bring everything under his control and transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorified body.  The Modern Church does not handle the return of Christ that well. We either are rather embarrassed with this belief, we identify it with the weird tramp on the corner with the sign saying ‘the end is nigh’ or the preachers who tie bible prophecy down so much they have a date! Which invertible passes by or we find ourselves wrapped up in fights over the where, the when and the how. If I can bamboozle you for a minute with all the theological catagories… Pre-millennialists, Amillennials, post-millennialists and pan millennialists. But it is when the church has a healthy understanding of Christ’s immanent return that it is at its most vibrant, that it is most about Christ’s justice in this world. Our communion service is an excellent illustration of this; It is a remembering of what Christ has done for us in the past, it is a way of us knowing of Christ’s abiding presence with us, as we meet Christ in the bread and the wine, and it is a meal of hope as we look towards sitting down with Christ face to face. Our hope in the past, our hope for now and our hope that leads us into the future.

But it is also that we can look back and see the that can trip us up and keep us from focusing on that hope… the “shoulda, coulda, woulda” , that can slow us down burden us we regret. The only if, and what if, and if it hadn’ts that seem to knock the stuffing out of us and sap our energy. Our achievements so far and our falls and failings. We forget that says Paul, we can forget it because in Christ there is forgiveness and reconciliation and we move on.

Paul then uses the language of athletics and military conflict to talk say we put our energy into moving forward. He speaks of straining, pressing on to grab hold of Christ who grabbed hold of us, of living up to what we already have obtained.  If you go into book stores these day or rather go on line and scroll through the pages of electronic books you’ll find many self-help books. They have  ways of moving forward by setting goals and finding mentors to help you on the journey, and helpful hints and practises. But Paul first and foremost is real to say that it takes effort. It’s kind of like Gym memberships in the new year, and I am speaking from personal experience here, its easy to start out with the greatest of intentions and  well as the year rolls on and February comes along its easy to slip back into old routines and old ways.

Paul balances talking of effort by talking of who it is we should focus on. The focus is on Christ. To keep our eyes on him, to be about conforming our lives to his. The great thing is that as we move forward Christ is with us to help us on the way. We have God’s spirit within us to keep us going.

The other thing is that Paul does encourage us to find mentors of models that we can imitate. That there are personal trainers of the way. I’ve really found my supervisor beneficial and I specifically chose him because of his expertise in an area that I know is one of my weaknesses, I’ve really benefited as he has worked me though that area. He’s finished his PHD and is moving to Wellington and so I’m going to have to look for a new one. I’ve been dreading it actually. But as I have been confronted by another area of life I need to work on I came to the realisation that here is a chance to actually find someone who can put some effort in with me on that area, like my old supervisor has in the other area. Can I say I’ve got lots of weaknesses. An example of Christ working and me going through this process that Paul is speaking of.  

Paul gives a good warning about the people we should not emulate as well. He calls them enemies of the Cross. People whose God is their stomach, whose glory is their shame, speaking of people with shonky morals. Whose minds are set on earthly things. They are the opposite of what we are looking for. Not that we are looking for perfect people, we want people on the same road to maturity that we are but who like Paul have a single minded Zeal and an absorbing desire to  be with and like Christ.

Paul finishes with two pictures that encourage us on that journey. The first is that we are citizens of heaven and we eagerly await the coming of a saviour Jesus Christ. The Church in Philippi would have understood this quite well as Philippi was a colony of Rome and they were citizens of Rome a long way from home, with all its privileges and responsibilities. Like that we too are citizens of Heaven and we experience both the privileges and responsibilities of that. We know Christ and we live in a way that reflects that but we are together in that we are in Christ and we live it out together.

The second is that while we work away and toil away in our lowly bodies, when our saviour comes he will subdue all things and we will be transformed to be like him. As we forge ahead on our upward calling to be more like Christ in our lives he by his power will make us the real deal.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

In Christ Alone: Paul responds to being Dogged by false teaching (Philippians 3:1-12)

We are working our way through Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi. a Letter he wrote to thank them for their aid to him while he was in prison. A letter he wrote to encourage them to stand firm in their faith in the face of persecution from outside and disruption from within the church. This standing firm that Paul encourages the church to do, is not grim determination, teeth grinding, white knuckle holding on for dear life, rather in his letter Paul uses the word Joy sixteen times. Standing firm for Paul is safeguarding the full ness of Joy that comes from Knowing and being known by Jesus Christ. A joy we can know regardless of the circumstances we face. A joy that Paul knows even though he is in prison facing uncertainty and possible death. Paul’s encouragement was not just for his readers way back then and there, but is equally for us here and now, as we stand firm on our joyous journey following Jesus.

The passage we had read to us this morning is the start of a new section in his letter, dealing with a new topic. Last week we looked at Paul finishing writing about the joy of Christian unity by talking about the travel plans of two of his team, Timothy and Epaphroditus. Men who were prime examples of the attitudes and actions needed to stand fast in that unity. After that talk of travel plans Paul moves on.

Once again, he exhorts his brothers and sisters to rejoice. Then the tenure of his letter changes Paul uses harsh and angry language to warn the church of false teachers. “wild dogs” he calls them, “evil doers and the mutilators of the flesh”. You can imagine Paul pounding on the desk three times his fists clenched in anger as he writes of them. Then he spends the rest of the reading we had today refuting this false teaching. He shares his testimony, both before he met Christ and after to illustrate why they are wrong and what is the truth of the gospel. Then finally he talks of how he joyously lives out that gospel truth.

So Today I want to explore this passage by seeing what it is that makes Paul so Angry, then look at what is the source of Pauls joy and finally how he lives out that joy, and see how each of those things speak to us today.  

First what has got Paul so angry? Who are these dogs, evil doers, mutilators of the flesh?

This group is known as the Judaizers. They are a group we first meet in Acts 15:1 who go to Antioch where the first significant Gentile Church is and teach the gentile believers that to be genuine followers of Jesus they need to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses. The kosha dietary demands all of it. They are a group that we know from Paul’s letter to the Galatians who were spreading their teaching and Paul is concerned that they will come to Philippi as well.

Paul finds this so offensive because they are saying that there is a need to add something to what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ.  That we can contribute something to our salvation. Rather than it being what God has done for us, by grace alone in Jesus Christ. 

Circumcision was a practise in the Old Testament in Genesis 17 as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham he and all his male descendants were to be circumcised. It was to show that they were God’s special people. But the story of the Old testament is that God’s people were not always faithful to that covenant, that relationship, that physical outside sign wasn’t enough, God looked for an internal response, a heart that was turned towards God. The prophets talked of it as a circumcision of the heart.

Paul tells the church at Philippi that the followers of Jesus are the true circumcision. We are god’s people because God has put his Holy Spirit within us and we worship and Glorify Jesus Christ. It is God’s doing and we do not have any confidence in our own ability to achieve this. It is evident in our heart attitudes rather than by dropping our pants, to put it bluntly.

Paul shares his own life story before he met Christ to prove his point. He says he more than anyone else had every right to be confident in his own privileged position and achievements. Like he’s writing it down in a spread sheet, he names them. He was born of Jewish parents, Hebrew speaking Jews, of the tribe of Benjamin, his whakapapa is rock solid. Benjamin was the tribe of Israel that stayed loyal to David’s sons when the kingdom split after the reign of king Solomon. He was a Pharisee, that group within the Jewish faith that was most strict at keeping the law. He was full of zeal for the Jewish faith and the law of Moses to the point that he persecuted the church. He is not saying he was not a sinner but he was blameless in terms of keeping the requirements of the law. But then he says he meet Jesus. We know from Acts that he had a vision of Jesus on the way to Damascus with a warrant to imprison the Christians there and it changed his life. On the balance sheet, he says, all these things didn’t add up says these things add up to the surpassing greatness of Knowing Jesus Christ. It was only in Jesus Christ that he found himself in a right relationship with God.

The Image for our service this morning is a great illustration of what Paul was talking about. It’s a picture of Zugspitze, which is the tallest mountain in Germany. It sits across the German Austrian border, it’s a popular destination with hikers who catch a cable car up to its plateau and hike to the top, and climbers who scale the steeper sides of this 2200 metre mastiff. I didn’t take the photo by the way, I’ve never been there, and my climbing aspirations are confined to the two step sets of stairs in our three stories town house. But on the summit, is a cross, originally put there in 1851 primarily on the instance of a priest called Christopher Ott.  Paul says, you know it’s like I climbed to the very height of moral and religious achievement and there I discovered the cross. There I found that it is only Jesus Christ that can put us right with God. All this other stuff now I realise adds up to nothing. If I’m going to win God’s approval then it adds up to a big fat zero. I might as well toss it in the wheelie bin, roll it out to the curb and let it be dragged off to the land fill. His anger is that these false teachers are wanting to put all this other stuff back on the gentile believers, bring it back from the dump. Put it in the positive column, make the believers climb the mountain.

That is a good point to turn and look at what is Paul’s Joy? what is the joy that he wants the Church at Philippi to know that will safeguard them against these false teachers?

In this passage for the first time Paul says that the church should rejoice in the Lord. He told them to rejoice and have joy, but now he ties the source of that Joy to the Lord. It’s a phrase that comes from the Old Testament from the psalms and the prophets. That God’s people were not to find their ultimate joy in circumstances or prosperity or privilege and their own pious achievement, but in God, his faithful love for them. That’s what Paul is saying to his readers and to us. The source of our joy our happiness is ultimately in Jesus Christ.   

It is in what Jesus Christ has done for us that we are justified and put right with God. if all our moral victory and religious observances and good deeds and doing what’s right were put into that spread sheet, including circumcision to say we had deserved God’s love and had earned being right with God. Well it would come to zero. Rather it is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ that bridges that gap. It is a righteousness that Comes from God based on faith.

More than that Paul finds joy in his life, meaning and purpose in knowing and being known by Jesus.  It’s not just a one-off encounter but Paul’s very life is shaped by the life of Christ. He wants to know the resurrection power of Jesus in his life. As a follower of Christ, we have the Holy Spirit in our lives, the power that raised Jesus from the dead is in us, bringing new life enabling and empowering us to live for Jesus. He wants to participate in his suffering. In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul lists the hardships he’d been through for the sake of the gospel very much like he listed his previous religious privileges and attainments, shipwrecks beatings, being stoned (hit with stones not using mind altering substances), in Philippi he was whipped, he is imprisoned when he writes chained between to guards. But he sees these things as aligning his life with Christ’s redemptive suffering. Being prepared to suffer so that people might know the good news of reconciliation with God. he even hopes in hi death that he might be like Christ.  That means being prepared to lay down his life for others out of love, but also in his mind he is aware of the possibility of death when his appeal to the emperor is heard he will be killed, his hope is that will enable to him to witness to the forgiveness and new life he has found in Christ. In all these things Paul’s joy comes from Jesus Christ and his great love for us. It’s a bit of a spoiler alert perhaps but towards the end of this letter Paul will talk of facing good times and grim times and he will say “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  His joy and hope is also that he will share in the resurrection of the dead, that he will have eternal life with Jesus Christ.

How does Paul live that joy Out? Paul, having looked at his own life as an example of the joy of knowing Christ and the fruitless way of trusting in our own religiousness turns to the future and tells the church at Philippi how their Joy in the Lord, in focusing on Christ’s death and resurrection can safeguard them.

In the western church, we’ve kind of got this idea that salvation by grace and faith is something we can simply bank and put in the vault till we need it at the judgement. Like it’s a get out of jail free card we can slip under the board till we need. Yes, I said the sinner prayer, I’m Ok. But Paul does not treat it like that. He sees knowing Christ as a prize, as a goal which takes central place in his life.

He tells the church that he hasn’t yet arrived at his goal of knowing Christ totally but that he is prepared to move forward to keep going with his eyes fixed firmly on the prize. The prize here is nothing else than Jesus Christ. He’s very honest that he still has a long way to go in his spiritual growth but his focus is Jesus Christ.  That is the way in which Paul’s exhortation to rejoice in the Lord, will be a safeguard for the church at Philippi and for us against things that would try and add things to our faith that take the focus from what God has done to what we can do. He puts off those former things that were the centre of his hope and purpose and meaning because he has found something far superior. It is Christ alone.

Paul’s words and his exhortation to find our joy and purpose in Jesus Christ are as important for us today as it was for his first listeners. It’s the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. Luther had become disillusioned with the Church, where the focus and practise seemed to focus on our being able to earn favour and grace and forgiveness from God. Even buy them like with indulgences.  The catch cry of the reformation was a rediscovery and reemphasis of salvation by grace alone through faith.

It’s easy for us to get caught up in extra things which we think make up a Christian. I had a youth group member respond to a crusade in Tauranga run by another organisation, and I got a phone call from one of the people running it. Who told me that this young guy needed to be baptised by immersion right away. Because salvation wasn’t complete until you were baptised. Know I believe baptism is important but it is an outward sign of the inward reality that you have come to know Christ and been made new by his death and resurrection. It’s a public declaration that you identify with that. We do it as an act of obedience.  But you are not made right with God because of baptism. There are other more mundane things as well. I go to Church, I’m a good person, I don’t do this or that. I was born into a Christian family. But in the end our Joy is to be found in knowing Christ and being made right with God through him. The thing that gives us joy in life is in fixing our eye on the prize, which is the call heavenward in Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The fear of the Lord as the source of blessing (Psalm 128)

We are so used to advertising messages these days that when it comes to looking at scripture we come with the same mentality. If you use product A your life will be spectacularly, marvellously, stupendously, profoundly wonderful… It will solve all your problems, you’ll be happy… we guarantee it. We can view Psalms like the one we read today as being that kind of promise… that if we do A then God will do B, and B is that God will bless us with prosperity, happiness and security ….  It will solve all our problems… Guaranteed. But Psalm 128 is a wisdom Psalm reflecting on life rather than a sale pitch to make us buy into something by offering us unrealistic benefits.   

Like Psalm 127 before it it’s more a Psalm of Solomon than David. A proverb a wise saying wrapped up in a blessing. A proverb that says that the fear of the Lord is the source of all God’s blessing, prosperity of land, with its illustrations of plentiful grape harvests and olive groves sprouting from good soil. It’s focus on family, where in an agrarian culture having many sons was seen as a great advantage. The blessings that Abraham received in his covenant with God of land, family and prosperity, the covenant blessings at Sinai where Israel became God’s people, bought down to a personal family unit level. But also in verse 5and 6 spiraling out again as being a basis for the blessing of the whole of Jerusalem and Israel. The health of a nation is dependent on the health of the family units within it. Sadly we see the truth of that today, in the personal and social cost of family disharmony and breakdown.

It’s helpful to see where this Psalm comes from. Commentators suggest three possibilities. One is that it was originally a blessing given at marriage. Some sage advice and hopes for a couple setting out together. That they would live in a way that revered God, and that if they did that that they would experience God’s blessing.  The other is that it was a blessing on the host that a traveller being given shelter and hospitality would give on the doorstep before entering the house. Once again wise advise that the household would serve the Lord, and sure hope that they would receive blessing because of it. The last is that it became the welcome for pilgrims as they entered the sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple.  A reminder of blessings coming from that life of reverence for God. All these use the psalm to remind people that any and every blessing comes from a life lived in fear of the LORD.

The fear of the Lord is not that we live afraid of God, scared that God will be angry with us, if we put a foot out of line, but we are aware of who God is, his sovereignty over all creation, but also his faithful love for his people and what he has done for us so we live a life that reflects God’s goodness to the people around us.  For Christians it is as we become more and more aware of God’s mercy and grace shown in Jesus Christ that we reflect that in the mercy and grace we show to other people.

Being wisdom literature, it is not a promise but an observation that blessing comes from the fear of the Lord. In a marriage in a house hold in a pilgrim’s life. In that respect it’s a psalm of orientation, this is the way life should be. We have to remember that scripture is also very realistic when it comes to looking at life and one of the greatest themes of the wisdom literature is dealing with the disorientation in life, with the very real issue of evil or why bad things happen to good people? The psalms are resplendent with Psalms of disorientation, people wrestling when it all seems to have gone pair shape and despite being people of faith they wonder where God is in the midst of the suffering and pain. But also reorientation when they again turn to focus on the fear of the Lord, that reverence for God is the centre point in life, and God’s abiding presence becomes the focal point of hope.

So what does this wisdom Psalm have to say to the pilgrim and to us.

The first thing is like with Psalm 127 every good thing comes from God. Family sustenance, prosperity stability security are blessings from God. We live in a society where we are told we can be blessed and happy if we have things and as we’ve got more and more sophisticated and technologically advanced those things that supposedly give us happy lives have become more and more varied and expensive and extravagant. In that environment the simplicity of God’s blessing in family and produce and provision of good food that Psalm 128 gives bring us back to be able to see such basic things as true treasurers that we are able to give thanks for. To see our children’s children is to be able to see how God’s goodness is able to be passed on from generation to generation. It also allows us to see how the Church,a  temple of living stones bought together as 1 Peter puts it, is able to continue to be a blessing from generation to generation.

The second thing is that it directs the pilgrim and us to what is of vital importance in life. Our relationship with God, established by his unfailing covenant love for us and that is lived out as we reflect that love in how we live and relate to the people and world around us. For God’s Old testament people it was the God who chose them in Abraham and bought them out of Egypt, through the wilderness and into the promised land to be his people. For us it is as we remember God’s faithful love for us in sending Jesus Christ to live, die and be raised to life again for us. That we may be set free from the past given a fresh start and new life in Christ. A life that finds its true joy and meaning and blessing in knowing Christ and allowing our live to confirm to his in loving other people.  In Philippians Paul talks of the surpassing greatness of Knowing and being known by Christ, he talks of learning of being content and knowing he is blessed if he has heaps or if he has nothing because he has learned that he can do all thing in Christ that strengthens him.  In that it allows us to see the blessings that gives us as well.   A family not only of biological connections but of brothers and sisters right next to us and around the world. The provision of our daily bread, as we come to communion part of that celebration is taking those everyday things that God provides for us to remember his death, his abiding presence with us and his eventual immanent return.

Finally it shows the pilgrim the way forward, not just what God had done for them but how to live it forward. Like it might to a marriage or as a reminder to a household offer hospitality or a pilgrim come to worship it points us forward on the ongoing journey in life, not that we have come to a place of simple blessing but are invited onwards as his people to live that relationship with God out. And the trust that as we do that we will see more of God’s great blessings on the journey.