Monday, August 28, 2017

The Secret to contentment: I can do all things through Christ (Philippians 4:10-23)

I don’t buy newspapers, like an ever growing number of people these days I get my news via the internet and its various news feeds and websites. One of things I’ve noticed recently is the way adverts are more and more interwoven and packaged as articles on these news feeds or placed as links to similar stories at the bottom of news articles. They are usually headlines that say something like “this celebrity or that well known person shares their secrets to beauty” , “This person shares his secrets of how men can have a firm, muscular and sexy body after 40” obviously targeted at my demographic or “this is a secret that the rich don’t want you to know of how they are able to accumulate wealth and so can you.”  Adverts that offer secrets of how we can get or maintain the western dream of being wealthy, healthy and attractive.

In the reading we had today Paul, in prison and facing an uncertain future,  also offers us a secret he has discovered for life. Not a secret hidden as a link to another web address, or added on as a teaser at the end but freely and openly shared in the body of his letter.   A Secret which has been hijacked in some quarters to reflect and fit in with our western worldview, but which goes totally against the grain. As he thanks the church at Philippi for their generous gift to him he tells them the secret he has that enables him to face, keep faithful and have joy in the face of times of plenty or in want, when he is well feed or hungry. It is the secret to being content in all situations.

Over the winter months we have been working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. A letter written to thank that church for its support for Paul while he is in prison. A letter written to encourage the Church at Philippi to stand firm in the gospel, in the face of persecution from outside and trouble within.  A letter written to exhort the church to Live worthy of the gospel, being unified, having the mind of Christ where they put each other’s needs above their own, where they guard against teaching that would try and add human endeavour to the cross of Jesus Christ for salvation. A letter where Paul assures them that the God of peace will guard their hearts and minds if they keep focused on him.  A letter in which Paul encourages the church to know joy, a joy that transcends situations, that is not tied to emotion or circumstance, but is founded in being known by and knowing Jesus Christ.  A letter that speaks that same profound truth to the church here and now as it did to the church then and there.

Today we are going to finish this series by looking at Paul’s final words of thanks to the church(v10-19), a doxology or giving glory of God, his final greetings (21-22) and his benediction or blessing (23). They all have something to say to us of significance. It does seem that the letter formally finishes with the doxology in verse 20, and it may be that Paul had dictated the letter to someone and then he writes the last greetings and blessing in his own hand writing.  Like with Paul’s letter we will focus most of our time on what he has to say as he gives thanks to the Church for their gracious gift and deal with the other two in passing.
Part of Paul's secret to contentment is his attitude towards money. 

Paul thanks the church at Philippi for their concern for him and the gracious gift which was sent by the church with Epaphroditus. It was a gift of support which we assume was money. So he thankful for the gift but is also concerned that there is no misunderstanding about the gift as well.

Firstly, no misunderstanding about nature of Paul’s ministry. In the first century, there were travelling philosophers and teachers who would make their living from their teaching. They would establish a group of followers and there was the expectation that that group would then support them and their work. A second century satirist Lucian speaks of them going house to house to receive a payment, or as they call it ‘sharing the sheep’ and people would give money out of respect for these travelling teachers or out of fear of their harsh words if they didn’t.

In Paul’s mission journey, he had supplemented his travel and preaching in long stays like in Athens by plying his trade as a tentmaker. A term that is used in by missions today for people who go to countries for the sake of the gospel but work in those countries, usually they are countries that do not allow people to come as missionaries. But as they are there to work in their particular field they can witness to people around them and encourage the local church. Paul had been very careful when collecting for the poor in Jerusalem as well, making sure that representatives from the donating churches went with him and the appeal money to Jerusalem. Sadly today money is one of the things that can damage or lead Christian ministries of the rails. Paul wants to distance himself from that.

Secondly. Paul wants the church to know that while he is filled with joy at the Churches show of concern for him that their gift is not the source of his joy and peace in his present suffering and uncertain future. He tells them it’s not because of the money in his account that makes him happy but rather it is on account of what it says about the church at Philippi. There generosity is a sign that they are growing and mature in their Christian love and desire to see the gospel shared and spread. That is full payment says Paul, that is credit to your account, then turning from economic language to the language of the old testament he likens it to a sacrifice given to God, which is pleasing, fragrant and acceptable.

In scripture wealth is not seen in the same way as it is often seen in our society, or even the church. It is seen as a blessing but also coming with a danger, that wealth itself can assume divine status in a person’s life. Its pursuit can consume us, push out other important parts of life: to keep the standard of living we desperately seek in the west today actually demands a couple to work furiously, and to be exhausted at the end of ever longer and pressured work weeks with little time left for family and less for worship and witness and mission. The status and lifestyle that it provides can push aside Christian discipleship, and it can lead us to not depending on God. Proverbs 30:8 and 9 is not often quoted as a promise from scripture, but it forms the basis of a prayer we say each week here in church a prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray, and it sums up the situation very well “Give me neither poverty or wealth but give me rather my daily bread. Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say ‘who is the LORD?’ But it also acknowledges the depravations and temptations of poverty as well “Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.”

Paul is pleased for the gift but what pleases him more is that the church at Philippi have not fallen into the trap of worshipping wealth. Jacques Ellul, a noted Christian anarchist, refelects ““There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly against the law of money, an act for which money is not made. This act is giving.” So Paul can rejoice in that.

Paul is not a conman or consumed by money he is content. So what is Pauls secret of being content in all situations, in plenty or with naught, a full stomach or amidst the growling pangs of hunger. It is says Paul… Christ. The word content come from stoic philosophy and it means self-sufficiency , not dependant on the things of the world around you for pleasure or joy and Paul borrows it here to say that he is able to face all these different situations through Christ who strengthens him.
Paul' secret to contentment comes from what he builds his life around. 

On one level it is that Paul sees and focuses in his life on a higher good, that allows him to put what is going on around him in to perspective. Our focus can be on what we do or do not have but Paul has learned to find his joy and his peace and his wellbeing in knowing and serving Christ.  There are times when God provides in the midst of his life, the gift from Philippi is one of those times. Just as God was able to provide for Paul as he plied his trade as a tentmaker. But he’s also aware that to follow Christ is the road of the cross, that pain and suffering are not signs of the absence of God’s presence, or blessing but the reality of Christ like love and sacrifice.

On another level it is that Paul knows God has provided for far more than simply his physical needs. The greater need of humanity salvation, forgiveness of sin and relationship with God are met in Jesus Christ. meaning and purpose in life in following Jesus Christ.

Being content does not mean you can’t work to change your circumstances, when people come to Christ there is often what is called a redemptive lift. That as peoples priorities change and their lives become more straightened out their finances benefit from that. 
Paul's secret to contentment is able to be passed on to us. 

Pauls secret is then able to handed on to the church at Philippi and to us. That just as Paul can do all things in Christ who strengthens him so he says ‘God is able to meet all our needs according to his riches in glory.’  We too can find contentment in knowing our God is for us and able to meet our needs, our spiritual needs and grant us our daily bread as well. So Paul finishes his exhortation to the church at Philippi the way he started it by assuring them that God is able to bring to completion the work that he had begun in them by assuring them that God is able to meet all their needs. The same assurance that we have regardless of our situation or circumstance.

Paul then moves to bring greeting to the church at Philippi. He had started his letter by greeting the saints at Philippi and now he expands that to be all God’s people. The unity they have the joy they have the assurance that God has is not just for them but for all God’s people.  That includes us as well as God’s timeless word speaks into our world as much as it did to the church at Philippi. Paul reinforces the idea of the universal family of God. In the video we started our service with we caught a glimpse of some of the places that takes us to island villages and even the urban homes of reggae loving Christians. From all tribes and all tongues we are one people in Christ.

It's interesting that while the church at Philippi was suffering for the gospel in a roman colony that Paul should also take the opportunity to encourage them by sharing greetings from believers within Caesar’s household. The gospel was having an impact at the very heart of the powers that were opposing them. It speaks to us of the world wide family of God being a source of comfort and help and support for those struggling under persecution and pressure. That in the west where we find ourselves feeling like the world is becoming more and more post Christian and resilient to the gospel that we can be encouraged by hearing and seeing that the Spirit of God is at work all over the world. I found myself in tears this week as I watched a video of the 25th anniversary of the Harvest evangelism crusade by Greg Laurie (whom I’d never heard of before) in Southern California. I was amazed at the cost and the technology and effort that went into this event, but the thing that got to me was the testimonies of so many people who had had their lives transformed by meeting Jesus Christ, from alcoholism, dysfunctional families, drug addiction, abusive situations, despair and depression, atheism and nomalism to a saving new life in Jesus Christ, we don’t always see it in our little corner but the gospel is unchained and Christ is alive and moving in people’s lives by the holy spirit.  Recently I’ve found myself in tears as I hear the stories of aid workers in refugee camps who at the risk of their lives share their faith and see lives changed. Even in the face of tragedy the willingness to forgive of a small Coptic village in Egypt whose fourteen men were beheaded by IsIs fighters. The power of the gospel in the face of hatred and persecution.

Finally, Paul’s blessing on his readers is that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ might be with your Spirit. Here is the thing that is the centre of Paul’s Joy, here is the foundation of Paul’s hope, the strength of his assurance that he who has started a good work in you will bring it to completion in Christ Jesus. Here is the secret of his contentment, that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Here is the reason for Christian unity and the means to preserve it, that we have the mind of Christ. Here is the greatest Blessing. That we might know the grace of Jesus Christ in our lives. In the end it’s no secret, it is the person, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, present in our lives by the Holy Spirit.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Guarding our Hearts and Minds (Philippians 4:4-9)

"they are changing Guards at Buckingham Palace, and Christopher Robin went dow with Alice..." You might remember this line from an AA MIlne poem from your childhood. In our world of increased security worries the Guards at Buckingham Palace are still a postive icon image of Military guards. 
Paul, who wrote the letter to the church at Philippi, had a lot to do with Military Guards in his life. You can see this in the last few chapters of the book of Acts. In Jerusalem, the Roman Guard turn out as Paul’s appearance at the temple sparks off riots and violence. They arrest Paul as a trouble maker but also save him from a vicious beating and possibly worse. He is guarded against plots to have him killed culminating in being escorted by a detachment of seventy horse men and two hundred spearmen in a journey from Jerusalem to Caesarea. As he was a Roman citizen he had appealed to the emperor and he is escorted to Rome by guards under the command of a Centurion who is named Julius, from the Imperial regiment. Once in Rome we know Paul is under house arrest for two years waiting for his appeal to be heard and in that time he is guarded day and night by soldiers. 

For the people of Philippi like most other ancient cities they would have been aware of the importance of the guards who manned the city walls and city gates. But beyond that Philippi was a strategic point along the east west trade routes. Its founding and its history of changing hands in the rise and fall of empire had been because of that strategic value. It was important to have a garrison of soldiers there to guard the region, its resources and the trade that flowed through it.  

And at the end of his letter, Paul gives a quickfire series of exhortations to his readers, designed to help them stand firm in the face of persecution. We shouldn’t be surprised that he uses the metaphor of a guard to give them encouragement. But it’s not the presence of Soldiers that gives them a sense of security and safety, rather it is the presence of the God of peace who will give them that. He finishes each of the two paragraphs we had read to us today with that assertion. The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (v4). And the God of peace will be with you (v9).

 Over the winter months we’ve been working our way through Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi. A letter he’d written to thank the church for their support for him while he was in prison. A letter in which he takes the opportunity to encourage the Church to stand firm in the gospel in the face of persecution from without and troubles within. He had emphasized the importance of unity for the church to live a life worthy of the gospel, and deals with some situations, attitudes and false teaching that can affect that unity and rob the church of the fullness of joy that they have in Jesus Christ. Now, as his letter ends, he gives them a series of almost unrelated exhortations to help them as they face persecution. Exhortations which are as helpful to us on our journey following Jesus as they were to his original readers.

This morning we are going to explore those exhortations. Look at the five things Paul tells the Church to do, rejoice in the Lord, react with gentleness, in every situation pray, see the goodness in God’s world and put into practise Christian ethics.  We could slow down and look at each of these things in a separate sermon, but this is in keeping with Paul’s rapid-fire bullet point manner. For the church at Philippi and for us this is not fresh new stuff. Paul is pointing out places where the God of peace can be encountered as he stands guard over our minds and hearts.

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!

"there changing Guards at Buckingham palace and Christopher Robin went down with Alice"... Perhaps these guards outside buckingham palace are the most iconic images we have in our modern world of a Military guard. They are the feel good positive face on providing security for people... 
In his letter Paul had used the word Joy fourteen times. In the face of persecution Paul wants his readers to know that standing firm is not just a teeth grinding, white knuckle hanging on for dear life, but rather to know in their lives and to share the fullness of joy that comes from Jesus Christ.  It is a joy that Transcends circumstance, that is not dependant of situation or emotion or feeling. To rejoice in the Lord is to find our joy in who God is and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  he has made the world and all that is in it, he is the God who is sovereign in history, who has shown his faithful love for his people, who send Jesus Christ to be one of us, Jesus Christ who showed us God’s great love, who died on the cross that we may be forgiven and reconciled with God, whom God raised to life again, who promised to be with us until the end of the age, who poured our his promised Holy Spirit on all of us. Who leads and guides, who is working all things for good not for harm, who will come again to put all things right. That’s just not our theology, that is our hope its our source of joy. When its going wonderfully well, we need to remember it is because of God’s goodness, when its going bad, we need to remember it is still true.

Paul himself had given the Church at Philippi an example of this. While in Philippi he had been arrested beaten and thrown into jail. Instead of grumbling and sulking, he and Silas had sung psalms and given praise to God. The Church would have been aware that as they were doing that an earthquake had happened and their chains had been broken and the cells sprung open. Even if they hadn’t I think Paul and Silas would have kept on praise God and rejoicing.

I read the testimony of Czech national Petr Jasek in the August edition of the voice of the martyrs magazine. Petr had visited the Sudan to encourage the local church and on the way out of the country was detained and jailed for espionage. He was kept in appalling conditions packed in with a group of Muslim extremists in what was meant to be a single person cell. He said his attitude to his imprisonment changed when he called to mind the prayer of the angelic hosts in the book of revelations “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God almighty”, and began using that as his public prayer of praise. It didn’t improve his circumstances his cell mates objected to it and became abusive towards him. But just as Paul says to the Philippians he found that the peace of Christ was with him. Later in another cell he shared his faith with a group of people and saw a couple of them come to know Christ. he said this for him was the reason God had allowed all this happen. After four months in prison the Czech government arranged his release.

When we rejoice in the Lord it changes our focus from situation to God, from problem to god’s goodness, from despair to hope. It guards our hearts and minds.

Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is Near.

It is easy and maybe natural when we find ourselves in confrontation situations or situations where we are facing opposition to want to retaliate, to give as good as we get.  But here Paul exhorts the church to react in a Christlike way. To extend having the mind of Christ, he talked of in Philippians two not only towards others in the Christian community but to those outside.  In Romans Paul speaks of not returning evil for evil but overcoming evil with good. I was reminded of the example of one women in the aftermath of the bloodshed and genocide of Rwanda, who even though up to fifty members of her extended family had been killed, looked after the father of a neighbour who was in prison for leading one of the very mobs that could have killed some of her family members.

Pictures from the Charlottesville riots this week have emerged of local clergy arm in arm across racial and denominational barriers standing silently and peaceably protesting in response to the various white supremacy and racist groups. 

In showing gentleness of meekness Christ becomes the pattern for our behaviour and response and it guards our hearts and minds.

“Don’t be anxious about anything but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

I don’t know about you but I find myself needing to hear this sentence from Paul. It is so easy to simply worry and b concerned about an issue, to let it sap you of your joy and peace, here Paul says the first port of call is not anxiety but rather in all situations to pray, with thanksgiving. 

 In his testimony that I mentioned earlier Petr Jasek said that as he began rejoicing and focus on Jesus Christ he found himself able to pray. He found that instead of worrying about his family and friends he began to pray for them, he found that his prayers for persecuted Christians round the world became more insightful and deep.  I was reminded of a Sunday school lesson way back when that Joy was in fact a matter of having your priorities right  Jesus first Others second and yourself last. Prayer facilitates us in having those priorities.

It is as we turn to the Lord and bring him our cares and worries that we become aware of the presence of the God of peace and his presence can guard our hearts and minds.

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is praise worthy-think about such things.

One of the possible outcomes of facing persecution and opposition from outside the church is that is easy to fall into trap of seeing the world around us as a bad place. We can focus on the negative. I had a conversation with a Christian man last week which started by him saying the world was getting worse and worse. I found myself thinking well no it’s not in fact there are some amazing people and amazing things happening in the world. So I replied well it’s kind of like that Charles Dickens quote “it was the worst of times it was the best of times.”  What we call news in the media these days also tends to focus on the negative stories, violence death and crime because these stories. They don’t present a genuine picture of the world rather negative stories sell the news. Its almost like the macabre fascination with the freak show in Victorian times, we feed of people’s misfortune. Paul invites us here to rather look at the world as God’s world, yes it is fallen but it is still God’s world and there are good, honourable, praiseworthy true and lovely things in it, in our culture our science our art. We can get tunnel vision and not allow these things to inspire and encourage us.

Frank Theilman says that Christians today should meet with the best minds to listen to what they have to teach us about excellence and justice and truth and then to be able to use those things to make us the best followers of Christ that we can be. To do that we also come with minds that are stepped in scripture as well.

Seeing the goodness in God’s world Guards our hearts and minds from turning inward, becoming negative and failing to see the presence of God in his world.

Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me-put into practise.

While we are to acknowledge and appreciate God’s world and not retreat from it , Paul’s exhortation is that how we respond and act in that world is to come from a mind steeped and marinated by the teaching of Christ. We appreciate all the goodness in God’s world and we respond to it with God’s goodness in Christ. God guards our hearts and minds by guiding our footsteps, our reactions and our actions in our lives.

That’s been a whirlwind tour of Paul's quickfire short pithy exhortations at the end of the book at Philippians. A tour of guard posts where God can be found guarding our hearts and minds. In some respect they don’t seem related but they are as in each instance we build our lives around Jesus Christ. we rejoice in the Lord! We respond in a Christlike manner to persecution and opposition, with thanks giving we bring all things to God in prayer, we seek for the goodness in God’s world, we respond to it in a Christlike manner. We will have our minds and hearts guarded by the peace of God because in all those things we become more aware more focused on the God of peace guiding and guards our hearts and minds.

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.