Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Credit to the Gospel

A Credit to the Gospel
Philippians 1:20-30[1]
I think we all know people about whom we could say “He’s a credit to his school,” or “She’s a credit to her profession.” We usually talk that way about people who excel in their devotion and service to the community, or their school, or their profession. They are people you can count on to be there when others aren’t, and to do what they say they’ll do when others don’t. We think of them as role models--not only for the younger generation but also to some extent for ourselves. We all have our personal heroes. Desmond Tutu, who led South Africa from the violence of Apartheid to a peaceful Democracy, is one of my heroes. These are the people we look up to, and they seem to set the bar for what it means to fully realize our potential as human beings.
In our lesson from St. Paul for today, he uses an interesting phrase. He urges the Christians at Philippi to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27). Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible called  The Message, renders it this way: “Meanwhile, live in such a way that you are a credit to the Message of Christ.” But St. Paul didn’t imply that this kind of life was only for a few exceptional individuals. He called all Christians to live in a manner that is a “credit” to the Gospel.[2]
You see, Paul was in prison at the time he wrote this letter, which meant that he was separated from Church at Philippi. And apparently that was difficult for him, because this was one of his favorite congregations. They had helped him in some of his darkest times, and he was deeply grateful to them for their support of his ministry over the years. And now, St. Paul wants to make sure that the congregation at Philippi continued to thrive.
I find it interesting to compare what the Scriptures say about thriving congregations with the strategies people propose in our day for thriving congregations. Some take the approach that “if you build it they will come,” and so they believe that a new building is what it takes. Others think it takes the “perfect pastor,” whatever that is! If you look back over the last few decades, it’s almost amusing to see the fads that have come and gone in the “church growth” industry. In the 90’s, “small group ministry” became the rage, and in some places it still is. The assumption is that if it worked for Willow Creek and Saddleback churches, it should work anywhere. In the 80’s the “answer” was apartment bible studies. And in the 70’s it was bus ministry--finding all the kids you can and bringing them to church on a school bus.
But when you look at the kinds of things St. Paul points to as essential for the church to thrive, we find a very different approach. He urges the church to thrive by cultivating the unity that is found in Christ (Gal. 3:28).  It is a unity that is the result of the Spirit’s presence (Eph. 4:3). And this perspective isn’t just something he mentions once in passing. It is found throughout his letters to the churches he served. Over and over again, Paul urges churches to thrive by cultivating their unity in the Body of Christ. In this context, he urges the Philippians to “stand firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27).[3]
On the surface of things, it would seem that St. Paul urges churches to practice agreement in order to thrive. But the question in my mind is what kind of agreement he’s talking about. Many in our day assume that agreement equals sameness. In other words, we all agree because we all think the same things, we all hold the same opinions, we all take the same perspective on various matters facing the church. Or in other cases our agreement stems from an institutional uniformity that is guaranteed by an authoritative leadership or by a standardized organization.
But I don’t think that’s the kind of agreement St. Paul was talking about.  In our lesson for today, the only content that Paul wants the church to agree on is “the faith of the Gospel.” The fact of the matter is that Paul has a very strong belief not only in the unity of the body of Christ, but also in the diversity of that body.[4] Elsewhere he insists that we cannot all be the same and do the same things, otherwise the Body of Christ would lack what it needs to thrive. He points out how hard it would be for the church to function if every part were the same (1 Cor. 12:14-21).
It seems to me that the agreement Paul calls for is a spiritual unity.[5] There is no doctrine or institution that can fabricate the unity the Spirit naturally produces in the body of Christ when we’re living our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” I think we do that when we are all moving in the same direction, serving the Lord and the Body of Christ as faithfully as we can. That kind of unity is much more important than whether we hold the same opinions. Our unity is found in our common bond in Christ, not in whether or not we agree on every point of doctrine or practice. Our oneness is found in the presence of the Spirit, not in complete agreement on specific strategies for moving forward.
We’re going to have times when we disagree on what we need as a congregation in order to move forward. The important thing in my mind is that we don’t let any of those differences divide us. One pastor friend of mine described his church’s approach to a controversial issue: “we are not of the same mind, but we are not divided.” It seems to me that when we can live out our lives together in this Christian community with this kind of attitude, then we are promoting the unity of Body of Christ. Then we will be demonstrating the unity that can only be found in Christ through the Spirit. Then we will be living in such a way that we are a credit to the Gospel.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/21/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Many scholars think that St. Paul’s use of the Greek verb politeuomai here indicates that he is talking about how the believers conduct themselves as citizens of Philippi. For example, cf. Gerald Hawthorne, Philippians, 69, 77. However, it seems to me that in this setting, the primary emphasis is on their life together as a community of faith, not their conduct as citizens of a particular city. So Morna Hooker, “The Letter to the Philippians,” New Interpreters Bible IX:496: “His meaning is, ‘Let your life as a community be worthy of the gospel of Christ.’”
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 345: “unity is not merely an attribute of the church; it is the church’s task in the world as well.” 
[4] Cf. Isam E. Ballenger, “Ephesians 4:1-16,” Interpretation : “Participation in the Oneness overcomes barriers of doctrine and practice, race and ethnicity, culture and nationality, economic and educational status. Note that diversity remains, but it has been integrated in the one Spirit, joined in the one hope.”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle, 38. He describes the unity of the Body of Christ that is very different from uniformity or sameness: “A life which is worthy of the gospel ... liberates us to be ourselves and fills us with the powers of the Spirit. We are enabled to give ourselves up and trust ourselves to the leading of the Spirit. Then we are able to accept ourselves just as we are, with our possibilities and limitations, and thereby gain a new spontaneity. We are freed to live with God in the covenant of freedom.”

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