26th Sunday Ordinary Time 10-1-17
Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm: 25:4-9; Philippians 2:1-11 (a must read before you continue); Matthew 21:28-32
We usually focus on the Gospel reading, but last Sunday we started a 4-week reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. This is one of his more straightforward letters, with fewer complex sentences and less dense theology. Indeed, this is a beautiful passage. In fact, this is one of his letters written from jail. It’s probably fair to say that when people are confined, contrary to their own wishes, without knowing what the future will bring, they become introspective, and begin the process of identifying their real priorities and deeply held beliefs. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Letters from Birmingham Jail”, and Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote letters and poems, both of which are good examples of this.
Paul is writing to encourage the Philippians. There are some growing divisions in their community. Some outside people have come to them in attempt to weaken the message of God’s love and move them toward harsh legalism and bondage to law instead. It is a time when they need to remain strong in their faith, and not be intimidated by opponents. Paul stresses the themes of Joy (in prayer, in work, in the Gospel, and in suffering). He also stresses fellowship with each other (unmarred by selfishness or pride), and in the Good News of Christ.
So he begins by a series of rhetorical questions, reminding the Philippians of the privileges and duties of a Christian, of the life they are to live as Christians, and the strength they have found in the life of Christ and in their own lives as a Christian community.
- Did you find encouragement in Christ himself?
- Have you found comfort in the blessings of love and given that love to others without reserve or discrimination?
- Have you come together in One Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and found a unity unlike any other?
- What has it been like to experience the tenderness and compassion of God and has it made you reach out to others with deep-seated and sincere affection and sympathy?
- Can you fill me with joy to hear of your harmony and loving cooperation?
Then he offers advice to keep them strong and on the right track.
- Selfishness, inflated egos, personal ambition, and pride destroy unity.
- Regard others as more important than yourself; look for those strengths and gifts that other people have and be aware of your own weaknesses, failures and limitations.
- Make a habit of thinking and speaking of the needs and interests of others as well as your own. Your thoughts and attitudes are the basis of your speech and action.
So where do these virtues come from? Who modeled them for us? Christ, of course! But it goes deeper than that. Christ established a pattern of humiliation – glorification. What I mean is, Christ’s humiliation began before his birth, as he chose to come to earth not as an all-powerful, all-knowing God, that people would fall on their knees in front of him, but as a vulnerable human child of poor parents, threatened by King Herod, forced to flee for his very life, and destined to grow and mature slowly, doing manual labor. Then he was a wandering preacher, outside of the centers of power and prestige, with no home, sometimes hungry and often misunderstood. He endured the press and demands of the crowds, the neediness of the sick, and abuse and a death sentence by religious and political leaders. Finally, he suffered the stigma of torture and death as a criminal. Yet he was raised from the dead and ascended into the Glory of eternal life. That is a pattern which is nearly too much for us to imagine, much less imitate. Yet as we become one with Christ and God in the unity of the Holy Spirit, it is the pattern with which Christians are brought into community and communion by their incorporation into Christ and their life in him. The in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit can enable us and give us strength to do what is right, if we desire to listen and be changed.
St. Paul is inescapably direct when he says: In the name of the encouragement you owe me in Christ, in the name of the solace that love can give, of fellowship in spirit, compassion, and pity, I beg you, make my joy complete by your unanimity, possessing the one love, united in spirit and ideals. Never act out of rivalries or conceit; rather, be humble – think of others as superior to yourselves, each of you looking to others’ interests rather than your own. Your attitude must be Christ’s attitude.
But that is the very attitude we resist. We live on rivalry, we cherish our conceit. Our rarest concern is the other’s good—unless it is hard won through demanding relationships of covenant and trust. Yet, I do not think Paul is talking against honest dialogue, where differences are discussed and reconciled to the good of all. Paul would not be one who would demand rigid allegiance to a human law or regulation or tradition. Remember, he was formerly a Pharisee and spend his early life studying the Jewish laws. That study would have included many debates and heartfelt differences of opinion. In fact, I think he would expect broad participation in community decision making, including prayer and thoughtful study of scripture and empathy with human needs and human errors. But he would be opposed to contentious and rowdy yelling matches, where parties demand their own way for the sake of pride.
So Paul offers us this hymn to give us a way to internalize this lesson. It is likely the most quoted and memorized portion of this letter, with short rhythmic lines in two parts. In the first three verses (6-8), Christ is the subject of every verb. In the last three verses (9-11), God is the subject of every verb. Paul has added “even death on a cross”, which breaks the rhythm to add emphasis for the completeness of Christ’s humiliation and also added “to the glory of God the Father” to add to the fullness of Christ’s glory. Notice that the name “Lord” reveals the true nature of Jesus, and the phrase “Jesus Christ is Lord” is an early Christian acclamation, identifying the divinity of Christ. Finally, every knee shall bend in homage to Christ and everyone shall recognize him as Divine on all levels, “those in heaven, and on earth and under the earth.”
Paul adds his own summary in the verses immediately following, which are not part of our missal reading. He says, “So then, my beloved,…work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work… hold onto to the word of life, so that my boast for the day of Christ may be that I did not… labor in vain.” Let us, too, be in Christ, and so that we will not labor in vain.