It's hard to get inside of the heads of people who lived 2000 years ago. Too often when we try, we make assumptions about who they are based upon our own sense of what we believe to be true. For example, if I say that church and state ought to be separated, to those of you living in the good ol' USA, you'd shake your heads vigourously in agreement. 200 years of indoctrination into that kind of thinking has pretty much taken root into the American ethos and consciounce.
But the rest of the world doesn't feel this way. Got a snootfull of this lesson while walking on the sacred soil of Mother England, touring her cathedrals, and most specifically, the hallowed grounds of Westminster Abbey. There you discover that there is still very much a relationship between the civil state and most specifically, the Anglican Church... although all of Christendom, in some way shape or form, is included. Thus, in England, its no uncommon for the state to partner with churches to provide needed social services throughout the land. That's how a church, like Steve Chalke's church.co.uk can receive millions in government money to build schools, clinics, and hospitals. In that part of the world, and others, the church is an agent of the state, and vice versa.
Thus, think about it like this... if you try to get in the head of a typical upper class British citizen, but you do it having only ever been a typical middle class American, you could end up mistakenly pasting some of what you believe to be true (cause it's all you've known) onto their person. You could have them regularly going out to eat at Arby's or following baseball or even believing that church and state should be separate cause that has been your experience. You've universalized what you believe to be true, when the universe is really bigger, and more diverse, than you are.
Such is the problem with understanding words written by a 2000 year old Roman-Pharisaic-Jew-turned-Christian. His culture world was very much not like our own. It's so different, in fact, that a lot of work has to be done on our part to even get a small sense of what it was like. And since you can't travel to it to ask questions and make observations, all you can do is read what others are discovering as the pour of over ruins of buildings or documents writen in dead languages. Such is the life now, of someone studying the Bible.
One observation I've discovered that has been made of that particular era in history is pertainent for my sermon tomorrow. It has to do with the belief among first century, and even more specifically first generation Christians, that Jesus was coming back in their lifetime. This isn't in and of itself a totally foreign idea in the here and now. Certainly there is more than person preaching somewhere in this world a message pertaining to Jesus immanent return, and all the signes that point to such a turn of events. Rod Parsely has grown a huge church in suburban Columbus built largely on the idea that we live in the "end times" where Jesus' return will happen any day now.
It's just that now, while virtually all circles in Christianity believe in some form of Jesus' eventual return to earth in order to bring God's justice to all, there's quite a bit of division over how immanent His return might be. As a matter of fact, this division actually runs pretty deep, as certain pastors get very upset with other pastors who hold the opposite position on the issue.
I remember once preaching a message on this subject where I was very skeptical of the claims being made by preachers and certain theologians that all the "signs" were there for a return of Jesus. Maybe, I wondered, instead of thinking that Jesus might be returning tomorrow, it would be better if we began thinking that he wasn't going to be back until 2000 years from today. I mean, it's possible, right? We've waited 2000 years already... isn't there a possibility that God is in no great hurry? And if this is the case, what kind of world would we want to leave, to more toward creating, for our children and grand children? I mean, if the world has to survive at least another 2000 years, that might change a few of our priorities.
Well, there was a guy sitting in the congregation who just got irritated with what I had to say. He called my sermon "irresponsible" and "unbiblical" because it didn't purport what he knew to be true: Jesus was coming back in our lifetime, and anyone who didn't preach that message was either a heretic, deceived by Satan, or both. I can still see his beet red face, angry and blustery, screaming at me:
"These people won't get their lives in order if you go around telling them that Jesus isn't coming back for 2000 years, pastor. When they get left behind in the rapture, do you want that guilt hanging over your head? I can't believe the Elders of your congregation would keep you on after saying something like that. You'd better go back and read your Bible if you want to stay in the ministry. Can't believe I wasted my time listening to you today."
Thanks for coming! Tell your friends and neighbors.
So, now, a couple of millennia removed, the Christian community is split on this issue of Jesus' return. Maybe it'll be tomorrow... maybe it'll be in 200 or 2000 years... maybe he already returned... maybe his return isn't physical but spiritual... a number of hypothesis abound with no 100% consensus.
But such was not the case in Paul's day. It's clear reading the Gospels that the Apostles believed that Jesus would return in their lifetime... and why not? They had watched him die. They witnessed his ressurrection. They witnessed his ascension into Heaven (which doesn't happen every day). If we are to believe they saw of this, plus other supernatural events portending his glory and status, surely they could believe in a physical return of Jesus in their lifetime. Given everything else that had happened, it'd be no big deal.
Well, it's one thing to preach this message, but it's another thing to see it lived out. And as the days turn into months, the months into years, and years into decades, believers are dying and people are wondering what happens to you if you die before Jesus comes back. It's a subject Paul has to tackle, and does so by explaining (using both the words of Jesus and that he learned during his Pharisaic career) that all believers will be ressurrected when Jesus comes back, that way nobody would miss it. Hence, years later, the church adopting as orthadox the belief in the resurrection of the body.
But I don't think it really starts to occur to Paul that maybe Jesus isn't coming back before HIS life is going to be over until the end of his life seems much closer as old man, than it did as a young man. I think this is very much on his mind as he sits in a Roman prison, and writes the letter to the church at Philippi. Now, Paul contemplates what it means to have gathered believers into church families, not as witnesses of Christ's return, but rather as witnesses of Christ who someday will return.
14 In everything you do, stay away from complaining and arguing, 15 so that no one can speak a word of blame against you. You are to live clean, innocent lives as children of God in a dark world full of crooked and perverse people. Let your lives shine brightly before them. 16 Hold tightly to the word of life, so that when Christ returns, I will be proud that I did not lose the race and that my work was not useless. 17 But even if my life is to be poured out like a drink offering to complete the sacrifice of your faithful service (that is, if I am to die for you), I will rejoice, and I want to share my joy with all of you. 18 And you should be happy about this and rejoice with me.
Paul, I believe, is realizing that's it's becoming more probable that his work must outlast him, and he is clear as to what he wants Jesus to find in his community of believers when he returns: People who are living together in harmony, living earnest lives bent on doing the right thing, so as to give the world a sense of optimism that broken lives can be mended and that contrary to how people often feel, that doing the right thing even as the wicked prosper, will not go unnoticed by God. In fact, we should celebrate lives lived rightly, together, because our living lives that are Christ-honoring completes the work that other Christians have done, and are doing. Thus, as we work toward all that is good, we are the completion of all that is good.
How appropriate are those words in this time and place?
I think we get a little too caught up in the "now". We read the paper, hear the news, and too often get overwhelmed by what we perceive as the eventual decline and destruction of western civilization. Hence the popularity of someone like Rod Parsely who plays off the notion that everything is heading into the crapper as proof that Jesus' rescue of us from this mess is getting closer and closer. But, that's not, it appears where Paul was heading, even if he couldn't comprehend the possibility that even 2000 years into the future, Christ would still have not yet returned. In his mind, it is the Philippian's continued faithfulness in the face of all that's wrong with the world that becomes his hope and focus. That there are people practicing what Jesus preaches, even as we wait for his return in the midst of uncertain times, is the focus. Not the return, or how what is reported to be happening during these days might portend to that return... or our success at turning the world around... but rather faithfulness in the midst of whatever is, right now. That's what we celebrate and complete.