For the past three weeks we've been working through the book of Philippians, which was written toward the end of Paul's life while he was incarcerated at Mamertine Prison in Rome. It is clear from various comments that Paul makes throughout the text that he is incredibly unsure as to whether or not he will ever be a free man again. The experience is forcing him to take stock of his career, and in what essentially amounts to a good-bye letter, Paul wants to let the church of Philippi not only how he feels about them, but also what they'll need to do to continue to be a strong family of faith.
In the first three weeks we worked through three different themes that Paul emphasizes. First, Paul tells the church that it needs to remain unified in it's intent and purpose. Second, he calls the church to always remain humble in their attitude toward one another, the Lord, and to those outside the community. Third, Paul, who has always believed that Jesus will come back in his lifetime, begins to realize that maybe this will not be the case. As it dawns upon him that maybe it will be much longer before Jesus returns than anyone ever anticipated, he calls the church to be faithful Christ's teachings, even if it means persecution and sacrifice. As opposed to the end-time prognosticators of this age who read the tea leaves in order to let us know that Jesus is coming back very soon to rescue his people, Paul makes no promise of an immanent rescue, only the promise that those who are faithful, will be sustained all their days.
Unity. Humility. Faithfulness. Three values Paul says a Christian community, and a Christian individual, will absolutely need if the Kingdom of Heaven is to be realized. And quite frankly, in any institution or network of people, if you don't have mutual unity and humility, coupled with faithfulness to the cause, you are most likely going to be in a lot of trouble. As a pastor, I've heard enough horror stories of work places where a lack of unity, humility, or faith in the system led to chaos to last me a lifetime.
Paul has lived this himself. Some of the churches he's helped start, or have counseled, were bitterly divided as people jockeyed for positions of power or argued about what it meant to be a "true Christian". With great dismay, embarrassment, and anger, he watched as once-joyful and hopeful people became disillusioned as the same kinds of bitterness we experience in the world shattered valued and treasured relationships in a venue where they should be treasured and valued.
To date, the Philippians had appeared to have experienced this kind of difficulty. Paul implies throughout the letter that the church has remained pretty much on the same page, even while weathering storms, throughout its young life. But he sees coming on the horizon for the Philippian church that which is the greatest threat to unity, humility, and faithfulness...
The only time people really like change is when they are uncomfortable. It's like when you lie down on the couch, and the initial relief from standing up eventually turns into a nagging ache or some body part falling asleep. So, what do you do... you shift to find a more comfortable position. Humans don't have nearly as much of a problem with change if they know it will relieve them of their stress and pain, while positioning them for a more comfortable or better future.
Do you remember this picture:
This is a protester, a Chinese student, who in 1989 stood courageously with other students against and opposed to a repressive regime that ran roughshod as perpetual human rights violators. The student, and thousands like him, were attempting to bring more freedom of expression and ideas to Chinese society, something they knew would be impossible unless the Communist party became more accountable to its own people, and the rest of the world. The protests were brutally put down, but the aftershocks reverberated throughout the western world. In China, it seemed, anything could happen.
But I just read an article how almost 20 years later, even as the Communists remain in power and the human rights violations of the Chinese government continue, Chinese college students and recent graduates have become reluctant to engage in matters of politics. Why? Because with the explosion in the Chinese economy over the last decade, the wealth of this age group has grown exponentially better than any other demographic in Chinese society. Because they now have good jobs, with high pay, and opportunities not even imaginable 20 years ago, young Chinese adults appear to have very little interest in dislodging the Communist Party from power.
The comfortable never want change.
And that, I think, is what Paul is sensing where the weak spot of his beloved Philippian church might just be. A time where change will become necessary, even though those who must endure the change are perfectly happy with the way things are right now.
The cause for Paul's concern is his own inevitable death. Because the church has taken to him so readily as it's spiritual and temporal leaders, he strongly admonishes the Philippians to accept his successor, Timothy, and reject all of the other various so-called prophets, teachers, and preachers who will come knocking on the church's door, looking to lead the church astray.
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. 19 If the Lord Jesus is willing, I hope to send Timothy to you soon. Then when he comes back, he can cheer me up by telling me how you are getting along. 20 I have no one else like Timothy, who genuinely cares about your welfare. 21 All the others care only for themselves and not for what matters to Jesus Christ. 22 But you know how Timothy has proved himself. Like a son with his father, he has helped me in preaching the Good News.
It makes no difference how it happens, unwanted change is hard. By passing the torch from himself to Timothy, he knows that the church is going to face two kinds of change. First, because Paul's message of Jesus' love and acceptance of ALL people isn't exactly universally accepted in the Christian church at that (or any other) time, he knows that those who oppose his message will attempt to convince the Philippians otherwise after he's no longer around to refute them OR in other words, external forces attempting to upset what is good about the status quo.
Their advances will be unwanted, forcing each individual of the church to re-evaluate what they know to be true about the Christian life. Surely no amount of discussion or debate will be able to mitigate the uncertainty this is going to cause as people must re-affirm their choice to follow Christ as they have done so, again and again.
But on the flip side, there is another kind of change coming, and one that's just as, or maybe ever more challenging, to deal with as individuals or as a community. Because Christian faith is powered by the Holy Spirit, which is living and breathing, it will never allow us to simply be who we are, unchanging, forever. Paul, personally, has experienced this. The former Pharisee who used to take his marching orders from the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, stamping out all traces of Jesus's teachings and followers, was now his principle evangelist to those who had largely known very little about living life as a Jehovah-fearing Jew. As he traveled, sharing the Gospel, he saw how different churches located in throughout the Roman Empire, viewed the Gospel... and the variances of those views. In Corinth, a cosmopolitan city where the patron god was Aphrodite, the goddess of sex and procreation, he was forced again and again to deal with issues of sexual immorality. It proved challenging to work with people who from a very young age were taught that visiting prostitutes in the city was something were supposed to do as a means of appeasing the gods, a new way to live that encouraged monogamy sex lives or even chastity.Thus, for the good of not only the individual, but also the community, Corinthians had to be taught a new way to live, and re-taught that way again and again, as new people who didn't share the Christian community's values would stumble into this strange new world. We are talking about the reality of internal change.
The challenge of internal change, Paul knew, would be even more hairy for someone like Timothy, who as times and circumstances changed, would have to address new issues and problems, while preaching about that which had already been accepted again in bold new ways, because people, at some point, often stop listening to that which they've heard again and again and again.
It is change, internal and external, that we will talk about a bit in the worship service tomorrow. Happy fall back night!