Easter 6 (NL4)
May 6, 2018
This week we move from Acts, which is more of a story, telling about Paul’s travels, to Philippians, which is a letter Paul wrote to the Christians in the city of Philippi. Such letters are what make up much of the New Testament – letters written, mostly by Paul, to Christian communities he encounters on his travels. To us, 2000 years later, they help us to understand more about the nature of God, how God’s work applies to our lives, how Christ’s ministry and essence formed the early church, and how the Spirit continues to work among us.
These writings, letters, are some of the most loved, known, and quotable bits of Scripture, but they can also be challenging to understand. They are more theological, reflective, and often more heady. Paul’s letters, especially, were carefully crafted, and meant to be read aloud by a trained orator – if not carefully read, they can be very difficult to follow!
They’re also challenging because the text alone does not always provide the backstory. If you read one email or letter between two people, but didn’t know their relationship, their history, the context, or the event they are discussing, you’d get something out of the letter, but not a lot – yet that is what we are trying to do with Paul’s letters. So it’s helpful, in trying to understand the text, to know some of that backstory.
So let me start by telling you a bit about the Philippian context generally, since we will spend the next three weeks in the letter to the Philippians. The city of Philippi was the first center of Christianity in Europe, located on a major trade route that led to Rome. Paul was masterful at planting the gospel in strategic locations like this. Philippi was designated as a Roman colony, so its citizens had the same status and rights as those living in Rome.
As for Paul’s relationship with the church in Philippi – it was good. He loved the Philippian church very much, and they cared for him. Paul, as we will find out, is writing this letter from prison, where he’d ended up again for preaching the Way of Jesus Christ. This message got him thrown in jail because it was a threat to the Roman Empire, since he was preaching Jesus as king, not Caesar. It was politically subversive. First century prisons were not like prisons today, where everyone’s needs are cared for from within the prison. Prisoners depended upon outside help for food and water and anything they would need. So one member of the Philippian congregation, Epaphroditus, was sent from Philippi to support Paul, bring him supplies. But he gets deathly ill along the way! The congregation back home heard about the illness, and that he had been unable to deliver the supplies, and they were quite distressed, not only for their buddy, but also because they loved Paul and feared for him. But in fact, Epaphroditus did make it to Paul, illness and all – true service in weakness! So Paul sent this letter back with him, not only assuring the congregation that he was just fine, even better than fine, and that God was using his circumstances for good, but also commending them for their great faith and their partnership in the gospel and in his mission to spread it. Ok, that’s the set up. Let’s hear the letter.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I have to say, some of the most beautiful writings have come out of prison. Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail comes to mind. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison is one of the works that made me fall in love with theology in college, and in love with him in particular. Nelson Mandela’s letters from prison helped to build a new South Africa. And of course, we have this letter Paul wrote to the Philippians – as well as several others letters he wrote from jail that are included in the Bible.
What is it about being imprisoned that produces such moving, marvelous and redemptive writings?
I’d venture to guess, it has to do with the inherent vulnerability of being in such a place as prison, where you are forced every day to face the brokenness of humanity. That is, prison is a place where one is hungry for some hope. I read a quote this week that speaks to this. It is from Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who works to provide legal assistance to condemned prisoners. This is from his best-selling book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. He writes, “I do what I do because I’m broken, too. [My work with prisoners] exposed my own brokenness… We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.”
What an astute and powerful reminder! One we could all benefit from. What could be more humbling than being in prison, to be daily confronted with your own brokenness? Though, I really admire Stevenson’s ability to recognize this – many of us might be tempted to look upon prisoners and be moved to self-righteousness, to think, “Well at least I’m not as bad as that guy. I’ve never done anything so bad as to land me here!” But Stevenson instead sees his experience as a mirror, an opportunity to see not how we are different or better or worse than one another, but rather, how we are the same. And seeing our common humanity – that is the first step toward powerful connection, even toward partnership.
I heard a guy on the NPR show “Here and Now” this week, talking about the advice he hears in graduation speeches that he doesn’t like. One piece of advice he dislikes is, “Always search for the good in people.” His argument is that people show you who they are pretty quickly, and if you don’t see good in them in the first few moments, then don’t waste your time looking for it. I don’t much like his argument, but it did make me wonder if searching for the good is really the best way to connect with people. To search for the good is to ask, “Are you good enough for me to spend my time with?” What if instead, we looked for the pain in people? Where are they hurting? Where do they need love and care? And then the key question: where have I felt a similar pain? Because when we see pain in someone, and can relate it to our own experience, that is when we are compelled to reach out compassionately and make a connection, to step into our common humanity together, to see one another as fellow members of a broken humanity – not as better or worse than one another. That is when we are on the same plane. That is where we can truly and mutually love one another – and not just for what the other person to offer us, or how good they are, or how good we are.
In his book, Stevenson reflects further. He mentions a Thomas Merton quote: “We are bodies of broken bones.” Then he goes on: “I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we are shattered by things we never would have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. … But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”
I wonder if that is what Paul is getting at when he talks about partnership in the Gospel in his letter to the Philippian church? I wonder if that is the “overflowing love” he talks about – not the love that comes from seeing that someone is good like you, but the love that comes from seeing someone is broken like you. After all, our brokenness is all that truly unites all of humanity, regardless of our background or history. That brokenness is the reason God became one of us, to fully experience what it is like to be so broken, so that God could then be in the deepest and most vulnerable sort of relationship with us. It is because of that brokenness that Jesus died and rose again, to show us that death and despair don’t have the final word. It is to that brokenness that the gospel brings hope.
Love that comes out of the assurance of that mutual relationship is indeed overflowing. It is the love characterized by the Philippian church when they cared for Paul in prison, by Epaphroditus when he powered through illness to bring supplies to Paul, by Paul when he risked his life to plant churches and spread the gospel. And it is the love we live out whenever we seek to truly see people’s pain, connect with them, and reach out with compassion. May we always see one another as fellow members of a broken humanity, all of us in constant need of the love, grace and hope our God offers.
For my closing prayer, I will use Paul’s own prayer for the Philippian church, which worked so hard to live out a gospel of overflowing love. I believe you also work hard to live out that gospel, and so let’s let Paul’s prayer be also for us. Let us pray… Lord God, this is our prayer, that our love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help us determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ we may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.