Introduction to Sermon Series on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians
Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
My partner and I recently started to watch Raised by Wolves, a new science fiction drama series on the streaming service Netflix. Set sometime well into the future, Raised by Wolves introduces us to two androids tasked with birthing and raising humans on the planet Kepler 22. Through assorted flashbacks, we learn our planet was ravaged and destroyed by a horrific war between “believers” and “atheists.” In an attempt to save the human race, a scientist creates two androids, one with almost supernatural powers, and launches them off into space. His dream is to create a world, a civilisation free from the religious ideologies that destroyed earth.
While I will avoid disclosing much more of the series’ plot, I will share that not everything goes as planned. Despite the androids’ attempts to create their imagined utopia, not all the children survive; all but one is able to endure the harsh conditions of the new planet. And when the androids believe they have been liberated from the religious fervour that destroyed the earth, they soon find their planet invaded by a space ship, a galactic ark carrying believers into the promised land. Needless to say, the series clearly plays off of Judeo-Christian themes, even going so far as to have characters recite familiar Christian lines.
What struck me about the film, however, was not the adaptation of certain Christian themes and imagery, but the way it portrays the believers. Rather than persons motivated by love and charity, it is clear they are driven to convert others and destroy anything — and anyone — not of their belief. Moreover, the “believers” seem to be obsessed with a cult-like mythos that manipulates and controls adherents. Finally, the religious leaders, the clerics, are portrayed as having less concern for followers than for their authority. Needless to say, the religious are not portrayed very well.
While I realise the film is fiction, I can’t help but think of a line I once heard Margaret Atwood say when asked about her book The Handmaid’s Tale. The interviewer inquired of Atwood of how she came up with such a dreadful and horrific world. Atwood replied that while the book is fiction, none of the story line is new, but rather what we see portrayed in the book has occurred once or many times before in human history, particularly modern history. Her response disturbed me; it dispelled my naive thought that what she portrays would never happen. Instead, it has and will likely occur again if we are not vigilant.
I thought of this as I reflected upon the way the “believers” are portrayed in Raised by Wolves. Clearly, we Christians have not lived very well in this world to have left such an impression upon the writers and producers of the series. However much we think of ourselves and our Church as modelling and living out the way of Jesus, many in the world perceive us not for our acts of love and humility, but for the many ways we have used and abused humanity and creation. Although the writers of the series do not explicitly correlate the religious fanatics as Christians, the overtones stir up our images of Christians who have acted, and continue to act, in very similar ways.
I was irritated by this at first. I thought their appropriation of Christian elements inappropriate and their illustration of all religious believers as fanatics unjust. Initially I felt the need to complain to my partner about these things. Yet I felt I needed to give it further thought. Perhaps what was annoying me was not so much their depictions of believers as hypocrites but the realisation that the writers may not be too far off the mark; maybe we Christians really are hypocrites.
This led me to further contemplate the lament of contemporary Christian leaders about the decline of the Christian Church and the increased secularisation of life and culture. It is often argued that secularisation is a result of our growing materialistic and hedonistic ways. Is that really true? Maybe society has become less religious simply because it has grown weary of hypocrisy. Have we Christians failed to show the transformative power of the Gospel in our lives and in the world?
As I thought about Raised by Wolves and its depiction of believers, I glanced over our scripture lessons for the next few Sundays and realised we would be spending some time with St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Paul’s epistle speaks to the tension I relate above: how can we say we are Christian when our words and actions do not always reflect what we believe? Do we hear Paul’s admonition in today’s first lesson and respond faithfully to his words? Paul writes, “conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear news of you, that are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind struggling together for the faith of the gospel, not intimidated in any way by your opponents.” (Phil. 1:27-28)
While I rarely offer Sunday sermon series, our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians over the next few weeks offers an excellent opportunity to consider his letter in depth and its message for those of who continue to live the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although written nearly two thousand years in the past, the epistle is relevant — perhaps even more relevant — to us as it was to the early Christian community in Philippi.
Before I say more, let us consider the context and background to the Letter to the Philippians. Acclaimed as the most beautiful of Paul’s epistles, it has been called “The Epistle of Excellent Things” and “The Epistle of Joy.” As Tom Wright, the renowned Anglican bishop and biblical scholar notes, “Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi is a small gem” for the letter “refers not simply to Christian ethics, but also to how Christians behave in the public arena.”
It is believed Paul wrote the letter from a prison in Rome as letter of thanksgiving for the church’s financial support of him. According to Wright, “those held in ancient prisons were not provided for by the authorities, and so were utterly dependent upon family and friends.” Paul asserts that the Christian community are partners with him in his apostolic ministry and his proclamation of the gospel. However assuring Paul’s words may have been to the community, his imprisonment likely also caused some fear for the Christians in Philippi. They were a vulnerable community of believers, living in a predominantly pagan world of a well-established Roman colony. What happened to Paul could easily happen to them.
The city of Philippi was established in the fourth century B.C. by its namesake, Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, as a strategic site near the border between Asia and Europe. Within time, the city’s prominence was further enhanced in that it became a prominent Roman colony. Unlike modern colonies, Roman colonies were military centres located along the major thoroughfares of the empire. As such, the cities adhered to Roman custom and culture and the residents took great pride in their Roman citizenship.
Although the city lasted well into the 14th century, it was abandoned following the Ottoman conquest. Located just north of the Aegean Sea, ruins of the city remain to this day, and a modern Greek village Fillipoi stands near the former city. Contemporary pictures of the ancient city and modern village depict a city surrounded by arid land; it’s majestic past faded in the ancient ruins.
Attentive to the city’s prominence as a Roman colony and the people’s pride in their Roman citizenship, Paul subtly plays off of the theme of citizenship in his letter. No longer are the Christians citizens of Rome, but citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the verse I quoted earlier and which we read today, namely verse 27 (“Conduct yourself…”), Paul doesn’t use the typical Greek word for conduct peripatein but rather politeuesthai, a word which means to be a citizen. In other words, the Christian way of life is not to be like that of the Romans or of the world’s ways, but rather of God’s way, the way of Heaven.
So how do we live as citizens of the Kingdom of God? The answer to this question will be the theme of Paul’s letter and the focus of our series. The way of life Paul proposes to the community is a way we ought to embrace as well. It is also a way of life that stands in sharp contrast to the ever-prevalent hypocrisy among Christian leaders and many followers, a hypocrisy that has given rise to the critiques offered by films such as Raised by Wolves. As Christians, we are to “live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ,” not one that stands in contrast to that way. Echoing what we heard last week in our reflection on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we are to live a life of love and generosity, not a life shaped by greed and hate. As we shall see over the coming weeks, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians offers an exemplary guide for living the Christian way of life.
Before I conclude, I like to call attention to two Greek words key to understanding Paul’s message: koinōnia and agapē. Although the latter word, agape, may be familiar to you, I still think it is helpful to review its meaning. These two words will shape the character and tone of Paul’s letter.
Earlier in the sermon I noted that Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is a letter of gratitude for the church’s support of him while in prison. Paul speaks of the church as partners in ministry. He uses a very particular word, namely koinonia, to describe this partnership or fellowship of faith. (Phil 1:5, 7) While in our own time the words fellowship and partnership have taken on the description of how we are to feel with one another, Paul meant something much more radical. Partnership and fellowship wasn’t something as simple as providing occasional support and friendship to one another, some sort of niceties with each other, but rather a radical sharing of common life. As Tom Wright notes, koinonia for Paul was severely practical: “It meant a sharing in common life that resulted directly in mutual support; and also it meant that Paul and his supporters belonged to one another with a family identity. What happens to one, happens to all.” From the very onset of Paul’s letter, he is challenging the community to live a much more transformative way of life, again a life of lavish hospitality to all. His word is also a challenge to us. As Christians, we are not simply called to be friends with one another, but to form familial bonds with each other and to do all we can to ensure all have a place at the table. We’re not inviting people into superficial relationships, but authentic, deep, and abiding relationships.
Further to that point, when Paul speaks of agape (translated as love) in the letter, he reminds his readers that they are to give of themselves as gift to one another. (Phil 1:9) Agape is not simply a feeling, it is an act, something we do. Again, this word has taken on a “feel good” sense in our time. All too often we reduce it to how we feel when we’re all getting along and everything seems to be fine. But that’s not what it is about; it is a form of love that demands we sacrifice and give of ourselves as Christ gave of himself in his ministry and in his passion and death upon the cross. Agape love is a love that comes from deep within us and compels us to do all we can for the life of others.
Already we can see that our living as citizens of the Kingdom of God is radically different than what is commonly experienced today. I am not sure about you, but I know for me this letter challenges me to rethink the way I live today: am I really living a life of selfless love and mutual support to all God’s family or am I motivated more by my own self-interest? I like to think the former than the latter, but I confess I haven’t been very good at that.
As we shall see in the coming weeks, this epistle offers rich wisdom to those of us who have embraced the way of Jesus and who intend to live the new life of God in Christ. Ultimately the letter will confront us with two questions: are we willing to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God or will we remain firmly planted in the ways of this world? Do our lives radiate Christ, or obscure his way of love?