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          With John’s Apocalypse behind us,[1] we now turn our attention to Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. The Youth Minister and I are sharing the preaching during this four-week series.

          On its surface, Philippians appears to be a preacher’s dream come true. No dense theology to unravel, no ancient customs to explain, no esoteric argumentation to simplify. Instead, this little gem serves up one memorable phrase after another:

  • To live is Christ, to die is gain (1:21).
  • Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (4:4).
  • Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (4:6).
  • I can do everything through him who gives me strength (4:13).

Each phrase is worthy of its own, independent sermon; each slogan can be, and often is, ripped from its context and made into a bumper sticker. No wonder the “epistle of joy” is a perennial favorite.

          Once this first naïve reading is completed, however, the true character of Paul’s little letter becomes more evident. These memorable passages are not timeless slogans designed to encourage positive thinking. Rather, they are a part of a larger conversation that originated when God “began a good work in” them (1:6) and will end at “the day of Christ” (1:6, 10; 2:16; and see 3:20).

          What is the nature of that work? What is Paul’s goal for this Christian community? How will Paul know that he “did not run or labor for nothing” in the City of Philippi? (2:16).

          The Spirit’s work within all of us is transformation. On that day, we want to be “pure and blameless” (1:10; 2:15). Today we are anything but. Therefore, we have a process of spiritual overhaul to which we must submit.

          Paul’s goal for this Christian community is clear: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). How is that humanly possible?

          Once this question is faced, then we are ready to move past the naïve platitudes and dig into the meat of Paul’s challenge to the church:

  • Be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind (2:2, emphasis mine throughout).
  • Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded: and if in anything ye are otherwise minded, this also shall God reveal unto you (3:15).
  • I exhort Euodia, and I exhort Syntyche, to be of the same mind in the Lord (4:2).

Paul is drawing upon ancient understandings of friendship in order to challenge this community in Christ. According to these ancient understandings, friendship involves “two bodies sharing the same soul [or mind].”[2] If this level of friendship is achieved, then complete harmony is possible, so said the ancient philosophers. Something often quoted and idealized in literature but seldom, if ever, seen in reality.

          As was often his practice, Paul takes a grain of wisdom from his culture and baptizes it into the Christian faith. For Paul, true harmony within a diverse human community is possible—by God’s supernatural grace.

          How do individuals, programmed from birth to value individualism, learn to live in perfect harmony with other, diverse, equally programmed individuals? Humanly speaking, they don’t. They may coexist, they may be civil toward one another in public, they may even go years without a visible fracture or an outward split, but they will never truly become one with one another.

          Why? Because while they may share the same space they don’t share the same mind.

          However, if each member of the community repudiates the mind programmed to value individualism and embraces the mind of Christ, then true Christian community can flourish, so says Paul by the inspiration of God’s Spirit.

          Thus we have Paul’s primary exhortation and every church’s most profound challenge: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (2:5, KJV).

          A church filled with people embracing the mind of Christ? Now that is a preacher’s dream come true!


[1] A nine-sermon series available to hear and download on our church’s website at http://www.3chopt.org.

[2] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 5.20.

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