Paul's letter to the Philippians
The church in Philippi was the first Jesus community Paul started in Eastern Europe.
That story is told in Acts chapter 16.
Philippi was a Roman colony in ancient Macedonia.
It was full of retired soldiers and it was known for its patriotic nationalism.
There Paul faced resistance when he was announcing Jesus as the true king of the world.
After Paul moved on from there, those who became followers of Jesus continued to suffer resistance and even persecution
but they remained a vibrant community, faithful to the way of Jesus.
Paul sent this letter from one of his many imprisonments.
For a very practical reason, the Philippians had sent one of their members, Epaphroditus,
to take a financial gift to Paul to support him in prison.
Paul sent back this letter with Epaphroditus to say, "Thank you," and to do a whole lot more.
The design of this letter doesn't develop one single idea from beginning to end, like many of Paul's other letters.
Rather, Paul has arranged a series of short reflective essays or vignettes.
They all revolve around the center of gravity in this letter, which is a poem in chapter 2.
It artistically retells the story of the Messiah's incarnation, his life, death, resurrection and exaltation.
Then in each of these vignettes Paul will take up key words or ideas from that poem
to show how living as a Christian means seeing your own story as a lived expression of Jesus' story.
So Paul opens the letter with a prayer of gratefulness.
He thanks God for the Philippian's generosity, for their faithfulness
and he expresses his confidence that the life transforming work that God has begun in them
will continue into greater and more beautiful expressions of faithfulness and love.
Paul then focuses on their obvious concern at the moment, which is his status in prison.
Being in a Roman prison was no picnic.
But, paradoxically it has turned out for good to advance the good news about Jesus.
So all of the Roman guards, the administrators all know
that Paul is in prison for announcing Jesus as the risen Lord.
His imprisonment has inspired confidence in other Christians to talk about Jesus more openly.
Paul is optimistic he will be released from prison but it is possible that he could be executed.
As he reflects on it, that actually would not be so bad because,
"For me," Paul says, "Life is the Messiah. So dying would be a gain."
For Paul, his life in the present and in the future is defined by the life and love of Jesus for him.
If he is executed, that means he will be present with Jesus, which would be great for him.
And if he is released, well that would mean he could keep working to start more Jesus communities,
which would be better for other people, so that is what he hopes for.
Notice how his train of thought works here.
Dying for Jesus is not the true sacrifice for Paul.
Rather, it is staying alive to serve others.
That is Paul's way of participating in the story of Jesus,
to suffer in order to love others more than himself.
Paul then turns to the Philippians and he urges them to participate in Jesus' example by taking up the same mindset.
He says your life as citizens should be consistent with the good news about the Messiah.
These Christians in Philippi were living in a hotbed of Roman patriotism.
But their way of life was to be shaped by another king, Jesus.
That might bring persecution.
but they are not to be afraid because suffering for being associated with Jesus
is a way of living out the story of Jesus himself,
which leads Paul into the great poem of chapter 2.
It is rich with echoes of Old Testament texts,
specifically the story of Adam in his rebellion in Genesis 1 through 3,
and the poems about the suffering servant in the book of Isaiah.
This poem is worth committing to memory.
It is a beautifully condensed version of the Gospel story.
Before becoming human, the Messiah pre-existed in a state of glory and equality with God.
And, unlike Adam, who tried to seize equality with God,
the Messiah chose not to exploit his equal status for his self advantage.
Rather, he emptied himself of status.
He became a human.
He became a servant to all.
And, even more than that, he allowed himself to be humiliated.
He was obedient to the Father by going to his death on a Roman execution rack.
But through God's power and grace, the Messiah's shameful death has been reversed through the resurrection.
Now God has highly exalted Jesus as the king of all, bestowing upon him the name that is above all names
so that all creation should recognize that Jesus the Messiah is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.
Now, that last statement is astounding.
Paul is quoting from Isaiah chapter 45.
It is a passage where all creation comes to recognize the God of Israel as Lord.
Paul's point here is very clear.
In the crucified and risen Jesus,
we discover that the one true God of Israel consists of God the Father and the Lord Jesus.
For Paul, this poem expresses his convictions about who Jesus is, and it does more.
It offers the example of Jesus as a way of life that his followers are to imitate.
That is why Paul immediately goes on to tell two stories
first about Timothy, then about Epaphroditus,
because they are both examples of people living out Jesus' story.
Timothy is like Jesus because he is constantly concerned for
the well-being of other people more than his own.
Epaphroditus, who the Philippians sent with their gift, ended up risking his life to serve Paul in prison.
He got so sick he almost died trying to help Paul.
But God had mercy on him and Paul by sparing him the loss of a friend.
Paul's point here is that these are the kinds of people who are living breathing examples of the story of Jesus.
They are worthy of invitation.
Paul then turns to his own story as an example.
Those Christians who had been demanding circumcision of non-Jewish Christians,
remember his letter to the Galatians,
these people are still stirring up trouble for Paul.
They keep reminding him of his own past when he used to persecute Jesus' followers,
when he tried to show his right standing before God
by his zealous obedience to the laws of the Torah.
But, like Jesus, Paul has given up all of that status and privilege.
He now regards all of it as filth.
The word he uses is actually much less polite.
He has given it all up to become a servant like Jesus,
to participate in his suffering and sacrificial love
and he does all of it in the hope that Jesus' love will carry him through death and out the other side into resurrection.
So Paul says that for followers of Jesus, their true citizenship is in heaven,
which, for Paul, does not mean that we should all hope to get away from Earth and go to heaven one day.
Rather, heaven is the transcendent place where Jesus reigns as king.
He says we are eagerly awaiting our royal savior to come from there and return here
to bring his kingdom of healing justice and transforming love;
to bring about a new creation.
Paul then challenges the Philippians to keep living out the Jesus story.
He first addresses two prominent women leaders in the church who worked alongside Paul.
They are in some kind of conflict.
So, Paul pleads with them to follow Jesus' example of humility to reconcile and become unified.
Paul then urges the Philippians not to give in to fear but, despite their persecution,
to vent all of their emotion and their needs to God who will give them peace.
That peace, Paul says, comes by focusing your thoughts on what is good and true and lovely.
There is always something that you could complain about.
But a follower of Jesus knows that all of life is a gift and can choose to see beauty and grace in any life circumstance.
Which leads Paul to his conclusion.
He again thanks the Philippians for their sacrificial gift
He wants them to know that his imprisonments, that his times of poverty, are not true hardships for him.
They have actually become his greatest teachers,
showing him that no matter his circumstances, he has learned the secret of contentment.
It is simple dependence on the one who strengthens him.
Paul has come to see his own suffering as a participation in the story of Jesus.
The letter to the Philippians gives us a unique window into Paul's own heart and mind.
He saw his entire life as a reenactment of the story of Jesus.
You can sense in this letter his close connection to Jesus,
his awareness that Jesus' love and presence is closer than his own skin.
That is what gave him hope and humility in his darkest hours.
So Paul shows us that knowing Jesus is always a deeply personal transforming encounter.
That is the kind of Jesus that Paul invites others to follow.
And that is what Paul's letter to the Philippians is all about.