By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
August 15, 2021
Click to Join our Meeting for Worship!
John 6:51–58 (ESV)
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
Last week I encouraged us all to look at the study of scripture not as a task, but as an adventure. A journey of exploration and discovery. When I think of this sort of thing my mind is often filled with images from various stories, I have either read or watched on a screen. It is a journey of exploration or a quest. When I think of it as a quest my mind is immediately drawn to the story of King Arthur and the knights of Camelot. I am not a great scholar in the matters of the Arthurian lore, if I want to be totally honest most of my knowledge of Arthur comes from Monty Python, but there is a quest. A quest is more than a simple journey of exploration, when you are sent on a quest your intention is to find or achieve the task set before you. In the case of the Arthurian legends the quest was for the Holy Grail, the cup of Christ, the cup that brings life.
The quest image is what I want us to consider today. Those individuals that are on a quest will not stop for any reason. They are driven to obtain the completion of the quest or to die trying. The reason behind this drive is the understanding that the completion of the quest has great benefit. We have heard of medical researchers that have been pursued their research with a quest type of fervor. They do this because they once knew someone or were possibly related to someone that contracted a disease. That individual they knew either lived in constant pain or suffering, or perhaps they died because the doctors did not know what to do. These researchers saw this happen and something inside of them flipped a switch and everything in their lives changed. They were almost duty bound to find the cure, and they would give their lives to achieve that goal.
That is the type of drive I want us to have when we approach scripture. I want us to look at the words on the page and see them not as good words, but as the words that give life.
There is a problem with this. The words of scripture were not written in English or Swahili. They were written in a language that very few of us really know. And we all know that sometimes things can be lost in translation. At times there are not good words in one language that can fully express what we would like to say so we use the next best thing, but when we use that word, we lose something. We will often see the word love in English, but that word could be several different words in the biblical Greek text. It could be one of four different words that convey a deep affinity but are acted out in a different manner. If we do not take that into account, we risk misinterpreting or misunderstanding how this exceedingly important word should be expressed in our lives.
We are on a quest. Our quest is to know what scripture says because these are the words revealed by the Spirit to teach us of the Word. They are the words given to us to convey the knowledge or wisdom of God. What is said in this book shows us what life with God is and reveals to us how we fit into that life. We are, just like King Arthur, given the quest to find the holy grail, the cup or the vessel that brings life.
We are called to this quest but often we are met with challenges. Many of us have started to read scripture, but we often get to a point where we do not understand what we are reading and we are discouraged and we stop. We look at the pages and it no longer appears to be the grail we seek, but instead it becomes a chamber of secrets. We do not understand so we step back in fear that we might unleash some terrible heresy that will condemn us and entrap those we care for. We stop pursuing the quest we once began and we leave it to those that are stronger or wiser. We then put our trust into those stronger and wiser individuals. This is not entirely bad. Even Arthur that legendary king had companions that assisted him on his quest. The key there is that we assist, we do not walk the path for you. Each of us must walk our own pathway, we each must take that journey ourselves, but the journey is more enjoyable when we have friends to walk with.
Today, as we walk the pathway toward that vessel of life, we come to one of those areas that will often cause people to stumble and stop their journey. It is not surprising even during the days of Jesus many struggled with the words Jesus spoke. John chapter six is a turning point for the ministry of Jesus. Prior to this the questions were largely to determine if they should embrace the teachings of Jesus. Yes, there were times that there were misunderstanding, but by in large those that asked questions were seeking clarification. They were not thrilled with Jesus’ approach, but they could not outright reject what he had to say. But somewhere within this chapter things change.
On the surface we may not really notice what changed. We might simply see some people following Jesus because he has the power to make bread. We can understand this. Who would not want to follow someone that could provide for their basic needs of life? I will be totally honest, if I was offered a job where housing and meals were included with my salary, I would probably take the job. The rule of thumb we are often taught in our society is that we should not spend more than thirty percent of our income on housing. Thirty percent. That is basically one third of our paycheck goes toward keeping rain from our heads while we sleep. The next largest expense in our life is food. In the United States we spend on average six percent of our income on food. On average in the United States right from the start we thirty-six percent of our income is spent on just keeping our immediate needs covered. This ratio unfortunately is not static. The less you make the greater the percentages are and the more income you have the smaller the percentages are. If we were to look at the value of the home of the wealthiest individual in America, the amount spent on their housing each month would be far below thirty percent, where it would be common for many low-income families to be spending over half of their income on rent alone. For many Americans they are required to spend most of their income on supplying the basic needs of life. If I were to be offered a job where these basics of life were provided along with a salary, I would most likely take the position because likely the salary offered would be greater than the amount left over after I paid for the basics of life.
The people were following Jesus because they sought the benefits. That is not faith it is survival. And there is nothing wrong with survival, many of us trust God because we live in a survival mode, we have needs and we do not know where to get them so we have no other option but to trust that God will provide. But what happens when we can provide for ourselves?
The tribes of Israel wondering through the desert were provided with manna from heaven. Their needs were provided for, but as soon as they entered the land of promise that manna stopped coming from the sky and they were required to survive off the produce of the land. In the desert once the grumbling generation had died, all that were left were those that only knew the provision of God. They entered the land with faith, but gradually over time the faith of Israel diminished as they saw themselves as their own provision.
This brings us to today’s passage. Again, we begin this week where we ended last week. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” Jesus says. “If anyone east of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
This is where contention emerges. This is where most of us become confused as well. We have a basic understanding of bread. We even understand that Jesus by connecting himself with the manna from heaven is telling us that God is the true source of our provision. But we struggle with the last phrase of that verse. “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The religious leaders disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” In their mind Jesus has just presented something profoundly vile. Cannibalism? Yet, Jesus lets them continue in this line of thinking, even though they have misunderstood the words he has spoken. What is the flesh that Jesus gives?
Last week I mentioned the peace offering. I mentioned that this is the one type of offering where the people giving the offering were invited to participate in it. The offering included bread and flesh. A portion of the bread was given to God to be burned on the altar, and the remaining bread was to be eaten by the worshipers. Then the animal was ritualistically slaughtered and choice pieces of the body were given to God on the altar, and the remaining meat was given back to the worshiper to be eaten and shared in a celebration of peace with God. This offering represented intimacy between God and the people. It represented God sharing a meal with his people. And when we share a meal together there is peace and friendship.
Jesus says that he is the bread, but changes the wording a bit, morphing the bread away from bread the basic staple of life, into flesh the more luxurious aspect of the meal. In the United States, we have a skewed understanding of nutrition. We, by in large, have access to a balanced diet. We do not always take advantage of this access but it is there. We may not have a high protein source of food at every meal but we will most likely have at least one meat a day. In many areas of the world the availability of meat is scarce. To have meat at a meal in this ancient time was a celebration, it was a sign that the worshiper trusted God enough to share the meat.
Jesus turns from the bread to the flesh of the meal. We can look at the Olympic metal counts and see how important the availability of meat is to the physical success and well being of a culture. But I want us to keep in mind the sacrifice or the offering image. The worshiper is bringing the bread and the flesh. In our minds we are the ones that offer worship, we are the ones that come to God with our petitions and our praise. This is no different from the teachings of those ancients in Israel. Many of them believed that if only we were more righteous Messiah would come. They would dedicate their lives and lifestyles merit God’s favor, with the hopes that the kingdom of God would come.
Jesus says that I am the living bread, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Remember that the bread of worship was a symbol of the wisdom from God, Jesus is saying that he is the source of that wisdom when he is saying that he is the bread of life. He is the source of wisdom. But there is more, John begins his gospel account with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word being spoken of is the term logos. Logos is knowledge or wisdom. This term logos was symbolized in the bread of worship. John goes on to say that through this divine wisdom, logos, everything was created, and nothing was created without this wisdom. Then in verse 1:14 John wrote, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The wisdom of God became flesh. The bread of God became the flesh of God. And that flesh became the peace offering that brings mankind and the divine back into the right relationship. Jesus is the peace offering.
Jesus by speaking those words were telling the religious leaders that their righteous labors were empty. They were rituals performed with empty hopes because the focus was not on the proper place. They were providing offerings from the economy of mankind. The things that we can do and create. What are the deeds of men in relation to the creator of the universe? What is our gold and currency to a being that in a breath can speak the entire world and everything within into existence? Their rituals were empty because they were focused on themselves. We are good enough and God should want to eat with us. The reality is God provides the bread and the meat. God became flesh and lived among us, not because we were good enough but because he loved us anyway. He came full of grace and truth.
Jesus loves us anyway. If we were to look at all the sacrifices, all the rules, and all the laws we can see one thing. We are completely unable to stand before God. The sacrifices were not there to take away the sins, but they were there to keep the impurity of humanity from infecting the places set aside for God. The things labeled unclean many times were things that we have absolutely no control over, and in many cases were human functions that God created within us. Is a child born with a deformity destined for hell? No, but they were not able to come into the sanctuary of God because they were a symbol of the imperfection of humanity brought about from the sin of our first parents. Jesus loves us anyway. We are imperfect, and God knows this so God provides what we cannot give ourselves. We cannot make peace so he does it for us.
The religious leaders still grumble, because Jesus tells them that those that ate the bread of the sacrifices still died. But those that eat the flesh of Christ, the bread that came down from heaven, will live forever. Those that rely of themselves will remain in the same state that they have always been in. But what if we turn? What if we were to take on or eat the flesh of Christ. What if we become like Christ and begin to live within his wisdom? That is what it means to eat the flesh of Christ. It is not necessarily eating but becoming putting on his lifestyle or armor as Paul tells us. When we put on Christ or partake of his life he stands where we cannot for us. His perfection redeems our imperfection. And our imperfection and weakness become his strength. I stand here not in my own strength; this is the last place I want to stand in myself. I know who I am. But I stand because I know that of Christ overcomes. I was once dead, I once lived without a relationship with God, but through Christ I have been changed. I now have peace with God. In Christ I now have friendship with God. And God has sent me on a quest to explore the wonders of who He is.
Will you join the quest and sit at the table he is calling you to? We do not bring anything to the table, but there we do have to respond. God has made peace with us through Christ but we must accept the gift of grace and turn to him. Will you?
If you would like to help support the continued Ministry of Willow Creek Friends Church please consider donating online:
Acts 8:14–17 (NRSV)
14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16 (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
We live in a very interesting period of time. I would say that it is an exciting time for the church. I have said this on many occasions because I truly believe that just over the horizon God is about to do something amazing in the Church, and particularly among Friends. I say this because we are living in a period of time, an era of history where the Church is vulnerable.
When people are vulnerable our natural instinct is to protect. We often withdraw from the potential dangers and fortify our positions so that we can make a defense when the attack comes. This frequently occurs when there are significant cultural, economic, technological, and natural events causing changes within a community or people group. If we were to remove all political connotations and opinions away from the Syrian refuge issue we would be able to see that this natural instinct to flee danger and protect themselves is at the root of the mass exodus. If we were to just contemplate our own response to the situation if the tables were turned we may even see that we may possibly respond in a very similar manner. And in many cases we are responding in a similar manner, because it is a base instinct that was created within our genetic code.
Many leaders across the nation are teaching those that listen that the end is near, that Christ is about to return. I find this form of teaching repugnant because Scripture clearly teaches that no one not even Jesus Christ knows when that great day will occur. When I mention that to people, they often pull back and say just look at the world around us clearly this is the end. No, I believe that it is the beginning of something great (and yes the Lord’s return would be great.). I agree that there are pressures on the church that have been building for decades that are now causing presenting themselves as significant cultural shifts that cause us to look at what has occurred in the past as being the golden age and the future is only darkness. The problem with that type of thinking is that it depends on the perspective. The “golden age” of the church was also seen as the dark ages of culture in Europe. And the church has remained and thrived for centuries after that golden age.
It would be foolish for me to say that there is not a crisis of faith occurring throughout our land. It would be foolish to say that our culture has not changed significantly over the generations. Science has shown it to us in multiple ways. I mention science because the scientific method of observation and exploration in search of truth is just one of the ways our culture has shifted. Some of the shifts cause us to step back but other aspects of these shifts can make our testimony even greater. Again it is all about perspective. In many ways the dynamic shift within our culture is similar in degree to the greatest movements within church history. The eighth chapter of the Book of Acts is a testimony of just how important these cultural shifts and the response of the faithful can be to the future of the Kingdom of heaven.
The passage today speaks of the people of Samaria becoming believers of the word and being baptized after Phillip teaches them, then Peter and John come to visit and the people are filled with the Holy Spirit and the church grows. This is wonderful but we really need to look deeper to understand just how meaningful this is.
Samaria is in many ways the remnant of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. If we look into the history of the people of Israel we would see that after the reign of Solomon the nation split and only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the house of David, all the others gained their independence, united together and named their own king. Fast forwarding through history the leaders of the Northern kingdom, the tribes that rebelled essentially over the high taxes imposed by the house of Solomon, quickly fell away from God and judgement commenced. When we read about this division we often think that all of the nation was opposed to God but that is not reality. The Levites or the priests still had cities of refuge and centers for worship and faith continued. We do not often hear about the faith of the Samaritans because they opposed the temple of Solomon. They opposed this temple because it was linked to political ideology that they did not agree with. So we see the first division of faith based primarily on nationalism, and nothing about religion.
Samaria, we are told fell to the Assyrian Empire, because their leaders opposed God. But there is something interesting about their religion, it still remains. They were a people group that were rebellious and independent and they were free to live as they saw fit, yet through their occupation they still maintained their central place of worship. And just as the people of the southern kingdom they anticipated the coming of the Messiah. Do not hear this incorrectly, I am not saying that the Northern Kingdom was more faithful, it is very clear that many within the northern kingdom opposed God, what I am saying is not all in that kingdom were faithless.
Now let us move forward and speak about Phillip. Phillip was a second tier disciple. This is not to say that he was not important because it is very clear from the book of Acts that he was, but what I mean is that he was not one of the original twelve, he was among the second wave of leaders. Philip along with Steven the first martyr, and five others, were appointed to be deacon by the Apostles. This office was created after a dispute emerged between the Jewish and Hellenistic factions of the church over the use of offerings, in short many believed that the Gentile Christians were being treated unfairly by the Hebrew believers. Each of the seven deacons were chosen by the community of disciples, not the Apostles, they were to be upstanding members of high integrity and the apostles laid hands on the seven chosen without prejudice and the seven were to minister to the needs of the Church. Phillip is a man of faith who emerged from the Hellenistic side of the church, he may have come from a Hebrew family but his family by his very name favored the benefits of the Greek culture. If you were a member of the assembly who came from the Hellenistic side of the church would see Phillip as your guy.
Well not long after the dispute within the church, the persecutions from the Jewish people in Jerusalem began. One reason for the persecutions was because Gentiles were becoming accepted among the followers of Jesus and the traditional religious community feared it would not be long before the Temple would again be desecrated by these Gentiles. So eventually all the non-Hebrew believers were forced out of Jerusalem. Phillip, a believer with a Hellenistic name, left Jerusalem and went to Samaria, and began to continue the work he had been doing among the people around him.
I want to stop there for just a moment because we have two groups of people being discriminated against by the establishment in Jerusalem. The church was at that moment open and welcoming to all people, accepting both Jew and Greek not only in their assembly but in leadership. There was a cultural shift occurring within the religious community, and many felt that this was unacceptable. Does God really intend for people of all cultures to be followers or does He require that all people submit to the hereditary leaders of the promised people. Accepting Greeks that live in and around Jerusalem is one thing, they lived there, now they hear that there are people in Samaria that have become followers?
I want us to consider this from a different perspective for a moment. Phillip is a member and leader within our Meeting and because of financial reason he is forced to move from our community to work in another nation. It just so happens that the only place he can find work is in the lands occupied by a group we oppose. Let’s just say he was hired by a company that required him to move to Iraq because he is a petroleum engineer and they needed him to work on a new project. Well Phillip is a well-respected member of our Meeting and we will greatly miss him and his family. After a few weeks we get an email saying that he was worshiping among a group of people in Iraq. He sounds very excited about it and goes on and on about the amazing life changing occurrences that are happening while he works among the people of that nation. He then adds even ISIS Militants are coming to faith and are going to start an Evangelical Friends Church with him. We were with him up till then. ISIS is an enemy they cannot be accepted. Why?
This scenario is fictional, but is similar to the situation Phillip had in Samaria. Samaria was the enemy of Judah. They are the enemy of God. They oppose coming to the Temple in the capital city to make sacrifices and leave offerings to provide assistance to the people of the nation. At this moment the Church has a huge problem does God love the people of Samaria and can they be Samaritans and Christian?
The church of Jerusalem quickly met to discuss this unprecedented event, and it is decided that Peter and John will go to meet with Phillip and the Samaritans. They send them because by Luke’s writing we see that they are baptized but do not have the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. And Peter and John want to know and pray with them to see if they can be accepted into the Church.
Notice that I said accepted into the Church. The reason I say this is because there is a phenomenon occurring. After Pentecost God did not withhold the baptism of the Spirit from believers, even the Gentiles were filled with the Holy Spirit. As they drew close to Christ it became apparent that they were authentic not only in word but in their actions. But there is hesitation when it comes to Samaria. Is God withholding his blessing from those dogs for the long history of rejection of the true faith or is something else going on?
I do not want to get into a debate over what it means to have the baptism of the Spirit. We in the Friends Church are very liberal in this area, it can mean many things but it can always be summed up into one statement: It will be evident in our lives that we are true believers. I want us to consider is what God is doing in the Church at this moment.
Peter and John go. Peter the outspoken person and obvious leader, and John the one whom Jesus loved. Both were members of the Apostolic ranks, both were in the inner circle, the closest of Jesus’ friends. Peter was the one who witnessed the vision and evidence of God’s acceptance of Gentiles into the church but it is very clear that at moments Peter falls back into a very Law focused expression of faith. John is probably the most accepting of outsiders, because of this he almost comes across as being opposed to his own people in his writings. These two were chosen to represent the church as they consider the people of Samaria.
They go because they do not trust Phillip, they do not trust that these Samaritans could be believers if there was no evidence of the Holy Spirit being present. But I ask a simple question: Who was the Spirit hidden from? Phillip obviously saw something because he was reporting that they were believers. But the apostles in Jerusalem were not convinced.
Could it be that even the Saintly Apostles, the first disciples of Jesus, the ones that walked in the very dust behind the greatest teacher and Messiah, could have been blinded by their own flesh? Could it be that they could not see the truth of the Samaritan faith because they were too wrapped up in their own nationalistic religion? I only mention this because Phillip does not have an issue with the ministry that he has among the people, but the Apostles. I do not mean to cast shame or doubt on the heroes of my faith, I only wish to get a glimpse of the truth.
Peter and John go. They do understand that God might be working a great thing among their Samaritan neighbors. They go and they meet with them, they speak with them, they lay hands upon them, and pray with them. The result of this is Samaria is accepted into the Church, the blinders have been removed and all can see that God is at work. There are some lessons we can learn from this short passage, the first is that if we question we should seek to find the answers. And the second is we need each other to become fully aware of the truth surrounding us. This is the great Epiphany of this season, the great revaluation and insight from God. That he is working in ways we do not fully understand among people we do fully know. And he is calling us to meet with them, to speak with them, to encourage them, lay hands of on them and pray with them. He is calling us to know and get to know all people from all over and let them know the Word of God. The Word that they are loved and accepted, they are forgiven and redeemed, they are restored and glorified through the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord and God, Jesus.
As we enter into this time of open worship. Let us reflect on the ministry of Phillip to the people seen as enemies of Israel and God, let us consider our own changing culture and vulnerability that it causes within our church, but let us also consider the great hope and insight that we have received from Jesus. We have a future and a reason to be here. And it is so we can encourage others along their journey with Christ.
Philippians 1:3–11 (NRSV)
Paul’s Prayer for the Philippians
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
The season leading up to Christmas and shortly after, is one of my favorite times of the year. I know it sounds pretty cliché but it is not about the gifts, mainly because I am a terrible gift giver. I think it has something to do with the whole concept of leaving my job at a store and going back into a store when I am not working that just has an adverse effect to my mental wellbeing. What is it about this season if it is not the gifts, I really like the gatherings. I love the idea of friends and family coming together and sharing meals and laughter with one another. We live in such a busy spread out culture that we rarely gather, there is too much to do. I love these gathering because these are the times that memories are made. The moments we stop what we are doing to enjoy the fruit of our labors.
The season of advent is a season of longing. It is a season to celebrate the anticipation of the coming messiah. It is a time to recognize the hope that those in ancient days looked forward to and to remember that we too are longing for the fulfilment of that coming to be seen today. I have a fear that as we mature physically and emotionally we forget about the anticipation and longing of the season. Kids on the other hand they get it, well I should clarify that by saying they get the longing of the season though maybe not the reason we should be longing. Advent is filled with longing but also joy. There is hope for those of us in Christ because there is a reason behind our longings, we do not wait appearance of the king, but we are waiting for the return of the king.
There is a difference in these longings. Those of ancient days were longing for the Messiah, they had these preconceived ideas of how this person would look and act. They studied this in great detail, to such a degree that when the one came many missed it. We on the other hand have the actual personality revealed to us, we know what to expect and our hope is not in hypotheses but in observations. There is a difference in the two types of longing. One is based on ideas the other is based on experience. One is founded on interpretation of hope, the other is anticipating the fulfillment of that hope in the world around us. One is like living in the shadow where the other is like turning around and walking toward the light.
This holy anxiety is something that I would like us to consider today. Anxiety might not be the best word to use, but the idea of a joyful anticipation that cannot be stilled in response to this turning from the shadows to walk in the light. Paul understood this holy anxiety. Last week we got a glimpse of it when we read his prayer to the Thessalonians, today we see it again as he writes to the people of Philippi. Both of these places were in Macedonia, both were people Paul was called to minister through the vision he received while at a cross road in Troas. He could have gone south to Ephesus or north across the sea into the heart of the Hellenistic world. God led him to the north and Paul began the ministry that brought the Gospel of Christ to the west.
There is a difference in the joy, the holy anxiety that Paul feels between these two cities. To the Thessalonians the anxiety was a longing that they would remember and to the Philippians there is joy that they have continued. Some biblical scholars feel that a more accurate translation of Paul’s opening would be, “I thank God for your remembrance of me.” Instead of him thanking God when he remembers them. There is something to that statement. They remember him and he is aware of their remembrance. This could only mean that they were participants in the continued ministry that Paul started among them. If you were to look at a map you would see that Paul would have gone from Troas directly to Philippi, and from Philippi to Thessalonica. So the Philippians were the first Macedonians to encounter the Gospel. And they were so engrossed in the new life that Christ had to offer that they assisted Paul in spreading the gospel throughout their land.
I think that it is a valid point that the scholars make because of how Paul continues his greeting and prayer of blessing. The next verses he speaks of the joy that he has for them because they participated in the spreading of the Gospel from the first day until the moment he penned the letter. They were active, their belief was more than just knowledge based but it moved into the deeper regions where they put their very lives into the hands of God and allowed Him to direct their paths.
He says to them, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Witness the holy anxiety. There is a longing not only within the life of Paul but one that he senses within the lives of the community of Philippi. Something began in their lives and it continues to well up within them, it stirs and moves, it makes it difficult to stay still, they are on the verge of becoming charismatic Quakers literally moved by the Spirit. But I want us to focus on the word began. The use of this word means that they are involved in a process that started at one point and is growing. A seed is taking hold and through the fullness of time will bring forth fruit. It began, it continues to press through the anticipation of advent reaching out to that glorious day of the return of the one on whom we lay our hope.
Life with Christ is a process it is a journey that begins, and stretches along life’s pathways as we walk toward the light. The difference between the greeting Paul give the Philippians and that of the Thessalonians is that the Philippians continue to walk with their faces pointing to the sun, where the Thessalonians turned their heads and begun to cast shadows. Paul looks to the Philippians with increasing joy, and those in Thessalonica there is thoughts of nostalgia.
Last week I asked a very personal question, I asked each of us to consider why this meeting called me. I asked this because I have a great deal of love for this meeting, it is something very deep within my spirit. To be fully honest I longed to be here with an anxiety that I could only say was God’s calling. When I left from the care of this meeting, I walked out into the life of being a pastor knowing that eventually I would be back here. What surprised me was the timing. I did not understand the longing that I had stirring within my soul, was it a stirring of nostalgia a longing to return home to the comfort of home or was it this joy similar to what Paul feels with Philippi? That is my own part of this journey. But what is yours? Was the longing that you had one of nostalgia or anticipation for the next phase of the journey?
Paul writes to these people of Philippi, the people that first responded to his ministry in Macedonia, and he longs for them with a longing of continued partnership. He urges them in his prayer to continue pressing on toward the goal before them. He prays that the love of God will overflow among them that they will become a greater blessing to those around them, and that as they continue with their journey toward Christ that the very Spirit of God will grant them greater knowledge and insights in how to proceed.
There is a reason that Paul writes this prayer, because Philippi is a very important place. It was an important port for Macedonia, a center for gladiatorial sport, and the religious cult of Dionysus. We are far removed from the ancient practices of the pre-Christian Roman Empire so many do not understand the importance this has, but Dionysus is the Greek form of the god Bacchus. This is the god of wine, merry-making, and insanity. This god was believed to be a shape shifter that would appear as a drunk man that would shift into a frenzied lion or bear. Those that participated in the worship Dionysus would engage in drunkenness, fornications, and would work themselves up into a violent frenzy where they would rip sacrificial animal apart with their hands. Rituals of this kind were so disorderly and threatening to the community that the roman government was forced to regulate it. Much of the letter to the Philippians was written to encourage the community of Christ to live his lifestyle even though so much of their culture opposed the ideas of Christ.
Remember his prayer again, that love would overflow abundantly, filled with knowledge and insight. This prayer and these words speak volumes to our own culture that seems to be fixated on intoxication, sexuality, and violence. Our current era is far from the debauchery those ancient Philippians witnessed daily. I admit that we as a culture have turned our faces away from the light of Christ and are standing in the shadows instead of facing the light of God’s grace, but there is hope. All we are experiencing today are things that our spiritual ancestors face two thousand years ago and they filled Paul’s life with joy.
We are called also. We are called to live through this time. God has given us gifts to minister to the people of this era, He will continue to give us insight that will direct our paths for His glory. Do not lose heart. Do not lose hope. Have faith that the one who began this work in our lives will see it through. Believe that we will see a harvest. Pray for knowledge, pray for insight, and pray for an overflowing abundance of love. It is the life of Christ that turns people away from the emptiness of the world. It is lives that reflect the holy lifestyle of Christ, that give this broken world hope.
When people experience the love God has for them through us it causes them to question us and themselves. When we live the love of Christ with them and encouraging them to walk in faith they have to respond with belief or rejection. Remember who the people Paul wrote this letter to, they were a people that were once actively pursuing a life totally dedicated to the satisfaction of their own lusts, yet they turned from those ways to embrace life with Christ. They actively pursued this life and spread this life from the very moment they heard and continued long after Paul left from their presence. This tells us that our current culture is not irredeemable, there is still hope. If God can turn Philippians to Him He can do a great work among us.
The question is how do we move from where we are today into that anticipated future in Christ? We get to that place only by loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. We get to that place when we stop arguing about who is right or wrong and encouraging others to embrace life with God.
We live in a culture that is broken, hurting, spiritually sick and hungry. We live in a world that does not need more judgement but hope. We have that hope, we know that Christ came just as the ancients hope for. We know that he was born, lived, and taught us how to live life with God, and He made that life possible through His death and resurrection. He empowers us to continue the work He began by giving us the Holy Spirit who gives us all the gifts we need to spread the Gospel of the kingdom in our communities, states, nation, and world. He gives us gifts of teaching, healing, encouraging, hospitality, wealth, music, art, and various others. He gives these gifts for his glory and our joy. He gives us all we have for this time and this place. I ask again, “why did you call me?” Am I here to pat you on the back and say we are better than others or to encourage you to continue participating in the spreading of the Gospel? I long with the compassion of Christ that his love will overflow more and more among you and this meeting, and that we will see the fulfillment of what He began in our lives.