Sunday, October 25, 2020

A People of Gentle Reason: Sermon on Philippians 4:4-7

He was dying. He called for a celebration, and he was dying. It was an October day, 794 years ago, and in the hut he'd chosen, a middle-aged evangelist was on his deathbed. He'd labored twenty years in the gospel. By this point in his life, he'd become disabled – almost blind, could barely eat, in constant pain. But he was okay. He knew that it wasn't the end; it was the beginning. He called two of his friends to him – brothers in the faith, brothers in their vows. And he asked them to sing the praises of the Lord to him with a joyful spirit. He asked them, sad as they were to see their beloved mentor in such state, to rejoice anyway – rejoice that the dawn of heavenly life was so close for him. The day of his death, he asked them for their joy. Because by nightfall, he knew his own joy in the Lord Jesus would be very, very full.

What led him to that point in life? Forty-four years earlier, he'd been born in the town where he ended his days, born the son of a prosperous Italian silk merchant and his French wife. The boy had grown, lived a good life, worked for his dad, did well for himself. But several experiences forced his life off his envisioned track. Twice he enlisted in the military. He was a prisoner of war for a year. He felt dissatisfaction with what he'd known. He consorted with beggars and felt the tug at his heart to change. Then came the visions – like when his prayers were interrupted by the voice of Christ, speaking to him from the cross, calling him to action. So he acted. He sold expensive cloth and gave the money away. When his father sued him in court, he renounced everything – even the very clothes his father had bought him, stripping himself of them in public. He turned to menial labor. He begged in the street, not for money or bread, but for stones to rebuild old churches. He nursed the sick. And one day, in his mid-twenties, hearing a passage from the Gospel read in church, he felt it click with his heart. In a heartbeat, he set out in imitation of the first disciples, as a poor preacher in the countryside, wandering from village to village. As he walked the country roads, he'd think about Jesus, he'd sing songs to Jesus, and it wasn't unusual for him to forget where he was headed and just start praising Jesus, crucified and risen, aloud to the hills and the valleys. And from those who fell in love with his example and joined him, a movement was born.

Maybe you've heard of this man, maybe you haven't. His name was Francesco – or as we say, Francis. He was from a town in Italy called Assisi. And I would suggest to you that, as we turn our ears today to Paul's vision in the four verses we read this morning, St. Francis of Assisi can teach us a lot about putting Paul's words into practice, a lot about making them real in the flesh-and-blood lives we actually live. People like him, those the church got accustomed to singling out as saints, offer us 3D pictures in living color of what's written in 2D on the pages of our Bibles in black and white and red. So where might we begin?

After wrapping up his intervention – we talked about that last week, the tale of Euodia and Syntyche – the very next thing Paul writes is a verse I'm sure many of you have memorized: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). Don't you love that verse? It's so simple, so clear, so crisp; so encouraging and challenging all at once. Of course, Paul didn't come up with the idea. No, he found it in his Bible already. Psalmists sang lines like, Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous ones, and give thanks to his holy name” (Psalm 97:12), or like, “Let the righteous one rejoice in the Lord and take refuge in him” (Psalm 64:10). Prophets, too, could shout, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation...” (Isaiah 61:10). This is the language of Israel's age-old faith, brought by Paul into the midst of the Philippian church – emphatically and repeatedly – and, through them, into our midst here.

And the first thing to realize is that this is first and foremost a command to the whole church, not to individuals. Paul's talking to the church as a church. And what he's saying to them is not primarily a command to feel a certain way, but to do a certain thing. Rejoicing isn't mainly an emotional state (though it can come from and lead to emotional states); it's an activity. The Roman world (including Philippi) was just chock-full with feasts, festivals, celebrations. On most public Roman holidays, work was forbidden; sometimes sports were involved, sometimes plays, sometimes parades. And if Rome and its colonies like Philippi could throw big parties for idols – lost, false, and dead – can't the church throw its own style of party for the One who is Way and Truth and Life? See, that's why we're here. This is a weekly festival called the Lord's Day. On it, we gather together to rejoice, publicly, in the Lord Jesus whose day it especially is. This is the Lord who threw his life around us to become our garment of salvation. This is the Jesus who died and rose to be our refuge. This is the Jesus who will come to this besieged colony as a Savior from heaven. And he certainly deserves our joyful celebrations!

But as we practice rejoicing like this together, and as wear that garment of salvation and turn to that refuge from day to day, it begins to change us on the inside. The 'rejoicing' Paul commands isn't an inner state, but it often can trigger inner changes. It starts to rewire our heart and our mind. And soon, even in circumstances that don't themselves 'spark joy,' we can rejoice not just outwardly but inwardly. What does it look like when we do that?

I can't help but think of St. Francis. Early in his preaching journey, he was walking through a forest on a winter day, singing softly, when a band of thieves confronted him. Asking him who he was, he said he was the herald of the Lord. Sneering, they beat him and threw him into a snow-filled ditch. As they went away, he rolled back and forth, he stood, he shook off the snow, he jumped out of the ditch. And we're told that, “exhilarated with great joy, he began in a loud voice to make the woods resound with praises to the Creator of all.” Later in his career, there was a time when he earnestly sought God to show him what was ahead. The message came back clearly that there were many trials and tribulations held in store for Francis. And how did he respond? Francis “remained undisturbed and happy,” those who knew him tell us, “singing songs of joy in his heart to himself and to God.” His friend remarked that Francis was always “rejoicing in hope because of his boundless love.”

And what Francis practiced, he also preached. He urged those who went with him to “show themselves joyful, cheerful, and consistently gracious in the Lord.” He invited us to “rejoice when we fall into various trials,” so long as their outcome could be “for the sake of eternal life.” And perhaps he really did once speak the teaching attributed to him later on: “Spiritual joy springs from integrity of heart and the purity of constant prayer … It is the fate of the devil and his minions to be sad, and it is our lot to rejoice always and be glad in the Lord!”

Francis found and tasted what Paul meant in this verse. And I just wonder, brothers and sisters: what if we all were a bit more like them? What if Christians were famous for our joy, the way Paul was, the way Francis was, the way both of them would've loved to see us? What if the church were known for throwing a Jesus shindig that puts other parties to shame? What if we were known for being a people of celebration? What if we could face the threats of this world like Francis faced the thieves? Let the devil have his destined doldrums. But we have the Lord Jesus Christ, whose cross it's an honor to bear and whose life makes the stars dance in their rhythms! So let us get a reputation as the people of joy.

Having asked this of us, the next thing Paul says probably looks very straightforward. If you read from the ESV – English Standard Version – like I read from, it says, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” But on the other hand, if you read from the New International Version, which I know some of you carry, then it says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” Then again, on the third hand, if you're the type to grab the American Standard Version (and I don't know if any of you do), you'll read, “Let your forbearance be known unto all men.” And, of course, if the English of good ol' King James I is still your style, what you'll read there is, “Let your moderation be known unto all men” (Philippians 4:5a). So... what's up with that?

Well, Paul picked a word that can carry lots of different nuances. To the ancient Greeks, it could describe being indulgent and lenient, it could say something was flexible and bendy, and to Aristotle it was the word you'd use if a judge followed the spirit of the law instead of the letter because the case was too exceptional for the strict and unbending law to fit right. If somebody is the sort of person who takes less for himself even when he's got the law on his side, somebody who settles a case for less in damages than they're legally owed, then this word would be for them. In the Greek Bible, it describes God as gentle or forbearing or tolerant: “It is you, O Lord, who are kind and gentle and abounding in mercy to all who call on you” (Psalm 85:5 LXX [= Psalm 86:5]). So let's take a look at this verse's challenge for us from three different angles.

First up, we might read this verse as calling for our forbearance, for our flexibility and leniency. Francis lived that. As one of his early biographers tells us, Francis was “compassionate and lenient to everyone.” Another one remembers that he and his associates were, from the start, “often mocked, objects of insult, stripped naked, beaten, bound, jailed; and, not defending themselves with anyone's protection, they endured all of these abuses so bravely that from their mouths came only the sound of praise and thanksgiving.” To read about that, to hear about that, it's very obvious that Francis was definitely the sort of man who'd settle for less than the law entitled him to – all for the sake of being flexible, being lenient, being forbearing.

And we can be more like that. But does the church have a reputation for being flexible and lenient? That seems the very opposite of the stereotype we're saddled with. Not to say that we should care less about righteousness or about justice! The ancient and medieval legal thinkers who talked about this leniency or equity actually said it was a type of justice or righteousness – just the kind that recognizes when a general law needs to be applied sensitively in special cases. And does the church at large have a reputation for being forbearing, for putting up with mistreatment and not making a big fuss about it? For some of history, that was the case; now, that's less obvious, less evident. Brothers and sisters, let's be more obviously forbearing, more obviously flexible. May we never break the bruised reed or snuff out the smoldering wick (cf. Isaiah 42:3)!

Second, we might read this verse as calling for our gentleness. And again, Francis demonstrates that pretty well – he was gentle toward everything and everyone. A friend of his remembered that even wild animals often “recognized his feeling of tenderness toward them and sensed the sweetness of his love.” They knew he was a gentle man. Once, someone brought him a wild rabbit that had been caught alive in a trap. After Francis softly chided the rabbit for having let itself get caught, this rabbit ran to him and curled up in his arms while he pet it. Every time he set the rabbit down to let it go its way, it jumped back into Francis' lap, until he finally asked his friends to carry it into the woods. Another time, as he walked through the valley, he found a place where many birds of different types had all gathered. With excitement, Francis ran in to see them – and none flew away. “Filled with great joy,” he started telling the birds how much God loved them and had given them, and how they should always sing their praises to him. And when Francis finished, he was able to walk back and forth through the flocks, able to touch them, for they trusted him. Only after he'd given them his blessing did they fly away.

So gentle was Francis that, if he saw a worm on the road, he'd pick it up and tenderly set it down somewhere it would be less likely to get stepped on. And whenever he encountered bees, he'd compliment them on the artwork of their hives and give them a sip of red wine to help them through the winters. All this for animals, and Francis was no less gentle toward humans – he treated each human person with the same gentleness and compassionate care he had for a bird, a rabbit, a worm, or a bee. He also preached what he practiced. In his rules for those who followed in his footsteps, he told them, “I counsel, admonish, and exhort my brothers in the Lord Jesus Christ, when they go about in the world, not to quarrel or argue or judge others, but let them be meek, peaceful, modest, gentle, and humble, speaking courteously to everyone, as is becoming.”

In the latest county police log, what do we find? Stories of aggravated assault, of theft, of fraud. Around the world, we hardly hear of better: school shootings, airstrikes, massacres, wars and rumors of wars. The world is a violent place. And in this country, the tensions of the hour press us to speak in rude and brash ways, as we argue over partisan politics, argue over the virus, argue over everything. A rude and cruel and violent world could do with some more people in it famous for gentleness – people famous for being safe and welcoming to all living things, just because they're God's creatures; people famous for being tender and loving; people famous for “speaking courteously to everyone,” for “a gentle tongue is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4). Peter reminds us to bear witness “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15), that a “gentle and quiet spirit” has “imperishable beauty” and is “very precious” in “God's sight” (1 Peter 3:4). And when Paul here talks about letting our gentleness be known to everyone, he means for it to be obvious to people outside the church looking in. Bit by bit, as we remind ourselves to be gentle with our hands and words, our gentleness can become an obvious fact.

Third, we might read this verse as calling for our reasonableness or our moderation. And let's face it: in today's polarized climate, driven by sound bites and the cycle of outrage, our country and our world so desperately need people whose reasonableness and moderation are obvious. The world needs people who think carefully before they talk, people who empathize with others' legitimate concerns, people who try to look for the option that's most workable for everybody while still being just and kind and godly. And as nice as it would be to say that Christians in this country have this reputation for being especially reasonable, for being extra fair and extra balanced, for being the ones who step in to ease tensions and calm tempers... that's not what you're likely to hear said about Christians if you listen to those who aren't. We may not be able to lift unfair stereotypes born of anti-Christian bigotry, but we can make sure not to justify them. And we make sure of that by doing what Paul advises here. What if we were known for our gentleness, our forbearance, our reasonableness?

Paul goes on to say, “The Lord is near! Don't worry about anything” (Philippians 4:5b-6a). Which was a tall order. Because the Philippian Christians lived in a hostile city that didn't like their faith, and they lived among stresses not so unlike the stresses we might face when things get bad. Which is why Paul again turns to the prayer-book of Israel. After speaking about how his persecutors have “drawn near... with evil purpose,” one psalmist declares, “But you are near, O Lord, and all your commandments are true!” (Psalm 119:150-151). We hear how “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). We're assured that “the Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18). Paul's looking back to those assurances in the psalms and giving them to the Philippians – and to us. And that's good news, because “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). The Lord's nearby presence – near to us when we're broken, near to us when we're threatened, near to us when we call on him in truth – is just bigger than the pandemic, bigger than the politics, bigger than the personal and private things we struggle with.

Since the Lord is near to all who call on him, Paul goes on to tell us that calling on the Lord is exactly the sort of antidote we need to our worries. “Don't worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). He doesn't tell us to make known our demands or our bargains, but our requests: humbly accepting that God's decisions will be right, and that he's free to refuse, and that we can't pressure or cajole him. Paul adds that it's all predicated on giving thanks – that thanksgiving is the secret ingredient, thanksgiving is the fabled eleven herbs and spices, thanksgiving is the special sauce that gives our prayers the flavor God loves. Coupled with thanksgiving, we're free to bring God our prayers and petitions “in everything”: nothing's too big, nothing's too small. And as this covers the different sorts of situations we'll face, it means that we ought to make our grateful requests known to God quite often.

And again, Francis can help us see an example. A year after he died, an old friend became the bishop of Rome, and this Pope Gregory IX reflected on how Francis had tamed his body through “countless nights of prayer” and had “made an altar of his heart for the Lord and offered upon it the fragrance of devout prayers.” Another who knew Francis called him “tireless in prayer.” He said that Francis's “safest haven was prayer – not prayer of a fleeting moment, empty and proud, but prayer that was prolonged, full of devotion, peaceful in humility. If he began at night, he was barely finished at morning. Walking, sitting, eating, drinking, he was focused on prayer. He would spend the night alone praying in abandoned churches and in deserted places where, with the protection of divine grace, he overcame his soul's many fears and anxieties.” It's not that Francis didn't have the fears or have the anxieties; it's that he overcame them through prayer. And his prayers were thankful – he and his friends “hardly ever stopped praying and praising God” and always “gave thanks to God for the good done.” Francis urged us that “in every place, in every hour, at every time of the day, every day and continually,” we should “give thanks to the Most High,” the “Savior of all who believe and hope in him and love him.”

What might our lives look like, I wonder, if we did what Paul said – did it more the way Francis tried to do it? What if we found prayer our safest haven? What if our prayers were prolonged, humble, devout? What if we prayed when walking, prayed when sitting, prayed when eating, prayed with each sip of water? What if our prayers and thanksgivings wrestled each fear and each worry into submission? What if our hearts became altars for the incense-offerings of fragrant prayers to the Lord? If we lived even 10% more like that, what would we become, what would we know, what would we experience?

Paul has an answer to that question: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). In Paul's world, the Romans had brought what they called 'the Roman peace' by imposing it on the world, guarding cities through force with their military might. And Paul is writing to Christians from a very military town, so he plays on that familiar reality, saying that the peace of God will be like a squadron, like a battalion, stationed around your heart and around your mind, like an appointed guard on watch, standing on duty to protect your mind from fearful thoughts and protect your heart from anxious upset. The Apostle Paul had himself come to experience that: God's incomprehensible peace formed a sturdy perimeter around his heart and mind. Francis also had the squadron of God's peace set up its barricades around his mind and around his heart.

And don't we crave what they had, and what they tell us we can have, if only we choose to rejoice in the Lord, if only we choose to be gentle and reasonable and forbearing toward all neighbors and enemies, if only we choose to pray with thanksgiving, making all our requests about everything known to God? If we're the kind of people Paul is encouraging, the kind of people Francis and his friends illustrated, then we have reinforcements that will do their mighty fine job and keep us safe where it counts the most. So let us be that people. Let us live that joy, let us offer those prayers, let us become known in all our neighborhoods as a people of gentle reason, for the praise and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we rejoice, through whom we approach the Father, who stands near to help, and whose gentleness can be stamped upon us as we lean into him. Amen.

(All quotations from St. Francis and his contemporaries are drawn from Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1: The Saint [New City Press, 1999].)

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Agreement in the Lord: Sermon on Philippians 4:1-3

How does one denomination become two broken pieces? In the waning years of the nineteenth century, people in one of them were about, to their sorrow, to find out. And to think: it all started with just the ordinary tensions and rivalries of a couple people. Things began with a conflict between a bishop and the editor of the church newspaper. At first, it was a picking here, a picking there, an unpleasant word, a critical action. By the late 1880s, their friends and associates were coming to take sides. By 1890, bishops on each side of the dispute were being put on trial by the opposing faction. Before long, they were meeting in rival conferences, each claiming to be the true voice of the church. As things spiraled, nasty words came into play – 'vile,' 'despotic.'

And it filtered down to each local church. Every church building was owned by the conference, so if there were two groups each claiming to be the one true conference, who owned what? And each local congregation had to decide where to stand. In some places, they managed to keep the peace. One church was split in their views, but they managed to work out a sharing arrangement: each group got to use the building at alternate times, with their own preacher sent by their preferred conference, until the matter was settled. In another place, the factions treated each other graciously and parted amicably, bidding each other success in the gospel.

But those were, alas, the exception. Other churches divided in rather more acrimonious ways. In Reading, where each conference faction sent a different pastor to the same church – each of whom had previously served there and was known to the people – the whole ordeal was divisive and tense. So much so, in fact, that crowds of neighbors showed up one Sunday morning to watch the anticipated drama unfold. In Lancaster, the majority of the congregation made their choice, but fifteen people who disagreed left the church and started over. Some places, groups in the congregation played a cat-and-mouse game, each taking turns changing the locks on the doors to keep their brothers and sisters in Christ away. And from where the fight began in nastiness between a couple men in positions of influence, it snowballed, degenerating to a point – and it repulses me to say it – that in one church in Iowa, members from one faction allegedly barged into a church service to serve legal papers against the other side, confronting the pastor and serving him the papers while he was at the church altar, praying with some people to lead them to salvation in Jesus Christ! Yes, from where it started, the fight spiraled to the point of interrupting and endangering the rebirth of souls. This was no laughing matter.

In the end, one faction at last won the title to all the church property and to the old name, leaving the other side nameless and homeless – all banned from the church buildings they'd built. In some places, Christians in the losing faction had to immediately start raising money to buy new plots and build new church buildings. Others – especially if they were united and in a place where the winning faction didn't have anybody, meaning the court decision resulted in a vacant building – raised money to buy their churches back from the winners. In one case, the winning faction wouldn't sell... until the church was hit by lightning and suffered some damage, and then at last they sold it back to the congregation rather than deal with the repair bill.

It's a sad story. And it's our story. In case any of you haven't realized it yet, the denomination I'm talking about was the Evangelical Association. The winning faction got to keep the name. The losing faction had to adopt a new name: the United Evangelical Church. And then, in the 1920s, when the United Evangelical Church itself split over the question of whether to bury the hatchet, the stubborn hold-outs who again lost the rights to the old name in a court fight adopted a new name: the United Protestant Church. But when they realized they should've checked first whether anybody else already had the rights to that one, they hastily switched to a different option, calling themselves the Evangelical Congregational Church. Which is us. This congregation shared in that sad and sordid story. Fact is, we had to vacate our old church building for a while, having lost the legal title to it, and worshipped in the Smoketown schoolhouse while the church building stayed vacant, 'til we could raise the funds to buy it back. This nonsense is part of our history. And the fight remained a great sore spot for people – until all the original participants were dead, after which the heat gave way to a profound sense of embarrassment for a lot of people. From one seed of conflict came a devastating divide.

Something like that is what Paul worries about in Philippi. As we reach the section of the letter we've read this morning, Paul addresses a situation about which we eavesdroppers from the future have hitherto known naught. You see, there were these two ladies in the congregation – and perhaps they were a bit well-to-do, perhaps they were sponsors of house churches, but whatever their income level, they were certainly prominent, everybody knew them and respected them. And these Greek-speaking women were named Euodia and Syntyche. They've had a falling out in recent times. They don't see eye-to-eye. They're feuding with each other, not unlike became the case between the Evangelical Association bishops. Now, for Euodia and Syntyche, the original seed of conflict may have been a petty issue. Certainly it wasn't a matter of doctrine or of ethics or of anything else very substantive, or else Paul would address the issue on its merits. But if the seed of conflict was petty and petite, the result promised to be anything but that. The ripple effects were already getting bigger, and Paul could extrapolate from the ascending amplification he was hearing about. If he didn't see this as a problem, in his culture he'd never name Euodia and Syntyche and associate them with the trouble.

Which is why Paul wants to be clear, as he raises this issue for the entire church to hear, that both Euodia and Syntyche have been faithful gospel co-workers in his experience. In the split of the Evangelical Association, both factions tried to dig back through the histories of their now-rivals and discredit their past character and accomplishments. Paul refuses to let that happen here in Philippi. Euodia and Syntyche apparently converted during Paul's original season of ministry in the city, and they threw themselves energetically into evangelism right there at his side. That's why Paul explicitly says that both of them had “labored side-by-side with me in the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:3bc). Both women's lips have announced that Jesus was crucified for their sins, that he is risen from the dead, that he has ascended into heaven, that he's exalted as Lord at God's right hand, and that he'll come again as their Savior. Both women have their names written down in the heavenly register of heavenly citizens called the book of life. Both women have been working out their salvation and continue to harbor immense potential. And so Paul doesn't dismiss or deny any of that. Neither Euodia or Syntyche is merely a problem. Both of them are, in Paul's eyes, beloved friends in need of help – whether they want it or not.

We can no longer know what Euodia and Syntyche were feuding about, but Paul's adamant that it can't be allowed to eat the church – or, of course, the women themselves. Now, today, one or both of them might just 'solve' the issue (or, rather, pretend to solve it) by just quitting that church fellowship – maybe switching to the church down the road, maybe dropping out for a while, maybe taste-testing a few here and there. But that wasn't a live option for the Philippians, unless they wanted to move to a different city altogether.

What Paul does want, though, is clear enough. He wants Euodia and Syntyche to both listen to him. He begs, he urges, he pleads, he beseeches each one of them separately, individually: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche” (Philippians 4:2a). He wants Euodia and Syntyche to remember the common ground they have, the common ground that whatever this issue is can't erase: Jesus. That's why he insists on redirecting their attention to “the Lord” (Philippians 4:2c). He wants Euodia and Syntyche to each adopt the Jesus Mindset toward their issue, because it isn't worth the damage they're risking to Jesus' body. That's why Paul instructs them to “be of the same mind” or to “agree in the Lord” (Philippians 4:2bc). And, because that's clearly going to be difficult for the two of them now that matters have spiraled, Paul calls on church leadership like Epaphroditus and like Clement to get involved in mediating and reconciling these two members and their factions. Paul asks these people to “help” or “assist” – it's a very active word, very much an involvement in their broken relationship (Philippians 4:3). And perhaps Paul wants the rest of the church to step in as well. He thinks pretty highly of the church: “my brethren, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown..., my beloved” (Philippians 4:1). And since nobody can figure out who Paul means when he addresses his request for help to a “true companion” or “noble yokefellow,” one option is that it's a role open to the whole church or anybody in it.

So that's what Paul hoped would happen then. I don't know how it played out in Philippi. But I'd like to think that Euodia and Syntyche patched things up, and the crisis was averted – unlike what happened in our circles 130 years ago. I can see at least three different ways in which this saga might play itself out in today's churches.

First, this can become deeply relevant in the case of a personal offense or a personality clash. That type of thing happens in churches, doesn't it? And it's not just limited to women. This might be the most common way we replay the Euodia and Syntyche act. Maybe a modern Euodia says something that a modern Syntyche finds offensive and hurtful – a snide or careless remark, a tone that comes off too strong. Maybe Syntyche forgot to invite Euodia to her party, and it came across as a snub. Maybe Euodia critiqued Syntyche's work a little too harshly. Maybe Syntyche broke Euodia's confidence, perhaps without even realizing, and so jeopardized trust. Maybe Euodia made a decision that Syntyche won't respect. Maybe they're neighbors and Syntyche's dog keeps barking and Euodia can't sleep. Maybe the two just rub each other the wrong way somehow, giving off an air that the other dislikes or resents.

I'm sure you can imagine what it's like to get offended or irritated by a fellow church member, or to have them get offended or irritated at you. I'm sure you can imagine what it's like to just not click with somebody in the congregation – and if not in this congregation, then in one from your past, or with another Christian of your acquaintance. All of us, I'd surmise, have gotten these little glimpses of what it might be like to be Euodia or Syntyche in this kind of scenario. And all of us have probably seen Euodias and Syntyches fighting around us in churches. Sometimes it's loudly, sometimes it's passive-aggressively, sometimes it's privately in ways few realize but themselves. In many cases, it isn't positioned in a place for the ripples to be too jarring. But make it too central, or put it on the wrong fault-line, and watch out. In the case Paul's looking at, he sees a grave and genuine threat to the health and unity of the church, precisely at a time when the outside pressures of Philippian society mean they all need each other the most. And so he wants to nip things in the bud. He doesn't insist that Euodia and Syntyche have to become best friends. But Paul does insist that they take their differing attitudes and steer them into a convergence on the way Jesus thinks about life. And if they need help getting there, they'll get it, like it or not. It might feel odd or even invasive for Paul to enlist church leaders or other church members to step into something that strikes us as very personal. But it was so important that the awkwardness was a risk they'd just have to take. By the end of the intervention, the issue at play might or might not get settled, but the parties in question will at least be able to reconcile and move on with more the mindset of Christ.

A second way a church today might see a replay of Euodia and Syntyche is in a disagreement over a church decision, the way things are done. Now, in some decisions that a church has to make, one direction has a clear 'gospel advantage' over another. To preach the word of God faithfully has a clear gospel advantage over failing to do so – even if we don't all like what God has to say. To raise a collection for the needy has a definite gospel advantage over a collection to reupholster our cars. And when it comes to that cathedral in England that made the call to replace their sanctuary with a mini-golf course? Yikes, almost any other outreach idea would've had a gospel advantage over that rot.

But then other decisions are more gospel-neutral – neither direction, at least when considered in a vacuum, will clearly present Jesus in a way that the other options won't. Those decisions still have to get made, and they do; but the people involved in them can sometimes get awfully passionate. Sometimes, they're financial decisions. Some scholars think this was what the original Euodia and Syntyche were fighting about: whether to donate to Paul's upkeep in Rome or to spend the money toward supporting local Christians under economic pressure. We can imagine a financial choice being controversial. Or maybe it could be about the décor. Euodia wants a green carpet, but Syntyche wants a beige one, and if the argument gets too heated or if one feels unheard, it can lead to trouble in the church. Yes, I've heard horror stories of churches splitting over carpet color. Or maybe Euodia's grandpa donated a certain piece of furniture, and Syntyche wants to replace it with something new and fresh and different. Or – here's one to try on for size – maybe Euodia only feels like singing hymns, while Syntyche has a desire to sing something peppy and modern. I've seen people fight over this. I've seen people leave churches and break fellowship over not getting their way on this.

So imagine a Euodia and a Syntyche divided on a church decision – maybe music, maybe something else. Both are passionate about the direction they want to see the church go. Both stick to their case tenaciously. Both are more concerned with winning the fight than with the impact their combat – or their secession – has on the church. Of course, Paul might say, as he said to the Corinthians: “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7). This sort of issue is why it's good when we have clear mechanisms to decide on a direction, like pastoral direction or a board vote. And then it's incumbent on us, whether we like the direction or not, to reconcile ourselves to it or to at least not disrupt. These mechanisms make reconciliation easier in these scenarios, because the goal to be achieved is much clearer.

One of the earliest Christian writings we have that isn't in our Bibles is a letter to the Corinthians written by a man named Clement, around the same time John was getting his Revelation. We can't be 100% sure, but I like to think that the Clement who wrote this letter is the same Clement whom Paul a few decades earlier called his co-worker in this passage. And in that letter, Clement has some tough love for folks who disturb the unity and tranquility of a church by rebelling against settled decisions or the authority of the leaders who make them. He says that if somebody is so dissatisfied that they really can't help themselves, then if they have even an ounce of love and compassion in their hearts, they'd say: “If on my account there are sedition and quarreling and division, I'll leave, I'll go wherever you want, I'll do what's enjoined by the community – only let the flock of Christ have peace with its appointed elders.” Because, the way Clement sees it, to try to upend things and rock the boat is really an attempt to tear Jesus limb from limb. Because the church isn't just a consumer option in a marketplace – it's the body of Christ. That's what's at stake in church unity when we make it a family feud.

And a third way churches might sadly revisit Euodia and Syntyche is through politics. In the past few years, I've spoken to Christians who are more up-in-arms about political issues, about what they see and hear and read in the news, than ever before. It's a harder and harder topic to avoid in the church, or in any social setting. We've seen an upswing in disaffiliation – people leaving their church, or even church as such, over political division. We've seen it break and damage assemblies of the people of God. This happens. Political division can be a powerful dividing force in the church if not handled carefully. So let's sketch a picture.

Suppose, if you will, that Euodia is a registered Republican, and Syntyche is a registered Democrat. Maybe both of them are sincerely trying, in their political behavior, to live up to the Lord's requirement that we all “do justice” and “love mercy” and “walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8). Both have compassion for the poor and sick and weak and downtrodden. Euodia thinks private charity and incentives toward employment are the more helpful option, while Syntyche thinks public assistance programs are still necessary for the common good. Euodia thinks a competitive marketplace for healthcare will spur innovation and excellence so diseases can be treated that never could be before, while Syntyche wants to distribute the bill through government to make sure we all can be well. Euodia says that discipline and structure are indispensable safeguards for human flourishing, and Euodia worries that Syntyche's policies would lead to chaos, upheaval, and harm. Syntyche calls out injustices that go unanswered under the current order and structure, and Syntyche worries that Euodia's approach turns a blind eye. For Syntyche's heart breaks for racial minorities who still get singled out and targeted, for immigrants told they don't belong, for women whose traumas are dismissed, for prisoners whose surroundings give them no view up to a better life. And she wonders if Euodia really cares about any of that, or if she's willing to sacrifice the exploited on the altar of an unjust peace. For her part, Euodia hates racial discrimination and every kind of exploitation, too. But she worries that racializing and problematizing every human interaction can only make a community worse. She believes that human dignity requires that each person be seen as an individual made in God's image, not as an avatar of intersecting demographics. And she wonders whether Syntyche's vision doesn't make excuses for violence or fail to restrain sin and crime.

When they talk about it, Euodia admits she likes the current president. She's troubled by the excesses of the other party; she feels duty-bound to never vote for their agenda. She thinks the president has done a fine job under circumstances that Euodia sees as relentless opposition from established institutions. She believes he's yet to be given a fair shake. She thinks he's the only major-party candidate who'll let her live in peace according to her most cherished convictions. She thinks he's less likely to lead the nation into insanity or perversion. She also thinks he's the only major-party candidate who will speak out against waves of lawlessness and social decay, who will allow her to protect her family, who will let her invest in her community according to her own wisdom instead of someone else's alien judgment. So Euodia hopes the president will get a second term, and she plans to vote accordingly. In that hope and that plan, Euodia can count Billy Graham's granddaughter Cissie on her side. You've probably met fellow believers who think like Euodia thinks. Maybe you are one.

But Syntyche doesn't see eye-to-eye with Euodia. Syntyche looks at the Oval Office now, and she doesn't like what she sees as vulgarity and mockery and boastful pride. She doesn't think the administration has a solid relationship with truth-telling. She doesn't believe the president has ennobled the presidency or elevated the way we treat each other. Syntyche is concerned by what she believes is the way the president encourages sinful elements buried in our national psyche – elements we've spent centuries trying to exorcise. She wants civic leaders who will help mercy triumph over judgment, who will lead the way in confessing and repenting our past wrongs, who know that all truth is God's truth and not to be neglected. And Syntyche just doesn't think she's seen that in the Oval Office lately. Syntyche thinks the office's latest resident is unstable and dangerous, that he's leading us away from becoming our healthier selves as a nation, and that we need a breath of fresh air. So Syntyche hopes to avoid a second term. She plans to vote accordingly. And in that hope and that plan, Syntyche can count Billy Graham's other granddaughter Jerushah on her side – yes, even the Grahams can take opposing views. You've probably met fellow believers who think like Syntyche thinks. Maybe you are one.

Now, both Euodia and Syntyche have thought through their politics. Both are acting from motives that are as fair as two redeemed sinners can muster. But when Euodia and Syntyche look at each other through a partisan lens, what happens? Each judges the other's faith and witness to be compromised. Each trusts the other less. Each is more repelled from the other, more inclined to cut the other off, to stop listening. Euodia shares a post on Facebook, a talking point she heard on Fox News. Syntyche gags and argues back with the talking points she heard on MSNBC. Syntyche calls the other party a nasty name, and even if she wasn't talking to Euodia, Euodia feels hurt and takes it personally. And as it keeps going, their long history of faithful ministry gets eclipsed or erased. The unity of their heavenly citizenship is overshadowed by the petty politics of earthly mud.

Now, are there political topics that are issues of serious moral divide – political opinions that are more or less faithful to the Lordship of Jesus? Yes. But on most, the line from Bible to ballot is pretty squiggly, running through a variety of prudential considerations on which even Jesus' disciples or Paul's co-workers in the gospel might end up differing. Christians who check different boxes on the ballot can find “agreement in the Lord” – it begins with firm fervor for those first fundamentals, it leads to serious and charitable dialogue, it flowers in grace shown to each other as prudential wisdom proves to differ. Euodias and Syntyches may agree in the Lord even when they don't come to agree on policy positions, or who the right person to vote for is. If you're with Euodia here, you can afford to listen carefully to how Syntyche can challenge you. If you're with Syntyche here, you can afford to listen carefully to how Euodia can challenge you. If you're with neither, you can afford to listen carefully to them both.

Let me admit something to you: my wife and I know that, when we vote in a couple weeks, it won't be for all the same people. And that's okay. In the past few years, I've talked with pastors about how they'll vote, even gotten some insight into how our bishop votes – and let me tell you, it's not all unanimous. And that's okay. We can agree or disagree with Euodia, we can agree or disagree with Syntyche, we can agree in part and disagree in part with each. We ought not let differences of earthly politics overshadow the unity of our heavenly citizenship in the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor should anything else petty or personal or pragmatic or prudential overshadow that unity of mind in the Lord – never, never, never.

Whatever the situation, know and understand that Jesus Christ died for Euodia and for Syntyche and for me and for you. He died for our sins; he died to save us. But he died so that his tomb could be the womb of something new: a church indivisible. He prayed earnestly for us to cherish the unity he gave us, the unity we demonstrate when we love each other across personal slights, across personality differences, across decision-making, across the political landscape, and find common ground in our Risen Savior, who is coming again to settle everything at last. Let's not repeat the mistakes of our forefathers. For we are called to agree in the Lord, to have the attitude of Jesus, to be one in the Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Citizenship Up Yonder: Sermon on Philippians 3:17-21

One October afternoon, a fierce battle raged in the plains west of the city. It was a pivotal engagement in the civil war. Not the American Civil War – the Roman. It was the second battle on that field. With their backs to the city were the soldiers employed by Marcus Junius Brutus, betrayer of Julius Caesar. He and Gaius Cassius Longinus, his brother-in-law and co-conspirator in the Caesar assassination two and a half years earlier, had been marching through Macedonia, pressing back toward Rome. But here at Philippi, the advance of their seventeen legions had been halted by the nineteen legions of the Triumvirate for Confirming the Republic. Two of the triumvirs, one being Mark Antony and the other being the late Julius Caesar's adopted son 'Octavian,' had come to stop them. The first battle had culminated in Cassius' suicide. And for the twenty days since then, Brutus and his men had stayed holed up in their fortifications on the hilltop as Antony and Octavian, their troops hungry and lacking supplies, had come daily to taunt them, hoping to goad Brutus into a second battle. Alas, Brutus' men felt cowardly trying to wait out the clock, and so against his will, Brutus had finally led his army out, lining them up southwest of Philippi. As Brutus gave his soldiers a pep talk, so Antony and Octavian readied their troops: “This very day must decide for us either a complete victory or an honorable death.”

And then the battle was joined. The armies rushed together into close combat. Tens of thousands of soldiers on either side – all Roman – hacked at each other with their swords, falling in great numbers like a slaughterhouse. But at last, the forces commanded by 21-year-old Octavian managed to push back Brutus' line until their ranks broke. While Octavian's men seized the gates, Antony had his forces go on the maddening offensive. It was chaos, it was massacre, it was violence. Brutus beat a hasty retreat into the mountains with what men he could escape with, no more than four legions. Through the night, he entertained hopes of fleeing or retaking his camp, but with the Triumvirate forces guarding the roads and his own officers proving cowards, Brutus gave up the fight – and did as Cassius had done, having himself killed on the spot. The so-called Liberators had lost – that day, October 23 in 42 BC, spelled the end of the ringleaders of the assassination of Julius Caesar. One later Roman historian explained that “Heaven was incensed against them and often forewarned them of their doom” (Appian, Civil Wars 4.134). It was that day that decided the future of the Roman people, set the stage for the creation of the Roman Empire itself. It was the final day of the Battle of Philippi. Philippi would go down in Roman history not so differently than Gettysburg would in ours.

With Cassius and Brutus both dead, and Antony and Octavian the clear victors, something had to be done with the troops. Antony and Octavian declared, on the spot, that Philippi would henceforth be a Roman colony city, meaning it had rights and institutions equal to any city in Italy. They mustered out soldiers into retirement there and confiscated the lands around Philippi from the local Greek and Thracian elite, dividing the territory into a grid of farmland for the veterans to settle. And so began the colony. Eleven years passed, and when Octavian and Antony finally came to blows, their dispute was settled at the Battle of Actium in September 31 BC. The following year, Octavian returned and settled many of Antony's former troops, as well as a whole cohort of the Praetorian Guard, at Philippi, refounding the colony anew. In the years ahead, Octavian would claim sole power in the newborn Roman Empire, renaming himself Augustus and priding himself on having saved the Roman people. Meanwhile, at Philippi, the Roman veterans established themselves as the upper class.

But Philippi was in Macedonia, near the border of wild Thrace, and every now and then the Roman army would have to come and put down invading raids. Between 12 and 9 BC, for instance, a Roman general had to come defend Philippi and places like it in a three-year war: Lucius Piso is credited with having “brought these fiercest of races to their former state of peaceful subjection: by putting an end to this war, he restored... peace to Macedonia,” including Philippi (Velleius Paterculus, Roman History 2.98). And so went the history of Philippi. By the middle of the first century when Paul's writing his letter, Philippi has about ten thousand people living in the city and another five thousand in the fifteen or so villages of the surrounding territory – making it a bit less populated than Ephrata's borough and township here. About 40% of the townsfolk were Roman citizens, many being descendants of the veteran colonists and others being ex-slaves who gained citizenship on being set free. But even with Romans as a minority, the town's whole culture looked up to Roman culture, Roman institutions, and this Roman elite. The signs in town were in Latin, the town library collected books in Latin. It was the local Romans who owned all the land, the local Romans who had all political control. And they ran things like it was a miniature Rome. The church looked a lot like the town – about a third of the Philippian Christians Paul is writing to are Roman citizens, but the other two-thirds of the church lacks citizenship, they're merely Rome's subjects but not citizens. Citizen or not, the Christians still live in a culture dominated by Roman influences.

And that's why it comes across so strikingly when Paul just declares to them all: Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Only a third of the church could say they were Roman citizens, but the whole church – even the slaves, even the poor, even the disenfranchised and perpetually second-class in Philippian society – were extended the dignity of being citizens of a different empire, a different city. And the capital of this empire isn't Rome (and neither is it London or Harrisburg or Washington DC); it's heaven. You could also translate Paul's phrase a bit differently, maybe as “our commonwealth is in heaven,” or as “our constitution is in heaven,” or “our government is in heaven” – the word Paul uses comes from the same root as 'politics.'

Rome and its Italian territories were the ancestral homeland of the Roman citizens colonizing Philippi, and so Philippi's Romans knew that they had settled among many non-Romans, and that most Romans lived back in the homeland, in the old country. And that shaped the way they thought. Just the same, heavenly citizens living in the earthly colony have to realize that we've settled among many non-heavenly neighbors – people like Paul describes as “enemies of the cross of Christ,” whose “god is their gut” and who “glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19). But most heavenly citizens live back in the homeland, in the old country up yonder. It's a current reality: most of our people are not here where we are, they're in heaven – they're the saints whose stories we tell and the loved ones whose memories burn in our hearts. And the fact that the majority of our population is back in the homeland – well, that should change the way we think.

See, Roman citizens in Philippi knew that being a citizen meant having a core allegiance to Rome's constitution and commonwealth. And that core allegiance created an obligation for them to act in distinctively Roman ways, to embody Roman values and support Roman institutions. That was Roman patriotism. That was citizenship. And from what Paul says, it becomes clear that being a heavenly citizen means having a core allegiance, not to Rome's constitution or America's constitution, but to heaven's; not to Pennsylvania's commonwealth, but to heaven's. And that allegiance creates an obligation for us, as citizens of heaven, to act in distinctively heavenly ways here on earth – to embody heavenly values and support heavenly institutions which can regulate our lives here and now. And that means we mustn't worship our guts. It means we mustn't celebrate disgraceful ways. It means we mustn't make mud the measure of our minds (Philippians 3:19). It means we look up to what's up.

And that's why Martin Luther King, looking at this passage, once shouted out: “Although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. … Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to the nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God's will, it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it.”1 But 1800 years before Dr. King came around, a second-century Christian was already reflecting on this passage. He said that Christians “live in their native countries, but only as outsiders. They participate in everything like citizens and tolerate all things as foreigners. Every foreign place is their homeland, and every homeland is foreign. … They spend time on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the fixed laws, and their lifestyle rises above the laws. They love everyone and are persecuted by all. … When being punished, they rejoice as people being brought to life” (Ad Diognetum 5.5, 9-11, 16).

And in light of Paul's words here and these witnesses to it, I wonder if we've yet learned to think the same way. We can get awfully wrapped up with what's in the news. We can obsess and fixate on American politics to the extreme. We might be quick to stand up for the US Constitution than for the Bible sometimes, and to treat the Declaration of Independence like a lost book of scripture, and to cherish the blood of battlefields over the blood of the Son of God, and to be imagine that the starry blue canton on the American flag is the sapphire pavement beneath the foot of the Almighty's throne (cf. Exodus 24:20). I'm not sure if, in our hearts, we've really learned what's being said here. Do we live in America as a foreign land – understanding that we're still outsiders questing for our home? We may be prepared to participate in civic life according to our legal privileges, but are we also prepared to tolerate the twists and turns of this land's political turmoil like the foreigners we are? Do we have the fortitude to take a stand if the earthly institutions we like the most should be the ones that come into conflict with God's will? Are we willing to admit that our real constitution is the one written in heaven?

Because these words from the Apostle Paul change things. First and foremost, we are heavenly citizens: that's our capital city. And then we're a bunch of other things, and further down the list are we American citizens. And then it's a lot further down the list before we get to our political ideologies, to our partisan stances, to our feelings about Trump or Biden or Wolf or Smucker or about any politician. And the way we think and behave ought to reflect that order. Our political modes of thinking and acting shouldn't be conformed to what we think is more patriotic or more progressive; it should be conformed to what's heavenly. The questions of heavenly politics have to be settled first, and the smaller earthly questions will trail in their wake. Who is really Lord?

Paul's answer is very forthright: “the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20)! And this Lord Jesus Christ has an energy or “power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:21). And any Philippian would have recognized the imperial language there. Remember how a Roman general had power enough to bring the Thracians into “peaceful subjection,” and how Brutus had brought Macedonia into 'subjection,' and how Antony and Octavian had brought the rebellious army into subjection. Jesus, Emperor of the 'Empire of Eternity,' is equipped to conquer, Paul's saying. But no Brutus or Cassius can stab him in the back. No Antony can try to wrench his power away. And all the Caesars, though they marched with enough force to subject cities and provinces and nations to themselves, pale next to Jesus' power to subject all things to himself. For Jesus has power enough to subject to himself even rebelliousness and death and the faithless human soul.

And Jesus is no less powerful today! He can still march in and subject our faithlessness to himself. He can still march in and subject our fearfulness to himself. He can still march in and subject demons and diseases to himself. He can march in and subject time and history and progress to himself. He has power to subject death itself to himself. There's nothing that the Lord Jesus doesn't have power and energy to conquer and to bring at long last into subjection, putting it in its proper place and overturning the old, obsolete rules of a fallen world.

But Paul continues by reminding the Philippian church – and our church – that the Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven as “a Savior” (Philippians 3:20). And that would have really hit the Philippians in their hearts, because 'Savior' was one of the titles used by the Roman emperor. Before he died, Julius Caesar was called “savior of human life.” Octavian, after he became Augustus, was hailed as “a savior who put an end to war and established all things.” The Emperor Claudius was celebrated as “savior of the world.” To the mind of a Roman, there was a mental link between power to subjugate, power to save, and authority to rule: Living in a world as rough as theirs, the Romans entrusted the imperium to people they believed could save them by making invaders and other threats subject to their rule, thereby preserving the Roman peace. And Paul, knowing he's talking to Philippians who think like Romans, is highlighting that God has empowered Jesus to subjugate all things to himself precisely so that he can save his heavenly citizens. Like an emperor marching from Rome out to the provinces to defend Roman citizens in a colony city under siege, so Christ will one day march from heaven out to this province of the universe, to defend heavenly citizens besieged in the city of man. Besieged by what? By sin and corruption and death. And Christ's arrival will be as the Savior from it all.

Jesus remains the Savior we desperately need today. I tell you, if you're waiting for a savior to show up from the Republican Party, you're looking in the wrong place. And if you're waiting for a savior to show up from the Democratic Party, you're looking in the wrong place. And if you're hunting through third parties for a savior, you're looking in the wrong place there too. The hunt for other saviors, political or otherwise, is a market of idols. Our Savior doesn't march from the White House, and our Savior doesn't march from the campaign trail. Our Savior marches from heaven. 

He already once “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), when we were yet assassins and crucifiers. As every Philippian lived in the shadow of the showdown between the Triumvirs and the Liberators, so we live in the shadow of the old rugged cross and the empty tomb. 

And yet we also read: “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). See, it's true that we “have been saved through faith... by grace” (Ephesians 2:8), and it's also true that each one of us right now, as a heavenly citizen, is still “being saved, if [we] hold fast to the word” of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:2); but it's also true that our salvation is also a future reality. “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13), when a Savior comes from heaven. We can still, like Jacob, say: “I wait for your salvation, O LORD (Genesis 49:18).

For when the Lord Jesus Christ comes as Savior, he'll save by using his power, his energy, his mighty working, to “transform our body of humiliation to conform it to his body of glory” (Philippians 3:21). Just as he once took on the form of a servant for us and was found in human likeness (Philippians 2:7), he'll give us the gift of the opposite. For while Jesus is still the Son of Man, his human body is now all glory. It burns and shines with might and awesome energy (cf. Revelation 1:14-15), and “death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). In the meantime, we know that our bodies are humiliated by weakness, humiliated by sickness, humiliated by the temptation to sin that has its hooks in our fallen flesh. We're susceptible to so much, and shame has been a part of our embodied existence since we lost our glory in Eden (cf. Genesis 3:7). Our bodies are vulnerable, lowly, and inglorious. They are cursed to rejoin the dust from which they're made. 

But that won't always be the story. For when the Savior comes, he'll save us from corruption, he'll save us from dissolution, he'll save us from this mortal humiliation. And he'll do that by raising us up and conforming our bodies to his body of glory. “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the Man of Heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49). “When he appears, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). He'll give these bodies of ours imperishability and immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53-54). Our bodies will be raised up “in glory,” “in power” (1 Corinthians 15:43); “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).

With that in store for us, with that hope in mind, “we eagerly await” our Savior's arrival from the heavenly city (Philippians 3:20). Paul's choice of word here underlines our intense eagerness for rescue, a constant yearning for a Savior – it's the sort of anticipation that tends to crowd out other thoughts, that puts everything else on the back burner. In Paul's time, if the emperor came to visit a town, the people would all come out into the streets to see him, greet him, celebrate him and his victorious troops. And it's that kind of excitement, but bigger, that Paul wants to cultivate in his churches. For the Lord Jesus Christ will come “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28), those who have been loyal citizens of his empire of eternity, who keep their ears attuned to heavenly news and their hearts fixed on heaven's politics: the politics of Jesus, Emperor of Our Salvation, the Conqueror with power and promise to make all the petty politics of earth subject to himself.

Eagerly awaiting the arrival of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, coming with power to transform our bodies to be like his glory, we mustn't set ourselves up as enemies of his cross, disdaining the road of suffering, loving to satisfy our guts and our shame. No, but we will “join in imitating” the Apostle Paul and will “keep [our] eyes on those who walk according to the example” of the apostles and prophets, the martyrs, the confessors, and all the saints who have journeyed back to the old country up yonder. And we will live as citizens of a different empire, an empire that isn't of this world but is already over this world and coming to this world. For this earth is a province under eternity's empire, and we are heaven's colonists planted here to defy the devilish rebellion out from which we've been redeemed, as Brutus' and Cassius' surrendering troops found pardon.

As we engage here with our earthly neighborhoods, we are called to bring heaven to them in ways that seem strange, maybe even to us. We're called to learn and embody heavenly values, to write our days as installments of a heavenly story, to stoke our heaven-hankering hearts with a hunger for a home. We are called to champion heavenly institutions, first and foremost the church. We are called to fill the libraries and the signs of the town square, not with the sounds and syllables of an earthly tongue, but with the wiser language of grace and mercy. We are called to build what imitates heaven here, all while knowing we wait for a salvation from corruption in which the whole creation will obtain its freedom with us (Romans 8:21). 

As for now, the siege of sin, the siege of sickness, the siege of corruption, the siege of violence and madness still rages on against us. But a Savior is coming from heaven where our citizenship lies. He, as Lord of Heaven, is incensed against all that besieges us. And when he comes, he will subject all things to himself and transform our bodies to match his, as he's already transforming our souls to be like his (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:16). We will see heaven come true on earth when all things are made new – then earth will be all heavenly. Until then, our citizenship is held up yonder. Let us live by heaven's constitution and for heaven's commonwealth as we eagerly await from heaven our coming Savior!


1 Martin Luther King, “Paul's Letter to American Christians,” sermon given on 4 November 1956 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Only Say the Word: Eucharistic Homily on Matthew 8:5-13

Throughout the Gospels, there's only one time when Jesus is portrayed as being impressed. Oh, other people, yeah – they're often impressed by Jesus. They ooh and ahh, they marvel, they wonder, they're awestruck. But only twice is Jesus said to marvel, and one of those is a negative astonishment at the lack of faith he finds. Only once does Jesus marvel positively, with a delighted amazement. This is that story.

The setting is Capernaum, the Galilean fishing village where Jesus has been hanging his hat ever since he left behind his lifelong home in Nazareth (Matthew 4:13). Capernaum is his town now. Jesus is freshly back from delivering the Sermon on the Mount from the side of a hill outside town. The people who heard it were amazed by it, and as he strolled off the scene, big crowds hounded him like a pack of puppies at his heels (Matthew 8:1). Along the way, a leper ran ahead, fell to his knees before Jesus, and begged for healing – and was given it, then and there (Matthew 8:2-4). And then Jesus makes his way to Capernaum, this flock of followers trailing behind him. They believe; they're entranced; they can't wait to study this Jesus fellow in greater detail.

But as Jesus makes his way into town, the streets flooding with his eager followers watching him, someone else steps forward to meet with Jesus: a centurion (Matthew 8:5). A centurion might be an officer in the Roman army, a unit commander appointed over about eighty soldiers; but in this case he's likely a mercenary captain in the service of Galilee's ruler Herod Antipas, who tried to imitate the Roman military organization on a smaller scale. Matthew doesn't go into it, but Luke tells us that this Gentile centurion or mercenary captain went out of his way to be friendly to the Jewish people, to the point of using his own money to sponsor the construction of a Capernaum synagogue, and so gaining the friendship of local Jewish religious leaders, who testify that “he is worthy” to have Jesus act on his petition, “for he loves our nation” (Luke 7:5).

And this centurion continues demonstrating his positive disposition by interceding, not for his own benefit, but for his servant. As a centurion, this man couldn't be married; he was, as we say today, married to the job. So his household was him and his staff who served him, aiding him in his practical needs. The centurion's servant, however, had gotten sick. He's paralyzed, bedridden, can't get up, and is suffering badly from the condition, and perhaps is knocking at death's door (Matthew 8:6; Luke 7:2). It would have been easy, for a man trained in the military efficiency of Rome's imitators, to look at that and just post a job opening in the town square. But this centurion is attached, valuing this man not just as a tool or a servant but as a friend, as family, even as a son.

So the centurion has come to Jesus. What has the centurion heard about Jesus? We know that, before this time, Jesus “went all throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people; so his fame spread all throughout Syria... and great crowds followed him” (Matthew 4:23-25). That's what the centurion has heard. He's perhaps met people who had been healed by Jesus. The centurion's religious background was no doubt pagan – the Herods got their mercenaries from places as far as Germany, Bulgaria, and France. But one historian of the Roman military writes that “as men were shifted from one installation to the next, they would also gradually acquire new spiritual ideas and cultic practices which they would carry with them from place to place.”1 And given this centurion's sponsorship of a synagogue here in Capernaum, his old pagan ways have already been cracking to an openness to the God of Israel. And what he's seen and heard so far has given him a clear-eyed glimpse that this God is mightily at work in Jesus.

The centurion comes and presents his trouble to Jesus: there's a servant suffering at home, wherever home is – maybe that town, maybe a few towns over. Some translators render Jesus' reply as a statement: “I will come and heal him” (Matthew 8:7). Others understand it as a question: “Shall I come and heal him?” Because the thing is, there was a Jewish taboo against physically entering the home of a Gentile. Peter will later admit “how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation” (Acts 10:28) – popular Jewish thought held Gentile homes to be unclean. Jesus is certainly willing to go, just as he was willing to lay hands on a leper (Matthew 8:3). But in both cases, there is a taboo to be broken.

In the next verse, the centurion acknowledges the taboo – and he doesn't mention it with a hint of resentment; he accepts it, he acknowledges it. “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (Matthew 8:8). Part of the reason why is that the centurion is a Gentile, yet he accepts and appreciates the purity strictures of the Jewish culture that surrounds him. He doesn't resent it, doesn't disdain it, doesn't mock it or rebel against it, the way we might take offense in his shoes. He accepts that his home is ritually unclean to his neighbors, he maybe even accepts their verdict as he's begun to catch their belief-system. But more to the point, this centurion has come, in some way, to identify Jesus with the presence of the God of Israel; and the centurion sees the vast moral and spiritual gulf between himself and Jesus, the one he addresses as 'Lord.' Where Luke envisions the synagogue elders declaring that the centurion is worthy” (Luke 7:5), the centurion himself shuns their praise and confesses himself unworthy (Matthew 8:8; Luke 7:6).

The centurion explains, though, that Jesus doesn't even need to set foot in his house, doesn't need to get dirty, in order to make all the difference. The centurion looks at Jesus and sees a man who wields spiritual authority. In that, the centurion has a framework to understand him. Because the centurion, too, is embedded in an authority structure: the army. The centurion has people above him, like the legate of his legion and the tribune of his cohort. In that, the centurion is “a man under authority.” And so the centurion also has people below him, who answer to him, who take his orders: all the soldiers of his century, and the servants of his household. When the centurion speaks orders, his words shape reality because, bearing his authority, they move other agents to act and accomplish what he's spoken. Authority, to the centurion, is the ability to accomplish your will at a distance through delegation – through the obedience of other agents. “I say to one, 'Go!' – and he goes; and to another, 'Come!' – and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this!' – and he does it” (Matthew 8:9).

And the centurion reasons that Jesus can do the same thing. Only, all the invisible powers of the world are the servants of Jesus, the soldiers under Jesus. Jesus is no lower-level functionary who can only make a difference in the world in the places he can physically reach. Nature itself, and the spirits that indwell it, are as fully responsive to Jesus as mortal soldiers and servants are to the centurion. Therefore, the centurion believes, Jesus can give the order, and waiting angels will salute and rush instantaneously to implement those orders anywhere in the universe, vanquishing with overwhelming force any demons of sickness and paralysis, any powers of disease, that have his servant in their grip. “Only say the word,” the centurion implores Jesus, “and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8). Think what an exalted view of Jesus this is, for someone to already have before his resurrection and exaltation! This centurion already sees Jesus at the top of the cosmic chain of command.

No wonder Jesus marvels, no wonder Jesus is amazed, no wonder Jesus turns to the crowds – these crowds that came to Jesus from all over Galilee and beyond, these crowds that have listened to him preach the Sermon on the Mount, these crowds that saw the contagious purity of Jesus infect a leper with health – and tell them, “With no one in Israel have I found such faith!” (Matthew 8:10). People brought their sick, their seizure-seized, their demon-ridden to Jesus – and that's a measure of some faith, but not this level of faith. People saw and listened to his words, treasuring them – and that's some faith, but this centurion has blown them out of the water. The leper that Jesus healed came, knelt before the Lord, and confessed a belief that Jesus could fix what ailed him, then and there, by touch – but this centurion says Jesus doesn't even need to touch. Peter doesn't yet have that kind of faith. John doesn't yet have that kind of faith. No disciple does. But this centurion – an outsider to the heritage of Abraham and the teaching of Moses and the promises of the prophets – he does have faith that outshines everything this generation of Israel has mustered.

So Jesus will fulfill the centurion's request, telling him, “Go, let it be done for you as you have believed” – and, Matthew whispers to us, “The servant was healed at that very moment” (Matthew 8:13). But first, Jesus offers the crowd this teachable moment. The faith that even they haven't yet measured up to, this centurion outsider, this military man, has discovered and disclosed. And he'll be the first of many – the first of many outsiders to Israel who, by having the faith Israel ought to have had, will lay claim to Israel's inheritance. “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Matthew 8:11-12). Plenty of Jesus' Jewish neighbors in Capernaum expected that, when God's kingdom came in full, it would spell the destruction of the Roman military, it would mean that the Messiah would lead them in combat to overthrow Rome; but here Jesus, the Messiah himself, says that this Gentile military man is the first of many like him who will come take Israel's abandoned seats at God's table, and will spend eternity breaking bread with Father Abraham and all the holy ones of old, dining on the delicacies of the Almighty. That's not what they expected. It may have confused the crowd. But from all those pagan nations would arise a faith worthy of dwelling under God's roof forever.

And then there's us. We are called to rise to the level of that centurion's faith. Jesus is the Lord of authority, he really is at the top of the cosmic chain of command. Through that authority, his presence and power stretch out through the whole universe. A word he whispers, be it on earth or in heaven, can launch anything into action as all the powers of nature and supernature leap into obedience. And therefore, the word of Jesus is a guarantee. He only has to give the order, and what he speaks will be accomplished. So trust him. Appeal to him for your soul and your life, trusting that he's able to abolish sin, that he's able to vanquish death, that he's able with a whisper to rearrange galaxies and rewrite the tablets of destiny. A word from Jesus, and every particle of the coronavirus would humbly dissolve into atoms or be swept up by legions of angels, if that's his will. A word from Jesus, and the raging rebellion of the nations would be overpowered and tamed. All we need to hear is what the centurion heard: “Go, let it be done for you as you have believed” (Matthew 8:13).

We are called to the centurion's faith, because we follow in his footsteps. Most of us here, I would surmise, are Gentiles – people whose ancestors, two thousand years ago as Jesus trod the world, were not Abraham's sons and daughters but were, instead, among an assortment of pagan tribes, foreigners to Israel, excluded from the kingdom of God. We here are just part of a vast crowd drawn from many nations, many ethnicities, many tribes, many languages. In this teaching, Jesus proclaims the start of people like us being included, being given a hope that – by catching faith like this – we'd win those forfeited seats at the table. Jesus' picture of eternity – a picture popular in the prophets and among the rabbis – was as a banquet, a celebration party with a feasting table. That's the image we're given. And we're all looking forward to making our way to that feast and sitting with the great heroes of faith – splitting a steak with Elijah, toasting a glass with Isaiah, singing along with David, breaking bread with Abraham. That's the joy of the age to come!

As an appetizer and a foretaste, the Lord sends down a table now, an altar of the sacrifice of the new covenant, for the church's regular meals of thanksgiving. Plucked from the end-time table of heavenly delight, we sample eternity on our tongues. As we eat the loaf and drink the chalice provided for us at the cost of the life of the Son of God, we the faithful have the precious opportunity to peek behind the curtains of eternity and taste what's in store. At this table, fused by mystery to the table that's to come, Abraham joins us, Isaac joins us, Jacob joins us, the apostles and prophets and martyrs and confessors and the righteous made perfect join us, while angels sing in stunned and wistful awe! The table of the Lord is the communion of the body and blood of Christ.

In some church traditions, for hundreds of years, one of the last things called out by the congregation before receiving this communion has been the word of the centurion's faith: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Confessing our unworthiness, yet we welcome the Jesus who speaks to us in bread and wine, in body and blood. He exchanges our roof for his roof: we are unworthy to be his hosts, so he makes us his guests. And it isn't a servant who needs healing in bed at home, but our very soul, our whole self, in desperate need of being healed from month to month and week to week and day to day. How much more zealous should we then be in coming like the centurion to Jesus, crying out these words, humbly approaching his table? All Jesus has to do is say the word. And his word is: “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” (John 6:53). “Take, eat: this is my body” (Matthew 26:26), “which is given for you: Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). “Drink of [this cup], all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27). He used his authority... to give himself away.

Lord Jesus, we are not worthy that you should enter under our roof,
but only speak this word and our souls and our world shall be healed. Amen!


1  John F. Shean, Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army, History of Warfare 61 (Brill, 2010), 41.