Change Everything

focusPhilippians 4:1-9

With this in mind, my dearest friends (I wish so much I could be with you – you make me so happy, you’re my crowning achievement) – so friends, stay true to your commitment to Jesus. Euodia and Syntache, you two need to come to an agreement. And Syzygus, see what you can do to help them resolve their differences. They were both my co-workers, along with Clement and the others. They’re all awesome in my book.

Let Jesus make you into joyful people. Rejoice, I say! Be gentle with people. Jesus is right there, so don’t stress out! Bring what’s on your mind, along with your gratitude, to prayer. When you do – it’s beyond explaining how it happens – your mind and heart will be at peace, in touch with Jesus and with the eternal.

Finally, friends, focus on what’s true, on justice, on whole-hearted passion, on what’s worthwhile, on what’s excellent, and on what’s remarkable. Keep on doing these things the way you learned from my example, and you will have God’s peace.

Whenever people get together, no matter their good intentions, there are going to be differences, awesome as they all may be. The trick is not to let the differences become the focus. Rather the focus of a great movement is always on the goal and doing it with joy and passion. Here, Paul suggests six ways to get re-focused:

  1. truth
  2. justice
  3. passion
  4. value
  5. excellence
  6. remark-ability

Voltaire said that “the great is the enemy of the good.” But I’m convinced he’s got it backwards, and as Jim Collins wrote more recently, “Good is the enemy of the great.” Good enough is very seldom remembered. Great changes everything. Constant arguments between members is a telling sign that a congregation is good enough – and it’s not going any farther. Focus on any or all of the above, and you will change everything.

Who Are You, Really?

Trophy Case
Photo credit: Melinda Taber

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else says they have a pedigree to prove how good they are, I have more:

  • I’ve got a circumcision to prove I’m Jewish;
  • I’ve got a birth certificate that says I’m a blue-blood;
  • I’ve got a degree from Harvard Law;
  • I’ve got an ordination from Regent University;
  • And I haven’t ever had so much as a speeding ticket.

But however impressive my record may be, it’s all worthless when it comes to Jesus. And not only that, but there’s nothing that even comes close to being worth following Jesus. None of it matters, and it’s all crap. All that matters now is Jesus. Following Jesus, my life is measured not by how many awards I can get, but by how true I can be to Jesus’ objectives, and how loyal to his cause. If I have to suffer for that, I know it’s worth it. The goal is nothing short of resurrection!

Obviously, I haven’t made it yet. I’m not perfect! But I’m going for it with everything I’ve got. Why? Because Jesus’ mission inspires and compels me! Brothers and sisters, I’m not there yet. But I don’t care what’s happened up to now, I’m moving forward, onward and upward toward the goal – Jesus has shown the way!

Either something is worth the effort. Or it isn’t. There’s no middle ground. For Paul, that something was following Jesus. Compared with that, nothing else mattered.

Notice that all the things Paul lists as worthless are things that involve other people’s recommendations and evaluations. They are social and political and religious status symbols. The upshot: what others think about you isn’t anywhere near as important as what you’re doing now and what your commitments are now in defining who you are.

If you are doing something worthwhile awards and status symbols may come your way (or they may not). But those accolades don’t change your character. At best, they provide yet another platform from which you can do more and better of what you do. Paul used his circumcision and birth certificate, his citizenship papers, all of that, to do more and better work for Jesus. To him, they weren’t signs that he had “made it.”

When I was a kid, we used to go every year to the big parade, the pro-football Hall of Fame parade. And there were always celebrities who would drive past in convertibles waving to the crowds. On the side of their cars the parade organizers would always stick a magnetic placard with the celebrity’s name. Some of them just had their names: William Shatner, Loretta Lynn. On they went. But others had their names, followed by an explanation: “So-And-So, Famous Actor.” Is it any wonder I can’t remember So-And-So’s name any more?

Some people have a string of letters after their name that goes on forever, and a curriculum vita that takes a half hour to read. But the truly remarkable people are those who may have all those letters but never need to use them. So much for titles.

If you’re doing remarkable things (and I hope you are), you don’t need a title or someone else’s approval. The point is to keep on doing remarkable things with everything you’ve got. If you do, everybody who needs to know, will.

You Can Do Anything (When Nothing Is Beneath You)

Hands togetherPhilippians 2:1-13

(See also, Daily Reading comments on Philippians 2:1-4 and Philippians 2:13-15.)

So then, if Jesus encourages you, if love comforts you, if you would share a greater purpose, if you yearn for community, then I’d rejoice to see you work through your differences, love one another, stick together, and find points of agreement. Don’t do things just to promote yourself; try to give someone else a lift. And, among you, it’s not “every man for himself,” rather seek the common good.

Be like Jesus:

Being as God, for him, wasn’t the point.
Instead he gave himself away,
Becoming a nobody, becoming human.

And being fully human, nothing was beneath him –
Not even, to achieve God’s aim, crucifixion.

So God esteemed him,
And put his name first on the list.
This is why we bow to him,
Whether we’re in heaven, on earth, or in the pits.
This is why we call him our Leader.

So then, as you have always done as I have asked, not only when I was with you, but also since I’ve been gone, I’m asking you now to do the work. Your salvation is in our own hands; and God’s desire for good finds expression in your longings and in your work.

It’s widely agreed that the central poem here is probably a hymn sung in the first generation church. In the original, I’m sure it was beautiful and mystical. But the message in the music is that to be divine, that to really and fully live, one must become fully human. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what Paul says those who follow him must do.

It makes perfect sense. We’re human; humanity is all we’ve got. So long as we try to be something else, that something else isn’t real but a fantasy, a projection, an empty wish.

I’m convinced that if church (or any other institution) could be more about getting in touch with our humanity rather than trying to buy an entrance into heaven, it would be more successful. Not to mention more faithful.

The power of being fully human is highly underestimated by many people. But as the hymn suggests, once you are fully human, that’s when you can do anything to achieve a greater, even divine, goal. The first generation church realized that this was what the life and death of Jesus demonstrated. And it was so powerful they called its discovery, “Resurrection.”

When the Going Gets Tough

Pie in the skyPhilippians 1:21-30

I live to serve Jesus, but dying is even better. If I live, I it will be to work and get results. And I can’t make up my mind whether I’d rather die sooner and be with Jesus, which would be better for me, or live longer, which would be better for you. Come to think of it, I expect I’ll live. That way you’ll make progress, and together we can brag about Jesus when we see each other again.

Meanwhile, live in a way that Jesus would be proud of. That way, whether I make it back to see you, or I just hear about you, I’ll know that you’re staying true to your purpose, pulling together to live your faith, and not intimidated by opposition. Doing this proves that you will prevail and they will fall, and that God is still in charge. In fact, your following Jesus is a gift from God, and it’s also your privilege to suffer for Jesus. So you see, what you’re facing is really no different from what I’m facing.

Let us remember first that Paul is writing this letter from prison. Even the great lights crack under pressure. Here we find Paul, working out whether he’d rather live or die. Often romanticized and lauded as Paul’s high-minded willingness to be a sacrifice, this is quite the opposite. Things are going so badly, that death seems like a desirable alternative. In the end, he decides he’d rather live, if only to see his friends again.

Recognizing, however, that his fate is not really in his own hands, he commends to his friends to live well. He wants Jesus to be proud of them, no doubt, but he also is hedging against the possibility that their new and fragile community may also crack and fall apart under the pressures they are facing. Failure of the Philippian followers of Jesus would not only mean that Paul’s own life was in jeopardy, but also that the work that drove Paul’s life and gave it meaning would also turn out to be meaningless. One gets the sense that this is more than Paul can take. He’d rather die than see them fail.

It is, and always has been, difficult work to do something that hasn’t been done before, something bold. And it’s often dangerous. There is the temptation from within to quit rather than do the hard work. There is temptation from outside, with all the nay-sayers, those who think your plans are foolish, those who just don’t get it, and those who do and are dead-set against it happening. To do it as an individual, as Paul did, is hard enough. To do it in concert with others, and to keep an entire community together around a project is even harder. Leading a congregation, especially a demoralized congregation under pressure, is one of the hardest tasks anyone can take on. And there is no guarantee of success.

Paul’s best advice for the community of Jesus followers as he hangs on the razor’s edge of hope and despair himself, is to focus on three things:

  1. Stay true to your purpose. In everything keep coming back to why this community, this movement exists. Not what it does, all the varieties of programs and activities, but the Why. Why you exist as a community must be crystal clear. It must be at the center of every program and activity. It is not a debatable proposition. It’s the core out of which everything else operates.
  2. Pull together to live your faith. It’s been said that leading churches is like herding cats. But, difficult as it may be, it is less difficult if there is agreement about purpose. But purpose by itself is an engine without wheels. People need to actually do the work together to move a community toward fulfillment of its purpose. It’s one thing to say why you exist, but next comes actually doing what you say you exist for. Paul’s advice: do it!
  3. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Of course, it’s one thing to say it. But Paul at this point is living proof that it’s another thing to actually do it. It’s natural to feelings to rise and fall. It’s also natural to question whether you have what it takes, or whether it’s all really worth the effort. It’s also natural, in the face of danger and risk, to want to pull back, or in the case of opposition, to back down. The question, for the Philippian congregation, for Paul, and for anyone trying to accomplish something worth doing, is whether you give in to those despairing thoughts, or whether you push through. Paul, just barely, is pushing through.

If we strip away all the romantic notions about Paul’s selflessness, it’s clear that all his drivel about how pie in the sky might really be better is really his own working through the possibility of facing failure and death. In the end, he doesn’t choose death and pie in the sky for himself, nor does he commend it to his congregation. Better, Paul says, wherever the chips may fall, that when they go down, we know who we are, do the work, and press onward. Pie in the sky, as it turns out, isn’t anything at all. But the proof that a community will prevail is in the work.