Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

More St Paul
February 13, 2012, 2:02 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday February 5th, 2012

We have just heard an extract from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Who were they, and why was Paul writing to them? Philippi is in northern Greece, and it was founded by Philip II of Macedon in 356 BC. In 42 BC it was the site of the famous battle when Octavian and Mark Antony defeated Brutus and Cassius, following the assassination of Julius Caesar. After the battle, many Roman veterans were settled there, and it became in effect a Latin city in Greek territory. It seems that the religion of the non-Latin part of the population was devoted to Egyptian gods and their rites.

Sometime in 48-49 AD, St Paul arrived on his first expedition into Europe. On the first Sabbath he looked for a Jewish synagogue, but evidently there were not enough Jews in the city to have a permanent building for worship. Instead, there was a place of prayer outside, near the river, and it has been suggested that this was mainly to serve Jewish travellers along the main Roman road who happened to be there on the Sabbath. The group Luke mentions were all women, including a businesswoman called Lydia from Thyatira, a dealer in purple dye.

From this little group Paul made his first converts. Luke is characteristically vague about how long Paul spent at Philippi, but reading between the lines of Acts and the Epistle, it was long enough to build up a well-organised and generous community. Eventually, the local pagans complained about the effect on their own community, and Paul was arrested and flogged, with his companions. He was released with apologies when he made known his Roman citizenship, but thought it prudent to move on to Thessalonica.

It is clear from what Paul writes in his letter (some time later) that the Christians of Philippi continued to send him financial support for his mission. In thanking them profusely, he says that they were the only church to do so at that time. It is interesting that those he mentions by name (like those mentioned by Luke) are all women. Possibly this contributed to the annoyance of the pagan men: Paul was putting disturbing ideas into their wives’ minds!

Thee is argument among scholars as to whether the Epistle is a single letter, or a compilation of three sent at different times. Part at least was probably sent from Ephesus, maybe three of four years after his time at Philippi. After a gap in which the Philippians had had no opportunity to send him assistance, they had re-established contact, sending money with Epaphroditus, who had then fallen ill. Paul had to wait for his recovery to send his message of thanks.

In the letter as we have it, Paul begins with an update on his situation. After some success at Ephesus, he has suffered a setback, and has been in prison (yet again!). But he has some hopes of visiting them again, and encourages them to live as Christians should. He reminds them that the Messiah, Jesus, did not cling to his rightful dignity, but for our sake allowed himself to be humiliated and even killed. It is precisely because of his trusting obedience to the Father that he is now the glorious Lord in heaven.

This is the point at which we came in tonight: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work.” This is the key-text: the rest of the extract develops it, and continues with the topical matters I mentioned, such as Epaphroditus’ illness.

Therefore– it is because of Christ’s obedience that we are what we are, and can do what we do.

My beloved– not just beloved by Paul, but dear to him because they are dear to God.

As you have always obeyed– again, he does not mean that they have been obedient to him, done what he told them; rather, from the beginning they have been open to the word of God, receptive to the message which God has sent them through him. The message, of course, being that God loves them, and that in Christ he has given us the proof of his love. Our obedience is simply our positive response to this message.

so now… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling– “work out” not in the sense of trying to find out, but by giving complete effect to. Our salvation- the word can mean both a state of safety and a safe return home- requires this positive response, which should be given not in a routine or complacent way, but with the awareness of how great a danger we are in, if we do not put our trust in God. The words are very, very strong: terror, quaking. Yet this is still to be combined with total confidence in the love and power of the Lord.

for God is at work in you, both to will and to work– if our salvation depended on our unaided efforts, we should be terrified; but in fact it is God who works in us, even to the extent of giving us the will to do right, let alone the ability to do it.

So there it is, the simplicity of Paul’s Gospel: the centrality of Jesus Christ, the overflowing generosity of God, the requirement on our part that we should be open and receptive towards him. After that, we should let God direct our lives, so that we become more and more like him.



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