Lent 2 • Philippians 3:17–4:1 • February 24, 2013
By Robert Kolb
“Walk this way,” Mel Brook’s Igor the hunchback said (from the movie Young Frankenstein). Following in his footsteps, Doctor Frankenstein imitated his awkward gait. Children imitate their parents, sometimes to their parents’ pleasure, sometimes to their embarrassment. Models of faithful following of Jesus are significant parts of the Holy Spirit’s bringing up God’s children in the way that they are to go. “Συμμιμιταί” Paul wants us to be. We never imitate alone since God saw that it was not good for us human creatures to be alone. We learn to follow Paul’s example in walking Christ’s way in the family, the congregation of his people.
Notes on text
1. Part of Paul’s example involves us in learning to cry the right way, and to cry because of—and even on behalf of—our enemies. He shed tears not in anger, nor disgust, nor indignation, but in outright sorrow for people whose God is their belly. And that from a man who usually appears to us unlikely to shed tears! The enemies of the cross glory in their own shame because the way in which they think about reality (φρονουντες) focuses their lives on what they experience on earth (επίγεια). Imitators of Paul have learned to think about reality in a mature (τέλειος) fashion, that is, a fashion that fulfills God’s goals for his earthly creatures (Phil 3:15). Tears are a gift from God for those who do not think Christ’s way. They flow from eyes and minds freed by Christ’s death and resurrection to imitate Paul and the Lord himself (Lk 19:41). Only those who know tears of joy because of what Christ has done for us can pray on behalf of their enemies with tears.
2. Paul contrasts those who imitate him with these people who hasten toward their own destruction. He describes the orientation of his imitators in terms of where their ears, eyes, and hearts are pointed. Indeed, the earthly country and the this-worldly culture in which we live are gifts of the Creator of earth, countries, and cultures, and he happens to be our Father. This earth is the Lord’s, and he shares it with his children. We dare never abandon country or culture to the squatters, whose end is destruction, but must continually bear witness to our claim that this vineyard earth really belongs to our family (Mt 21:33–44). Nonetheless, Paul here insists that our citizenship is in heaven: God our Creator has planted the feet of his human creatures firmly on earth, but he wants us to have our heads in the clouds; that is, to have the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5, 1 Cor 2:16). For our identity papers were issued in baptism, and our orientation is toward God’s throne. He commands our ultimate loyalty. He is coming from heaven to reclaim us as his own. He reclaims us for living on his earth, in the callings to which he has called us, and does not want us to be longing for escape from the privilege of serving him by serving his creatures here on earth. But he does want us to be longing for him, and for his return, which will consummate all his plans for us.
3. Paul reminds us that we are on our way, not to destruction, but to new bodies. He does not promise escape from the body but its re-creation (1 Cor 15). An old design, a new model. He speaks of a body that rises, ascends, to another way of thinking about reality, Christ’s way of thinking (Phil 2:5, 1 Cor 2:16). This text is not a discussion of whether this earth is to be renewed or left behind on the last day: it is a proclamation regarding the proper orientation or direction of our minds, a call to living in trust in the one who recreates us through his own death and resurrection.
4. The verb στήκω is derived from ιστημι; Paul uses it as an invitational command or imperative invitation to recognize that Christ’s people have in him a place to stand that is firm because it is grounded on the very action of God. The Creator has come in human flesh as Jesus of Nazareth to recreate his fallen human creatures. Because he has done this, we have the solid ground of Calvary and Joseph’s tomb under our feet. From Calvary we can see forever; through the tomb we see all the way to God’s throne. Secure in Christ, we can afford to shed tears over those who are racing toward their own destruction, and we can care for God’s earth, for our country and our culture, with heads in the clouds and hands on in the midst of his creation.
Possible approaches to preaching the text
This text provides such rich provocation for thinking about what Paul’s message means for us today that any one of the above four points can be woven into a sermon. In each case the ideas of imitating Paul, which is living in Christ’s footsteps in newness of life, as our baptisms have recreated us to do (Rom 6:4), should provide the basis for weeping, and/or caring for creation with a heavenly mindset, and/or looking forward to our fulfillment in resurrection, all the while standing firm while walking Christ’s and Paul’s way.