Proper 21 · Philippians 2:1–4 (5–13) 14–18 · October 1, 2017
Editor’s note: David Schmitt provides this homiletical help as the second of four in a sermon series on the lectionary’s successive readings from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
By David Schmitt,
Paul’s separation from the Philippians causes him to focus on that which holds them together as a community of Christ, involved in humble service to one another.
A Community of Christ
Paul celebrates the community of Christ by placing Christ at the center of their fellowship. He compares their life with one another to the work of Christ and he contrasts their life with one another with the ways of the world. Thus, Paul celebrates the community of Christ through confession, comparison, and contrast.
At the center of their life together is the figure of Christ. His humiliation and exaltation (2:6–11) serves as the heart of their salvation and is celebrated by Paul in the poetic language of a hymn.
This figure of Christ also serves as a reminder of the art of their life with one another. When Paul appeals to the Philippians to be united in humble self-sacrificial service to one another (2:1–5 and 12–18), he puts Christ at the center. He compares their attitude and actions to those of Christ, revealing how the Spirit of Christ is present and active in varied ways among his people in the church.
Through such humility and service, the Philippians will demonstrate that they are the “children of God,” distinct from the “crooked and twisted generation” that surrounds them (2:14–16).
Humble Service to One Another
At the end of this chapter, Paul turns his attention to practical affairs in his relationship with the Philippians. He speaks about sending to them both Timothy (2:19–24) and Epaphroditus (2:25–29). In his description of these servants of God, notice how Paul highlights the love of Christ now put into action. In particular, consider the words Paul uses to describe Epaphroditus. He is “my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need” (2:25).
The people of God are intimately related to one another in a family of faith. Their fundamental relationship is one of brothers and sisters in Christ. Their work together in God’s mission brings them into relationships of mutual service (συνεργὸν) and mutual suffering (συστρατιώτην), carrying holy words (ἀπόστολον) and performing holy deeds (λειτουργὸν) within the body of Christ.
Connections for Application
It has always amazed me how hymns can bring people together. I remember standing around a parishioner’s hospital bed in the ICU. He was dying and the family had gathered around him. After I read from the Scriptures and prayed, his sister began to sing. Softly at first. “Amazing Grace.” Others slowly joined in, as much as they remembered, and, for a moment, our hymn of praise drowned out the noise of the machines. As death was about to tear us apart, this hymn joined us together for a moment in prayer and praise. The apostle Paul knew the power of a hymn. For that reason, he included a poetic piece, a “hymn to Christ,” in his letter to the Philippians. Paul knew that this hymn to Christ could take their attention away from themselves, put it on Christ, and join them together in lives of self-sacrificial love.
When I looked at those who were gathered around this hospital bed singing, I realized that what brought them all to this hospital room was their relationship with the man who was dying in their midst. In a similar way, at the heart of the church stands a person. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He has gathered us together not as members of a biological family but as members of the family of God. He is the one who has come to us in the flesh, died for us under the wrath of God, and rose from the dead, so that he now lives and rules over all things for us. His life is the source of our life in him and springs forth in our lives of service to one another.
Hebrews 11 is often known as the chapter of the “heroes of faith.” We read that list and we ponder the work that God has done in the lives of major figures in the Old Testament. Unfortunately, at times, these individuals can seem larger than life. The work that God has done through them is wonderful but when will you be called upon to build an ark and save the world from drowning?
That is what is so beautiful about this small chapter in Philippians. In this letter of Paul from prison, we get a glimpse of other heroes of the faith. Paul is writing about everyday matters in terms of his relationship with the church at Philippi. As he does so, the names of different people naturally come up. Their work may not seem as spectacular—caring for Paul’s needs during his imprisonment, carrying a letter from Paul to the church in Philippi—but it is just as beautiful and worthy of attention in the eyes of God.
In fact, this section of Paul’s letter reminds us that all you have to do is consider one person in the body of Christ and you will see a network of believers in relationship with one another. For example, the parents who brought that child to baptism, the godparents who prayed for her growth in the faith, the elderly shut-in she visited as part of her confirmation project, and the friend she witnessed to after a volleyball practice at school. You may want to do this exercise with your congregation: choose one member and demonstrate for the hearers how so many different lives are brought together in mutual service in relation to this one person.
Activity for the Week
As the family of God, we work with one another and, through those occasions of self-sacrifice and service, God enables us to grow closer to one another in the faith. For Paul, he had learned to know Epaphroditus as a “brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need.” Using those terms, create an activity wherein the members of your congregation begin to see how they are joined together in mutual service and how they can get to know one another through the work that God is doing in their midst.
The activity could be as simple as inviting members to think about the past month or year and to write their own “letter of friendship” (e.g., email, Facebook post, or actual letter) to one person who has been a brother or sister in the faith, a fellow worker, a fellow soldier, a messenger, or a servant to their needs.
Or, the activity could be more elaborate. The congregation could intentionally identify service projects where members embody what it means to be a brother or sister in Christ, a fellow worker, a fellow soldier, a messenger, or a servant to another’s needs. After identifying those projects, the church could commission members to engage in that work on behalf of the church and then offer a summary of their experience that can be posted and shared with members of the congregation so that the body of Christ can celebrate in very concrete ways how we live and work as the family of God brought together in faith.