Proper 23 · Philippians 4:4–13 · October 15, 2017
Editor’s note: David Schmitt provides this homiletical help as the fourth and final in a sermon series on the lectionary’s successive readings from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
By David Schmitt,
In Paul’s closing exhortations, he encourages the Philippians in their devotion to Christ, in their support of one another, and in their engagement with the world.
Inside the church, some of the workers are not in agreement (4:2). Outside the church, there was opposition, affecting the Philippians (1:28) but also putting Paul in prison. Such circumstances could lead to fear and fragmentation among believers. Yet, rather than be opposed to one another and opposed to the world, Paul encourages them to stand firm in Christ (4:1), and, from there, to practice mutual support of one another (4:2–3 and 10–20) and discerning engagement with the world (4:4–9).
Standing Firm in Christ
By appealing for them to “stand firm thus in the Lord,” Paul echoes his concerns throughout the letter. Repeatedly, Paul has brought all things back to Jesus Christ, the crucified one, who is risen from the dead and now rules as Lord over all things. Once again, Paul encourages them that the Lord is near, both in terms of his second coming (4:5) which they eagerly await, and in terms of his present peace (4:7 and 9), in which they currently rest.
Offering Mutual Support
Standing firm, however, did not mean inaction. It meant action. It involved mutual support among the faithful as they entered into God’s bold engagement with the world. Earlier Paul associated standing firm with “striving side by side” (1:27), so it should not surprise us that, when Paul is confronted with disagreement among workers, he points to the Lord (the true source of agreement) and reminds them of their mutual work in the gospel (4:2–3). As he closes his letter, Paul reminds them of their bold ventures in supporting his missionary labor (4:10–20). Though persecuted and scattered, the church is not dying. It is standing firm and engaging in mutual support.
Engaging with the World
In addition, standing firm involved discerning engagement with the world. Rather than retreat from the world or only fight against it, Paul encourages a bold entry into it that involves careful thought and faithful action. The Philippians are encouraged to find that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise and consider these things (4:8) even as they put faith into action by following the example of the apostle Paul (4:9). Through such engagement, God will work in mission. This is testified by the fact that, even now, some of “Caesar’s household” have been brought to the faith and send their greetings to their extended family in Christ with the apostle Paul (4:22).
Connections for Application
A Christian media consultant once noted that he had never come across a person who joined a church because they read something negative and mean-spirited on their blog. From his experience, no new member ever said, “I just loved the way you trashed those other Christians and thought ‘I have to be a part of that church.’” Unfortunately, however, opposition tends to bring out the worst in the church. Arguments within the church and conflicts with the culture can lead to speech that filled with “anger, malice, wrath, slander, and obscene talk” (Col 3:7). Hatred is masked as zeal for the truth and, when those who are outside the church are asked what it means to be a Christian, the first thing that comes to their mind is not “see how they love one another” (Jn 13:35) but rather “see how they fight with one another and with the world.” The research of Kinnaman and Lyons (unChristian) offers a glimpse into this phenomenon. We seem to have lost sight of the way of love as enacted and encouraged in Philippians by the apostle Paul.
Paul confronts a situation that is filled with strife. There is internal argument among members in the church in Philippi and there is external opposition, leading to his imprisonment. Yet, in this midst of this, Paul focuses on the work of Christ and from that focus he encourages God’s people to be the family of God distinguished by three qualities: they are united in Christ, they support one another, and they are engaged in work in the world.
In this portion of the letter, Paul repeatedly uses the phase “in the Lord” or “in Christ Jesus.” His words call to mind the manifold gifts that God has given by joining us to Christ. Some churches have “living baptismal fonts” in which there is a continuous flow of water. That image captures the way in which God’s gifts are continually poured out upon us through our baptism in Christ. In Christ Jesus, we are brought into a sure and certain relationship with God (1:1), into a way of life that involves self-sacrificial service for the other (1:2), into joy in all circumstances (1:4 and 10), into peace and protection (4:7), and into holiness before God (4:21).
As Paul encourages the Philippians to be in support of one another, he recalls the past. He recounts for them the way in which they worked with him in missionary endeavors over the years (4:3 and 14–20). For Paul, there is wisdom in a church remembering its past. God’s people can see in very concrete ways how God works, through mutual support, in the family of Christ. Consider how the Lord has worked within your congregation in the past, providing your people with a memory of mutual support in the mission of God.
As Paul envisions the church engaged in the world, he encourages the Philippians to find that which is good and true and worthy of praise and to affirm such things. Critical engagement with the culture does not only have to be by opposition. It can also be by affirmation of that which is good. God has so ordered the world that people serve as masks of God in their vocations. Using Paul’s list of terms, consider the actions of others in the world and highlight concrete example of such things that Christians can affirm (e.g., the honor given to those who have offered their lives in sacrificial service to others; the praise due to those who care for their children or the world around them, etc.). While we don’t want to turn a blind eye to areas where we stand firm in the faith in opposition to culture, we certainly don’t want to forget that there remain many good and noble things which we, as Christians, can affirm.
Activity for the Week
As the body of Christ, we gather for worship and we enter the world for work in our vocations.
Much of the church’s interaction with the world is in opposition to what is happening there, and understandably so. But there are places where the church can engage with others in a supportive way. We can affirm the good that is being done (Phil 4:8) and, by our work and our witness, point to that which is godly.
Identify a work within the community that is good. This could be a food drive for a local food pantry, support for a women’s shelter, home-delivered meals for those returning from the hospital, a neighborhood clean-up effort at the local park, or a welcome effort for immigrant families. Then organize a volunteer effort from your congregation to join with others in service, which affirms that which is good.