Sermon Ideas For Philippians 1:1-11 Part 1
This passage at first glance may not seem to have much to commend it to a rigorous theological treatment. By now most congregations are well into their preparations for Christmas, but the Advent themes of watching, waiting, and reflecting are not manifest in our seasonal preparations. Certainly our minds are not moving through the landscape of growth and grace, which is where Paul takes us in the letter to the Church at Philippi.
As we unpack this short passage we find that the questions that emerge are numerous. Is the day of Jesus Christ, the parousia, different than the day of death? What does the continuing work of God in us mean, and does this continue to the day of Jesus Christ? What does the tension between grace, faith, and works actually mean in this context? What does it mean to be a partaker of grace? All of these theological perspectives rest beneath the surface of Paul's opening to the Philippians.
Let us take the one notion "that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ." Theology has incorporated a host of words to speak to this idea. Justification, faith, sanctification, and grace are only some of the words we have used to speak to the work of God in us. From the Pelagian controversy, through the Reformation and the Council of Trent, to the Synod of Dort, John Wesley, and into the contemporary context, the questions take form. What is God's work in us? What is our response to this action? What is grace? Why do some seem to have much faith and others have so little?
Curiously enough this passage has been interpreted differently depending on the understanding of God's action. Paul writes that the work in the believers at Philippi was begun and maintained by God. A theologian like Luther is represented in the notion that our justification is the divine gift of God to which our whole life is a thankful response. Grace is present in the gift of faith, but our lives are lived in spontaneous action and thankfulness. Luther talked about the quellende Liebe, the love that springs, overflowing and without obligation, from our freedom as forgiven people. But ultimately for Luther it is all due to the grace of God that we move to completion.
But other traditions are represented in this notion as well. The Council of Trent addressed the issue of Christian life by acknowledging that it is God's grace that enables humankind to assent and co-operate with the grace of God, yet justification is not only forgiveness of sins, but the sanctification of the soul. Where Luther might have seen God imputing this to humankind, Trent saw this as infused. The differences between these theologies still continue, but each searches how we, as partakers of grace, will find completion in God's artistry.
One of the most interesting aspects of this text is the realization that as love overflows our lives the ability of discernment is enhanced. As a charism of the Spirit discernment has become a lost art in the community of faith. Discernment gives us the understanding that grace does not wear easily the robes of law, love does not find a comfortable seat at the table of legalism.
As we grow in grace and discernment and we look around at the culture, what would the questions be? Why is it that the number three album in the country is a recording of Gregorian chants by a group of monks? What is one to make of the numerous appeals to spirituality found on talk shows and in bookstores?
Perhaps the biggest question the mainline denominations in America is facing is how far can a growth in belief and doctrine stretch. In the Spring and Summer of this year the churches were trying to deal with the reactions to the "Re-imagining Conference." In the midst of heated rhetoric and lines being drawn in the sand, some are trying to join love with knowledge and discernment to ask where the Spirit of God is in the midst of all the debate.
They see clearly the manifestations of self-interest, greed, power, and a host of other attitudes that make so much of the dialogue so graceless. These attitudes are driving the debate, and the depth of the theological struggle today may actually be an example of how little love and grace issue in knowledge and insight.
But discernment does ask some important theological questions. What are we seeking to protect? If we are seeking to protect institutions, power, reputation, or position then whatever truth we fight for is not connected to grace. Maybe discerning love needs to ask whose interests are being served in the current theological ferment.
Paul felt that the Gospel was worth defending, but is it the Gospel that we fight for, or a construct of God? The truth of the matter is that our theology sets the boundaries for human response in the world. If our theology only reflects our prejudices, our desire for things to be the way we want them, then the world will lose. We already have enough Freudian projection on the shelves of the bookstores.
As love abounds in knowledge and discernment, theology is enabled to issue in manifestations of grace, love, forgiveness, understanding, wisdom, even the call to repent from darkness. If not, theology will be fraught with discord, envy, jealousy, and fear.
While the tension of growth is helpful for maturing and enlarging our hearts in grace, the congregation waits in anticipation of good news, that the grace of Jesus Christ which Wesley, Luther, Calvin, and others have pondered is ever being born anew as we make our way this month to Bethlehem.
Jeffrey C. Pugh Elon College, NC