Sermon Ideas For Philippians 1:1-11 Part 2
This text pounds home the point that the pastoral aspect of life and ministry is fundamentally one of affirmation. In the gospel we are able to transcend our estranging characteristics and to genuinely affirm the life of the other. As we meet each other's ambiguities we have been shaped by our anxious contexts to begin with criticism of others' negative sides. Thus we will be ready for the other's criticism of us! St. Paul was capable of incisive criticism. Those who received his letter to Galatia will leap to their feet and show the bruises on their psychic selves to testify. To the church at Philippi, however, Paul "took a chance on love." He affirmed them royally. He is not manipulating with praise. He is deeply sincere. He speaks from his heart. The language he uses to indicate his joy in them erupts from his whole body. Remember the warmth, even to a discomforting degree, you have felt when someone or some group has genuinely praised you. This experience may be the polar opposite of shame where one feels diminished in his/her very being. The affirmation Paul expresses is a celebration of the very being of the individual or group. At its stronger levels, illustrated by Paul's thankfulness for the Philippians, the effect is not a temporary "high." It becomes a source for endurance and energy for the "misty flats" times when nothing seems to result from one's efforts and no one seems even to see us and our commitment. Every Christian, every clergy person, every seeker called by divine care and hope needs a Paul who is having a good day who intimately warms our hearts with his grateful heart.
The gospel inspired pastoral capacity meets people appropriately. It weeps with those who weep, rejoices with those who rejoice. In John the Baptist we see how, for the sake of communication of God's salvation, it speaks the tough love words of discipline. On the other hand, in this text it delights in the faith and life of the other.
This is more than calculated "positive reinforcement." St. Paul needs the Philippians. He needs the affirmation of his ministry through their warm reaction to him and in their enthusiastic sharing of the load. He remembers particular people and their deeds. He expresses the strong interpersonal bonding which occurs when remembering is so particular.
God has made us for koinonia, for bonding, for attachment, heart to heart. Modern self psychology whose leading pioneer was Heinz Kohut may be making more clear to us that the deeper levels of our being are built for strength for all our days by "good narcissism." A little child needs to be a source of delight to others in order to come to feel that he/she is truly welcomed into life. All of our lifetimes we need renewal of that affirmation. This affirmation seems to be best when it is experienced jointly in a "life together," to use Bonhoeffer's phrase. We trust and rejoice in each other together as we share in trust in God's good news.
How can one be so vulnerable, so open to others as St. Paul was to the Philippians, and, yet, provide the necessary pastoral leadership? The answer is that Jesus as the Christ, is the pastor. St. Paul is only a "little Christ," leading only as he is led by Jesus Christ. Our pastoral authority is very relative. So we don't need to distance ourselves as if we were minor uplifted, detached godlets. Richard Sennett in Authority describes two forms of human leadership which would assume that St. Paul's vulnerable affirming is impossible. Sennett calls them "paternalism, an authority of false love" which "loves" only when the other is one's puppet and "autonomy, an authority without love" which coolly uses the need of the other for affirmation against him/her.1
It seems that the human community carries out its responsibilities more richly when the community climate is one where safety, belonging and warmth are apparent. St. Paul's words to and about the Philippians seem to demonstrate that pastoral reality. The spirit and words of prayer are participation in that reality. The oneness of community expressed by our prayers strengthen our life in Christ and from that all aspects of our individual and corporate life. Deep human connection strengthens all the energies which heal. Recently I heard of a research report which seemed to point objectively to a little more physical healing occurring in those prayed for even though they never were aware of the prayers. We are deeply connected. St. Paul told the Philippians that. We are privileged to overhear him and be reminded of the pastoral power of affection.
On P.B.S. there was shown a video called "After Goodbye." It tells the story of the Turtle Creek Chorale of Dallas, Texas. This internationally celebrated singing group of 200 gay men has watched over 60 of its members die in the past several years. In words and song the video presents the koinonia of grieving for particular persons. It shows the affirmation that is the heart of koinonia in that mixture of pain and joy which is in all human life together in some degree. It shows how the remembering of persons demonstrated by St. Paul is central to pastoral community. The AIDS quilt also demonstrates this constructive memory. We all can learn about the pastoral dimension so richly portrayed in the text by really seeing the pastoral and the communal in the small revelations arising in the experiences of humanity coping with what it must today. And when we see heartening faith in action we may rejoice as St. Paul did with the church at Philippi.
Leland Elhard Columbus, OH
1. Richard Sennett, Authority (New York: Vintage Books, 1980).