Paul at Philippi
Luke in Acts 16 gives us the picture of Paul’s visit to the city of Philippi in response to a dream in which a man appeared asking him to come over to Macedonia, thus creating Philippi as the first beachhead for Paul on the European continent.
Philippi, named after himself by Philip, the father of Alexander the Great in 356 BC had in 168 BC become part of the Roman Empire. By the time of Paul’s arrival around 49AD, the city had a mixed population of Greeks and Romans.
After his arrival, Luke tells us that Paul went outside the city and there encountered a group of women among whom Lydia, possibly a convert to Judaism, but most probably a Gentile, sympathetic to Judaism becomes a pivotal figure for him in the Philippi mission. We know she was a wealthy woman in her right because Luke tells us that she was a dealer in purple cloth, the most expensive kind. After listening to Paul she and her whole household were baptized.
At Philippi, another powerful event took place with serious consequences for Paul and Silas when they encountered a slave girl possessed by a demonic ability to tell the future. They prayed for her deliverance and when the demon left her, so did her power to tell the future. This landed Paul and Silas in serious trouble with the girl’s owner. As a result, they were arrested and thrown into prison. While in prison an earthquake shattered the doors, but instead of fleeing Paul and Silas remained to share the gospel with the amazed and grateful jailor. He also was baptized. Having protested his Roman citizenship, Paul was released by the magistrates and returned to Lydia’s villa for the duration of the rest of his short stay in Philippi.
Paul’s authorship of Philippians is not the subject of serious dispute among Biblical scholars. Philippians is a letter or maybe a series of letters later edited into one, written while Paul was imprisoned, though the location of his imprisonment is debated. The main purpose of the letter seems to be to address discord among the Philippian Christians.
In Philippians 2:1-13 Paul pens words of such power and beauty that they became a universal hymn in the Early Church. Compared with the later philosophical complexities of the Nicene Creed, Paul encapsulates the essence of the Incarnation in words of poetic simplicity.
Paul implores the Philippians to be of the same mind and to ensure that their common mind reflects the values and attitudes displayed by Jesus. On the face of it, it’s a simple enough request. Simple statements are often the most open to widely differing interpretations.
The problem addressed
Even in Paul’s world, there existed news and fake news. Who were the Philippians to listen to? Who were they to believe – Paul or the teaching of the Judaizes – Christian missionaries who preached gentile conformity to the Law of Moses?
Interestingly, Paul does not assert his doctrine over that of the false teachers. At least in this instance, Paul seems to realize that no Philippian mind was likely to be changed through impassioned argument.
Instead, Paul reminds his readers of the intimacy he enjoys with them. He assures them of his continued love and concern for them, despite the drastic situation he finds himself in. Such love is clearly mutual, evidenced by the Philippians sending Paul one of their own, Epaphroditus to assist him in his imprisonment. It’s probable that Paul composes his letter to be taken back by Epaphroditus on his return to Philippi.
Paul’s substantive point
Paul asks the Philippians to reject the spirit of individualism, a powerful counterforce to relationship building. He asks them to put personal ambition and conceit aside, regarding one another with a humility that sees one’s own interests as intertwined with the interests of others. In short, he is asking them to open to the possibilities of a common vision the blueprint for which was to be found in Jesus’ relationship with God.
What do we hear?
Paul recognized the powerful forces working against his vision for the Philippians. Today we can easily see the effect of equally powerful, polarizing influences dividing us from one another and working against the rebuilding of a common vision in society. In their modern guise, the equivalents of the Judaizers of Paul’s time continue in the cultural expressions of Christianity that are little more than a baptism of contemporary society’s popular social values.
The baptism of contemporary values can take a number of differing forms. There is the very popular and smug wealth-righteous feel-goodness of the Joel Osteen’s, for there are many who embrace this facile creed. There is the espousal of condemnatory hatred for difference of which Roy Moore is but the latest poster boy for a Christianity marked by its narrow intolerance, and message of exclusion. There is yet another form of cultural baptism, one that perhaps at St Martin’s we are more aligned with. This is the baptism of post-Enlightenment, ethical reason, expressive of a belief in the moral and ethical superiority of liberal, inclusive values. This is the Christianity of the good and the reasonable, whose sense of moral satisfaction leaves little room for the God Paul preached.
Here’s Paul speaking:
Though in the form of God, Jesus did not count equality with God something to be exploited. He did not stand on his superior status but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.
The primacy of relationship with God is the basis upon which Paul issues his heartfelt plea to the Philippians. The relationship between Christians, Paul contends, must always be modeled on the relationship Jesus shared with God:
For being born as a human being, Jesus humbled himself, and became obedient even to the point of death, and not just any death but death on a cross.
Hence, our humanity is defined not by our God-like aspiration, which is a kind of deluded omnipotence, but through our sacrificial action of service to, and for, one another.
In Jesus, we have our blueprint of God’s vision for humanity, a vision in which humility and obedience become the hallmarks.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you.
Do we have the courage to approach the practice of our faith in a spirit of fear and trembling, allowing God greater scope to work in, and through, us? Fear and trembling here do not mean fearfulness or weakness, but possessing a spirit of respectful listening to God, of being open to the intimations of the divine, through which a growing conscious awareness of God begins to reshape us. It is not what we do that matters, but what we allow God to accomplish, working in, and through, us.