Text for the Week: Seeing Through Tears

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

Questions

Who are those living as enemies to the cross?

What is the point of imitating Paul?

How does Paul’s reaction to the controversy (tears) reflect on our imitation of him?

Reflection

Through Lent my focus has been on Luke 2:34-35, ““This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” and asking what it means that Mary’s soul is pierced by the sword also. I think Mary is an example for the Christian who is family with Jesus and so asking what Simeon meant to her gives us insight into how Jesus’ life might be like a sword cutting through our own souls. Last week I discussed how Jesus came to bring a sword (Matthew 10:34-39) and how the sword of his words pierces our relationships. We must recognize this reality because we are called to overcome our divisions and bring healing to these wounds. We are called to recognize how Jesus’ message can bring division so that we can respond with the appropriate grief and concern.

This week we continue the theme and push it in a somewhat different direction. In Philippians 3, Paul is discussing spiritual maturity and calls on the his readers to seek spiritual maturity. In fact, Paul identifies his readers as part of the mature, these are the people who hear Jesus’ call and truly seek to live out that call in the world. I do not think Paul is here talking about an upper tear of sainthood within the Church, rather I think he is speaking to the entire group of Philippians gathered to hear the letter read. Such an understanding makes a difference because it is easy to tune out Paul’s message if we do not think it is addressed to us. But Paul wants us to understand that his words are for each of us no matter how insignificant we feel. It does not matter that we do not think we are up to Paul’s level, those of us who gather in the church are the mature that Paul addresses. There is a saying, “Perception is reality” and Paul is trying to help you visualize the fact that you are mature even if you have a difficult time accepting it.

But there is a second group identified and that group are “enemies of the cross”. We are not told much about this group– I think Paul definitely desired the identity to be ambiguous. It is possible that these enemies are too legalistic, unwilling to accept the grace that God gives and denying that grace to others. It is also possible that this group is too lax, failing to distinguish itself from the world around. Ironically, Paul’s description could encompass the liberals or conservatives of our day as seen by the other side. It is not so important what these people believed as their negative impact on the church. And for the sake of today go ahead and think of Paul speaking to the opposite wing of the church from your perspective. Paul describes two groups “mature” and “enemies” leaving you no place to stand, either you are a mature disciple of Jesus or you are an outsider trying to drag the church down.

It is important to understand the insider and outsider language that Paul uses because the entire passage hinges on the call to imitate him as he imitates Jesus. Imitating is sometimes a difficult concept because we associate imitation with copying mannerisms. Are we called to live like a 1st century Jewish Christian? Are we called to copy Paul, even when Paul tells us he stills has issues? Well obviously the answer is yes, and the real question is how are we to imitate him? His response is to remind us that our citizenship is in heaven; just like having my citizenship in America means I live by America’s customs, laws, and norms, being a citizen of heaven means I live by Jesus’ customs, rules, and norms. Such an idea can be tricky– it takes a lifetime of focus to make Jesus’ way our way– which is why Paul admonishes us to imitate the more mature, including him.

So today we want to imitate Paul, we want to copy some of the traits that make Paul a great follower of Jesus. The trait most visible in this passage is Paul’s tears. Paul does not discard the people who are on the outside looking in, he grieves and laments over them. This group of people is the same one that Jesus says, “But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside into darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:12). This is the group of people who reject Jesus and John paints as the Beast’s army in Revelation 19. How does Paul handle the reality that these people will be on the outside of Jesus’ kingdom– with tears. The pain of their future has grieved Paul, the sword that will come from Jesus’ mouth to destroy those who oppose him has also cut Paul. It is easy to celebrate Jesus’ victory and there is temptation to cheer at the destruction of that part of humanity that has rejected his way, but Paul shows us that some of the tears that Jesus must wipe away from the eyes of the victorious are grieving those lost. Last week we talked of how we can grieve the loss of friends and family because of Jesus, this week we see we must also grieve for them.We cannot simply confine them to their fate and dispassionately watch (or worse celebrate) their destruction. Yet too many times we see this attitude play out, we cheer the outsider’s death, no not the average sinner, but the true tyrant or brutal person. And to the rest of the outsiders we know– we might not cheer but we sit idly by while they walk to destruction. We must learn to feel the pain of separation from Jesus even if it is not our own separation, we must imitate Paul who grieves the loss of people bent on harming the Church. the reality of so many Christian lives (mine included) is that we do not feel the sting of sword cutting others. Think about these words from active atheist Penn Jillette.

“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe there is a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward.How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate someone to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

The sword of the death of others needs to bring us to tears and cause a deep stirring in our hearts and yet the average United Methodist invites someone to church once every 37 years (2-3 in your lifetime). We are not grieved, because the sword of the despair of others has not cut us.

Have you ever been in a flood? I can remember walking through a church basement as the remnants of a hurricane blew outside; as I walked into the fellowship hall I noticed water seeping onto the carpet near a door to a storage room. That was at 12:00pm and at that moment my priorities changed, I had been walking through the church making sure the lights were out and preparing to lock up, but the recognition that water was in the basement forced me to act differently. For the next twelve hours I was part of a team that worked at bailing water out of the church basement, whatever else we had planned for our day took a backseat to making sure the basement was not flooded. The reality of the flood and the potential for damage hit home to me the instant I saw what was happening, I was grieved by the destruction of nature and in that moment my priorities in life changed. I was no longer able to go about my day in the same way and the plans I had originally made were suddenly altered. The same is true when the sword of that is piercing the lost touches our lives. When we begin to feel the pain of those outside the kingdom our priorities shift and we work to change the situation. Paul sees the destruction that is happening and it brings him to tears, he then calls for us to imitate him. He says the path of Jesus leads us into a grief over those who are lost. Imitating Jesus means joining in the pain of the sword that will destroy the world and seeking to save as many as possible from this fate.

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