First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 16

William Loader

Pentecost 16: 24 September  Philippians 1:21-30

Paul is writing to the Christians at Philippi from a situation of imprisonment. They know about this. Paul is not engaging in pious speculation when he contemplates his options. He faces real danger. In that danger he knows death means he goes to be with Christ, even if that may be in a state of rest until Christ returns according to his usual pattern of imagining the future. He sees himself more likely not to face death and in that he thinks less of his personal survival and more of what it can mean for others, including the people at Philippi.

This is all part of relationship-building with them. Paul is sensitive about the relationship and wants them to know he cares about them. It was a standard part of letters to assure the recipient of your concern and love for them. Relationships matter. It was also a standard part of ancient letters to speak about the hope of coming to make a visit. Paul follows this pattern. But Paul is not indulging in mere formalities.

In 1:27 he then turns to explicit instruction. Here we get to the real concerns. Paul is concerned about unity. For him part of conducting oneself in a worthy manner as a Christian is to seek to maintain unity. This does not mean unity at all costs. Paul is very clear elsewhere and in this letter that unity has its basis in Christ and in understanding Christ as a manifestation of God's goodness and generosity which is radically inclusive in its scope and does not discriminate against people on the basis of such things as circumcision.

1:28 tells us more. There is opposition. Possibly this means opposition from authorities in much the same way as Paul faces such opposition to the extent of imprisonment. His fellow Jews may well have a hand in it because they see him as betraying his people. They would have no interest in defending him against the charge of trouble making. It makes one also wonder whether such opponents also include the Jewish Christians who see Paul as a renegade. Probably they did.

Elsewhere in the letter it is clear that he is very unhappy about what he labels sham preachers, including those who take what we might see as a fundamentalist line of insisting that circumcision is in the Bible and therefore must be imposed on people because obedience to what is written is the foundation of their faith. In 1:15-17 Paul writes with generosity, but probably much pain about such preachers. They are "Christians". They contribute to his imprisonment (1:17). 3:2 uses much sharper language. 3:18-19 even describes them as enemies of the cross of Christ.

Paul does not want his Philippian congregation to succumb to such pressures. But he knows the dangers. The alliance of fundamentalist-type Christianity and political powers is very dangerous. The imprisonment to which it leads these days has less to do with being put in jail (though that is certainly the fate of some who protest) and more to do with being captive to the spirit of the age, frequently sweetened by a triumphant nationalism. Being Christian then comes to mean supporting one world power against others and tragically shifts our loyalty and priority from the poor to protecting our own self interests. We must not be seen to "betray our great people". Paul faced that accusation but had the courage to put love and compassion for all peoples first and to face the consequences.

Gospel  Pentecost 16: 24 September Matthew 20:1-16

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