First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Advent 2

William Loader

Advent 2: 9 December  Philippians 1:1-11

We are at the formal beginning of a letter. The greeting takes a standard form. Instead of beginning with our, "Dear so-and-so", letters in the world of the New Testament normally commenced with the form: "X to Y, Hi"; here: Paul and Timothy to the Philippians, grace and peace! Whereas for us this is the last formal element until we reach the final "Yours sincerely", or some variation of it, these ancient letter writers had more forms to follow. It was very common to follow the greeting with a thanksgiving to God (or the gods) or a blessing (of God or the gods). Often associated with this was a reassurance that the writer had been thinking of the addressees and was concerned for their welfare.

So much for the formalities. It is important to note them, because occasionally we may think Paul is being "gushy", whereas he may just be following a common rhetorical form. Most interesting for us is the way Paul uses these forms: what he actually includes. Usually Paul shapes these standard forms to say things which turn out to be important for him as we read on in his letters. Paul begins by reassuring them of his prayers and his pride in them because their faith is continuing (1:3-5). Paul was never interested in winning converts as if the main game was numbers. He was concerned about people entering a new relationship with God that keeps going. In 1:6 he reinforces this.

It all sounds straightforward and uncomplicated, but the letter will go on to show that there were real dangers which could easily have undone all that Paul had begun. They included what Paul's Christian opponents might do, especially those who were convinced that Paul had watered down the scriptures in not enforcing circumcision and the other laws which scripture unambiguously attributed to God. In 1:15-18 he writes of some preachers who are simply acting out of self-interest. Later he will warn against "dogs" in the context of concern about his opponents (3:2), those promoting circumcision. Paul was forever having to struggle with what we today would call fundamentalist attitudes towards the Bible. So Paul's introductory comments are far from formal niceties - and the Philippians would doubtless know it.

Notice that he is making a real effort to cement the relationship, especially in 1:7-8. This is also something of the merging we saw in last week's passage where Paul equates good relationship with God and Christ with a good relationship among Christians here and now (not least, with himself). Anything that threatens that threatens everything. Paul wants their love to abound more and more (1:9). That is a wonderful mission statement or statement of purpose. Paul's understanding of such love relates to God's love flowing among us and through us into the world - for all. It is wonderfully big and generous.

He gives it a particular focus, however, in 1:9 and especially in 1:10. It is love which is well-informed and able to be critical, to differentiate faith from phony or destructive forms of (Christian and other) religion. What that means becomes clearer as one reads on. We have mentioned already that it certainly includes dealing with the assaults of those who see Paul's very open, love-centred form of Christ's gospel as "unscriptural" and far too "way out". Paul wants people to be genuine/honest/sincere and faultless/having a clear conscience (1:10). Rigid adherence to laws is something Paul sees not only as erroneous, but also as destructive and the opposite of everything he would understand as holy and good. That is because for Paul God's holiness consists in God's love, not in a kind of self-protective obsession with order and rightness where laws and rules matter more than people. Paul's stance echoes Jesus' declaration that the sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath.

Finally 1:11 completes this section of the letter with another image of what matters most for Paul. It is having people live lives which produce the fruit of righteousness/justice which we see demonstrated in Jesus. His image of praising God has less to do with hymns and songs than it has to do with real people living changed lives.

Behind this language is one of the big arguments which people launched against Paul. If you take this free approach of saying people are not to live by the Law as a set of instructions and if you say that scripture is pointing to hope and renewal rather than laying out a manual of what one should do to get life, won't that lead people to disregard what is good and go off the rails? His opponents could easily have pointed to Corinth where just this seems to have happened. If people are going to be good, then they need sets of rules and commandments. Paul spends much of his time fending off these criticisms and there is just a hint of that debate here.

Goodness, he often argues, is the fruit of a good relationship with God, much more than a following of laws, biblical or otherwise. The goodness that God wants is nothing less than the flow of love which marks the heart of God's doing and being. Elsewhere Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit as love (Gal 5:22). Here he speaks of the fruit of righteousness/justice - it is the same thing. Many Christians then and now struggle to understand this.

Gospel: Advent 2: 9 December Luke 3:1-6

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