Text: Philippians 2:12-18
One of my favorite writers is a man named Bob Goff. Bob has written two books about his wild adventures that he has encountered while following Jesus. He is a crazy dad, ambitious neighbor, a member of the honorary consul for the Republic of Uganda and calls himself a “recovering lawyer”. Each chapter of his book tells a story, big or small, of experiences in his life that he relates to stories of Jesus.
What I love, and what I think captures readers so well, is that Bob is eager to seek out love in unexpected places. These unexpected places, people, and events bring out the romantic whimsy of Christianity. One chapter he drops out of high school for 3 days to pursue his dream of being a park ranger and a bit later he travels across the world with his kids to meet foreign diplomats and show them neighborly love.
The book is titled “Love Does”, which I love because it encapsulates him so well. He writes “…Love is never stationary. In the end, love doesn’t just keep thinking about it or keep planning for it. Simply put: Love Does”. It takes our notion of Love being a feeling that happens and puts it into action (something that does). It changes our perspective of how love works in our lives.
This is part Paul’s message in Philippians 2:12-18, the passage that follows Eric’s from last week. Our faith is not something we can just think about or plan, but something that happens in action.
To review a little bit of context, Paul is writing his letter to the Christian community in Philippi. Before Jesus’ time, Philippi was a very strong, significant city- both politically and militarily. It was a part of the Roman Empire at the time, and was known as “the urban center of the east”. After Jesus’ death, the church in Philippi was the first church Paul founded in Europe (around 50 AD). So, we can see the importance of this church and the city’s history.
Paul is writing this letter to the Philippians, as he awaits trial in jail. As we heard earlier, Paul is encouraging the members of the Church to continue to pursue an active faith. He also highlights God’s hands at work in our will along with the intent of our actions- to do things without grumbling or disputing.
As we learned last week, Paul loved this church, and they loved Paul. They had a great relationship from the establishment of the church and Paul’s mentorship. Part of the letter’s intent was to update the Philippians on how he, Paul, was doing. Understandably, the Philippians were concerned both for Paul, and what the results of his trial would mean for the future of the Christian faith.
Thus, the letter serves to as an update, and primarily to encourage the Christians of Philippi regardless the outcome of the trial/ Paul’s fate.
Live Out Active Faith
Paul’s central message, his directive, in his letter is telling the Philippians to continue to pursue their faith in action. He mentions two key verbs in the passage: work out your salvation in verse 12 and do all things without grumbling or disputing in verse 14.
It’s easier to understand how to do all things without grumbling or disputing, however “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” seems daunting. It seems daunting because I don’t think of Christians as people who tremble in fear of their salvation. When I think of salvation, I think of God’s grace and our abounding thankfulness for it
First, here working out your salvation means live out or carry out your salvation. Thus, it is not up to us to figure out our salvation, but rather to put work into it.
And when we put effort in our faith, we work with genuine intent and severity. We are serious about pursuing our faith. This is what Paul means when he says, “fear and trembling”. It translates to us as being in awe of the faith we pursue, and the Lord who has saved us.
It’s almost like a roller coaster type of feeling. The click click click click of the cart going up the hill brings trembling and the feeling of awe, right before the big drop. With every click of the ride, the anticipation of what lies ahead builds. The ride is so full of wonder, that it’s fearful. Then you go over the top and have the immense joy of going down the hills, and the rush of wind forcefully coming at you. You don’t always know where the roller coaster will take you– but it’s an adventure.
Unless you’ve been forcefully dragged on by your friends, it’s something you choose to do. That’s how our faith should make us feel inside. Something that we choose to do, that we don’t have complete control over.
These feelings are merely a result of doing. So, these key actions Paul writes about: working out our salvation and doing without grumbling are just that: actions. Paul is speaking to the importance of putting work into our faith. As Christians, we do not sit and wait for an act of God to happen, but rather, we are people who go out into the world to show God’s work in us.
It’s like Bob and his audacious ways of loving his neighbors. There are ways in which we demonstrate a “doing faith” every day—we go to Church, experience fellowship with one another, share our gifts with others, and more.
This falls in similarly with the text, because Paul is also encouraging those who are already faithful. As he says in verse 12, “just as you have always obeyed”. So, we see the importance of encouragement, even when we’re on the right track.
If you can imagine being in school again, think of going into the final exam. Even though you may have been doing well throughout the whole semester, you’ll still be nervous going into your final test. Then your teacher reminds you, “hey, you’ve been doing well this whole time, if you put work into doing well on the final, you will be successful”. Paul here is acting like the teacher, saying “you’ve done well with your faith up until now, just continue what you’re doing”. Paul mentors them, but tells them to keep going because their success isn’t dependent on him, but rather their faith.
Paul is clearly invested in this community. He has been communicating with and mentoring this church for 12 years. He says in verse 16, “holding fast the world of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain”. Don’t give up now he says. Even as I am in jail and awaiting trial and coming closer to death do. Not. Lose. hope. Continue to share your joy.
He is challenging the Philippians, and us, to continue pursuing this faith and showing it to the world.
Active Faith: How and Why
Paul follows his encouragement with directives for how and why Christians should strive for an active faith. How to move forward. As we learned earlier, an active faith is one that we pursue, but is directed by God.
And it works together like that. Us and God; it’s a partnership. We pray to God, worship him, and learn about him through scripture. Throughout our lives we go forth, and through our actions and thoughts God molds our will and our hearts for his pleasure. Paul says exactly this in his letter in verse 13, “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure”. So that with each experience of our lives, we learn and move forward in his will.
It’s much like a couple dancing the waltz. God is the leader, and as the follower, I have to put in work to follow and not to step on my partner’s feet. The more practice I have following the leader and learning from my missteps, the better dancer I will be. The key aspect of this illustration is that God is such a patient teacher. He’s not expecting us to perfect the dance, for he knows that we will mess up along the way. The key is that he wants us to walk in our faith with him.
This leads us to the final point of Paul’s passage, the “why” of pursuing an active faith. The first Part of Paul’s directive to the Philippians is to be strong in faith amidst the darkness that exists on earth.
As we have learned, there was a strong military presence and cultural influence from the Roman empire in Philippi at the time. It’s something I think we can imagine with our society today- the sticky balance between religion and allegiance to the nation in which we live. For the Philippians, they were also the first church established by Paul, and were in a world that was just becoming to know the Christian faith.
Though it is slightly different from thousands of years ago, we still have that crooked darkness in our lives today. Like the Philippians we struggle with conflicting political influence. We can also get caught up in other pressures from our society like materialism, which distract us from our faith.
On top of the challenge of maintaining faith in the darkness of the earth, Paul charges the Philippians, and us, to do so without complaining or arguing: with a servant’s heart. He says in verses 14-15: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights of in the world”.
So even when the world is discouraging or the darkness is full of criticism and distractions, you’re told to stand firm and do so with a humble heart.
And as Paul says, THAT is what makes Christians appear as lights in the world. When we stand humble, with a servant’s heart.
For a long time, I understood being a light unto the world as bright, cheery, and full of energy and encouragement to those around. If you are familiar with the “little miss sunshine” character, that’s what I imagined. I don’t think that understanding is wrong, but do think I misunderstood what Paul is really getting at in this passage. It is a humbled, righteous heart that stands out in the darkness of our world.
This is quite the challenge from Paul. Does he know just how difficult it is to put aside your pride, your human desire and selfish interests in today’s world? We have school, jobs, friends, and a million other things that get in the way. Of course he knows how difficult this is- that plays to his point of how outstanding it seems when you meet someone who follows Paul’s charge. They are rare, and appear as a true light in our world.
To end, I’d like to share a story that I think illustrates the light of Jesus so well. I’ve spent 11 of my summers at a sleepaway camp tucked away in the mountains of North Carolina. It’s an all-girls Christian camp where I made some of my most genuine friends and made many of my best summer memories.
One of the best kept traditions is an evening program held towards the end of each session. At dusk everyone is given a small wooden block with a candle on it. Girls walk down to the lake by cabin, with the friends they’ve made over the past 5 weeks, to light their candles together. The oldest girls stand by the lake to pass the flame to the rest of camp. After lighting their candle, each girl places it in the lake’s edge. There are about 500 campers and 150 counselors, so you can imagine how the candles start spreading across the water.
And we watch quietly. We whisper about how some candles bunch all together, while others float far away on their own. Some candles burn bright with passion and some struggle to keep their flame.
It’s an amazing tradition, which is elevated each time. There were years when storm clouds rolled in, and gusts of wind blew out many candles. There were nights when the sky was clear, and the candles would float further than we could remember. Sometimes candles would stay close to the water’s edge in small bunches.
After the program, we return to the cabins and talk about what the whole evening represents. It starts as a great image for camp, because girls go home to different cities and states, some far some close, but hold the common light of camp. We talk about how it’s also a wonderful representation of how Christians go out into the world. Sometimes we struggle against the wind to keep the flame burning. Sometimes candles blow out, and some burn the wax all the way down.
Keeping the candle’s flame is something that takes work, for it cannot be lit on its own. Just as we need God’s help to guide our faith, a candle needs the flame, the wick, and oxygen.
I’ll leave you with the lyrics of the song that we sing when lighting the candles. It’s an old song that’s been sung at camp for almost 50 years. It takes so long for everyone to light their candle, that I think we sing it about 30 times- so I could never forget the words. It goes: “It only takes a spark to get a fire going, but soon all those around can warm up in its glowing. That’s how it is with God’s love, once you’ve experienced it. You’ll spread his love, to everyone, you’ll want to pass it on.”