I do love the story of Lydia that I just told the children. She was the first Christian convert in all of Europe. Philippi was Paul’s first stop in Europe and Lydia and the women who worshipped with her were his first converts there. All my ancestors came to this country from Europe and maybe yours did too. Lydia and her warm welcome of Paul opened the door for faith to come to us. I am grateful for her.
And let me quickly tell you the rest of the story about Paul and Silas in prison in Philippi – and the prison guard whom they converted. The story may have happened in about the year 50 or 52 A.D. - in other words about twenty years after Jesus died. We left Paul and Silas sitting with their legs and feet spread wide apart in stocks in the deepest darkest dungeon of the jail in Philippi. About midnight they were praying and singing hymns when suddenly the prison was rocked by an earthquake – so strong that the prisoners’ chains all fell off and the doors of the prison all flew open. The prison guard assumed that the prisoners would have escaped, and he was about to kill himself, but Paul and Silas assured them that they hadn’t escaped and the next thing we know, Paul and Silas were invited to the home of the prison guard – where of course they talked about Jesus, and where the guard and his family were all baptized. There, on the spot, in the middle of the night. There in the prison guard’s house. So that was the start of the church in Philippi – a bunch of women meeting beside the river – one of whom was very wealthy and her family and all her employees and slaves, and a prison guard and his family. And the next day, Paul and Silas and Luke said goodbye to Lydia and they were on their way to the next town. They had been in Philippi only a few days.
But Paul kept in touch with the people whom he baptized there. We have some idea that he had visited them over the years. They had sent him financial gifts more than once, and he bragged to them that they were only church that had done that. Finally in about the year 62 or so - about ten years after he had sat with Lydia and the others by the river and after he had baptized the prison guard and his family - they sent him another gift. It was hand – delivered by man named Epaphroditus. Depending on whether he traveled by sea or overland, it may have been a trip of about 900 miles to bring Paul his gift. Paul sent them this letter in return.
We know that he was in prison when he wrote it and we can’t be sure, but we think that he may have been in Rome at the time, living under house arrest. He is well aware that his death may be very near, but his letter is full of confidence, and his love for them shines out of every word he writes. He starts out by saying “I thank God every time I think of you. My prayers for you are full of joy.” He calls them “my beloved” and says, “I am confident that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.”
But there was something else in that Philippian church. Apparently there were two women in the church who were at odds with one another. This troubled Paul when he heard about it, and it apparently troubled others in the church as well.
So Paul quotes a creed that they probably recited every time they worshipped together – and that they knew very well - the words we have just read. He paints them a picture of Jesus. He reminds them that Jesus was God. That he sat in on his throne in the glories of heaven with God before there was anything at all. Before time began. He reminds them that Jesus was there sitting with God, as a co-creator with God. When God created the sun and the North Star and the oceans and the continents and the pansies and the petunias and the bears and the bunnies and the oriels and the octopuses – Jesus was there. And Jesus was there with God, as God, when God rolled a little bit of clay around and breathed into it and created a human life.
But though he was God, he gave up the perks and the power of being God. He gave up his throne in the glories of heaven. He gave up ruling the world in love and power and great pity and compassion up there in the glories of heaven and he came to this earth. Not the good earth that he had created, but a bruised and battered earth – full of pain and ugliness. He suffered all the pain and ugliness that this distorted world could inflict on him. The King and Creator of everything became a slave. He surrendered all his power and his rightful place beside God in heaven and sunk lower and lower and lower into the evil and ugliness of humanity. Until he became a victim of humanity’s most violent act. And he died the most painful and most humiliating way a person could die in those days – naked on a cross and hanging there for all the passersby and gawkers to jabber about as they stopped to watch.
And then says, Paul, quoting their very own creed – then God raised him up again. And now he is back where he belongs – back beside his Father, back to the honor that is due to him as God. And now the whole world is falling down on its knees in adoration and thanks and praise and love for him. The sounds of people praising him are rising up from small mud huts in Africa and large cathedrals in Europe and from a small city in Michigan. And a joyful intermingling of every language on this earth is rising up to his ears on his royal throne. In thanks and adoration to Jesus our Lord.
Paul sends a letter off to the people he loves in Philippi. He paints them that picture and urges them to be like Jesus. To think like Jesus and to behave like Jesus. To look to the good of others rather than themselves, and to regard others as better than themselves. To let go of pride and selfishness. Which takes the kind of radical humility that Jesus modeled for us.
Now I am your brand new temporary part time pastor and I have been with you for only about two months. In that time I have begun to know and I have begun to love you and I have begun to hear some of your stories. I have heard again and again that you are a very diverse congregation. And you are. You are people of different political persuasions, and different faith backgrounds and your life stories are very different. Some of you would classify yourselves as politically conservative or liberal or theologically conservative or liberal and some of you are somewhere in between. And I have heard over and over again that somehow you have learned to look beyond some pretty big differences and you have learned to accommodate each other and work together. And I have seen with my own eyes that that is true. I have witnessed genuine respect between people of very differing positions. I have watched you work together and laugh together and have serious discussions together and I have seen true, deep, long-time friendships among people of very different political and theological opinions and convictions. That is beautiful to see and I celebrate that and I thank God for that in you.
We have just celebrated Christmas and we have just seen the Son of God lying in a cow box and wrapped in rags. We have seen how angels sang to shepherds of all people and we have had a glimpse of how the Romans and the religious leaders ganged up against our Savior and nailed him to a cross. And now we are beginning a New Year and in this congregation we are beginning to dream about the new future that God has in mind for this church.
So now may I say this: I have also been hearing that there has been another great difference between members of this congregation for the past several years. Those differences have been deep and the feelings have been strong and very painful. I sense that there is mistrust among you and some strained relationships and there is some real woundedness. And may I say to you that that’s a lot more painful than disagreeing about whatever the President happens to have done recently. That requires some deep radical forgiveness and forgiveness is about the most difficult thing we Christians are asked to do. That requires a humility that most of us don’t begin to know about. That requires sincerely wanting the good of the other. That requires getting off our thrones and sinking deeper and deeper into some very hard places. Humility requires that we give up our fondest, long held convictions and ideas and allow for the possibility that we might be wrong and that the other might be right. Humility means that we let go of who we think we are and all the power we think we have, and take on a new gentler, identity. Jesus’ kind of humility means that we become slaves to each other.
That’s not the way anybody thinks in 2015. We are taught to look out for ourselves and to speak our minds and to stand firm in our convictions. All around us we have the example of people building walls between each other instead of bridges. We are not taught to be vulnerable with each other or consider the best for others before ourselves. We are not taught, very well, how to forgive.
So I offer you this picture of Jesus today. The picture of our baby Savior in cow box covered with rags. The picture of the Creator of the universe being spit on and beaten by those he came to save. The picture of a king hanging naked on a cross.
And the picture of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords receiving our loving praises.