I don’t tend to post sermons on here. That’s mainly because sermons and blog posts are completely different animals. Sermons are spoken and heard; blog posts are written and read. Sermons tend to be longer, and assume a captive audience; blog posts need to be snappy and attention-grabbing. And sermons are really not at home when removed from the specific time, place, congregation and church service for which they were prepared.
But, having said that, here you can find an approximation to the text of a sermon (or two) I preached yesterday. I say approximation, because I tend to smooth out the wording (and add extra bits) in the process of delivery. It’s basically a one-point sermon. And rather than ‘state, illustrate, apply’ for each point (or for the only point), the structure of the whole sermon is more like ‘illustrate, state, apply’. (I’ve added headings to the text to make that clearer.)
The most helpful commentary in preparing was Joseph Hellerman’s recent volume in The Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, which draws out the themes of honour and shame in Roman society. And the most helpful sermons were the first two in a recent series by Charlie Skrine from St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, from which I took the image of a Roman shield wall. You might also detect Tom Wright lurking in the background.
All quotes from the NIV, unless specified.
Introduction: the Battle of Philippi
The year is 42 BC. It is two years since Julius Caesar was assassinated. The main leaders of the assassination, Cassius and Brutus, have been in the eastern parts of the Roman empire, and have assembled an army of 100,000 soldiers. Meanwhile, Caesar’s successors, Mark Antony and Octavian, have assembled another army of 100,000 to seek revenge. The two armies meet on the plain to the west of the city of Philippi, along the main trading route between east and west.
A key tactic in Roman conflict was what’s called a shield wall. Each soldier has a large shield, and they stand side by side, and row by row, with shields in front of them and above them. As they stand firm, and as they strive together, the army can advance into enemy territory.
It was a fierce battle. Roman against Roman. Mark Antony and Octavian won, but some 40,000 were killed. The memory of this battle would forever be imprinted on the city of Philippi.
Philippi was a long way from Rome, but it became an important Roman city, with a large population of Roman citizens and army veterans. In fact, Octavian declared Philippi itself to be Roman soil. If you were in Philippi, you were in Rome itself. This was the place where the enemies of Caesar had been defeated. This was the place where the future of the Roman empire had been secured.
A hundred years later, Paul wrote a letter to the Christian community in Philippi. And he urged them to have unity. It’s not difficult to imagine the kind of unity he had in mind. Think of that shield wall. The church is like an army, shields locked together, one in mind and one in purpose, not afraid of opposition, but pressing forwards together. It would be like Paul writing to a mining community and saying ‘unity is strength’. That’s the kind of unity he had in mind. Having a common purpose, and striving together for a common cause.
Citizenship is a big theme in Philippians. The key verse is the one we were focusing on last week, ‘Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’ (1:27a). The ESV gives us a more literal translation of the Greek in a footnote: ‘Only behave as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ’. And citizenship comes back at the end of chapter 3, where Paul says, ‘But our citizenship is in heaven’ (3:20).
So why is citizenship such an important theme?
A lot of people in Philippi were Roman citizens. And they were very proud of that. If you believe the propaganda, Rome had discovered the ways of peace and prosperity and justice, and the Roman empire was an attempt to spread that wonderful Roman peace throughout the world. Like we might want to spread democracy and human rights around the world today.
As a citizen of Rome, what you wanted in life was not necessarily to go and live in Rome. But you wanted to bring Rome to Philippi: you wanted Roman values and Roman justice in Philippi and everywhere. And you were to proclaim the good news, the gospel, of the Roman empire. You wanted people to know that if they trusted in Caesar as their Lord and Saviour, they could experience the peace and prosperity that Caesar offered to all who trust in him.
I hope you can see that this language of citizenship is very provocative. As Christians, your primary identity is not as a Roman citizen, or a British citizen, or whatever kind of citizen you are. Your primary identity is that you are a citizen of heaven.
We weren’t born as citizens of heaven. And we didn’t have to pay for it and take a citizenship test! But it’s a gift of God’s love. ‘Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion’ (2:1). That verse is a bit like the Grace, isn’t it? ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’. It’s the love of God, through the death of Jesus, that enables us, sinful people, to become citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom.
And our purpose in life, as citizens of heaven, is not to escape from this world and go to heaven. No, our purpose in life is to extend the heavenly empire to fill the whole world. And one day that will happen. As we will say in the Creed, Jesus ‘will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’. We want heaven to come here, because Jesus will come again in glory to the earth. As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’
So we try to live our whole lives, every day of the week, as citizens of the heavenly empire. And we seek to share the good news that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord and Saviour, and that he gives life to all who trust in him.
So Paul urges us to strive together for the faith of the gospel. He says, ‘make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind’ (2:2)
The mindset of the heavenly empire
But the heavenly empire is very different to the Roman empire. The Roman empire was built on military might, and it was held together by structures of status and honour. But this is how Paul describes the heavenly empire: ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others’ (2:3-4).
We tend to think of humility as something good. If the boss brings round some tea and coffee, that’s a nice, humble thing to do, isn’t it? But in Roman society, people didn’t behave like that. If you were someone important, with a high status, then you shouldn’t be doing the dirty work! Imagine there was someone really important here this morning, and that they spilt their tea after the service. If they ran out the back to fetch a mop and bucket, what would you do? You’d stop them! ‘It’s OK, don’t worry, let me clear up.’
In Roman society, everyone knew where they were on the ladder. And everyone knew how they should behave. If you were down there, you shouldn’t behave as if you were up there. And if you were up there, you shouldn’t behave as if you were down there. But what Paul says is completely counter-cultural. He says everyone should behave as if they were down there, and as if everyone else was above them.
As citizens of the heavenly empire, Paul says we should have values that are completely different to the world around us.
We might disguise it in different ways, but we still have that ladder, and we still know where we sit on that ladder. Depending on your background, your nationality, your age, your education, your job, your health, your shape, your size, your abilities… But Paul says no, those things don’t matter. You should all treat each other as if you are at the bottom, and as if the other person is higher up the ladder.
And this, says Paul, is because we are united with Christ, and because of Christ’s example.
So in the rest of the passage Paul tells us about Christ Jesus. How did Jesus display humility? In this way: out of obedience to God, Jesus was willing to give up his status and his reputation. There are three verses that describe Jesus going down, and then three verses describing God lifting Jesus up.
So, first, Jesus went down.
He started off with the highest status imaginable. He had the status that God himself has. You can’t get any higher than that. But he didn’t cling onto that status. Instead, he emptied himself of all status, and did the equivalent of going from being the emperor to being a slave, by becoming an ordinary human being.
But that wasn’t all. He went even lower, and took the most shameful status you could possibly imagine. His obedience to God took him to the point of death. And not just any death, the most humiliating death imaginable, death on a cross. Crucified criminals were the terrorists, the threats to national security, the enemies of the people.
Jesus voluntarily went from the top of the ladder to the bottom, out of obedience to God. He went from a position where everyone would have looked up to him, to a position where everyone would have looked down on him.
Such self-humiliation would have been shocking to people in that culture. But what does God think of that kind of self-humiliation? The last three verses of our passage tell us: ‘Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (2:9-11). God raised Jesus from the dead, exalted him to his right hand in heaven, and we look forward to the day when Christ will come again, when the dead will be raised, and when all will acknowledge that Jesus, the one who humbled himself, is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Living as citizens of heaven
So what does this mean for us, today?
A businesswoman, and unemployed slave woman, and a working man… walk into a bar? It sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? But I’m talking about the church in Philippi. We’re introduced to them in Acts 16.
First there is Lydia. She was a successful trader. And the Lord opened her heart to believe in Jesus.
Then there was the slave woman. She had a spirit that enabled her to predict the future. And she made a lot of money for her owners by fortune-telling. But Paul cast the spirit out of her. We don’t know what happened to her next, so I’m guessing here. She couldn’t make money for her owners any more. So maybe they just got rid of her and left her unemployed? And we’re not told if she became a Christian, but it’s likely that she did.
And then there’s the working man, the jailer. Paul and Silas were thrown into prison, but there was an earthquake, and the prison doors were opened. In all the commotion the jailer ended up as a Christian!
What would it have meant for them to follow Jesus’ example?
It wouldn’t have done much for the jailer’s reputation! Imagine worshipping someone who had been condemned to death by crucifixion! It could have cost him his job! Certainly he could say goodbye to any prospect of promotion.
It wouldn’t have been much good for Lydia either. The church had started meeting in her house, and now Paul was in prison again. Would people want to do business with her, with someone who is a friend of criminals?
What if following Jesus meant you would lose your reputation? Would you keep on being a Christian? Would you keep on coming to church?
It’s a question we need to face as individuals, and as churches, and nationally in the Church of England. In the past it has been quite respectable to be a Christian. But that seems to be changing. We might have to choose between looking good in the eyes of society, or being faithful to Jesus. Which is more important to us?
But the passage is mainly about how we relate to one another within the church. So verse 5: ‘In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus’ (2:5).
A businesswoman, and unemployed slave woman, and a working man… Three people who wouldn’t normally belong together. And sadly three people you wouldn’t often see in the same church today. The old people go to that church and the young people go to that church and the rich people go to that church and the poor people go to that church, and if you like quiet music you come in the morning or if you like loud music you come in the evening. But Paul says we should be ‘striving together as one for the faith of the gospel’ (1:27). We should be ‘like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind’ (2:2). Then: ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others’ (2:3-4). So church isn’t about our own personal preferences. It’s about being united in the gospel, and loving and serving one another. We are fellow citizens of the heavenly empire!
Just think what it would have been like for Lydia, and for the slave woman. Normally you wouldn’t expect them to even talk to each other. But here Lydia is welcoming the slave woman into her house, as a guest! Making her comfortable, offering her something to drink. Isn’t that different to the world around? That’s what should happen when someone comes in here. ‘I wouldn’t expect to see people like that together. And they’re treating each other as equals.’ Or better than that: in humility, they are valuing one another above themselves.
We’ll be sharing communion shortly. And as you receive communion, remember how low Jesus stooped down, out of obedience to his Father, and out of love for you. And then as you look around you, and see other people receiving the bread and the wine, think about how low Jesus stooped down for them. Will you stoop down and serve them too?
We’ve thought a bit about citizenship, and what it means to be citizens of the heavenly empire. And we’ve thought a bit about Christ’s example, showing us what it looks like to be a citizen of heaven, in being willing to lose our status and our reputation, out of obedience to God, and for the sake of our brothers and sisters. But as we go about in humility, in weakness, serving one another, maybe suffering ridicule from those around us, we do so looking forward to that day when every knee will bow before Jesus. That day when Jesus will come from heaven to earth, and put everything right. As it says at the end of chapter 3: ‘But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour 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’ (3:20-21)
Now ‘To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen’ (4:20).