We are reflecting during these Sundays leading up to Holy Week on St. Paul’s use of the expression “in Christ” (or sometimes, “in the Lord,” which is equivalent in thought, but often with echoes of Old Testament usage.) This morning we look at the apostle’s encouragement in Philippians 4:1 to stand firm “in the Lord.” “Wherefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” Paul’s affection for the Philippians congregation could not be more strongly expressed than it is in this exhortation. Out of his affection for them and his awareness of the threats posed to their faith, he urges them to stand firm in the Lord.
The expression “in the Lord” is, at first glance, potentially ambiguous. It could answer either to the “how” of standing firm or the “where” of standing firm. In the former case, it would point to the Lord as the source of strength for standing firm. That thought, for example, is clearly expressed in the famous passage about the Christian armor in Ephesians 6, where Paul says, “Be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his power.” In today’s text, though, the “how” question is answered in the immediately following words— “in this way.” Thus, “in the Lord” in 4:1 answers the “where” question and points specifically to our relationship with the Lord. We are to stand firm in our relationship to Christ. Most simply put, it is a call to loyalty in the face of pressures that would turn us away from our commitment to, and trust in, Christ.
This morning, I want to focus on the “in this way” that indicates how we are to stand firm in our relationship to Christ. This phrase refers back to what Paul had previously said about how the Philippians were to learn to make progress in the Christian faith. This is always a timely question that warrants careful reflection.
Since the time of the Reformation, western Christians have increasingly practiced a text-based, educational approach to learning the Christian faith. Now, Christianity has always been a text-based faith. We are a “people of the book.” After his resurrection, Jesus opened the minds of the disciples to “understand the Scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise again on the third day...” (Luke 24:45-46) However, up until the time of the Reformation, most Christians had limited access to the biblical text. The Scriptures were read in corporate worship, but few people had their own copies of the Scriptures which they could take home and do “Bible studies.” Thus, their way of engaging and retaining and reflecting on the content of the faith was very different from our own.
That all changed dramatically and swiftly with the invention of the printing press. The Reformation caught fire in Europe in the 16th century, largely because the printing press made possible the wide-spread dissemination of theological pamphlets and texts, most importantly, of course, the Scriptures in vernacular translation. Public education with an emphasis on literacy came in the wake of the Reformation, leading ultimately to the Christian education model that we now know in church as “Sunday School.” More broadly speaking, most forms of Christian discipleship in the western world now incorporate some form of “Bible study,” for which literacy is indispensable. For most of Christian history, though, the discipleship paradigm was different.
One of the most impressive church buildings in the US that I have been privileged to preach in is First Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. First Reformed has a long sanctuary. On its sides are beautiful stained glass windows that narrate the biblical story from creation to consummation. The Old Testament story is told on one side, the New Testament on the other. This is a wonderful gift to the church, since it reminds people each week of the grand story of the Bible and the full counsel of God. It also reminded me, though, that for a long swath of Christian history, this was an important way that people learned the gospel story. The artistry of medieval church windows was the Bible “picture book” for the majority of Christians who had limited access to the biblical text—an access that we take for granted and assume (contrary to the witness of history!) to be absolutely essential to becoming disciples of Jesus.
In Philippians 3:17ff, St. Paul reminds us of another ancient way of learning the apostolic faith. That is the way of imitation, or of teaching by example. Last week we noted that Paul presents two great personal patterns or paradigms to ground the faith of the church—the pattern of Christ and the pattern of Paul’s own experience as a Christian convert. In 3:17, Paul extends the pattern further and expressly calls the church to the practice of imitation. “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.”
Note in particular that this imitation is to be not just individual, but corporate. The imitation is not just of Paul, but of the entire missionary “team,” which would include at the very least Paul, Timothy and (lately) Epaphroditus. The Christians are not just to imitate the missionaries as individual missionaries; instead, the missionaries, as a team, had provided the church with an example of sharing life together in Christ. That is why Paul exhorts them to “join in imitating me...” The Christian life is a shared life. The Gospel creates new communities. It is in participation in the life of the church that the faith is learned, practiced, and demonstrated. It is in the community that one demonstrates “the mind of Christ,” where one regarding others as excelling himself, where one looks not only to her own needs, but also to the needs of others.
Note also that those to be imitated were not limited to the apostolic missionary team. The Lord had already raised up among the members of the congregation those who were making good progress in the faith and whose lives displayed the character of Christ and the apostles. They were already following “the example you have in us.” (3:17) So discipleship appears here as a kind of chain of learning by example—people following the example of others who were a little farther along the path of discipleship than themselves.
This pattern of learning, at least in the area of faith, runs contrary to our cultural individualism. In the area of faith, our culture encourages us to construct our own truth and chart a spiritual pathway that works best for us. If we look to others as examples, it is in an eclectic way at best—a little bit from here, a little something from there, as if Christian discipleship were like turning up at a smorgasbord or all you can eat buffet. But, Christianity is discipleship in the way of Christ and the apostles. The imitation has to ring true to Christ and not to our personal preferences. All of this is to say that authentic Christian learning by way of imitation conforms to the way of humility and sacrificial love.
Exactly how this “imitation” of Christian leaders manifests itself in our time may certainly differ from the time of the apostles. Nevertheless, because of the weight of the pattern established by Christ himself, the church has rightly insisted that looking to others for an example is ordinarily essential to learning the faith. One need look no farther than the vows of office for our own elders and deacons to see that this is still the case. These include the following promise: “...to walk with exemplary piety before the congregation...” Not many of us feel confident to put ourselves forward as examples for others to follow. Only the grace of Christ and the call of the congregation can give us the courage to do so. But, the principle is clear: Christians are meant to learn by example. Leaders need to understand that people will be watching them for that very purpose and accept that solemn responsibility.
This is particularly true of parents in relationship to their children, whom we regard as the youngest disciples in the congregation. Before they are able to engage the biblical text, even before their capacity for language is fully developed, children begin to learn what it means to follow Jesus and trust in him. They learn who “their people” are—that they are a people who pray and sing to God most high, a people who profess to love the Lord Jesus and hope in him alone in life and death. The youngest disciples learn much by the example of their parents. Even when we move on to the place where we can engage texts and reflect with maturity on the state of our own souls before God, we do not outgrow our need of examples to follow.
To return, then, to “standing firm in Christ,” let us understand that imitating the example of the apostles and other mature Christians is a path to standing firm. When St. Paul says, “Stand firm in this way,” he has specifically in mind the imitation of sound church leaders. He brings them to the forefront because of the dangers posed by false teachers. He reminds them of people who apparently have influence on the community who do not walk the way exemplified in Christ. Strikingly, he calls them “enemies of the cross of Christ.” Now it is certain that the false teachers did not present themselves this way; however, Paul makes it clear that their self-centered, self-gratifying approach to life leaves no room for the cross as the central paradigm of the Christian life. Thus, whatever else they may say about Christian faith and practice, they are enemies of the cross.
Paul, in effect, is warning the church that they will have to choose between competing forms of Christianity. To guide them in the choice, he commends the example of the apostles and the members of the congregation who have embraced that example. These will be people who, like Paul, have a strong sense of heavenly citizenship and look for the appearing of the Savior. They will be people who long for the new creation more than they love this present order of things.
No portion of Philippians has made more impact on Christian hope and devotion than Paul’s in 3:21. These have long been the words spoken by Christian ministers at the graveside, when our earthly remains are committed to the ground, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” In this somber moment, we proclaim what our Lord Jesus Christ will do—“who will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory...” In contrast to false teachers who set their minds on earthly things, those who walk with exemplary piety join Abraham in looking for a better country!
The exhortation to “stand firm” reminds us of the way divine sovereignty and human responsibility are always joined in the Christian life. That we are united to Christ through our faith and our baptism does not mean that we coast along. That we are secure in Christ does not mean that we are complacent. As we noted in last week’s message, Paul’s attitude as a Christian was that he was no longer confident in himself. His attitude, which he commended to the mature—who have to be seen as those who can be examples to others--was that he had not arrived!
Nowhere is the convergence of divine sovereignty and human responsibility in “union with Christ” taught more clearly than in the metaphor of the vine and the branches in John’s gospel. Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5) Now it is entirely counter-intuitive that the branch should have to make an effort to stay connected to the vine. Yet Jesus commands in effect, “Abide in me.” (See John 15:5-11) Branches do not willy-nilly fall away from the vine. They have to be cut off, or perhaps damaged by the elements, or...die. By faith and out baptism we are brought into a living union with Jesus Christ. But, we have a responsibility to draw life from the vine.
So it is in the teaching of St. Paul. He is confident that the one who began a good work in us will bring it to completion in the day of Christ. (Phil. 1:4) He is sure that the names of his co-workers in the gospel are written in the Book of Life. He is not in doubt about the salvation of believers. But, believers have work to do. He urges them to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” precisely because it is God “who is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (2:12-13) St. Paul was confident that Christ had taken hold of him; however, this did not make him feel secure in himself. Instead, it motivated him to take a stronger hold on Christ! (3:12)
Like the first century Christians in Philippi, we, too, face many pressures and threats to our faith. We, too, need to hear the summons to stand firm. We have things to learn as disciples that can’t be picked up in Sunday School. We need to learn the content of our faith, to be sure. But, we also need to learn courage. God has blessed us with people to imitate in the face of things that test our faith and try our courage—perhaps a parent, perhaps a Christian friend, perhaps a brother or sister here in this sanctuary. Take time to recall those lessons. Remember Christians we know and don’t know around the world who are standing firm in the Lord. “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews13:7)