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Philippians 3:13-4:3

We did some brainstorming about what is needed to run a marathon… people threw out lots of ideas like the will to finish, endurance, training, strength, a goal, energy, encouragement, competitors, equipment, water, and determination. But no one mentioned one thing that I thought was most critical of all: deciding to do it! When Paul uses the “race” analogy, I think he’s thinking of all of these things. And I believe the decision to run the Christian race of life, is essential. That’s really beginning at the beginning. We had such an upbeat discussion of this analogy that we kept returning to it throughout the evening.

tortoise-hareI also shared with the group my favorite fable: The Tortoise and the Hare. Of course, this story is also about a race. And I have confessed dozens of times… I am still a hare, sprinting and wasting energy, while it’s the tortoise that knows the secret: keep on keeping on… steady and determined, persistent to the end. And what is our goal? To know Christ… to be in Christ… to be like Christ for to Live is Christ!

I talked a little bit about verse 15, particularly the idea that Paul was making a distinction between those who are “mature” and those who “think” they are mature (or arrived… i.e. reached the goal of the race). But, no matter whether truly mature or not, whatever distance we have come, we are responsible for what we have learned so far and should live that out. Those who think they have arrived can be rather irritating folk, but in the end, it’s between them and God, “who will make it clear to them.” Take care, there are many who can “undermine” or sabotage our race.

Then we discussed the idea of telling less mature believers to “follow our example” in the same way that Paul said it, over and over again throughout several epistles. It was interesting to discover in our discussion how uncomfortable that idea can make us, feeling as though we are not far enough along the way to encourage others to imitate us. Someone brought the idea into clear focus however, saying that the imitation includes “lessons learned” (our mistakes corrected) and the honesty that we would share as well, that we continue to err, but our hearts are still on fire for the Lord… we are still in race: that is the part to be truly imitated. It is our authentic selves that draws others to the race. The Christian life is a process (the race) and although we have a goal, it is the running of the race itself that is glorious. And who is our truly perfect example? Christ Jesus, of course.

Who, then, is an “enemy of the cross of Christ?” Lots of labels went flying: interfering people, hedonistic people, those who think they are mature, the Devil himself, self-indulgent people, and self-centered people were a few descriptions I captured on paper. All of the types of people mentioned are those focused on earthly things and earthly desires above all else. But, here’s something we must all remember, lest we ourselves fall into “thinking ourselves mature.” Although we need to be discerning, for these enemies can and will sabotage us, and yet, we are not to judge them. Luke 6:37 says “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” What kind of judgment are we talking about here? Someone in class said it best: we must avoid judgment without mercy. That is not the way of Jesus.

We then talked about the meaning of being an “alien in the land.” We played with the idea of visiting a touristsforeign country and how hard it can be to be in a country or city or area where no one speaks your language. One can feel isolated and yet, if another person comes who also speaks your language, isn’t it wonderful to share that time together? It should be like that for all of Christ’s followers. But, we can also insulate ourselves in a group, no longer engaging with those who live in that land. Balance is everything. Find support and renewal with those who are like-minded but then enter and participate in the world without becoming fully part of it. Paul’s heart desire was for his dear Philippian friends to know the joys of fellowship, the challenges of the race and the persistence of the tortoise!

Lastly, we chatted about Euodia, Syntyche, and Clement. No one really knows the story about these “fellow-workers,” but clearly they were in conflict. The whole book of Philippians has been written with them in mind. They symbolically represent that portion of the body, despite their works and their love for God, who are undermining the faithful by their inability to make peace with one another. But Paul has confidence in their reconciliation because he has confidence in the koinonia of these people who love Jesus. And Jesus is, after all, the Lord of reconciliation.

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Philippians 3:2-9

I didn’t know how this study would go, but I felt in the end, that it was a significant time. The words, “knowing Christ” were emblazoned in my heart and so the study did ultimately go.

But first, we looked at Paul’s anger and warning about the “dogs” or Judaizers. We talked about how dogs were such scavengers in that time period and to call someone a “dog” was a huge insult. (Also, as an aside, Jews often called gentiles, the dogs, and here, Paul is passing back the insult.) Anyway, to bring things to our time period, we talked about scavengers of today, like gulls, vultures, and buzzards. With that, I told them a personal experience with vultures. They are a disconcerting presence to say the least. However, after we talked about the “legalism” and destructiveness of these Judaizers, I reminded them that before Paul went venturing forth to proclaim the gospel of Christ, these same “dogs,” who were also Christ-believing Jews, they were the norm back in Jerusalem. When Paul ventured forth, he was shaking up everything they had believed in … gentiles as believers? And NOT circumcised? They were shocked!

But here’s the point, how many people today haven’t done the same things when something “new” comes along? How many people were shocked the first time a drum set was brought into the sanctuary? How many were shocked when folks came to church in jeans? How many of our denominations have been created because of a split in “forms” of worship. How many of us will be the “dogs” when then next wave comes along? Something to consider, eh?

We then talked about the “true circumcision” — the circumcision of the heart. What is that and how do we know we have it? Is the circumcision of the heart at the point of salvation or is part of the sancitification process? I’m not so learned to really know and certainly, the group was divided on this point. It was a fascinating discussion. For me, I see that heart circumcision as one layer of my heart being peeled gently away to make it possible for communion to begin. If an adult male decides to be circumcised, he must be a willing participant, he must humble himself to the procedure and he must present himself to the “surgeon” with trust. Is it any different for the heart? I don’t think so. We must trust the Holy Spirit who is greatest heart surgeon around. (Romans 2:28-29)

jesus-prayingAnd then we moved into the most important part of the evening for me… beginning with verse 7. For Paul, being fully “credentialed” considered all of that nothing — his heritage, his tribe, his orthodoxy, his zeal, his “righeousness”– compared to knowing Christ Jesus. And so we talked at length about what it means to “know” Jesus; what it means to “know” anyone. Some even found verses like John 14:21 (“Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” [emphasis mine]) Others mentioned Psalm 51 and Psalm 37 as well with instructions or “tips” for knowing God. In my mind, if the heart is drawn to Him, and we give Him our trust, our energy, our worship, our love… then knowing/communing begins.

One of the keys is in the area of righteousness. This word, which trips so quickly off the lips of many Christians, has lost its power. I find it a word rich with possibilities. Clearly, Paul emphasizes the difference between our “own” righteousness and the righteousness that comes from God. In our own righteousness, we can actually do good things, be “good people” and accomplish great things. But we won’t know the Lord. To know the Lord requires HIS righteousness. And when he gifts us with His righteousness, then the door is open for true communion. Then, we can be IN Christ. Before, we considered the phrase, “to live is Christ,” now we add another dimension, “in Christ.”

These are supernatural states of being. These states of intimacy are happening in the spirit realm. These states are happening within the circumcised heart. These states are happening through the indwelling Holy Spirit. These states happen in our surrender… in presenting our hearts to God to do with as God wills.

We closed the evening by reading aloud a devotional selection from the words of St. John of the Cross (You Set My Spirit Free, edited by David Hazard) and then listening to a recording of Knowing You by Graham Kendrick.

Philippians 2:12-30

We finished up last week’s questions first and then plowed on to do the short list of questions for this week from verses 19-30.

We talked quite a bit about the idea of “working out your salvation with fear trembling.” Until I worked more deeply on this verse, I did not realize that this phrase, although initially seems particularly apt for an individual, is really for the group… in this case, the Philippians, but just as readily for the church… or small group, etc. The entire “working out” process is communal in nature. It was interesting to do a brief review of what “fear of God” might mean to folks in the group. So many shared the experience of awe of God in nature. But none really mentioned this type of “awe” in worship or prayer. I think that is something I want to experience more. I also shared with them our previous study about the fear of God.

Maria shared the Amplified Bible’s “definition” of working out our salvation (ponder this passage):

“Therefore, my dear ones, as you have always obeyed [my suggestions], so now, not only [with the enthusiasm you would show] in my presence but much more because I am absent, work out — cultivate, carry out to the goal and fully complete — your own salvation with reverence and awe and trembling [self-distrust, that is, with serious caution, tenderness of conscience, watchfulness againsts temptation; timidly shrinking from whatever might offend God and discredit the name of Christ].

We also discussed the power of “complaining and arguing” to break koinonia… to break down the “working out” process. Literally, this behavior can actually get in the way of what the Lord is trying to accomplish in a person’s heart… as well as in a community of believers. It shows a lack of trust in God.

There was a short time of sharing about the “drink offering” that Paul mentions in verse 17. It is of particular interest to me that this offering is usually related to a work completed. It’s a sign of blessing. And so, for Paul, it is worth it, his sacrifice for them, because he believes they will move on… and deeper into the things of God. I had thought that some personal testimony of a “drink offering” might come forth, but this did not resonate as much with the group as I had hoped.

As we move into the sections about Timothy and Epaphroditus, we talked about the attributes of leadership that Paul uses to describe them both, though differently. For Timothy is like-minded, sincere, genuine, tested and proven, mentored by Paul, one who has served faithfully and cares about the Philippians in particular. And Epaphroditus he describes as a brother (part of the family), a fellow worker (equal in value for his work), a fellow soldier (for enduring the same hardships and battles at personal cost), a messenger (who carries the word of life), and one worthy of appreciation.

This is part of who we become, this “servant leader” when we grow up in the Lord. I had asked the group to read a chapter from the book, Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership by James C. Hunter. This chapter outlines very clearly a definition of the servant leader:

Leadership begins with the will, which is our unique ability as human beings to align our intentions with our actions and choose our behavior. With the proper will, we can choose our behavior. With the proper will, we can choose to love, the verb, which is about identifying and meeting the legitimate needs, not wants, of those we lead. When we meet the needs of others we will, by definition, be called upon to serve and even sacrifice. When we serve and sacrifice for others, we build authority or influence, the ‘Law of the Harvest.’ And when we build authority with people, then we ahve earned the right to be called leader.

And so, I ask each one of us… are we there yet? Are we servant leaders? Are we choosing our behaviors or just reacting? Are we choosing to act in a loving way to all, knowing that all people are ultimately sacred creations of God? Are we meeting the true needs of others? Are we willing to sacrifice our own comfort to make someone else comfortable? Have we earned the authority to influence others by our acts of love & service? Are we servant leaders?

Oh, Lord, this is my prayer.

Philippians 2:1-11
Earlier in the week, I asked everyone, by email, to take a survey I created based on the first two verses of chapter two. Primarily, the reason to take this survey was to think about the descriptive words Paul gives the Philippians … “if” they are indeed “united with Christ.” And doesn’t “united with Christ” also feel very similar to “to live IS Christ.” They are the same idea.

So, what are those words: encouragement, comfort, fellowship, tenderness & compassion are specifically mentioned in the NIV, but class members added strength, joy, affection, mercy, sympathy, and humility. All of these are a “measuring stick” of sorts for unity with Christ. Do we experience these attributes? Do we practice them? It is in my mind that “the degree to which we can claim these words and walk them out is the degree to which we can experience unity with Christ … and thereby, unity with the Body.

When Paul says that their practice of these words would make his joy complete, he is sharing with them how much he cares about their progress… their practice is proof or confirmation that his teaching wa meaningful and significant. He wants them to be ready for the next step!

As we discussed the concept of like-mindedness, there were several good discussion points: one person called it agreeing with the center… or another said that the goal is the same. In essence, we all understood that there may not be agreement on the details, but the core truth is the same. It is not and should not be an excuse for creating “automatons” or practicing “group think” [like the novel, 1984]. Another way of thinking of like-mindedness is harmony in music. To sing or play instruments, we don’t all have to play the melody … in fact, the melody becomes richer when others are singing parts. We even sang a bit as a group: “Jesus, Jesus… let me tell you how I feel. You have given me your Spirit, I love you so.”

I then described to them the story of the “long handled spoons” … I actually found a more succinct version of it on the Internet. It goes like this:

Long Handled Spoon

Long Handled Spoon
[Author Unknown]
A man spoke with the Lord about heaven and hell. The Lord said to the man, “Come, I will show you hell.”

They entered a room where a group of people sat around a huge pot of stew. Everyone was famished, desperate and starving. Each held a spoon that reached the pot, but each spoon had a handle so much longer than their own arm that it could not be used to get the stew into their own mouths. The suffering was terrible.

Come, now I will show you heaven,” the Lord said after a while. They entered another room, identical to the first — the pot of stew, the group of people, the same long-handled spoons. But there everyone was happy and well-nourished. “I don’t understand,” said the man. “Why are they happy here when they were miserable in the other room and everything was the same?”

The Lord smiled, “Ah, it is simple,” he said. “Here they have learned to feed each other.”

This is what we must learn here on earth… and not wait until heaven. This is about being like-minded and all the other words as well. This is about unity and community!

But the primary destroyer of unity (and community) is “selfish ambition.” It only takes one person to destroy a community. In the church today, it still happens, but it looks like territorialism. This is the opposite of harmony. This is discordant. Individualism is strong. It’s actually one of the attributes of the early Americans who forged this country. Is it so bad? It is if the individual isn’t rooted in a higher truth.

On the flip side is humility… but not “doormat humility” which is not humility at all. That’s a false modesty; that’s a victim mentality. That is not what Paul is recommending at all. True humility is focused on God and on others. It places the attention on the strengths and virtues of others. Its ROOT is love. I heard another definition of humility while I was at a Leadership seminar and the speaker said that humlility also requires a realistic understanding of self… it’s being at peace with yourself. Of course, this is also crucial to love, really.

Lastly, we addressed verses 6-11, which are sometimes referred to as a “hymn to Christ.” Scholars actually disagree as to whether or not it is or isn’t a hymn, but I don’t think that’s critical to our current study or understanding. The key to these verses is that they are Paul’s way of giving us the “ultimate example” of everything we discussed in session: Christ is the perfect example of humility.

In the 4th Century AD, in the time of Constantine, there were two bishops with divergent ideas about the divinity of Christ Jesus. One, Alexander, believed that Jesus “was” from the beginning, equal in divinity with God and always existed (based on John 1:1-2). Another bishop, Arius, believed that Jesus was of lesser divinity until he completed the task given to him by God and only then was he fully exalted. Arius did not believe that Jesus always existed. What’s particularly interesting to me is that two modern day groups still follow this understanding of Arius: Jehovah’s Witnesses & LDS. That’s interesting. But, to complete this history lesson, Constantine got all the bishops of that time together and they met at the Council of Nicea and he basically told them: don’t come out until you come to an agreement. In the end, they produced a document that is still used today: The Nicene Creed. And yes, they followed the lead of Bishop Alexander.

Christ’s example, then, of humility is that he willingly became a man (that might compare to one of us agreeing to be an insect) and did not claim any extraordinary powers but came as a servant to mankind, and died as God, the Father, asked him. And only after his complete surrender, his complete humiliation, was he raised up and exalted. This is the extreme version of what we are told over and over through the New Testament: Matthew 18:4, 23:12; Lluke 14:11; Luke 18:14; James 4:10; and I Peter 5:6.

Reach out this week in humility with a long spoon of selflessness.

Philippians 1:12 – 29
We flew the material last Thursday in an effort to cover everything in the time allotted. From basic information about the “palace guards” possibly being physically attached Paul during his imprisonment to much deeper issues about our personal witness and the pain and struggles that have touched it.

We had a more lengthy discussion about the state of the church and the possible envy, rivalries, and judgments between the various denominations. Some of the group are still uncomfortable with the idea of some ministries being “acceptable” as long as “Christ is preached.” But this is, ultimately, Paul’s message in verse 18! An interesting comment came up that all this might change if the “teaching” impacts us as individuals and if it is false, it is so important to be well-grounded. And yet, it is still my over-arching belief that if one is authentically seeking the Lord, He will be found… in truth.

When we addressed Paul’s ability to be able to rejoice in his circumstances, we see him first rejoicing for the preaching of the gospel (his first concern, always) and secondly, he is rejoicing for his confidence in the Philippians continued support … through their prayers as well as their largess. Paul is able to see the big picture. And as someone added, Paul probably had “visions” of the spirit realm, an experience that gave him even more confidence of God’s hand upon his life. And as a result, Paul continues to have a “divine perspective.” He also believes that no matter what happens (alive or dead), Christ will be magnified.

Paul is willing to to enter into the sufferings of Christ, which is often difficult for us. If only we could hold onto the Truth: Christ controls our destiny. God must be in control in order to rejoice. To the degree that we allow God to be in control is the degree to which we can experience pure joy in our circumstances. And of course, the opposite is also true, to the degree that we do not allow God to be in control, we will experience worry, fear, anger, resentments… just to name a few.

In verse 20, Paul asks for courage that he not be ashamed. The shame he is talking about here is actually being “faint-hearted.” In other words, for him, to not speak the gospel, in even the most difficult situation, is to fail his Lord. We must all remember that courage is not the absence of fear but the resolve to act in the face of danger. Paul was human. He did fear despite being “sold out” for the Lord.

jesusWe then delved into the mystery of the phrase, “To Live is Christ.” When we started class I had everyone write a list of their activities and feelings for the week. At this point, we used this list to complete the phrase … To live is ___________. Here is where we see how we often live really. Maybe it’s “to live is working” or “to live is sleeping” or “to live is weeping” or “to live is praying.” Whatever it is, we must consider more mindfully what it means if we claim this phrase as our own. This is not a joke. This is not something to said in a cavalier way. Are we truly willing to live as Christ did? Are we willing to put on the feelings, activities, challenges, and love of Christ?

If we do, each day, then we are indeed as Christ walking amidst the people. Our existence is a testimony. Our “being” is a witness. We spend so much time worrying about “telling people about Jesus” and I say, if we are really living Christ, then our very conversations will speak Him. Jesus walked the roads and byways and ate with sinners and unbelievers. He taught but he did not “convince.” He spoke of the Father, of love, of the Kingdom of God, of reconciliation, of hope, of healing, … to live is Christ? Can we really do it? And then, can take the next step and actually believe that death is even better than that? (Oh, death where is thy sting?)

And lastly Paul entreats the Philippians (and us) to conduct themselves always in a manner worthy of the gospel. Someone brought Ephesians 4:1-5 as a pretty complete description of what that might mean. And part of that may include suffering. This is part of our “koinonia” with Christ. Often we fear the suffering OR we feel guilty because the truth is we really don’t want the suffering part of living his life in us.

Oh Lord, let my story be an authentic expression of You to that part of the world I touch.