Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
24 September 2017
[A video of one iteration of this sermon is available online.]
It is good to be here, and I am deeply appreciative of your welcome these past few days, as well as for your prayers in the past few weeks.
Sometimes (maybe often) things do not turn out quite as planned.
We were planning for an installation service next Thursday, but here I am and the installation service has been delayed until after my medical treatment concludes. Much remains uncertain, but that is the unacknowledged reality most of the time. Indeed, all of the time.
As it happens, I was here in August last year in my role as Dean of St George’s College in Jerusalem. Then as now, I bring greetings to you from the church in the Holy Land. Then as now, I urge you to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and always to hold the Christians of that land in your hearts.
Paul and the Philippians
Over the next four weeks we have a series of readings from Paul’s letter to the fledgling Christian community in the city of Philippi in northern Greece.
As mentioned in the bulletin, I have decided to focus on that letter for our sermons over the next four weeks. It is one of the earliest letters of Paul, and was probably written just 25 years after Easter. It is not just an early letter by Paul, it is one of the oldest Christian writings in existence. Better still—as we shall see next week—it quotes a hymn known to the recipients of Paul’s letter, and that means we glimpse behind the letter to an even older poem that was used by some of the earliest followers of Jesus.
The Mind of Christ
That poem is used by Paul to illustrate what he called, ‘the mind of Christ.’
I am taking that idea, the mind of Christ, as the theme for this series of sermons, as you may have noticed on the front cover of the bulletin.
Over the coming Sundays we shall look at four different expressions of the mind of Christ:
Those may sound like very ‘safe’ terms, but—as we shall see—behind the polite English translations, there are some very strong Greek words that Paul has chosen to use.
Paul is writing from a difficult phase in his life to express his deep appreciation for the total solidarity and support given to him by the small Christian community in Philippi.
They have stayed loyal to Paul in good times and in hard times, even sending one of their own church members to stay with Paul and provide him with any personal assistance he needed during a time in prison.
In retrospect, Paul does not regret the tough times they have shared. He sees how the hardship he has faced has been good as these circumstances have helped to spread the gospel.
In describing their compassion for him in his hardships, Paul used a very vivid word that is not often used in the New Testament: splangknon.
This is the word for bowels, or guts.
In the old King James Version of the Bible they translated the words much more directly:
For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ. [Phil 1:8]
We shall find Paul using the same idea again at the start of chapter 2 next week:
If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies … [Phil 2:1]
These days we like to think that our care for other people is a matter of the heart. But the ancient Greeks knew that these feelings are connected with our gut. We still know this to be true.
When we hear bad news, we described being kicked in the guts. Our stomach churns. We feel squeasy. Even good news will hit us in the gut. We feel the compassion in our gut, and not in our hearts.
Paul’s gratitude to the good people in Philippi is not because they had kind thoughts about him, but because they cared so much it churned their gut to know of the hard times he was going through. Such physical expressions of sympathy reflect very close bonds between people.
In our life together here as a Christian community in Grafton, we are called to go beyond nice thoughts and warm feelings. We must be a community that cares so deeply about each other that bad times for someone else cause us to feel sick in the stomach.
A little later in the first chapter (vss 21–25), we find Paul expressing his own deep compassion for his friends in Philippi:
Life to me, of course, is Christ, but then death would be a positive gain. On the other hand again, if to be alive in the body gives me an opportunity for fruitful work, I do not know which I should choose. I am caught in this dilemma: I want to be gone and to be with Christ, and this is by far the stronger desire— and yet for your sake to stay alive in this body is a more urgent need. This much I know for certain, that I shall stay and stand by you all, to encourage your advance and your joy in the faith … [Phil 1:21–25 NJB]
Paul is reflecting deeply on the hardships he has been through. He leaves us a very personal statement. He feels close to death, and he really would like to die and be with Christ. But he knows that his friends still need him, so he wants to remain here with them.
They had been touched deeply by the hardships Paul was going through, and he has been so struck by their compassion that would rather stay with them than join Christ in glory.
Today we begin a new partnership in ministry here in Grafton.
Authentic solidarity and genuine compassion are key attributes of the faith we share and the church community we seek to create.
Imagine if the Cathedral was famous in Grafton for the compassion we share.
And imagine if that compassion extended beyond the fellowship of our Parish community to embrace the whole city of Grafton.
And beyond that, imagine if we were known as people who are passionate and gutsy in our commitment to social justice, in our work for peace, and in our care of the environment.
None of this is about having the answers. Nor is it about power and status. And it is certainly not about being correct.
But it is about becoming compassionate people: people who move far beyond good ideas and warm feelings to stand in compassionate solidarity with one another, and with the people who are doing it tough at the present time.
May Christ give us the grace to have this mindset: today, tomorrow, and always.