“Christ growing love in you”
A sermon based on Philippians 1:1-12
The work of the church is to be a community of love. We exist to witness to the love God has for all of God’s creation. We exist to pass that love along. We are to love God, love one another, love the world with the love that has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
When people come among us, they should be impressed by the love that overflows in every meeting, in every event, in every gathering of every group. “See how they love one another” was what the watching world said about the earliest Christian communities. Aristides wrote to the Roman emperor Hadrian about the communities of Christ’s followers: “They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something, they give frely to the person who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy, as though he were a real brother.” (The Apology of Aristides, XIV, XV)
During World War II, members of a Christian Church in Le Chambon, France sheltered thousands of Jews from the Nazis. When they were asked about this extraordinary courage, they all referred to the Bible verse that was carved into the doorway at the entrance to their church. This verse was embodied and preached about by their pastor over and over again. “Little children, love one another.”
The work of the church is to be a community of love that is a sign, witness, and foretaste of the life-shaping, life-changing love of God that meets us in Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, ‘there is nothing we are less good at than love’ (Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience, p. 73). From our earliest days, we have been encouraged to be competitive — to get ahead, to succeed. Day by day we are surrounded by powerful pressures to get more for ourselves by loving things and using people. We are schooled in impressive techniques for manipulating people so that we can get the things we love. However, the more focused we are on loving ourselves, the less capable we become of forming community with other selves. The end result is that we live in a culture where many people are profoundly lonely and looking for love.
So, Sunday be Sunday, we set ourselves at Jesus’ feet and open ourselves to the work of God in our lives, asking God to form us and mature us in love. The promise of the gospel is this: “the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). It is an amazing claim. What is most decisive about us is not our love or our failure to love. The most decisive thing is the work of God among us and God’s promise to complete what God began doing in our baptism.
On the day you were baptized, you were adopted into a community of people whose lives also had been claimed by God for God’s good purposes in the world. God has claimed each of us for the great and holy work of learning to love with a love like Christ’s. Indeed, God intends to produce in us and through us a “harvest of righteousness” (Philippians 1:11).
What do you hear when you hear the word ‘righteousness’? Do you automatically hear ‘self-righteous’? Do you think of people who are arrogant and judgmental; who consider themselves superior to others. Do you picture people who think that they are better than everyone else?
When Paul uses the word ‘righteousness’ in Philippians, he is not talking about that kind of self-righteousness. He is talking about a righteousness that is rooted in the grace and the love of Jesus Christ. The word means ‘in right relationship’. As we immerse ourselves in the grace and love of Jesus, a harvest of right relationships develops and grows: right relationship with God; right relationship with each other; right relationship with the world. The ‘harvest of righteousness’ that God’s Spirit produces in us i love that is growing and maturing and looking more and more like the love that Jesus lived.
Love is a word that is often messed up, perverted, or misunderstood. Jesus redefines love for us. Jesus’ love is not anything like the sentimental, ‘anything goes’ parody of love that is so prevalent in our culture. Jesus believes in us enough to summon us into an apprenticeship to a costly kind of love. Loving the way Jesus loves is risky and radical. It means that, day by day, we relinquish our own self-righteousness, our ego-driven desires, our fears that we are not good enough. Instead, we open ourselves to the Spirit’s guidance. We open ourselves to God’s grace that is at work in our souls. We pray. We learn to tell the truth to God, to others, and to ourselves. We receive forgiveness and practise offering it others. We take every circumstance of our lives and hand it over to God — all the messiness, all the pain, all the suffering, as well as the joys and triumphs. We ask God, “Show me your grace and your glory in this.” “Show me how to grow in the love of Christ through this.”
We learn to play jazz with our lives. Said one jazz musician, “We are a people who have sought freedom. Jazz expresses that freedom. More importantly, we are a people who, even through suffering have learned to love. Our music expresses our love for God, for God’s universe, for God’s people . . . We play jazz and the blues so as not to waste any pain.” (Mtumishi St. Julien, quoted in “Moments of Inspiration: Preaching, Jazz Improvisation and the Work of the Spirit”, Charles Campell, Journal for Preachers, 21 no 4 Pentecost 1998, p 30-35)
Paul prays for the disciples of Jesus Christ in the church in Philippi that they will have no experience that is wasted. All is taken up by God and used to deepen their love and mature them in love, the the love of Christ that changes the world, even as it changes us.
It is a long, slow process. This is soul work and souls cannot be hurried. Yet, God does not give up on us. God’s Spirit continuously works in us, seeking to draw us out of ourselves and pulling us into the wide expanses of the love of God. God’s Spirit loves us just as we are; God’s Spirit loves us too much to leave us that way. God believes in us enough to say over and over again, “Repent. Turn from a life defined by your self. You are made for something more. Turn toward a life made large and holy by the love of God.”
Often, says, Craig Barnes, we are like a half-finished painting. Sometimes we are not sure what it will look like when it is finished. In the middle of the process, things can look pretty ragged. But you can trust that the Spirit is painting the image of Jesus in your life. Your work is to respond to the Spirit’s creativity. Your work is to receive the creative, life-transforming grace of God.
Will you let the living God change you? Will you open spaces in your life where the Spirit can work God’s love into you?
Let us pray:
we thank you for the work you are doing among us,
leading us forward into new challenges,
forming us into the image of Christ for the sake of the world.
Through your Spirit, lead us to make this community
a place where the lonely find friendship,
the despairing find hope,
the wounded find your healing power,
and all are brought ever more deeply
into the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Amen.