by Jason Micheli
Philippians 4.1-9 (click to see Scripture text)
Almighty God, the giver of all good things, without whose help all labour is ineffectual and without whose grace all wisdom is folly. Grant, I beseech thee, that in this my undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the salvation both of myself and others….in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
On February 27, 1933, an angry, alienated Dutch construction worker, who was also a Communist activist, snuck into the Reichstag building in Berlin with the intent to burn it all down. Because he was nearly blind, the arsonist only managed to set the curtains ablaze in the Reichstag building. He was apprehended in the act, and immediately it was clear he was lonely and disturbed and had been acting alone.
Nonetheless, the Nazi Party’s leadership pounced on the opportunity for propaganda, seizing on the moment to stoke the already raging fears of Marxism and a Russian-style revolution in Germany. In just hours, police began locking up perceived enemies of the state. Nationalists persuaded Paul Von Hindenburg, the Reichspräsident, to suspend the Weimar Constitution until further notice and to exert federal authority over the states in the name of law and order and public safety. The German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, leaned into the chaos and fear, and five days later he won the national election.
Let’s back up—
A year earlier, in 1932, a young Swiss theologian named Karl Barth had begun teaching a series of underground lectures on preaching. Barth had just been installed as a Professor of Theology at the University of Bonn in Germany. Having never earned a Ph.D., Karl Barth arrived at the University of Bonn from parish ministry just as the fever of German nationalism was spiking. Though he had taken the position on the condition that he would abstain from political activity, it bothered Barth that the only faculty member at Bonn who had joined the Nazi Party— in 1932, at least— was the professor of homiletics. Karl Barth did not want students of preaching to learn preaching from preachers whose preaching had been corrupted by nationalism and populism and racism and xenophobia.
And so a year before the Reichstag fire election, Karl Barth began teaching an unofficial, uncredited, underground series of lectures on homiletics. Given the context of the course, it’s not surprising that immediately after the election results were clear his hundreds of students came to him for preaching advice. Herr Barth, Herr Barth how shall we preach in light of this election?
Evidently, they had not heard that, in all the Sundays of the first World War, Karl Barth— quite purposely— had mentioned it not once in his sermons, and, to the end of his life, he always regretted the Sunday when he had reflected upon the sinking of the Titanic.
Herr Barth, Herr Barth how shall we preach, what shall we preach, in light of this election?
And Karl Barth advised them, “preach as if nothing happened.”
But these are dangerous, unprecedented times, surely, they demand a special word, a relevant sermon, timely preaching?!
The only unique time, Barth told them, is the time God has given the Church, the time between Christ’s first coming and the coming again, to proclaim that Jesus is Lord and live in a manner that makes that claim intelligible. Therefore, Barth replied, “No matter the election results, preach as if nothing happened.” It’s always “business as usual” in the Kingdom of God.
You will not hear that as the prophetic word Barth intended if you do not know that very soon Barth would be lecturing with Nazi SS officers lurking in the back recording his every word. Soon after, he became a leader of the Confessing Church movement in Germany. Ultimately, Barth’s preaching and teaching as if nothing happened got him exiled back to Switzerland.
I’ll admit it. As I prepared for this sermon before Tuesday, I considered using Barth’s “preach as if nothing happened” as a gambit to mollify many of you, keep politics out of the pulpit, and ignore the election.
But it would be dishonest for me do so, because Barth’s admonition that we should preach as if nothing has happened sounds like a cop out if you do not first understand the question its meant to answer.
At the heart of Karl’s Barth “business as usual” counsel, at the heart— I believe— of Paul’s plea in Philippians Chapter Four, a question.
For Christians, I believe it is one of the most important questions.
This is the question—
Are we, as Christians, called to make a difference in the world, or are we called to live in the difference Christ has already made in the world?
How you answer the question makes all the difference.
And before you answer, remember— The overwhelming majority of Christians since the time of Jesus have been poor and illiterate, oppressed and anonymous. There’s an assumption of privilege that lurks behind the answer that Christians are called to make a difference in the world. If making a difference in the world is what Christians are meant to do, then most Christians for most of Christian history lacked the power to do what they allegedly were called to do.
Power is at the heart of the question.
If Christians are to make a difference in the world, then the power we seek in the world will be power as the world defines it. The reason scripture often uses the term “the world” (kosmos) as the antithesis of the Kingdom is that the world does not understand weakness as strength, does not see mercy as might, nor views humility and grace as “power.
If such a view of power came naturally to the world, it would not have had to come as Jesus— and, even then, it took an empty tomb to gain a hearing.
If making a difference in the world is our goal, then not only is it a goal we’re liable to pursue on the world’s terms, it’s a goal over which we will eventually differ. After all, Jesus is quite clear his Kingdom belongs to the poor and those parched and starving for justice. He’s vague, however, about how his followers should lobby the Principalities and Powers to implement his Kingdom ethic.
Jesus is unambiguous that in the Kingdom of God not one child, who is known to God even in the womb, is left behind. Yet, Jesus does not reveal his thoughts on whether legislation or persuasion is the ideal means to protect those whom he says are first in his Kingdom.
The Gospel announces in the starkest terms possible that Christ’s Kingdom is one where there is no longer neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Gentile, but all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord. It’s easy to see how this Kingdom message extends to distinctions between black and white, gay and straight, but the Apostle Paul does not go on in Galatians to break down best practices for systematically undoing systemic issues.
The Kingdom ethic of Jesus is clear.
The implementation of Jesus’ Kingdom ethic on earth— if indeed that is our calling— is contestable.
Therefore, we will always differ about how to make a difference in the world— if making a difference in the world is our calling. And, because the stakes are so high (We’re building the Kingdom, after all! God’s depending on our initiative and faithfulness!), sinners like us will justify whatever means necessary to pursue our goal.
For that reason, all too often, the answer that says Christians are meant to make a difference in the world produces Christians in the world for whom Christ appears to make no difference. That mandate to make a difference in the world produces Christians for whom the person and work of Christ, the life and teachings of Jesus, appear to make no difference.
The answer that says Christians are meant to make a difference in the world produces Christians in the world for whom Christ appears to make no difference.
What about the other possibility?
What about the answer that says Christians are to live in the difference Christ has already made in the world?
In order to understand what it might mean to say that Christians are not called to make a difference in the world but rather we are called to live in the difference Christ has made in the world, we first must know what difference he made in the world.
Fortunately, the Apostle Paul tells us the difference Christ has made. It’s seldom noticed that pointing out the difference Christ has made in the world is at the heart of his letters.
The first difference Christ has made in the world— He healed our past.
Christ’s faithful life, even unto death— even death on a cross, has wiped the world’s ledger clean and replaced our failing report card with Christ’s own permanent, perfect record. He’s not only taken away the sins of the whole world, but he also brought down the dividing walls between us. To the extent we are still divided, we are living a lie. For by the blood of his cross, Christ has brought an end to the hostility between us and made peace.
Christ has healed our past, but the difference Christ has made in the world is not limited to the past.
Paul has already told us, the second difference Christ has made in the world, he’s transformed our future. God vindicated the faithful life of Jesus, raising him from the grave and giving him the place of authority at his right hand. In the fullness of time, Paul has told us, every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Every tongue and knee; therefore, our future is not uncertain.
It is not a threat to be feared, but it is a gift guaranteed by his grace.
Christ has given us a different past called the “forgiveness of sins,” and Christ has given us a different future called “eternal life.” We do not need to atone for the wrongs in our past nor do we need to make the world come out right in the future, and this difference makes all the difference for our present.
Because we no longer need to run ashamedly away from the past nor work anxiously to secure the future, justifying the means we resort to on the way, we are set free truly to be present in the present.
We can afford to risk living in the present in the manner made flesh in Jesus.
After all, as Paul makes clear in his letters, Jesus of Nazareth is not just our atonement. He is more than our eternal security. He is the firstborn of Creation. Of one Being with God, he is the one by whom all things were made, which makes him not just the Lord who forgives us and not just the Savior who secures heaven for us. He is the Logic of Creation, and so his way in the world, the shape of his life, is more than simply an addendum to salvation. It is the grain of the universe.
This is what it means to call him the Second Adam. Jesus is God’s archetype. He is God’s plan for your life. He is the blueprint for all of us, putting the burden of proof for what it means to be truly human on us, not on him.
We are the ones who only appear human.
The fully human one is the one who loves his enemy and turns the other cheek and forgives those who trespass against him.
But, loving your enemy and turning the other cheek and forgiving those who trespass against you— those are risks you can take only if you know that Christ has already healed the hostility between you and your enemy. He has sealed the future such that in the fullness of time the two of you will stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the Kingdom as friends of God.
Not everyone knows the difference Christ has made for our past and our future.
No one can know the difference Christ has made.
It requires witnesses.
This is what Paul means when he tells the Church at Ephesus that the peace which Christ has accomplished has called forth a new commonwealth, the Church, who live amidst the old humanity according to Christ’s true humanity.
In other words, the incarnation inaugurates an alternative in the world, an alternative to the world, not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has made in the world.
The answer that says Christians are meant to live in the difference Christ has made in the world— it requires Christians in the world for whom Christ makes all the difference.
Notice how St. Paul answers the question in our text today.
Paul once again names the bitter partisan divide in the Church between supporters of Synteche’s leadership and, on the other side, the party of Euodia. Paul calls out the conflict and antagonism threatening to pull the community apart, he entreats the two sides to come together for the sake of unity, but then Paul quickly pivots and urges them to continue practicing the way of Jesus.
“Keep on doing the things that you have learned,” Paul writes, “Put into practice the things you have received and heard and seen in me.”
The gentleness we are to make known is the gentleness of Jesus.
The peace we are to trust will protect us is Jesus Christ is all that is true and just and beautiful.
He alone is worthy of praise. “Keep on putting him into practice,” Paul exhorts them.
Notice what Paul doesn’t do in today’s text.
Paul does not present the way of Jesus as a solution to the problem the community faces. Paul acknowledges the problem between them and then Paul urges them to abide in the way of Jesus, but he does not offer the latter as the means to resolve the former.
Paul does not suggest that the gentleness of Jesus is a strategy to overcome the division and conflict between them. Rather, in a world of conflict and division, as faithful followers of Jesus Christ Paul can imagine them acting in no other way but with gentleness and peace. The first task of the Church is not to solve the conflict by any means necessary. The first task of the Church is “to keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.”
Yes, there is conflict and division in their community. Yes, much is at risk. Yes, the future seems uncertain. Nevertheless, Paul says, it is “business as usual.”
Live in the difference Christ has made.
“How can Herr Hitler be a nothing?” a student asked in reply to Barth’s advice that they should “preach as if nothing has happened.”
“The little man in Berlin is not the Lord of History,” Barth laughed, “Inform him if you like, the Lord of History is a crucified Jew from Nazareth.”
Of course, Barth, who was an activist his whole life, did not believe the events of his day were unimportant.
“Nevertheless,” Barth said, “the Church must not allow its imagination to be captured by the world’s myths. We must not give the lordless powers of the world inappropriate glory, honor, and dominion that belong only to God. We are in this mess, because our witness has become so muddled, we can no longer tell the difference between the nation and the Kingdom of God. Anybody can see why he is a threat to everything that Christians hold dear. More difficult is to see how idolatry, failure to worship, confusion of culture and patriotism with Christianity, and timid biblical interpretation made his movement possible. Most difficult of all is to see the Church as God’s answer to what’s wrong with the world. The Church is called to be a showcase of what God can do, a people whose lives tell the truth that the world can never tell itself. Bear witness!”
In the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah, when the Babylonian Empire invaded the promised land and surrounded the city of David, when the nation stood on the precipice of collapse and, fearing the worst would happen, God’s chosen people turned on each other and began pointing fingers and casting blame, the Word of the Lord came to the prophet Jeremiah and commanded Jeremiah to buy his uncle’s field at Anathoth.
At the time, Anathoth was behind enemy lines.
And the Word of the Lord had already told Jeremiah that the nation would indeed fall to defeat, scattering God’s people into chaos.
All of this made the field at Anathoth a seemingly high-risk foolhardy investment.
But the Word of the Lord instructs Jeremiah to buy the field, to file all the necessary paperwork and to patiently go through the traditional legal proceedings, and, once it was purchased, to plant in the field— as if nothing has happened.
“For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says,” Jeremiah prophesies, “‘Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.’”
With chaos swirling all around, God calls him to buy a field in a war zone and to plant in it in order to bear witness in the present to the God who had promised to restore their future.
But the Lord has not given us a garden to plant.
The Lord has not given us a field to till.
The Lord has not given to us anything of this world.
He’s given us Jesus.
He’s given us Jesus. He’s given us Christ’s own ministry of reconciliation. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, we’re Christ’s embassy in the world; so that, through us, the Living God can make his appeal to the world.
Therefore, in a world of conflict and chaos, acrimony and antagonism, as faithful followers of Jesus Christ, we cannot imagine being in the world in any other manner than the way of patience; the way of kindness; the way that is not envious or boastful, or arrogant or rude. The way that does not insist on its own way; the way that is not irritable or resentful; the way that does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. The way that bears all things and endures all things with joy, peace, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness.
To say that we’re to go on in the world as if nothing has happened is not to suggest that elections don’t have consequences or that politics don’t matter. It’s to know by faith that what we have learned and received and heard and seen in Jesus Christ is the way God has elected to reconcile the world to himself.
In the time since the presidential campaign began, over a year ago, here in this church you have welcomed a homeless man as a member of the congregation, you have provided housing and furniture, pots and pans, and clothing for a family of refugees from El Salvador, whom you’ve also welcomed as a part of this congregation.
In the days after George Floyd’s death, at least two of you to my knowledge, sought out people of color to confess and repent a sin you were only beginning to comprehend.
And throughout the general election season, you have fed the poor by the thousands, week-in and week-out, and many of you have gathered online, in the morning, to pray, which by itself implies that whomever is the little man on Pennsylvania Avenue, he is not the Lord of History.
I wrote every word of this before Tuesday night, before we knew the outcome of the election.
So it’s not spin when I say that what I do know is that what you have kept on doing— what you have learned and received and heard and seen in Jesus Christ— is the way God has elected to make a difference in the world.
So, no matter what comes between now and Inauguration Day, it’s “business as usual” in the Kingdom of God.
1Therefore, my brothers and sisters,* whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion,* help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice* in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.* 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, beloved,* whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about* these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
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