Sunday, September 21, 2014

Mike, Tom, and Paul

Away at a convention of USAF fighter pilots, Mike will not be with us in Sunday School this morning, it’ll be just me at the end table plus whoever wants to sit up there or down there with me and kibitz. 

The Episcopal Church observes the seasons of the church year, and we are in the Season after Pentecost, that long green season that stretches from Pentecost to Advent. In worship we read from a prescribed lectionary that runs in a three-year cycle. Because of our wonderful summer-into-fall of reading old Bible stories from the Old Testament during this Lectionary Year A, we’ve been talking about the Old Testament in Sunday School, and have had a couple of fascinating sessions. This morning, though, I think we'll digress because our lectionary launches a four-Sunday series of reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. So I think we may have this one Sunday School session as an introduction to Philippians.

The warmest and most loving of his extant letters, sometimes described as “sublime,” Paul seems to have written it about 50 to 60 A.D. to the church he founded with which he had the most positive relationship in the years that followed. 

Paul seems to have had three reasons for writing to his Philippian friends and converts to Christ -- 

The folks in Philippi took up a collection of money to help support Paul and his evangelical mission, and sent Epaphroditus to take the money to Paul, who writes back thanking them.

Paul seems to be in prison during this time, but doesn’t tell us where, so scholars like to argue about that and manage to sell lots of seminary textbooks with the arguments; but Paul finds that his being confined is a good thing because those who are competing with him in preaching Christ are bringing many people to Christ while he’s in jail, and Paul appreciates that.

Also, and perhaps the most interesting because it shows up elsewhere in Paul’s writings, Paul is constantly at odds with evangelists who are coming along behind him and telling folks that in order to become Christians they must first convert to Judaism and submit fully to Jewish law including circumcision. Vehemently disagreeing with this, Paul fights them bitterly, and the fight is clear in his writing as he insists that with Jesus there is a new covenant in which everyone is welcome, only Jews are bound to the Law of Moses and the practices of Abraham: Gentiles, the non-Jews to whom Paul is sent to preach Christ, are invited and welcome, come as you are, just as you are. Paul warns the Philippians to beware of these false preachers who bring a false gospel.

Many scholars think Philippians is not a "unity" but is actually three letters that Paul wrote to Philippi at different times, canonically cobbled together to form a letter that isn't necessarily cohesive or reasonably sequential. We might look at this in Sunday School this morning.

In Philippians chapter 2 there’s the famous so-called “Christ Hymn” which over the years has been misunderstood as Paul preaching the eternal divinity of Jesus Christ. But Paul was a monotheist Jew, high christology was/is a feature of the much later Gospel of John and the later Church, and the “hymn” is actually an exhortation to Paul’s readers to be humble as Jesus was humble. Maybe we’ll talk about it.


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