Discipleship 101: Through Christ – sermon on Philippians 4:8-13

October 15, 2017

This week concludes our Discipleship 101 series with an introduction to our next season of focus. We could call it “Discipleship 201” and bring everything to the next level, but in reality, this is more of a graduate course in following Jesus. From this point forward, we have to decide if this Jesus-following path is really something to which we want to commit our entire lives.

I’m reminded of the time that Jesus’ teachings became too difficult for his disciples to understand, and some turned away from following him. Jesus looked at the twelve and asked, “What about you? Are you going to leave me too?” And Simon Peter answered with a question of his own, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)

Coming to know Christ in the same deeply personal way as those first disciples did brings us to a new level of maturity in faith. This level can only be found when, like those first disciples, we decide to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul addresses this kind of Christian maturity in his letter to the church at Philippi.

It’s interesting that the verses we will read in a few moments do not appear anywhere in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle of readings. The lectionary only goes as far as verse 9 in this 4th chapter of Philippians. I find this curious, because it omits one of the most popular verses found in scripture – right up there with John 3:16 and the 23rd Psalm:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 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. 
Keep 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.
I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.
Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:8-13

J.D. Walt of Asbury Seminary calls Philippians 4:13 “the Norman Vincent Peale ‘Power of Positive Thinking’ power verse, … the ultimate ‘I-think-I-can-Little-Engine-That-Could’ biblical secret sauce verse of all verses in the history of verses.”[1] The only problem with hearing Paul’s words in this way is that it wasn’t at all what Paul meant.

Paul is coming from the context of surrendering all circumstances to Christ. Whether hungry or well fed, whether rich or poor, everything Paul does is through the power of Christ Jesus. Instead of claiming “I am capable of anything because I’m a Christian” Paul is saying, “Whatever happens, good or bad, my focus is on Jesus and he will give me the strength to endure all hardships.

Paul had certainly experienced his share of hardships, and so had the Philippians. Back in the beginning of this letter, Paul wrote, “For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.” (Phil 1:29-30). That “gracious privilege” of suffering for Christ is the context for Paul’s words of encouragement here, at the end of his letter.

Our North American understanding might emphasize the “I can do all things” part of verse 13, but Paul’s emphasis is most certainly on the “through him who strengthens me” part. Most commentaries focus on the idea of being content in all circumstances that Paul expresses here. Such contentment comes from remembering that nothing we attempt will bear fruit unless it is the result of Christ working through us. “I can do all things through Christ, who is at work through me” might be another way of saying it.

I wonder if we sometimes get so focused on “doing all things” that we skip over the verses leading up to this “power of positive thinking Little Engine That Could” verse. Those earlier verses deserve a closer look. Remember that Paul has just encouraged Euodia and Syntyche to be reconciled to each other, setting aside their disagreement for the sake of the gospel.

Then Paul writes, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 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.”

Earlier in this letter, Paul used the Greek word for “if” that means “since” – and he does it again here. Since there is certainly excellence and something worthy of praise in knowing Christ Jesus, this is what we are to think about. The NRSV uses the word “pleasing” among the list of excellent things worthy of praise, and other translations use the word “lovely,” which comes a bit closer to the literal meaning of pros-phi-les: “whatever calls forth love.” Think about whatever calls forth love in you, whatever calls forth love in others, Paul tells us.

“Keep 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.” Keep on keeping on. It isn’t necessary to add more onto your plate, just keep doing the same things you have learned and received and seen and heard. The work you are doing is kingdom work.

Sometimes I think we get kingdom work and church work confused. Kingdom work isn’t so concerned with upholding the institution of “church.” Kingdom work is much more interested in transformation – the kind of change that changes everything, the kind that turns our lives around.

Instead of being centered on ourselves, we become centered on Christ. Instead of striving to satisfy our own desires, our energy is unleashed for serving the needs of others. Kingdom work is doing everything through Christ, who is working through us.

Here are some of the ways we’ve been doing this as a congregation over the past year or so:

We’ve begun to shift from enjoying fellowship among ourselves to offering Radical Hospitality to others. It started with a few visual signs of greater openness – the windows between the worship and gathering spaces, for example, and new glass doors at the parking entrance. We’ve improved the signage in and around the building, so people who’ve never been here before can find their way. We are making some headway at de-cluttering the gathering space, the Library Lounge, and the Dining Room downstairs.

We offer coffee and a place to drink it before worship as well as afterward, and added some tables to the gathering space to relieve some of the congestion in the Library Lounge during coffee time. Name badges make it easier for new people to know who we are, and for guests to “fit in” when they put on a nametag, because all of us – well, many of us, anyway – are wearing them, too.

But what makes our hospitality radical, and not just welcoming to the stranger, is that we have begun to seek out guests and get to know them. We have drawn new people into our lives. Most of all, we have begun to recognize the importance of opening our lives to Jesus, and offering him the hospitality of our hearts.

It is this deeper desire to welcome Jesus into our hearts that has opened up our church to greater possibility for Pentecost to happen among us. You may remember that during Lent this year, we read a book together, Unbinding Your Heart. Perhaps the most striking result of reading that book was that we started to pray more freely and intentionally than we had before.

We created a prayer wall, and I am still moved by one of the prayers I saw there. It was a prayer for all those who have no one else to pray for them. Such a prayer comes from a heart that is surrendered to Jesus, a heart doing everything through Christ, even as Christ works through the person who wrote that prayer. But that’s not the only way our church has been doing kingdom work.

We began to build intentional bridges between our church and our community. It started a couple of years ago with NUMAS Haus, but over the past year, we have seen personal relationships develop through the Community Breakfast we offer each month. Our Trunk or Treat and Diaper Depot reach out to families in a tangible way, and even the revising of our building use policy is an example of building bridges into our community. Bit by bit, person by person, we are being transformed. And in the process, we are transforming the world at our doorstep.

Our Wednesday Family Night supper and worship have drawn people into our church who might not feel as comfortable entering this worship space on Sunday mornings, but they find care and connection around the table on Wednesday nights. Meanwhile, we’ve added Kids Connect!, a way for children to experience God’s love in age-appropriate ways, as you heard Catherine tell us earlier. Our Sunday worship is also getting a boost when we sing new songs, or sing old favorites in new ways. Recently, a team from our church attended a breakthrough workshop on worship, and now that team is better equipped to help us develop a more meaningful, heartfelt worship life.

A focus on kingdom work even shows up in our “church work,” through the development of a new governance structure. Church council meetings that were spent in sharing reports have been replaced with Leadership Board gatherings that allow working teams to interact with each other, as they brainstorm and plan for ministry that keeps us centered on Christ as we offer Christ to others. In all of these changes, we become more and more able to do all things through Christ, who strengthens us.

It wasn’t that long ago that we wondered if we had the capacity to make the sweeping changes needed for rebirth and growth. We fretted about the energy it would take, and the financial commitment. We were stuck in a mentality of scarcity, rather than abundance. We forgot, if only for a time, that we can do all things through Christ, if we allow Christ to work through us.

I’ve skipped over a few verses that I’d like to bring to your attention now:

“I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.”

Paul is talking about a financial gift that the church in Philippi had sent to him by Epaphroditus. Paul mentions that the Philippians have supported him financially in the past, and even when it was not easy for them, they have continued to contribute to his ministry and provide for his personal needs.

Earlier today, as we welcomed a new member into our congregation, we renewed a promise to offer our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. What would happen if we decided to keep those promises through Christ, who gives us the strength to fulfill them? What would it look like to pray through Christ? What would it be like to attend worship regularly and often, through Christ? To use our spiritual gifts through Christ and offer our financial support for this church’s ministry through Christ? How would serving through Christ and being a witness through Christ look and sound and feel?

In your mailboxes today,  you will find a letter from our Leadership Board. You might be expecting a stewardship letter from the Finance Committee, asking for a pledge of your financial resources. But this letter is about more than meeting the budget for the coming year. This is an invitation to start living your life through Christ, who strengthens you and invites you into a life of discipleship.

There is a response form included with your letter, and it has two parts – one to turn in, and another to keep as a reminder of your commitment. I mentioned last week that this is not a list of things you can do to become a better Christian. It’s a promise to demonstrate how Christ will be working through you in the coming year, through your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness. How will you exercise your discipleship through First United Methodist Church, as we do all things through Christ in 2018? And what’s keeping you from getting a head start on the new year, and practicing your discipleship right now?

Doing all things through Christ who gives us strength – this is our theme for the next five weeks, but it’s really the way Jesus calls us to live our lives for the rest of our lives. We can only stay centered on Christ and offer Christ as we do everything through Christ, who will strengthen us for joyful kingdom work. Together, may we submit everything we do to Christ’s purpose, living through Christ, as Christ lives through us. Do everything through Christ, who is doing everything through you. And the God of peace be with you.

[1] http://www.seedbed.com/the-problem-with-the-ultimate-bumper-sticker-scripture/

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