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"A Powerful Tool"

Letters are powerful tools –they can heal like a scalpel or destroy like a sledgehammer.

[1] “Two Cut Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh
[1] “Two Cut Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh

Philippians 1:21-30

September 24, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright


Letters are powerful tools –they can heal like a scalpel or destroy like a sledgehammer.


If you are of a certain age, you know what I’m talking about. You’ve received love letters that filled your heart with joy and, maybe, a few “Dear John” letters that left it in pieces; you’ve danced around the house with an acceptance letter and sat at your desk trying to make sense of a dismissal notice; you’ve stumbled upon them in the bottom of trunks and waited by the mailbox for them to arrive.


So perhaps it is not surprising that the early church kept the letters Paul sent.


This one finds him in prison, in Rome, in about 60 AD.


He has been in and out of prison ever since he started proclaiming the gospel – once in Philippi. It happened after he healed a fortune-telling slave girl who was afflicted with a demon. No demon meant no more fortune telling. Her owner got mad over the loss of income and called the authorities. They beat him and threw him in prison, but he wasn’t in for long. There was an earthquake while he and Silas were passing the time praying and singing, and the prison doors swung open![2]


Maybe the memory of that incident is why Paul decided to write to the church in Philippi.

 

He cannot use his skills as a tentmaker to shelter them or give them a place to meet. He cannot defend them with a sword, or serve them a meal, or wash their feet. So he uses the only tool at his disposal – though he is far away and locked up, he writes them a letter.


He is trying to stay upbeat, but as I said, the reality is that he is awaiting a sentence of life or death, so his letter is full of both joy and suffering.


That’s a strange combination, but as one scholar puts it:


“Paul knows he will find a hearing among the Philippians because they, too, have experiences of suffering, anxiety, and deprivation. Roughly a hundred years before this letter was written, Philippi was the site of the final battle of the Roman civil war. The town was taken by Antony and Octavian, subsequently colonized by Rome, and the tillable land seized from the local Greek-speaking populace and given to Roman veterans.


[So,] Paul’s letter is addressed to a community of people who have known, and continue to experience, economic [instability] and [exclusion].”[3]


And he writes to them, not in Latin, the language of the Empire, the conquerors, the oppressors, but in Greek, their mother-tongue. That is the first indication that he is being a little subversive. There will be more.

 

In the middle of our passage, Paul writes, “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”


It seems like an innocuous line. It’s not.


The word translated as “live your life” is not Paul’s typical word choice to describe “patterns of living.”[4] Scholars say it’s meaning is “something more like ‘conduct your citizenship.’”[5]


It’s “an edgy term to use in writing to a group of people who are, in fact, non-citizens,” unlike the retired Roman soldiers who were settled there to form a colony and received legal Roman citizenship as a reward.


“It isn’t until [later in the letter] that readers like us gain an understanding of exactly what Paul means. He writes that, as opposed to those who live ‘as enemies of the cross of Christ, … our citizenship is in heaven.’” Where others swear allegiance to the Empire, saying “Caesar is Lord”, Paul is reminding the Christians in Philippi to voice a different loyalty: “Jesus is Lord.”


So when Paul pens “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” it is freighted language.


It is like Paul is writing in code, slipping something past the censors, much like John McCain and other prisoners of the Hanoi Hilton did with their tap codes – trading information, telling jokes, keeping spirits high.


But for those with ears to hear, Paul is telling them how to live a faithful life. That life will be one of opposition to the Empire. It will also be one that displays the good news to others.

 

Writing letters may have gone out of fashion, but I’ll bet many of you can point to a letter that had a powerful impact on your life.


My grandfather wasn’t much for writing out letters, but every card I received contained the words “Go the extra mile” written in his careful draftsman script.


It was his way of saying … this is how to live a worthy life:


Work hard. Do more than is required. Don’t give up.


It was good advice. But there was more.


I believe my grandfather knew that he was quoting Jesus.[6]


In his sermon on the mount, our savior tells the crowd “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” He is talking about Roman soldiers forcing Jews to carry their loads. Comply, he says. It is part of the same speech where he says turn the other cheek.


To be clear, this is not passive compliance; this is shaming the enemy; this is creative, peaceful resistance. This is, to use Paul’s language, acting as a citizen of heaven in the face of Empire.


I’m not sure whether my grandfather knew his advice was coded, subversive, language.


But I still try to go the extra mile every day.

 

How about you? If you were writing a letter to someone you love,

what would you tell them about living out the faith?


What would you say about suffering?


About facing death?


Or about deep reservoirs of love … and sparks of boldness?


What could you tell of the joys and conflicts of living as both a US citizen and a citizen of heaven?


Or about belonging … and how that makes acts of resistance possible?


And about grace and peace and all the other gifts that tie Christians together

across borders and across generations?


Maybe you already know who you want to write to. You know their name as well as you know your own, as well as their address, and what you want to say. Do it!


But maybe you just have a notion, an idea, a longing to communicate with someone far away.


To share a little wisdom … or at least some hard-earned love with someone

in Ukraine... or Russia;

in a refugee camp or a barrio,

an orphanage or hospital,

to a person living on the streets or waiting in prison.


You may not know a name or have an address. Write a letter anyway.


Like I said, letters are powerful tools. They can shape hearts. Even the writer’s. Amen


[1] “Basilica B” in Philippi, photo by Iraklis Milas
[2] See Acts 16:16-34
[3] From Jane Lancaster Patterson’s reflections on the text for workingpreacher.org, 9/24/23
[4] From Troy Troftgruben’s reflections on the text for workingpreacher.org, 9/24/17
[5] Here, and in the following two paragraphs, from Patterson’s reflections (again)
[6] See Matthew 5:26-42
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