Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Actually, the rubber has been meeting the road for a while now. From the very beginning of this lovely letter to the saints of Philippi, Paul mixes together powerful statements of theology with personal words of counsel. He began by thanking God for these friends, declaring his love and gratitude boldly and personally. And interspersed along the way have been small comments here and there, words which offer clues to his primary pastoral concerns.
“I pray that your love for each other will overflow more and more and that you will keep on growing…” (1:9, NRSV).
“…if you have a heart, if you care – then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside and help others get ahead.” (2:1-2, The Message)
Paul then moves on in chapter 2 to record one of the most beautiful hymns of praise ever written. As Ryan helped us see on Monday, verses 5-11 contain an exquisite summary of the downward-moving grace of God, grace made palpable in the living, incarnate Jesus, the one who willingly humbled himself that we might have life. And using that magnificent, ethereal word picture as a jumping off point, Paul immediately moves to the road, the one the Philippians – and we – must walk each and every day, right here on planet earth.
And the verses that open this stretch of ethical teaching are words often found at the center of any discussion on faith vs. works:
“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (2:12-13, NRSV)
So…which is it, Paul? Are we to work out our own salvation? Or is God doing the work in us? And what, exactly, do you mean by working out our salvation anyhow? And how is God involved in this whole process? These two verses, and the questions they generate, have had a profound impact on my own understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, saved by grace and called to fruitful, faithful living.
Because these words pretty much lay out the basics of the Christian journey. It is GOD who enables our wills to follow, it is grace which comes first. Yet it is WE who must live our oh-so-daily lives empowered by that grace, partnering with God as we choose our words, our actions, our attitudes. For anyone who has ever struggled to find that balance, the words ‘fear and trembling’ are perfect!
One last, powerful thought on this chunk of scripture: Gordon Fee (Philippians, IVP, 1999) looks at these verses in a more communal sense, pondering how we work out our own salvation together as Christ-followers. Carefully, lovingly, we are called to, “do all things without murmuring or arguing,” (vs. 14) so that we may, “shine like stars in the world.” (vs. 15).
For this is what’s at the heart of Paul’s word to his friends in Philippi: LOVE EACH OTHER, work together so that those who don’t yet know the love of Jesus will see you shining and want to know where all that light is coming from. Because done right, when we are humbly following Jesus together, the light shines ever so much more brightly, don’t you think?
Maybe we should teach our children to link arms whenever they sing, “This Little Light of Mine.” And maybe we should do the same.