This morning we want to start out by saying a bit more about the city of Philippi. We’ve talked a little bit about the experiences of Paul – we’ve talked a little bit about Christian community in Philippi and about their experiences – but we want to say a little more about the city of Philippi itself.
The city of Philippi was founded about 400 years before Christ, and the city got its name from the king who founded it. His name was Philippos – he was king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia, there on the northern shore of the Agean Sea. Philippos founded this particular city for the typical kinds of reasons – there were gold mines in the area, and he wanted to control the gold mines – there was a well-travelled road passing through the region – and he wanted to control the road, too.
Now king Philippos was a relatively successful and powerful king within the wider context of Ancient Greece – and he had grand plans to expand his rule and his kingdom. It so happened, however, that Philippos was assassinated before he could implement his plans. But his son Alexander became king after Phillipos and pursued his father’s expansionist plans. The son of Philippos turns out to have been none other than Alexander the Great, who established one of the largest empires in the ancient world – from Greece in the West – to India and the Himalayas in the East.
So already well before Paul and the Philippian Christians arrived on the scene, the city of Philippi had a pretty noble heritage. Established by a Greek king – who happened to be the father of Alexander the Great, the greatest warrior the world had known.
And this noble pedigree of the city of Philippi continued into the period of the Roman Empire. In fact, the city of Philippi is associated with one of the most important battles in the Roman Civil War, just a few decades before the time of Christ. In the year 42 B.C. the forces of Marc Antony and Octavian confronted the assassins of Julius Caesar on the plains just west of Philippi. Marc Antony and Octavian were victorious in that battle, and Octavian went on to become the first emperor of the Roman Empire. Some years later, the Roman Senate gave Octavian the title Augustus (Augustus Caesar) – and at that time the name of the city of Philippi formally became: Colonia Iulia Augusta Philippensis.
So this city of Philippi is a city with a noble heritage – linked to the Greek King Philippos – and thereby linked to his son Alexander the Great. And then the city is linked to Octavius, the first Roman Emperor – later to become known as Caesar Augustus. Philippi is a Roman Colony, yes – but this is not a colony in the backwater sense – it a colony with an impressive pedigree.
As one New Testament scholar points out: “Philippi was modeled after the mother city of Rome. Roman arches, bathhouses, forums and temples dominated Philippi in the first century. The citizens of Philippi enjoyed all the privileges and rights of Roman citizens: they were exempt from taxes and governed under Roman law.” Philippi is a very Roman city.
So what does all of this have to do with Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Well in a minimal sense, it tells us a little bit about the context in which these Christians lived their daily life. But in a deeper sense, it may help us to understand something important about the letter Paul writes.
We know from last week that the Philippian Christians are suffering. Paul characterized their suffering in this way: “You are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” This gives us a hint that the sufferings of Paul and the sufferings of the Philippians share something in common.
Paul, for his part, suffers at the hands of the empire. Paul is a prisoner of the Roman Empire – his experience of suffering, the chafing of irons around his wrists and ankles, his lack of freedom, the possibility of death – this is all at the hands of the Empire.
And so when Paul says that the Philippians are having the same struggle that he is having, it suggests that they too are suffering at the hands of the Empire. They are likely suffering on account of the particular context in which they live – they are likely suffering on account of the fact that this Roman Colony of Philippi is their home.
So the question arises as to why their life in Philippi might be a source of suffering for them. Well, we have already pointed out that Philippi is a very Roman city – with a noble legacy in the Ancient Greece and Rome. And what we should also know is that by this time in the history of the Roman Empire, the cult of the Emperor had taken deep root.
The cult of the emperor was not just one religion among many in the Roman world – rather, by the time of Paul the cult of the emperor had become the dominant religion in much of the Empire. The cult of the emperor was a means of establishing the political power and influence of Rome throughout the known world. The image of the emperor was everywhere – he was considered a gift of the gods – at every public event, honour and praise would have been offered to the emperor. By Paul’s time, in fact, Caesar was hailed as Lord and trusted and saviour – these were titles given to the emperor.
The Philippian Christians are suffering, and it is possible and likely that their suffering results from their refusal to acknowledge the emperor as Lord and Saviour. They could offer no such statement of allegiance – they may well have withdrawn from participation in some public events – they may well have been ostracized and alienated for their refusal to participate in the dominant religious and ideological framework. Having received the message of Paul – and having put their faith in Jesus – the only context in which it made any sense for them to use that kind of language – the language of Lord and saviour – was in the context of their faith in Jesus. And for this refusal to honour the emperor, and this refusal to acknowledge him as Lord, they are alienated, maligned, and persecuted. In later years, under the emperor Nero, and particularly under the emperor Domitian, this persecution would reach the level of horrific violence against Christians communities.
It will probably come as no surprise to us to discover that the church in Philippi seems also to have been experiencing some level of division and disagreement. A community that is suffering – a community that is under pressure – a community that is feeling isolated and alone – very often in such a community there will be some degree of division and disagreement. At the best of times, human communities experience division and disagreement – we all know that. In this particular case, though, there seems to be a direct link between the suffering and pressure they are experiencing and the divisions that exist.
How does Paul respond to this situation of the Philippian Christians – what words can he offer them? They are suffering, and their suffering may be causing friction between them. How can he respond to these sisters and brothers?
Paul does, perhaps, the only thing he can think to do – in our passage he begins simply by reminding them of who they are and of what they have experienced. And he uses this sense of who they are, and of what they have experienced, to encourage them to unity and love – to encourage them to support one another.
Our passage from today – Philippians 2:1-4 is actually one very long sentence. And this long, rather convoluted sentence begins rather strangely with a series of four “ifs”. Paul writes: “If there is any encouragement in Christ; if there is any consolation from love; if there is any sharing in the spirit; if there is any compassion and sympathy, then make my joy complete by being united in heart and mind.” What is he trying to say, here?
One biblical scholar points out when Paul uses the word ‘if’, what he means to say is “as surely as.” As surely as this has happened. As surely as that has happened. In other words Paul is simply reminding the Philippians of their faith – of their identity as those who belong to God – their identity as those who have had such a real encounter with God. We can look at each of these four phrases in order.
Paul writes: As surely as you have been encouraged through union with Christ. For the Christians in Philippi, Jesus isn’t just an interesting historical figure – he isn’t just a wise teacher – he isn’t just another purveyor of some self-help doctrine. Rather, Jesus is one to whom they are linked in a spiritual bond – he is the living one who is close to them in some profound and mysterious sense. They are with him. He is with them. And Paul reminds them of how encouraging it has been to these women and men to live in so closely with the risen one. For them it has meant strength and encouragement and joy.
Paul adds: As surely as you have been consoled through love. This also has been part of their experience. They have known love. Their experience of love has been a comfort – it has been for their support and consolation. Paul doesn’t explicitly mention that it is the love of Christ that the Philippians have known – but that’s what context implies. Even so, Christ’s love comes to us both directly and through others – a love that seeks our best; a love that builds us up; a love that encourages us; a love that leads us into a more ameaningful life. The Philippian Christians have experienced such love.
Paul adds: As surely as you have shared in the Spirit. This too has been a part of their experience. Spirituality, here, isn’t simply about the human dimension of life – for these early Christians spirituality isn’t just an intangible and deep aspect of human being. Spirituality, rather, has to do with the living Spirit of God – a Spirit that draws near to us in very real ways. A Spirit that gives gifts – a Spirit that opens hearts to God – a Spirit that opens human hearts to one another – a Spirit that goes by that other name, also: “The Comforter.” The Philippians have known the life of this Spirit among them.
Fourthly, Paul adds: As surely as you have experienced compassion and sympathy. Paul is piling up these experiences. In a very Hebrew pattern he repeats and extends his thought – he is building toward something. The Philippians, through Christ and through one another, have experienced compassion and sympathy – their wounds have been tended, their tears have been dried, their broken souls have been mended, their pain has been acknowledged. Through the risen Christ, and through the community he gives, they have experienced compassion and sympathy.
This is who the Philippian Christians are – not just as individuals – but as a community.
Together they have been encouraged through union with Christ.
Together they have been consoled through love.
Together they have shared in the living Spirit of God.
Together they have experienced compassion and sympathy.
This is who the Philippian Christians are – not just as individuals, but as a community. Together this is their experience and identity. And Paul says to them – as surely as all of this has been real for you – let this be real for you too – that you be of one mind and heart in this difficult time.
In other words, Paul is saying: Don’t let your suffering become a wedge to push you apart. Don’t let your suffering drive you into disagreements. Don’t let your sufferings break down the bonds of love that have been built between you. Don’t let your suffering and your oppressors lead you into ways of being that deny your unity and your love.
You have known life together with Christ – you have known life together in the Spirit – you have known life together in the love of God – you have known life together in consolation and peace. So remain of one heart and mind – trusting the one who has given the gift of this shared life.
Paul writes: “Make my joy complete; be of the same mind, having the same love; being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
Even in a circumstance of suffering and oppression – perhaps especially in a context of suffering and oppression, at the hands of the empire – they are encouraged to live in the way of Christ. In him they have known encouragement, consolation and love. And there is no other answer to their struggle – there is no other answer to their difficulties – there is no other answer to their disagreements with each other – there is no other answer in the face of pressure to declare Casesar’s lordship – they must continue in the way of Jesus, in his spirit of humility and service. After all, he is their risen King. In him they know love, and will continue to love.
Thanks be to God. Amen.