Ancient Letter, Modern Wisdom

July 6, 1997

Summary

Ancient Letter, Modern Wisdom

We have been browsing around in a letter written a long time ago by a man named Paul to a small Christian church he had planted in the Greek city of Philippi. It’s a personal letter that did not have us in mind, so some of it has the musty smell of a lost time, but the surprising thing is how much of it is still useful in a 20th century church Paul could never have imagined. For example, take this plea from their founding minister, addressed to people who 2000 years ago were as excited about their new church life as we are about ours: “If our common life in Christ yields anything to stir the heart,” he says, “live together in harmony and love. That is the one thing that would make me completely happy.” Let’s stop there for a moment to ask ourselves a couple of questions. Do those of us who come to this church actually have something which could be described as a “common life in Christ?” We are an amazingly diverse group, running the gamut from clerks to CEO’s, from former Baptists to former Catholics, from ardent Republicans to passionate Democrats — so is it possible for us to have a “common life”?
Even that small church at Philippi must have had all sorts of people in it — farmers, merchants, shepherds, weavers, potters — but the most important thing about them to Paul was their “common life in Christ,” the bond that brought them together and held them together. So do we have that in this place? Ask people why they come and you get all sorts of answers: “We were Charter Members, we built the place.” Or, “We visited, ran into some friends , liked the music, and just kept coming.” Or, “The building is so pretty, the kids like Sunday School, and we live in the neighborhood.” None of those reasons are bad, but none even come close to what Paul meant by being part of a church because of what he called a “common life in Christ.” People who stay in this church after they visit, and who get involved with it, might feel a little awkward about trying to put it in words, but what I hope they hold in common is a desire to create the kingdom of right relationships Christ talked about constantly.
But having a “common life in Christ” does not mean we all think exactly alike. There is a great difference between unity and conformity, between harmony and a kind of cookie-cutter sameness. It would be dreadful to serve a church in which everybody thought the same thing. There would be no discovery, no excitement — just a kind of sterile monotony week after week. I remember from adolescence a church like that, every doctrine cut and dried, every ritual cast in stone, every mind shaped like every other mind by the biscuit-cutter who worked his will upon us from the pulpit. We used the same vocabulary, memorized the same prayers, and were never, ever, surprised by a sermon — something really not possible, because the Truth we had was set in concrete, and a sermon that surprised anyone would have been cause to fire the preacher. Proper interpretations of Scripture had all been made; heaven help anyone who dared question one of them. I understand, looking back at that, what Joseph Parker meant by saying once that the church “is a great brickmaker” — molding each mind to the same shape and the same color.
Paul wonders if the life we find in a place like this does anything to “stir the heart.” I think it must, judging by the letters that come back from people who were here for several years and had to move away because of their jobs. “Like the work, enjoy the new surroundings, love the house,” they write back, “but we simply cannot find anything to replace that church.” And yet, in the very midst of enjoying letters like that I have to remind myself that the heart has not been quite so deeply stirred in others. In those, for instance, who become members but rarely show up unless they need a wedding, a christening or a funeral— mean well at the time, have a little rush of enthusiasm at first, but after a while find their hearts stirred by other interests on Sunday mornings.
And what is one to make of good people who do come all the time and speak of how much they enjoy what the church gives them, but who experience a sudden onset of paralysis once a year when pledge cards are mailed out, and are quite willing for others to pay for the building, for heat and cooling, for teachers and singers and musicians, for the best secretary and the best sexton in town? What it means, of course, is that we are a mix of strengths and weaknesses, of those who give and those who take — a microcosm of the world around us. Only a wise tolerance, a compassionate spirit, and a heart willing to forgive make it possible for any of us to live in harmony in a church — or anywhere else, for that mastter. There is no perfection among us.
Some have mistakenly thought that because Paul writes his letter to “all the saints at Philippi” he had some sort of extraordinary church, but he did not mean even remotely what we mean by that word today. If we call someone a saint now, we think of someone on a pedestal high above our stumbling ways, far better than others, the kind of person officially beatified by official decree of the Catholic Church. But these distinctions are never mentioned in Scripture, where the word “saint” is used simply to describe people who have made a commitment, who have enlisted in the cause of goodness. Just as anyone who joins the army is a soldier, without regard to whether he is a good one or a poor one, so in early Christian vocabulary anyone who joined the church was a saint — and some of the saints were very fine people, and some were not.
This church in Philippi, for example, has a woman who is a traveling saleswoman, a slave girl, a man who has fought as a soldier, some women who are in the midst of a bitter quarrel — but in Paul’s use of the word they are all saints. When he writes to another church, at Corinth in southern Greece, he addresses them all as saints and then spellsout in great detail how flawed some of them are. Obviously, no word in Christendom is misused more than the word saint. A university professor of religion used to travel from Chicago to the West Coast, and one day found himself among a group of nuns. They liked him because he was a gentleman, and kind, and because he spoke intelligently and helpfully about the Bible. Near the end of their long conversation he asked them if any of them had ever seen a saint. They said they never had. He said, “Would you like to see one?” They all said, “Yes!” And then he surprised them by saying, “I am a saint….and you are all saints” — explaining to them what I have just explained.
I doubt that he convinced them, and I have modest expectations as to whether I have convinced you. Even if I did, I would not expect you to start calling our pianist “Saint Pat” or one of the choir members “Saint Billie,” but if the word were used now as it was always used in the New Testament, then it would apply to both of them…and to all of us who have become part of the church in the hope of making ourselves better people. If we remember that, we will not hold unrealistic expectations of one another. We will be able to forgive one another and live together in peace.
But if we expect too much of one another, failures become betrayals and we grow cynical. Paul simply refused to let anyone imagine that he was better than he was. He was too passionate a man to be under perfect control all the time. He openly admitted that he did things that later embarrassed him, and that he failed at times to do what he knew was right. He was a man as full of flaws as he was of greatness, and there was never once a hint that he didn’t know that. No incense smoke carefully caught up in his garments, no predictably pious sentiments all set to fall at a moment’s notice from his lips. He was never for one moment a phony, never a pious hypocrite using sweet words for selfish reasons.
Just as it is a great temptation for professors to pretend to know more than they really know, so it is an equally great temptation for those who preach, like Paul, to pretend to be better than they really are. I hope it has been different with you, but in my experience people who are too good to be true usually aren’t. Especially those who find ways of telling you how good they are. Ralph Waldo Emerson, American philosopher, had a dinner guest at his table one day who had learned to say the things people with unreal expectations wanted to hear. Of this man, Emerson said: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted the spoons.”
Like Emerson, I came long ago to be wary of that personality trait in religious leaders which is called “pietism” — the face arranged carefully in lines of sanctity, the voice sounding as if it had just that moment come from prayer in an echo chamber. I have not found much correlation between that look and that sound, and what I think of as real goodness. In fact, I have repeatedly found the opposite: that these accoutrements of special holiness make an excellent cover for gently but firmly getting one’s own way about everything. After all, how can we deny any request made by a person who seems to move about in a force field of abnormal goodness. After a lifetime of work in churches I have come to be comfortable with bluntly honest, totally genuine and unaffected men and women who wear the same face on Sunday morning which they wear at the basketball game on Saturday night. I hope you realize that I have just described you.
One more comment by Paul — and this time the trouble will not be with a word like “saint” that has changed its meaning, but with words so clear and so out of sync with modern thought that they make us squirm. To have harmony in your church, he tells the Philippians, “There must be no competition among you, no conceit; but everybody is to be self-effacing.” I cannot read those words aloud without realizing how irritating they will sound to people. The litany of our time runs quite contrary to that: “I must be me, I must minister to myself, think of myself, make myself happy at no matter what cost to others, because self-realization is everybody’s primary goal.”
I do not hear on talk shows, or read in self-help books, anything remotely like what Paul says next: “In humility, think more of one another than you do of yourselves.” It is rank heresy in modern schools of self-actualization to suggest that one should think more of someone else than of oneself. It is almost an equal heresy when Paul adds, “None of you should think only of your own affairs, but each should learn to see things from other people’s point of view.” I remember an interesting young man in one of my University classes who couldn’t even imagine doing that. When we read an essay one day by a brilliant black author on what it means to be black in America, and I asked for reactions, he said: “That guy must be paranoid. Somebody should tell him to go back to Africa!” In my quixotic conviction that it’s possible for almost anyone to learn, I pursued the dialogue. “Have you ever tried to get out of yourself,” I wondered. “Stand in another person’s shoes, and really see things from that person’s point of view?” He was genuinely puzzled by that idea. When we read one of the Platonic dialogues about the death of Socrates, all that really excited him was a footnote that said Socrates was homosexual, and how could a life, or a death, be noble unless it was “straight”? At that moment in his life he was totally trapped inside the prison of his simplistic judgments about anyone who is different from himself.
I had learned from class discussions and from reading his papers that he could not speak or write his own native tongue without frequent mistakes, yet when I readily confessed that I considered black author James Baldwin my intellectual superior, his response was: “There ain’t nobody superior to me!” There was an odd kind of charm in that level of naivete — the charm of a small boy, perhaps, who needs a great deal of confidence in order to face the world — so the class laughed tolerantly at his simple bravado. But he was old enough to have learned better.
“Modestly treat one another as your superiors,” Paul says to his church, and it really shouldn’t be as hard as it sounds: after all, everybody does something better than I can do it. False modesty, of course, is nauseating, and a genuine inferiority complex is crippling, but true humility has nothing to do with either one of them. To another of his churches Paul said, “I request all of you not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought, but to think with sober judgment.” Which surely means: “Don’t set yourselves up too high, but don’t put yourself down too low.”
The poet John Keats, when he was in a certain place, wrote in a letter to his brother that nothing worth speaking of had happened there, adding: “I took down some thin paper and wrote on it a little poem called St. Agnes Eve.” I would call that a truly humble description of one of the world’s splendid poems. But later on, Keats could also write, “I think I will be among the English poets at my death,” so he was not crippled by false modesty. It’s a balancing act, on the high wire, without a net, this business of being honest about ourselves, secure enough in our strengths to be candid about the fact that we are not perfect.
My kind of honest Christian was perfectly shown one day by a man named David DuPlessis, a giant of faith who inspired dozens of denominations on every continent. A few years before his death, he was asked a pointed question by a young man who said he was committed to serving Christ with his whole heart and to living in purity: body, soul, and mind. “Still,” the young guy said, “I sometimes have struggles with my thought life. Could you tell me, sir, about how old I’ll be when improper thoughts — especially about women — won’t tempt my mind any longer?” Mr. DuPlessis, whose purity of life was legendary, looked squarely into the young man’s eyes and then, in the 80th year of his life, said, “Son, when I get that old, I’ll let you know!”
If you’ll come back next week, Paul will tell us more about ourselves.
God of Truth, if we are honest about ourselves, the right kind of humility
should come easily. Help us be honest. Amen.

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