Monday, February 25, 2013

fighting heresy in Philippi

Note: this is the sermon I din't preach yesterday, as I was sitting in the hospital with my mother.

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Brothers and sisters in Christ: There's is quite a powerful verse in our Epistle today: Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. In this penitential season of Lent, where fasting is one of the traditional spiritual disciplines, it would be tempting to thing that verse has to do with people who can't control their eating, who are obsessed with food to the point where 'their god is the belly' … which would make the passage tailor-made for Lent …

However, context is everything … and if we read the rest of the chapter of which our reading this morning is but a short part, then we discover that St Paul is talking about a different topic completely … in this part of his letter to the Church of Philippi, St Paul is in fact railing against a faction of the early Church called the Juadaisers … these were the group who believed that if one wished to be a Christian, one was obliged to essentially become a Jew first … that meant if you were a man you had to submit to circumcision … and it also meant living according to the very strict Jewish dietary laws … and this is why St Paul uses the phrase 'their god is the belly' … because of this group's attempts to force people to the false teaching that Christians must live according to the Jewish law …
Now if you get a chance to read this chapter of St Paul's letter later on today, you'll see that St Paul is getting really angry about this … in fact he calls the members of this factions 'dogs', one of the worst insults you could throw at a Jew … he calls them mutilators … he calls them 'evil workers' … and you might wonder why it is that he is getting so worked up about this issue … who cares what people eat? Or if they add on a few extra religious practices? Isn't the important thing to believe in Christ? Why not let people go about things their own way? 

Well, again, context is everything. St Paul is writing this letter from prison, which means that it is probably during the time of his house arrest in Rome, which makes the date of this letter around AD 62 give or take a year or so. That means he is writing more than ten years after the Council of Jerusalem, which we read about in 15 of the Acts of Apostles, which took place around AD 49. And it was at that Council that St Paul argued strongly against just these practices that the Judaisers are trying to introduced in Philippi … that Christians had to live according to Jewish laws. And the Council, led by the Spirit, realised the truth of what St Paul had to say and declare that no one wishing to become a Christian must first have to live as a Jew … one of the first examples in Scripture of what we might call Canon Law!

Paul isn't just being picky … he is arguing for the orthodox faith as it had been revealed to the Church; he is arguing against heresy and for the authority of the Church and the Apostles to decide matters of doctrine. The Judaisers want to distort the Gospel message … and St Paul says 'no' to that in no uncertain terms … and the early Church heard his 'no' and guided by the Holy Spirit recognised that St Paul was inspired by that same Holy Spirit in his writings and included this letter in our canon of Sacred Scripture. And Scripture is, of course, the way that God speaks to each and every generation in which his Church finds itself …

So what is that passage saying to us today? It tells us that today, as always, we must not let the Gospel message be distorted by false teachers. And there are false teachers today … to give but one example … it has always been accepted that it isn't easy to live the Way that Christ calls us to … that we were weak and would often fail … and we recognised those failures as sin and asked God for forgiveness and the grace to do better … but they never tried to say that because the teaching was hard it must be wrong … and yet today we are bombarded by just that message … think of what we refer to as the seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. You could pick just about anyone of those out of the mix and find that it is essentially celebrated in the modern culture, rather than condemned … why? Because the teaching is too hard … people can't live up to it … so what's the answer? That what was once called sin should be called good by those who practice it … and that we should all accept it as good … and if it is not to be called good, then at the very least it is not to be condemned by anyone ... and most especially not by the Church ... after all: it is too hard ... so why make people feel bad about themselves?

People said that to Jesus too … in Chapter 6 of St John's Gospel his disciples grumble that his teaching is too hard … they can't understand it and they begin to walk away … but he doesn't call them back and say he'll make it easier … he lets them go … in fact he looks at those who remain and ask them if they want to leave him also … and St Peter says: 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of Eternal Life.' 

And that's it really … you can accept the Gospel or you can walk away, but you can't change it. Jesus gave his Good News to his Apostles and they have passed it on to us through the Church that Christ himself founded – the One, Holy, Catholic, & Apostolic Church. And that Church continues to pass on that Hard Teaching … and continues to help people to live it … and help them pick themselves up and keep trying when they fail …

And for us, in this Holy and Penitential season of Lent, we have the opportunity to spiritually strengthen ourselves, so that we might deny ourselves, take up our Cross, & follow Christ, conforming ourselves to his teaching, no matter how hard we find them at times … the spiritual disciplines we take on at this time open our hearts to the Grace that God provides that we may walk the narrow path that leads to Eternal Life … and so during this time of Lent, my brothers and sisters, I pray that your disciplines will open your hearts to that Grace … as I hope that you will also pray for me in the name of the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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