My dear friends, as you have always obeyed... continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you... Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe... Philippians 2:12-15
Paul’s little letter to the church in Philippi is a favourite of mine. It is only four chapters, so doesn’t take long to read. It contains plenty of theology, but is still quite easy to understand. It has some rich and beautiful passages, full of comfort, hope and faith.
The verses above sum up, in principle, most of what we need to know if we are to live this wonderful Christian life. I’ve boiled them down to six “be’s” (so if, reading this, you get a bit stung along the way, well, sorry, but just take it as a word from God). There’s too much to squeeze into one blog, so I’ll make it three today and the other three next time.
1 Christian, be obedient - verse 12.
Paul is obviously pleased with the Philippians’ record of obedience. (I take it that he means obedience to God, not just to himself.) But now that he can’t be with them (he’s in prison) he wants to remind them that obedience is indeed a key part of the Christian life.
Faith and obedience are two sides of the same coin. Jesus said, after all, “If you love me, you will keep my commands” - not out of a slavish servility, but out of love and gratitude.
Show me a disobedient Christian, and I’ll show you a miserable Christian. The two things just can’t go together.
So, the question obviously arises... is there any area of disobedience in your life, or mine? Yes? Well, the sooner we put it right the better!
2 Christian, be practical - verse 12 again.
Paul says we are to “work out our salvation”. This, in fact, is what obedience is mainly about. At the heart of the Christian faith is the truth that while salvation can’t be worked for - it’s a gift of God’s grace, not something we can earn - it does have to be worked out. In other words, it has to be put into practice in our everyday living.
I could spend a long time trying to spell out what this actually means, but a good way to sum it up is to go to Paul’s description of the “fruit”, or harvest, of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5: 22). Just setting out the list is enormously challenging and stimulating... Love... joy... peace... patience... kindness... goodness... faithfulness... gentleness... self-control. If those beautiful qualities overflowing from our daily lives don’t constitute practical Christianity, true obedience, I don’t know what does!
3 Christian, be serious - still verse 12.
Paul says this working out of our faith must be done “with fear and trembling”.
Mmm - that sounds a bit grim! I have to admit that, personally, I’m not really the fear-and-trembling sort. More the cheery-and-smiling sort, to be honest.
After all, it’s not as if fear and trembling is something that can be turned on like a tap: “Right, I’ll just have my breakfast, then I’ll take the dog for walk, and then maybe I’ll do a bit of fear and trembling.” Er, no.
Fear and trembling is something men and women of God have experienced at moments of intense spiritual emotion - think, for example, of Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3), or Isaiah in the temple (Isaiah 6), or Mary confronted by Gabriel (Luke 1), or John on Patmos (Revelation 1), or the disciples in the fishing boat (Mark 4)... Good examples there!
So what can Paul possibly mean by this expression here? Well, I don’t claim to really know. But if nothing else, this is surely a call to take our Christian commitment seriously. With Jesus it’s all or nothing. Oh yes, there’s plenty of joy along the way, thank God, but there’s also the deeply serious element of “taking up our cross” to follow Jesus.
It’s tragically easy, especially for those of us in the comfortable western world, to become dabblers, triflers, in our discipleship. But cosy Christianity will do us no good, nor will it cut any ice with the outside world. So...How serious are we about our faith?
Well, I hope there’s something in my first three be’s to challenge us. We’ll think of the other three next time. (In fact, you might like to look ahead to verses 13-15 and guess what they might be. Your ideas will probably be better than mine...)
O God, save me from ever lapsing into a cosy, shallow, insipid Christianity. Help me to be the genuine article - a true, authentic follower of Jesus. Amen.