Philippians (4): You Can Do What?

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) – October 11, 2020

St. Mary – Derby, KS

Isaiah 25:6-10a; Psalm 23:1-6; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; Matthew 22:1-14

(1) What Is Paul Driving At?

This second reading has what is, arguably, one of the most famous, one of the most quoted passages from scripture. Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” And for good reason! This is an incredibly insightful passage into the life of a Christian. And it makes perfect sense from what Paul has spent the entire letter doing. It makes perfect sense based on everything Paul has already said.

The Philippians live in a world not too different from our own; I shared that a couple weeks ago. Philippi was a little Roman colony in northern Greece, and so the dominant culture was Roman. That means: a government that shared almost none of the values they as Christians held; a city full of people that didn’t think that what they had to say was important. Slavery, racism, intolerance, bigotry, neglect for the poor, disease, persecution—you name it, they faced it. And so Paul is trying to help them live life in this kind of situation, live the Christian life in this situation.

The first thing Paul does? Paul tells them to “conduct themselves in a way worthy of the Gospel” (Phil 1:27). Literally, Paul is saying, “Behave as citizens of the Gospel.” It was very easy to get caught-up in the world around you, to get sucked into it. We all know this. We’ve all experienced that. And so the very first reminder and encouragement from Paul to the community of Christians is to focus, first and foremost, on their “Gospel Citizenship.” Again, easier said than done.

Which is why the second thing Paul tells them is to stop thinking the way that people think, and instead, start thinking like Jesus. Again, very easy for us to think like everyone around us, to use their logic, play their games. But what does Paul tell the Christians? Think with the mind of Jesus Christ (c.f., Phil 2:5-11). In other words, don’t go after power in order to change things, don’t try to play politics and think that’s what it means to spread the Gospel. Rather, just like Jesus, who was God and could have done everything by acts of power, instead humbled himself, emptied himself, and was simply obedient to the Father’s plan. The same for us: empty yourself in self-giving love and obedience to what God had in mind for you; trust that in living a life of self-giving love, God will work through you in ways you can’t understand or plan.

And that leads to last Sunday’s reading. Paul said, “Have no anxiety. Don’t worry about anything” (Phil 4:6). Now, does Paul say that because he’s some sort of psychopath that has never experienced what it’s like to be human? No. Paul says that because of how he sees reality. Again, when you look at reality like everyone else in the world, there’s not a lot of reason for hope or lack of anxiety. Unless you’re super rich and super powerful, life is full of anxiety and worry. And Paul knows that, but Paul knows more. Paul looks at everything through the lens of salvation history, and he knows that in this view Jesus has already won; we are on the winning team.

Paul sees everything a little different. He sees everything through the lens of Jesus Christ. Even though Paul is sitting in prison as he writes this, even though he could be sentenced to death, even though the people he is writing to are in an incredibly difficult and dangerous situation—even with all of this, Paul has a vision of reality as positive. Everything changes when your life is not just “ordinary life,” but life bound-up in the life of Christ.

(2) All Things?

And so at the very end of this letter, Paul makes that bold claim, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” Or you could say, “I have strength for everything in the one who gives me power.” Again, one of the most famous passages in the whole Bible. But, “all things“?

Because let’s face it: this verse is one of the most misquoted verses in the world. It’s all over the place. Athletes have it on jerseys, tattoos. When you’re having a tough time at work of school, you think, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” I remember one time it was made famous. It was Evander Holyfield and he had it stitched on his robe as he was about to go fight Mike Tyson. “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” means, “I’m going to beat up Mike Tyson.” And he did! You watch the video and think, “Yeah! You can do all things! You’re the real deal!” But then he wore it again for Lennox Lewis, “I can do all things!” And then he gets beat up.

Different quarterbacks, different athletes—Philippians 4:13. You didn’t study for a test in school, but you think, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me! I’m gonna ace this test!” It’s kinda our catch-all phrase for, “As long as I say a littler prayer, God will give me the power to do whatever I want!” But then things don’t go as we planned…and we vilify God. “God, I took out a mortgage on a house way too expensive for me, but I trusted that you would help me. What happened?” Again, it becomes our catch-all phrase for, “I’m about to do something really dumb. I sure hope Jesus comes through for me.”

(3) What Is Paul’s Point?

Is this some triumphalist passage about how God will bless any and all plans we come up with? “You can do anything! You can be anyone! And God will help you do it!” No. Not at all. In fact, it’s almost the exact opposite. Again, think of the situation the Philippians are in, Paul is in prison. They know that if they try something rash, if they try some sort of political coup, they will be wiped out.

Look at the context of this. Paul says, “I know how to do without, and I know how to do with plenty. In every possible situation I’ve learned the hidden secret of being full and of being hungry, of having plenty and of going without, and it’s this: I have strength for everything in the one who gives me power.” Again, people usually quote this passage to say that, “God is going to give me what I need to accomplish whatever it is that I want to accomplish.” And that’s just the opposite of what Paul is saying. Paul is saying, “No matter what the circumstances in my life are, I have found the hidden secret to being content, to being free from anxiety and worry: I have the strength to endure anything because God gives me the strength, I depend on Him, He does not let me down.”

(4) Where Do We Look For Contentment?

Some of us think that contentment and freedom from anxiety and worry come when we don’t need anything, when everything is going well, when life is great. We think that once we have things paid off, once our career is in track, once that one situation with our spouse gets smoothed over, once the Chiefs win the Super Bowl—then everything will be ok. Some of you make over $100,000 a year, but you still struggle and think: “How am I going to get by?”

Contentment, peace, freedom from anxiety—none of these are ultimately able to come from your external circumstances. Because even when things are going relatively well, a pandemic can hit and leave us reeling. “If I could only have this…If only this would happen…If only this political situation went my way…” When have any of these things EVER brought you lasting peace?

Paul has found the hidden secret: contentment is found in Jesus Christ, and in Him alone.

In our Gospel, Jesus is making that simple point: we are all invited to the wedding feast. We didn’t earn it, we didn’t get on Jesus’ “good list.” He freely invites us. But then what happens? We find so many excuses to not show up.

And what does Paul say? “Hey, listen. Things can be going well, things can be going not so well. But the secret? I find strength for everything in Christ who gives me strength.”

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