Epistle: Philippians 3:17-4:1 (Lent 2: Series C)

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In a world where absolutely everything seems to be in flux, indeed, we are all looking for a place to stand.

In 1929, a year before the young theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would leave Germany for a post-doctoral fellowship in America which would inalterably change his life, he wrote a letter to his friend Detlef Albers, a history teacher he met in Barcelona, Spain. Bonhoeffer is restless. In the letter, he quotes in Greek script a fragment of an aphorism attributed to the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes: δος μοι που στω. “Give me a place to stand.”

Bonhoeffer then writes:

"All of us are searching for this. But wherever we seek it, whether in the tasks of our daily lives, in educational ideals of this or that sort, or wherever—one thing remains clear or at least sensed: Doubt and temptation about the meaningfulness of being cast to and fro, of being at the mercy of things, will not cease as long as we remain focused on ourselves, as long as in one form or another “the other” does not step into our lives. Only then, in πάντα ῥεῖ, in the flux of everything, do we find the stability that receives its potential and its strength from elsewhere."[1]

The second Greek aphorism in Bonhoeffer’s letter comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, πάντα ῥεῖ: “Everything flows.”

In addition to Archimedes and Heraclitus, I wonder if young Dietrich has the Greek script of the Apostle Paul on his mind, οὕτως στήκετε ἐν Κυρίῳ, ἀγαπητοί: “...stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved” (4:1b). In a world where absolutely everything seems to be in flux (wars and rumors of wars, the ebb and flow of an ongoing pandemic, the unending, lightning-speed scroll of our digital lives), indeed, we are all looking for a place to stand. When everything is in flux, and “in the flux of everything,” we best begin the way Bonhoeffer did, by acknowledging our stability will only find, “...its strength from elsewhere,” from outside itself, extra nos. Of course, such awareness is the best beginning for the journey of Lent too.

But Bonhoeffer’s letter points us to a deeper fact Paul knows just as well, that to stand firm in the Lord is to never stand alone. We find a place to stand by standing together, by allowing “the other” to step into our lives. This brings us back to the beginning of Paul’s text: “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me...” (3:17). The “you” of Paul’s letter is a collective “you,” and he counts us all among his “beloved.” To stand firm in the Lord, then, also means God’s love in Christ has broken open our hearts to “transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body” (3:21). In this sense, the “in” is no small preposition. We are standing within the body of Christ. This gives us the strength to stand, and it strengthens us in heart and mind, body and soul.

To stand firm in the Lord is to never stand alone.

This is also what makes the lives of those who isolate themselves by standing as “enemies of the cross of Christ” (3:18) so tragic. “Their end is destruction; their god is their belly” (3:19a). Notice how there is a profound incurvatus in se to that posture. If my god is my belly, I cannot help but be turned cravenly inward upon myself, not just spiritually but physically.

“But our citizenship is in Heaven, and from it we await a Savior...” (3:20). This “heaven” we are citizens of is not pie-in-the-sky. This is “Heaven” as in the Kingdom of Heaven, the reign of God breaking into the stuff of earth in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whom we “await” not only in the Last Day but also in this day and all the days between now and then. Or as Robert Kolb proclaims, in keeping with the metaphors of Paul’s text, “God our Creator has planted the feet of His human creatures firmly on earth, but He wants us to have our heads in the clouds.”[2]

Just as the Creator plants our feet firmly in His creation, we stand strong there because the ground of our standing is Christ Himself and standing with Him, we are never alone. The “other” Bonhoeffer found in America was the Black church. What he found in the encounter was a way God was working in the world he had never witnessed before. To stand, then, is nothing more than to trust in Him who gives strength and stability by revealing Himself ever anew in the flux of everything. Even in the midst of tears of genuine sadness (like Christ’s tears over Jerusalem (today’s gospel, Luke 13:31-35) or our tears over a friend or neighbor who has exchanged life for destruction) we trust in the One who is gathering all things under Himself.


Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Philippians 3:17-4:1

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Philippians 3:17-4:1.