Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and the deacons. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and the praise of God.
There’s no such thing as a solitary Christian.
The work of the church, that is the body of Christ, never takes place in a vacuum. It was, and always will be, rooted in community and carried out for the sake of community.
At least, that’s the idea.
On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany and thus began the Third Reich. Germany, the land that produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, and Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler’s words and orations regularly incited violence from his crowds and Germany would never be the same.
Two days after Hitler was elected, a twenty-six year old theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address throughout the German nation. The speech was titled “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” The talk itself was highly philosophical, but it also specifically argued against the type of leadership that Hitler would use over the following twelve year, inevitably leading a nation and half the world into a nightmare of violence and misery.
However, before Bonhoeffer could finish, the radio signal was cut off.
Only two days after Hitler’s election, the Nazis were already suppressing the voice of one calling into question the powers and principalities made manifest in a nation.
Paul begins his letter to the church in Philippi with his standard, and yet magnificent, greeting: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Words, admittedly, that we throw around a lot in the church but contain multitudes.
To begin with grace is a recognition that grace is Christ’s presence to all of us as a gift. It is God’s contradiction of sin and death, it is God’s contending against the powers and principalities of this life. For, grace is the opposite of how the world works.
Grace is unmerited and unearned favor. Which stands in contradiction with a people who live by merit and favor, by power and violence.
The world says, “do this and do that.” Grace says, “It’s already done.”
The cross of Christ, hanging empty in the sky, is a stark declaration and reminder that God stands against sin, evil, and death. It is, problematic language not withstanding, God’s war on our behalf. Grace invades into existence not because we believed in God just enough, or because we said the right prayers, but simply because God is merciful.
And grace never stops coming.
It marks the beginning of Paul’s letters, it is the thread that runs throughout every single correspondence, and it is the foundation upon which the church stands. Grace exists to deliver us from sin and death. It comes, that is, to deliver we sinners from what we really deserve.
And we really don’t deserve it.
We are all highly susceptible to the powers and principalities of this life, the myriad ways that sins sinks us lower and lower into the pits of our own making. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. One need only scroll through the likes of Twitter or Facebook for five minutes to be bombarded with our total depravity.
But grace comes to bring mercy and life instead of condemnation and death.
That’s why grace is always unsettling and always new – it is completely contrary to just about everything else in this life.
According to the ways of the world, grace doesn’t make sense.
And it’s with grace that Paul begins his letter. Grace, that is, and peace.
Peace is a challenging word for the church because we can define it in all sorts of ways.
Is peace simply the absence of conflict?
Is peace possible only when we lay down our arms?
For Paul, peace means conflict with the world, even as peace with the world means conflict with God. Living in the light of God’s grace and peace will bring those who follow the Lord into contention with all that the world stands for.
Peace is not sitting idly by hoping for the best, its not singing kumbaya by the father, its not a CocaCola advertisement.
The peace of God contains the wisdom to change what can be changed while refusing to accept the things that cannot be changed (contrary to the so-called “Serenity Prayer”).
God’s grace and peace put forth a radical retelling of the cosmos, and they cannot be stopped.
Things became very difficult for the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As Germany further descended into Fuhrer worship with the German church emphasizing the politics of a nation over and against the theology of scripture, Bonhoeffer struggled with what it meant to be faithful to the Lord. Eventually, he began training other pastors through an underground seminary where the chief message was to remain faithful to God even if it meant being at odds with your country.
By 1940, Bonhoeffer was forbidden from speaking publicly and he had to regularly report his activities to the German police. Within a year he was no longer allowed to print or publish any of his writings. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after his first radio address, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks and involvement with the Abwher’s plot to undermine Hitler.
For two years Bonhoeffer sat in prison and, strangely enough, sympathetic guards smuggled out his letters and papers that included his theological reflection in the midst of his imprisonment.
One might expect that Bonhoeffer would question his faith behind bars, or recant from his previous beliefs if it would mean his release. But most of his letters, though excluding the occasional complaint about his particular conditions, contain thoughts on the joy of discipleship even with its costs.
He wrote from shackles to a people immersed in the second World War of God’s unending grace, even while the world stood in contradiction.
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, beginning with grace and peace, reveals the condition of his own condition: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now… It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”
Paul writes of joy from his own joyless location to a people who, apparently, felt no joy. Throughout his letter there are signs of anxiety from among the Philippians – they suffered for their convictions whether it meant Roman persecution or social hostility.
And yet Paul points them to the joy of the gospel in spite of whatever their hardships might be.
But notice: He does so not as a denial of their present circumstances, not as a prosperity gospel in which things will get better if they just work harder. No, Paul writes about joy because, as disciples, they know God!
Its as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know it’s rough. But if all you ever do is look at your own failures or the failures of those around you, that’s all you will ever see. But here’s the Good News (the best news): no matter how bad your sins might be, no matter how trying your circumstances might be, God is greater than your sins and your suffering. So don’t put your hope in yourselves or the people around you. They might make some changes, but in the end God is greater. Despite all our failures and all our weaknesses, despite all our disappointments, God has already changed the world. Everything else is sinking sand.”
Though Bonhoeffer remained hopeful for the end of the War and his release from prison, he was condemned to death in April of 1945. He was killed by handing just two weeks before the US military liberated the camp where he was being held.
Shortly before his execution, Bonhoeffer concluded a worship service for his fellow inmates, and as he walked toward the waiting noose he said to another prisoner: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”
Bonhoeffer and Paul’s joy in the midst of their own respective incarcerations is instructive for those of us who follow Christ today. Because whether in prison or in the courtroom, whether in chains or freedom, they both strived to do one thing above all else – share the Good News.
For, the Good News is that another one bound by shackles, God in the flesh, ridiculed, betrayed, and abandoned, marched to his own execution while carrying the instrument of his death. He hung from the cross for the world to see, and yet as he look out on the world he proclaimed forgiveness for a people underserving.
His earthly life ended as it began – by, with, and through grace.
Grace is a joy and it will forever stand as God’s defiant “Nevertheless!” to the powers and principalities of the world. And it cannot be stopped.
The only thing we have to do is take Jesus at his word.
And when we do that, when we put our trust in Jesus instead of ourselves and all of our schemes, then we are living in his grace.
And no matter what happens to us in the course of trusting – no matter how many waverings we have, no matter how many times we fail – we believe that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, all we have to do is say thank you and rest.
Because all that we have to show for ourselves is not much to begin with. And, contrary to how we would run the show, Jesus chooses not to condemn us whether are works are bad or good.
Jesus is our grace.
And that makes all the difference. Amen.