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 The Day of Christ

Sermon - 12/09/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Philippians 1:3-11

The lectionary text that comes on this second Sunday of Advent, or Peace Sunday, is Paul's letter to the Philippians, chapter 1, verses 3-11:

AI thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I 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. 7It 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 Godís grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight10to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

 

It was a little over nine years ago that I got turned on to the Apostle Paul, and it wasn't because of his good looks :)

But I began reading him in a new way, and for the first time saw him in light of his world and the issues he faced rather than through the lenses of all those over the centuries who have used and abused Paul for their own purposes.

And what did it for me, to meet Paul again for the first time (to paraphrase Marcus Borg's paraphrase of an old cereal commercial in his book about Jesus) was to go to the world of Paul. Specifically to Turkey, and to see with my own eyes not just the natural landscape of Paul's world but the social, the economic, and the political landscape which is very much still evident today in the ruins and the artifacts left behind.


And as I've shared with you before, and I shared with the group that I subsequently then took to that world of Paul from this congregation, there's something that's almost mystical about standing in those places where Paul stood.

And sitting in those places where Paul sat:

(well, maybe not that one :)


When you walk in those places, and sometimes even on the very stones on which Paul walked (such as on this road in Ephesus):

. . . it's quite illuminating. It's fun, too. But really it's nothing more than spiritual tourism. The powerful part, maybe even the life-changing part, is when you see what Paul saw. Namely, the world-conquering power of the one proclaimed "Lord and Savior of the World", Augustus Caesar:

That's what this stone says on that beam, the temple of Athena in Priene:

 



That Augustus was Lord and Savior of the world. That's what this inscription says on that gate in Ephesus, through which Paul would have walked:


That's what the breast-plate that Caesar wore says in the mystical imagery on it:


That's what the coin said, that people carried in their pockets and their purses -- that Caesar is the son of God.


That's what this inscription says, that was found in at least 5 different temples dedicated to Augustus throughout the Roman Empire:

 

Ask anyone in Paul's world what would the day of the Emperor look like, the day when the Emperor comes to town, and they could tell you. They could tell you of the lavish preparations that would have to be made, the weeks and the months of getting ready. They could tell you of all the festivities and feasts and the Olympic-style games held in his honor.

They could tell you of the enormous amounts of money spent by the patrons of the city (though probably not as much as at Caesars Palace where I took this picture :):


In order to gain his favor, that in turn would earn them even more from the benefits that Caesar then gave to them.

They could tell you of the enormous burden placed on the working masses, the additional taxes that had to be collected in order to pay for all of this. And the troublemakers that were detained, and the dissent that was silenced to prepare for the coming of the Emperor.

And all of this if the Emperor is coming in peace. You would not want to be there when the Emperor came in a time of war.

The point is, people understood, whether for good or for ill, what the day of the Emperor meant. So then, what does Paul mean when he speaks of the coming day of Christ? Is it just a Christian version of the saying, you know, put a cross around the neck of the Emperor, bow to the crucifix rather than to the throne, and call it good? Is that what the day of Christ is about? Or is it something fundamentally different?

To put it differently, with Jesus on the throne, would the landscape of the empire look any different? Would it just be a kinder, gently form of empire? Or maybe something altogether different? So different that empire would not even be the right word for it.

Images are important. As Canon likes to say, image is everything. And that was even more true in the first century, in a time when people could not read or write. I loved what Janet told us last Sunday in the re-dedication of our beautiful stained-glass windows, reminding us of the time when we were given this tradition from the middle ages, that most of the people could not read or write.

And so when they came into those cathedrals and saw those images, they could 'see' the sermon, they knew the gospel message, just from those images that were provided for them. And so we continue that tradition in our beautiful stained-glass windows that are being refurbished.

We use images, and I like to use images a lot, sometimes in preaching. We use them especially in our first service, we try to match the images with the words of the music. And my wife works very hard on that, and last Sunday, you may have caught the one particular image that she used for peace, that just kind of says it all:


Of course you don't want to see that image the next day when the zoo-keeper forgot to give the lion 20 pounds of hamburger :) But, one of the images that we use in the first service that we've used for years to connote a feeling of love and family is this particular picture (we got it off the Internet, I'm not sure where):


And so it appears in some of our songs.

Well, I was traveling through Thessaloniki in 2008 on my sabbatical (financed with a grant from the Lilly Endowment), and our whole family was there. I just put them on a plane to go home, and I remember thinking as they were flying away on that plane: everything that is important, everything that I value in my life was right there on that one plane. God be with you.


And now they were all going home, and I was left in the Mediterranean world for the next three weeks by myself. Time to party! Yes! I got over those remorseful feelings very quickly :)

But, traveling through Thessaloniki and seeing all those wonderful images of the ancient and the modern side-by-side, big city, a million people in Thessaloniki.

And I'm on the bus, and I come around the corner, and I see this:


Yeah, it's the very same picture that I'd seen so many Sundays at home, and reminding me of my family back home. It doesn't matter if you're a Disciple in Eugene or a Greek-Orthodox in Thessaloniki. Whether you're a Muslim in Turkey or a Jew in Israel, a Hindu in India or a Buddhist in Japan, you know, these are universal values of humanity and family and love that we all affirm. It doesn't have anything to do with this sermon, I just wanted to use that picture as I've been waiting to tell that story :)

I was in Thessaloniki for two reasons: one, two of the best museums in the world for the study of ancient Christianity are found there. One dedicated to the Roman Empire and the other to the Byzantine empire. And the second is I wanted to explore possible routes for our pilgrimage that we would take three years later with members of this congregation.

And the choice was to go North, because I knew we couldn't do all of this. So we could take the northern route that would take us through Istanbul and Philippi and Thessaloniki and across the Ignatian Way, that cuts across northern Greece and on to Rome. That was one possibility.

Or, we could take the southern route, from Ephesus across the Aegean Sea, the Greek Islands to Athens, and then on to Rome.

And so I asked our group, you know, we could take this northern route with all these wonderful museums, places where Paul visited. Or we could take the southern route, Greek Islands, where Paul never went (that we know about), which would you rather do?


I don't know why they chose the southern route, but they did :) So, Thessaloniki and Philippi were not on the tour agenda. And in some ways that's too bad, Thessaloniki is a fascinating city in itself, with hundreds of attractions.

But our focus this morning is on Philippi. And Philippi is a sleepy little community.  Much, much smaller, not a whole lot there in the town itself, just some ruins outside of the town. Not huge, but still significant.


Now, two things that are particularly significant. Well, one thing before that -- there is in Philippi a prison, and we read here in the letter to the Philippians that Paul was in prison, and he thanks the community for the care that they gave to him while he was there.

And if you look closely up in the corner, we know he was there, because he left his initial "P". . . .just kidding :) We don't know that, it's just a local tradition :)

What is significant, what you can see is the Roman Forum:

Very traditional Roman architecture with a big plaza where everyone conducted the public business. Temples and public buildings surrounding the square, very typical Roman architecture. Now, what's significant about that? Well, this is Greece, not Italy. And here we have this Roman Forum -- hang onto that, I'm going to come back to that.

What you cannot see is the battle that was fought just outside of Philippi, on the plains of Philippi:

. . . about 90 years before Paul came there, when Octavian (soon to become Augustus Caesar), and his general Marc Anthony (of Anthony and Cleopatra fame) defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius, the co-conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. We don't often think about how that ancient story coincides with the gospel story, but actually they're very close. They're close not only in proximity in history, but they are close in many ways to the message of the gospel.

Now, for their reward in defeating the forces of Brutus and Cassius, Anthony and Octavian gave the soldiers the countryside around Philippi. Gave them the land for their own. Thus, it became a Roman capital for that area of Macedonia. And by the time Paul comes there, then, in the late 40s or early 50s CE, the majority of people are still Greek, but the Romans (the Latins) control pretty much all of the economy and certainly all of the government.

So here's the point, and the reason I take the time to give you this ancient history: the rise of Augustus Caesar that marks the height of the Roman Empire, the much celebrated Pax Romana (the peace of the world) begins here on the plains of Philippi with victory in war. And secondly, as a result of that, the local Greeks were marginalized in their own homeland, largely without power.

So the congregation to which Paul is writing is primarily Greek, not Latin. I'm certain that for them the 'day of the Emperor' was not a happy image. So here's my proposal for your consideration: when Paul speaks of the coming day of Christ, while he may be drawing on images of the day of judgment found in the Hebrew scriptures, his primary image is that of the recent history all too familiar to the people of Philippi, of the day when the Emperor came to town.

And that he offers this 'day of Christ' not as God's version of Caesar's war, but as God's alternative to Caesar's empire. And when you go and see the world of Paul, the world of the Roman Empire, you see all kinds of images of how that peace was achieved by Caesar. And it looks like this:


Captives taken in war. It looks like this:


Scenes of battle, of people being crushed. It looks like this:


Of prisoners being tortured.

Now, there are no images from the Christian community that have survived from that period, until we get to about the 3rd century. We have 65 images prior to the time of Constantine, when the Empire became Christian. 65 -- we can count them, there's a catalogue of them.

There are 6 images of the baptism of Jesus.

There are 8 images of Jesus teaching.

There are 26 images of Jesus healing -- in this particular one:


The three primary figures are all Jesus, this is a sarcophagus, a stone coffin. In the left, Jesus has his fingers on the blind (it looks like a child, but it's really the story of the healing of the blind, when Jesus puts the mud on the person's eyes), on the right is the raising of Lazarus, and in the center is Jesus in a teaching scene. So 26 healing scenes.

And then we have 27 eating scenes -- either the Lord's supper, or the feeding of the 5,000, or other scenes of Jesus eating.

Many of these are found in the catacombs in Rome, in frescoes like this one:



 

So what's missing in these 65 portrayals? There's no image, not one, of the crucifixion. None. There's one image of 5 women at an empty tomb. No portrayal whatsoever of the crucifixion. Indeed, it's not until the 10th century that we get this image from a cathedral in Germany:


This is of a wooden figure that has been covered in gold. It took 1,000 years for Christian artists before they depicted the cruelty of the crucifixion.

Now, my point is, if you contrast these images of the eating and healings of Jesus with those of the Roman Empire, you get an entirely different image of the kind of world that God desires.

So hear again Paul's prayer for that congregation in Philippi: "This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help you to 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 praise of God".

Now, I don't know everything that Paul had in mind when he uses that phrase 'the day of Christ', but I do know this: for Paul, the day of Christ was not a time of righteous vengeance, to vanquish God's enemies, rather it was a time of just peace to transform God's world.

And I am convinced that Paul, writing to those communities, very familiar with the day of the Empire, uses the day of Christ as the opposite. As a way to present to those communities an alternate vision for how the world should be. And Paul didn't just talk bout it, Paul put into practice, just as Jesus demonstrated what the kingdom of God was about by healing and feeding people, Paul provided glimpses into that alternative world through those communities that lived by a different standard than the world around them. Without hierarchy or division. Communities of justice and equality, where everyone is treated equally. Where one worked for the common good rather than for individual wealth. That your love may overflow more and more.

Now, of course, we live in a vastly different world than that of Paul. So what would it mean for us to live by that day of Christ today? Rather than to wait for it to come someday?

Menno Simons, the 16th century Anabaptist leader whose reform movement led to the creation of the Mennonite Church, wrote:

"We who were formally no people at all, and who knew no peace are now called to be a church of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance. They are children of peace. Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace".

If we are to be pure and blameless on the day of Christ, as Paul suggests, then we must begin now to practice peace in all aspects of our lives. Beginning with those around us, treating every person as the child of God they were created to be.


We must begin here, to create that place, a holy space, where everyone is welcomed and valued, and no one is judged by their appearance or dress, their age or size, their gender or sexual orientation, their wealth or poverty.


We must begin with ourselves, loving others, Jesus taught, as you love yourself. Love begins right here, in ourselves. If we learn to love ourselves as we are, as God loves us, then we are better able to love others for who they are.


We do not hope for the day of Christ to come, we do not wait for the day of Christ to come. We work for the day of Christ to come.


Because we are the day of Christ to come. The body of Christ, God's people, given that task, to make the day of Christ's peace and justice, love and joy, here, now.

May it be.

 

 


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