Pentecost 17A Philippians 2:1-13
At the end of this month, we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation! So I guess it is ironic that we are beginning this month with one of the least Lutheran sounding texts you can imagine. The end of the text from Philippians we heard today, at least on the surface, is all about working hard to get to heaven, which was the complete opposite of what Luther was trying to say to the people of God.
One of the main tenants of Lutheranism and Lutheran theology is that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son so that all who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life and that we are saved by grace through faith alone apart from obedience to the law. All of that is straight from the gospel and the letters of Paul. Yup. Saved by Grace—by God’s amazing merciful grace! Sola Gracia is the big fancy Latin term used by the reformers! Not my action but God’s. While we were yet sinners, the apostle Paul writes, God saved us.
And then, Paul comes along today and throws a wrench in things! “Therefore, my beloved,” he writes to the church in Philippi, “just as you have always obeyed me not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling….”
Work out your own salvation? WHAT??!!?!?!
What about grace, Paul? What about the fact that we cannot ever do anything to save ourselves? And now you’re going to say that we have to work it all out for ourselves by ourselves? Where is the good news in that? Has God decided to leave us to our own devices after all?
Martin Luther didn’t come up with the idea that God saves us by his amazing grace and not by our own efforts all by himself. It was not just a good idea he had. It was directly from scripture. Luther struggled mightily with the reality that he, just like all of us, was a sinner and that this was a sinful, broken world, one that on our own we could not fix. He found great comfort in scripture’s clear message that God knows the state of the world, knows our inability to get to heaven—get to God—by being worthy of divine love, and God is actively working on healing the world and us along with it. This is hope in the good news of God that we can all look to, we can all cling to, and know that God loves us, wants us, will save us, even from ourselves.
This was St Paul’s own message over and over again. Time after time, he seemed to say to the early church: look, people, I know you think it’s great to follow the Jewish laws and, well, they are great (especially the big ten commandments) and they are a good description of what a God-believing community should look like. But don’t get on your high horse thinking that you’ve got it made because you’re following the letter of the law. That does not make you better than anyone else because it is God who saves, not our actions. It is Jesus’ righteousness that counts… and only his… and without this, we are all lost no matter how good we think we are.
And yet, here he is, telling these Philippians and telling us we all need to work it out ourselves. Work out our own salvation. I think I must be missing something. And usually, when things don’t seem to fit, it means I am. So it’s worth a closer look to see what this “work out” business means
The phrase in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that translates to “work out” uses the word ‘ergazomi’. It is where we get the word Ergonomic; a word for tools that are designed to make work easier like specially shaped can openers to keep your hands from being sore or office chairs that assist in good posture so that you work easier and more efficiently. Ergazomi is a word that means, in modern terms, “work out” or “exercise”.
Using words like this is not uncommon for Paul. He, like countless preachers after him, often uses sports analogies and military metaphors. For example: I have run the good race, I have fought the good fight. Put on the whole armor of Christ. He uses these metaphors not in the sense of winning, beating someone up, or putting on a heavy suit of armor, but in the sense of discipline, hard work, and being protected by faith. In another part of scripture where Paul uses just that metaphor of running a good race and fighting a good fight, he does not say he has won. In fact, he carefully does NOT say that HE, himself, won a race or a fight or anything at all, simply that he has done his best. Paul is not the “winner”, Jesus is.
So, when we hear today that we are to “work out our salvation”, Paul is not saying we are to take care of it all ourselves or figure out a plan of salvation as if we could do that on our own. Paul is saying we should ‘exercise our salvation’. In other words, we are to make use of it. Do something with it. Not to be like an athlete who has ability but refuses to be disciplined because he does not have to be or gives a half-hearted effort because he does not need to do so. Or the really smart student who does not have to study and, with no real effort, can pass a class. But instead, exercise it, make use of our gift: salvation.
Right after this, he also says, “…for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” It is God who is working in us. God who gives us the ability to exercise our faith…our salvation.
So what does it mean to exercise our salvation? Use it! Make it visible! Do something with it! God has freed us from having to worry about earning divine love! It is given freely and unconditionally, and because of this, we can spend our energy on loving others with the love God has given us. We do this by the compassion we show to others when they are in need or in pain and walking with them offering help or just being there. By reaching out to those who are hungry and in need of shelter and helping them to find the things they need. By holding the hand of one who mourns, weeping with them, and walking beside them through their valley of dark shadow. We exercise our salvation when we move, act, speak and love in this world because of God’s love and actions for us in Jesus Christ.
God does not grant us this amazing grace and save us for nothing. While our salvation and our faith could be ends in and of themselves, and we often think of them that way, they are not. Throughout the whole of scripture, God saves for a reason. God has purpose for everyone and everything that he heals, makes whole, and saves. We are granted God’s gracious mercy so that we can be the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus in this world.
St Theresa of Avila, one of my favorite women of church history, wrote this about the significance of being the body of Christ:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
YOU are the Body of Christ. This is working out, exercising, our salvation; putting God’s grace and love for us into action in the world. As we go into your week ahead, how can we exercise your salvation? How are we now and how can we continue to be at Shepherd of the Hills be the body of Christ in the world?
Beloved…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.