The instant I noticed that today’s “Celebrate” includes the option of the lesson from Philippians, I knew this sermon would preach itself because of my very special and personal involvement with a fellow pastor. It is rare, of course, when the first day of the New Year comes on Sunday. And as soon as I saw the optional lesson from Philippians, I knew I wanted to tell you a true story about a certain man’s life and death and his funeral.
Bill and Marinelle Peery had been missionaries in India for nearly forty years and upon their retirement to Twin Lakes Retirement Center, they joined Macedonia Church in Burlington where I was interim pastor for about 15 months. On all of my visits to them, I came away believing that I had received more than I had given. I totally appreciated their hospitality and collegiality with which I was received as though we had known each other a long time.
Bill became ill and was hospitalized in Burlington. Then when his condition deteriorated further, he was brought to the skilled care division of Twin Lakes. My visits to him there always included scripture and prayer. I must tell you that I felt terribly inadequate, especially when it became evident that his days were numbered.
When he became seriously and incurably ill, he would sometimes slip away a few moments and when he returned, he would tell me where he had stopped hearing the scripture I was reading.
Finally, there came what I believed would be my last visit. We discussed which scripture would be appropriate. I think it was (with one possible exception) the only such discussion I ever had with a terminally-ill person.
In his condition, it would have been safe for me, shall we say, to select one of the psalms that cry for the Almighty’s help, or one of the laments over the pitiful condition of God’s people, both individually and nationally. Or, without asking him, I could have read one of the healing stories or a psalm or a prophecy of better times coming for God’s people. All such passages would have been valid and useful and helpful.
Instead, he picked a particular passage from Philippians, one of Paul’s letters – the second chapter. In the passage, as every Bible-reader knows, Paul addresses a problem. Pastor Peery asked for the passage rightly called Christ’s self-emptying obedience on the cross.
Early in his letter, Paul writes to that congregation that he is “thankful for your partnership in the gospel.” Now we know – and virtually all biblical scholars agree on this – we know that Paul always put his finger precisely where there was trouble in the congregation to whom he wrote.
He tells the Philippians, “…I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”
And again, he thanks them for “your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
“Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.”
We know that Paul always pointed his letters to whatever was the trouble spot in a particular congregation. In the case of the small congregation at Philippi there was a quarrel or rupture or disagreement among the new Christians. They were at least not of the same mind.
Paul wanted them to settle their disagreements by looking at each other with humility. He wanted them to be of the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, was born in human likeness and took the form of a servant.
When that humility took Christ Jesus to the cross, he became obedient even unto death. Then Paul in his argument comes to one of the great compelling “therefores” of Scripture. This statement empowers the church in its’ mission then and now.
It empowers sick or troubled people to pull away from their frailties or burdens or terminal illness for at least a moment, and in that moment, to find the comfort of the presence of God.
Put yourself as though in your last hour and final thought you are drowning, and now you grasp this life-jacket message from Paul: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
“And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
I didn’t know whether Pastor Peery had some premonition that his calendar was on its last page but I do know that his mind and heart were still where they had been when he and his wife answered God’s call to give themselves to the mind of Christ. “Let the same mind be in you.” I am persuaded that all believers become God’s own people in eternity. And I believe that Bill Peery in heaven is still rejoicing finally in a missionary’s greatest dream come true, that at the name of Jesus every tongue is “confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father.” His ashes were placed just outside the church where I preached on that text for his funeral.
Not many of us are able, even if we wanted, to become missionaries or Bible teachers or servants like Mother Teresa. Whatever is our lot in life, we can accept that Jesus Christ who died on the cross is our Savior.
We can confess that he overcame death by his resurrection. We can look forward to eternity with God. We can try to imagine what was in the shepherd’s minds as they heard angels inviting them to Bethlehem. Did they ask each other, “Were there really angels? Why us?
We don’t deserve this or that – on and on, and so forth, why this and why us – and these are still precisely the questions that we ask about ourselves, especially the question, “Where is God leading us? What does God want me to do with the rest of my life?”
Of course we don’t deserve the attention of the Son of God who gave himself to what was our rightful death as he was being crucified. If we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, that he was born for us, that he was raised from the dead to live again, then every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth. His name is above every name.
Paul said it didn’t matter that he was “three times beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea, often near death;” but he persevered.
Is anyone heavily burdened, suffering from illness in mind or body? Is your world turned upside down? Remind yourself that God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying Abba! Father! You are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through Jesus Christ.
When our last conscious thought is playing itself out, perhaps we also will be so fortunate as to hear the angels singing.
“He is born. “Glory to God in the highest.”