Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
TEXT: Philippians 2:1-13
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4)
Back in 2011, I led a small group study of a book by Rob Bell, entitled Love Wins. You may be familiar with Rob Bell from the many other books he’s written, or from his appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show, or from his podcast, or from the series of NOOMA videos which were very popular a few years back.
Anyway, Love Wins is—as it says on the cover—a book about heaven and hell. And there’s been a lot of controversy generated by what Rob Bell wrote in there about hell. Many Christians, it seems, really do not like it when Bell says things like: “I have a hard time believing that somewhere down below the earth’s crust is a really crafty figure in red tights holding a three-pointed spear, playing Pink Floyd records backward, and enjoying the hidden messages.” 1
I want to say to Rob Bell that, honestly, I have a hard time believing that, too!
Personally, I’d rather talk about heaven. Now, I realize that heaven—even if it’s a more pleasant topic of conversation—can be a dicey subject, too. I mean, it invites questions like: Where is heaven, exactly? Will everybody be there? Is it filled with clouds, angels, and harps? And is it really as boring as some of us secretly fear?
But none of these are questions I want to take up today. I want to focus on something else Rob Bell says in his book. Listen to this: “Jesus invites us, in this life, in this broken, beautiful world, to experience the life of heaven now. He insisted over and over that God’s peace, joy, and love are currently available to us, exactly as we are.” 2
Wow! Did you hear that? The life of heaven can be experienced here and now. God’s peace, joy, and love are available to us, here and now.
And really, that’s kind of like what Paul is saying in our epistle reading for today, when he tells the Philippians that God is at work in them, enabling them “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Paul wants to wake them up—and wake us up—to the fact that heaven exists here and now, and we can experience it today, right now, this very moment.
Now, Paul doesn’t actually use the word “heaven.” Instead, he talks about salvation—and he does it in a way that has made Protestant Christians nervous for over 500 years.
Listen to what he says in verse 12: “Therefore, my beloved, 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? And this is Paul speaking? Paul, the “by-grace-you-are-saved-and-not-by-works” apostle? What on earth can this mean?
Well … relax. Paul is not backtracking on his assertion that we are justified by grace through faith. No. It’s just that he operates with a far more expansive notion of salvation than most of us do.
You see, the “salvation” that Paul is speaking about here—the salvation we are to “work out”—is not about the particular, private destiny of any individual person. Rather, the apostle is thinking about our corporate life—our life together as members of Christ’s body.
Paul has already (in 2:1-4) described the quality of this life in terms of mutual love and affection, sharing in the Spirit, unity, humility, and putting others first—all of which, taken together, paints a picture of what the Church should be like. Here is real “quality of life”—and it is meant to be a public life, a public witness.
In the chapter preceding this one, Paul urges the Philippians to let their manner of life be worthy of the gospel. His point was (and is) that Christians should behave so that, when outsiders look at the Church, they will see a public demonstration of what salvation means (see 1:27-29).
In other words—as Paul asserts in chapter three of this letter—Christians are supposed to “shine as lights in the world” (3:15).
That’s what Paul means here when he talks about “salvation”—he means a life lived now; lived in the church—lived in the community of atonement and reconciliation. And “working out our salvation” is therefore nothing less or more than living as if the promises of the gospel are true; living, that is, the way Christ lived. What does that look like? Well, let’s go back to the beginning of today’s passage.
Paul writes that because—a much better translation than “if”—because there is encouragement, consolation, sharing, compassion, and sympathy in our life as Christians, we should act that way, not seeking first our own good, but looking out for others while trusting our fates and our lives to God.
And then Paul gives us the perfect example of such selfless and self-emptying love: Jesus. Actually, it’s more than just an example; first and foremost, it’s a promise.
This, Paul says, is just how much Jesus loves you—he wasn’t content to sit in heaven and luxuriate in the privilege or power that comes from being divine. Instead, he left all that behind and took on our lot and our life, experiencing all that we experience (and then some). Why? So that we could see the breadth and depth and height of God’s love for us.
Paul’s hope is that, once we have experienced the boundless love of God, we might in turn be able to regard others in the same way—not as objects to be exploited, but as persons to be treasured; not as opponents competing for scarce resources, but as brothers and sisters deserving of our unconditional regard and support.
And here is where I see a connection between Rob Bell and the apostle Paul. I think both of them are saying that—once we’ve received this good news—we are set free to love and care for one another right now. This is what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”
To quote Rob Bell once again, “eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God.” 3
It’s about us living a new kind of life—a life that Jesus gives us, a life that is radically different from anything we’ve known before. According to Paul, Jesus’ cross and resurrection together formed the pivot point of history, the fulcrum with which God moved the destiny of the whole universe. Nothing is the same for Paul once he has encountered the crucified and risen One—and nothing should be the same for us, either.
To put it another way, because we live in the grace of God right now, this very moment is the hour of salvation. “Heaven” and “salvation” are not future realities standing at a distance from us. No. They are right here, right in front of us. “Heaven” and “salvation” are present-tense realities waiting to be embraced and lived out—right here, right now.
So what does it look like to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”? It means going about our everyday tasks and duties with the conviction that the gospel is true: believing that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, and that God’s promised future is bigger and better than either the past we’ve created or the future we deserve. And because the gospel is true, we are free to relate to others in the way that Jesus did.
That should be awe-inspiring! That’s how I understand the reference to “fear and trembling”—I think it’s about awe, and respect, and wonder. We can do heaven’s work. We can be Christ for others.
All of this means, of course, that opportunities abound for working out our salvation. From selling that used car at a fair price to emptying bedpans at the nursing home to befriending the kid whom others bully or voting in the next election, we are granted—each and every day—countless opportunities to serve others as Christ has served us.
It may be at home or work, at school or through our volunteer activities, but wherever we have “the mind of Christ” as we go about our lives, we are most surely working out—and witnessing to—our salvation. And we are doing it with the awe and respect this vision of heaven deserves.
This understanding of working out our salvation, of practicing the presence of Jesus, is all about bringing heaven down to earth. It’s about understanding that our salvation is right there in front of us, just waiting to be embraced and lived.
And this, my friends, is real life. It’s not a TV show or a movie; it’s not virtual reality; it is God’s action in human flesh. It invades our world. It draws us into the saving work of God. It makes us participants instead of spectators. It transforms us—all of us together—into “the body of Christ.” And we become his arms and legs, his hands and feet, his eyes and ears.
We “work out our own salvation” by doing the work of salvation, whenever and wherever it needs doing. That’s what it means to be the Church. It’s an adventure we signed up for when we decided to follow Jesus. And, you know what? I think we’re the luckiest people on the face of the earth!
Thanks be to God. Amen.
1 Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), p. 70.
2 Ibid., p. 62.
3 Ibid., p. 59.