Category: Jennifer Garcia Bashaw

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on October 22, 2017.

The introduction of the first letter to the Thessalonians has a structure similar to many of Paul’s introductions. It follows the typical Greco-Roman format, which begins with sender and recipient information and moves into a greeting and thanksgiving section. In 1 Thessalonians, though, Paul’s thanksgiving section is superlative in every way. “We always give thanks for all of you constantly,” Paul writes. Then he launches into a glowing recommendation of the believers’ faith, love, and endurance. My family jokingly calls me the queen of superlatives and I defend myself by saying, “Well, I just get so excited about everything that I have to amplify my language to communicate my enthusiasm clearly.” Similarly, Paul is very excited in this passage and expresses his pleasure with intensified language. He has probably just received a report on the fledgling Thessalonian church with the arrival of Timothy and is thrilled to hear that the church has survived through the persecution that plagued its members since the church’s inception.

The story of the founding of the Thessalonian church can be found in Acts 17. After considerable trouble in Philippi, Paul and Silas came to the Macedonian city of Thessalonica. Although Paul’s preaching in the synagogue only yielded some Jewish followers, there were “devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” that were persuaded by Paul’s teaching (Acts 17:4). It is this diverse group that formed the first community of Christ-followers in that city. There was trouble for this church from the beginning. We learn in Acts 17:5-9 that a group of Jews formed a mob against the believers and even dragged one believer, Jason, from his home just for housing Paul and Silas. The believers then sent Paul and Silas away from their city, presumably to keep them safe, but it is likely that the persecution of the Thessalonian Christians continued even after the missionaries moved on.

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Philippians 4:1-9

This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on October 15, 2017.

In church life, we often shy away from naming names. Our general practice is to discuss church problems in vague sometimes passive-aggressive terms and hope that the offending parties recognize themselves in the critique. However, there are times when we must name names for the good of the church body, to motivate change and promote unity and peace. In the lectionary passage for this week, Paul decides it is time to name names.

Paul very rarely mentions individuals in his letters unless he is using them as examples and/or including them in his travel plans (as we see in the case of Timothy and Epaphroditus in this letter). Yet here, in 4:2-3, Paul directly addresses the situation of two women, Euodia and Syntyche with an exhortative plea. We can conclude several things from this rarity: first, the problem that Paul refers to must have the potential to affect the entire church at Philippi; second, the problem will soon become destructive for the church, probably because it undermines what he has focused on in this letter—unity in the body; and third, the women he mentions must be important in the Philippian community of believers.

Considering these conclusions, the most likely background to this passage is that Euodia and Syntyche are leaders in the church having a quarrel that is threatening the peace and unity of the entire church at Philippi. Internal and external details support this view. Internal to the letter is the detail that Paul has already singled out the leaders of the church; the beginning of Philippians includes the unique address in 1:1, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and the deacons…” (emphasis mine). In no other Pauline epistle do we see this type of address and it likely points to the fact that Paul wants the leaders in the church to take special notice of his message because he will address them later. He also describes Euodia and Syntyche as his co-workers, who struggled beside him in the work of the Gospel (4:3).

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Philippians 3:4b-14

This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on October  8, 2017.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is also an effective method of discipleship. Throughout Philippians, Paul sets examples before his Philippian disciples for them to emulate. In chapter one, Paul models an attitude of thankfulness in the midst of suffering. He rejoices that his imprisonment has inspired others to proclaim Christ more boldly (1:12-14) and he sets a paradigm for Christ-focused sacrificial living as he announces that for him, “Living is Christ and dying is gain.” (1:21). Then, in chapter two, Paul encourages the Philippians to imitate Christ’s humility when he poetically describes Jesus as one who emptied himself and gave up his divine status to live as a human servant and die a criminal’s death. Chapter two ends with Paul’s desire to send two examples of servanthood to the church, Timothy, and Epaphroditus, disciples who would model sacrifice among the Philippian churches. In chapter three, Paul seems to take a detour in subjects, but his emphasis on imitation continues. Once again, Paul is going to use himself as an example of faithful discipleship so that the believers might find a firm foundation in the face of a looming threat to the community.

On the whole, Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is one of encouragement and serves as an intimate picture of Paul’s affection for the Philippian Christians. However, Paul does not shy away from addressing the persisting problems plaguing the church, including the squabbling among church leaders, the lack of unity in the body, and the temptations and persecution these Christians experienced on a daily basis in their strongly pagan city. In this section of the letter, which begins in 3:1, Paul does not attack a problem that the Philippians are currently facing but shows deeper insight, warning the Philippians about a challenge that could be just around the corner for them. In 3:2, Paul’s three-part command to be aware (Beware the dogs! Beware of the evil workers! Beware the mutilators of the flesh!) implies that the offenders in question are not yet in Philippi but may be coming soon and could be damaging for the church. Paul had probably already had dealings with these “evil workers” and had witnessed the consequences of their false teaching (perhaps in Galatia). The opponents he describes here could be Jews trying to win converts among the Gentiles or Jewish Christians, perhaps Judaizers, who tried to convince Gentile Christians to adhere to the whole Jewish law. In either case, Paul’s use of the insult “dogs” is sharply ironic. Jews commonly called Gentiles “dogs, ” but here Paul uses the slur against Jews who posed a threat to the Gentile Christian population in Philippi. His passionate language throughout this passage demonstrates how destructive he believed this potential problem could be to the unity and security of the Philippian house churches.

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Philippians 2:1-13

This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on October  1, 2017.

In this section of the epistle, we find the beating heart of Paul’s message to the Philippian church, which also happens to be the heart of the gospel of Christ. Although this is a letter of friendship and encouragement for the persecuted Philippians, the focus of Paul’s exhortation is the concept of humility. Yes, the diverse group of Christians in Philippi were probably suffering for their faith in their loyalist and patriotic Roman city. But this persecution serves as the backdrop for the real problem Paul is addressing here…a lack of unity in the church. The house churches in Philippi had begun to feel the pressure of hostile pagan (or possibly Jewish) opposition around them, and in response individuals in the churches were devolving into attitudes of partisanship and self-interest. These attitudes manifested in squabbling and self-seeking leadership, problems that were as destructive to the ancient churches as they are to our churches today. Paul, in these verses, tries to help the Philippians understand that the key to unity in the church, the key to understanding the gospel, and the key to the salvation process is the posture and practice of humility.

Philippians 2:1 comes on the heels of Paul’s challenge to his readers to live their lives in “a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind” (1:27). This section bleeds into the second chapter with Paul’s poetic plea to make his joy complete by being “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (2:2) Like a good pastor, Paul does not issue a challenge without explaining and equipping the people to achieve it; he goes on to explain how a church can function in one spirit and one mind. Paul’s description in the rest of chapter two makes it clear that he is not encouraging uniformity among churches or individuals but that he is setting believers on the same path to unity, a path that follows in step behind Christ Jesus in his humility and sacrifice.

Paul’s clever use of Christological hymn from the early Church in 2:5-11 sends a message of unity even as it calls readers to humble servanthood. Hymns serve to unite the church in theology, practice, and in the Spirit. Paul’s use of a hymn as a vehicle for his message is an emphatic way to communicate, in literary form, that unity is contingent upon humility.

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