Wednesday, 23 October 2013 00:00

"Philadelphia", October 20, 2013

“Philadelphia”
Romans 12:9-21
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 20, 2013
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Philadelphia.  That’s the word for today.  No, I’m not talking about the city.  It does show up as one of the seven churches in the introduction to Revelation, but that’s not what I’m going to talk about. When I was at the Baptist Peace Fellowship Summer conference, I picked up a book by Daniel Hunter, someone who grew up in the Peace Fellowship. His book is entitled, “Strategy and Soul: A campaigner’s tale of fighting billionaires, corrupt officials, and Philadelphia Casinos.”  But I’m not going to talk about that. I’m not even going to talk about the great Tom Hanks/Denzel Washington movie of a generation ago called “Philadelphia”.  I want to talk about the sense, the essence, of the word.  I want to get into what it might mean to live in a state of Philadelphia consciousness.

As you know, we are spending three words looking at Greek words translated as love.  Last week we looked at Eros.  Deidre Druk spoke about the evocative and life-giving sensation that is at the core of our love relationships.  Eros is the longing for beauty, the fragrance of flowers, the color of the leave changing, the look in your lover’s eye.  It is a part of love, but it is not all of it.

Next week, Matty Strickler will be exploring with us the Greek word Agape.  This is the unique love that God has for us.  It is what binds us to God and God to us.  It’s that ultimate and ontological love that surpasses all understanding.  It’s the capacity of God to love us in spite of our bad selves.  It’s the love to which we aspire.  Loving enemies can only happen with God’s power. It’s agape love.

The third word and the focus today is on Phileo.  This is a platonic love between two people.  It is often translated as brotherly or sisterly love.  Philadelphia is known as the city of brotherly love and that’s where the name came from.  Would that all cities were known by this.  The early Christians perplexed their neighbors by the way they shared their love with each other.  The people wondered, “those Christians, how they love each other.”  It’s like saying, how odd…

Phileo is a very personal love and it’s not necessarily a generalized love.  I love everyone.  No.  It’s more personal than that.  And we could argue that one cannot have agape love without some eros and phileo entering into the stew.

 

I bet you are thinking right about now whom I love with phileo love.  Phileo love is powerful and it’s redemptive.  With a brother or a sister, you have seen their light and their darker sides.  And you stand by them. You know each other intimately and you are with them for the long haul.  I would say that I have that kind of love for my siblings.  Although in all honesty it takes work to maintain it and I don’t always do the best job with that.  Distance and disagreements can mire even the closest relationships.  But they know you and you know them.

For some of us, close friends hold that phileo place for us.  Think of those who have become our confidantes.  Think of those who stand by you when even family forsakes you.  Think of those who love and support you.  In a church community we try to exude agape love, but our relationships are phileo, as brothers and sisters.  It’s why Christians call themselves sister or brother sometimes.  It honors what we go through together.  It honors the story that we share and the vision that we bear for ourselves and the world.

So given all of that, let’s look at this scripture from Romans 12 where Phileo makes an appearance.

David Bartlett in his commentary in “Feasting on the Word” notes that Paul spent 11 chapters making all sorts of arguments about God’s presence and the life of faith that is open to Jews and Gentiles alike.  Chapter 12 begins with the ultimate, “Therefore”.  Therefore, since we are all part of the same family, regardless of our race or background or even how recently we came to faith, therefore, let love be genuine.  And then he goes on about how we are to treat one another.  Exercise Phileo.  It is the very best medicine.

There are 23 injunctions that follow that “therefore” in today’s scripture alone, not counting the first half of the chapter.  Don’t worry, this won’t be a 23-point sermon.

In Romans 12, Paul is paraphrasing the Sermon on the Mount.  His 12 verses here are the cliff notes for Matthew 5, 6, and 7.

Paul says that we are to let love be genuine.  We know there are people who say they love us and have buts attached to them.  You know, “love the sinner, but hate the sin.”  This is love with and asterisks.   This is not genuine love.  Paul is calling for genuine love.

Now the word that Paul uses for love is not eros or agape, but Philadelphia, “brotherly or sisterly love.”  This is the kind of love that looks out for the other, that protects and serves as we do when our families are healthy.  In order to have good sibling love, we need to hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good.  That means seeing the redemptive part alongside the maddening part.  As love is stronger than hate, focus on love.

He then tells us to show this love by having our competition to be one of service:
“Outdo one another in showing honor.
Don’t lag in zeal.
Be ardent in spirit.
Rejoice in hope.
Be patient in suffering.
Pray.
Contribute to the needs of the saints.
Extend hospitality to strangers.
Serve God.”

This is the relatively easy part.  The harder part is to do what is required in verse 14:  Echoing Jesus, he says, “Bless those who persecute you, and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice.
Weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another.
Do not be haughty—but associate with the lowly.
Do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay evil for evil for vengeance is God’s prerogative.
Do what is noble in the sight of everyone.
Live peaceably with one another.”

Wouldn’t that be a great affirmation?

What if congress started its sessions with a little Romans chapter 12.  Wouldn’t that be good medicine?  I mean, the original capital was Philadelphia after all.  Couldn’t we be better if we got along better?

Think about it, if we were to do our best to get along with one another a bit better, then we might have the power to make some real changes in the world.

It could start by saying that we all wanted to find decent jobs for all people.  That would be an act of philadelphia.

We could stop excluding people based upon their skin color, their age, their gender, their sexual orientation, that would be an act of philadelphia.

We could ensure that people had health care.  That would be an act of philadelphia.

We could ensure that people had enough to eat throughout the world.  That would be an act of philadelphia.

We could ensure that fossil fuels be balanced with alternative energy sources, conservation and care for the earth.  That would be an act of philadelphia.

We could ensure that streets were safe and that people cared as much about their neighborhoods as they do about their material possessions.  That would be an act of philadelphia.

When someone has lost a loved one through war, or disease or by violence, we would hold that person tight and show them deference and even more compassionate respect.  That would be an act of philadelphia.

Philadelphia, brotherly and sisterly love is what it’s all about.  It’s about having genuine, heartfelt love for another person.  This kind of love is contagious and it undermines and unseats the power of hatred and evil in the world.  In a word, it’s subversive; counter-cultural; good news.

The church is a called-out community and is supposed to be decidedly different from the rest of the world.  But Eleazar Fernandez, a professor of United Seminary warns, perhaps with Paul, that “Christian communities in the global north have been breathing in and breathing out privilege, which have rendered their olfactory nerves incapable of smelling the highly toxic social atmosphere.  It appears that many churches have become so comfortable with the world that they have lost their identity as an alternative community.  Driven by desire for relevance and seduced by the coveted three Bs of success (building, budget and bodies (members)), churches have played footsie with the dominant culture without realizing soon enough that they have gone to bed with the culture of domination, privilege, accumulation and consumption.” (Feasting on the Word p. 16)

Lillian Daniel wrote a piece for Huffington Post that recently went viral.  Here is part of what she said:
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets…Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don't hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition…

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself...

Any idiot can find God alone in the sunset. It takes a certain maturity to find God in the person sitting next to you who not only voted for the wrong political party but has a baby who is crying while you’re trying to listen to the sermon. Community is where the religious rubber meets the road. People challenge us, ask hard questions, disagree, need things from us, require our forgiveness. It’s where we get to practice all the things we preach.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual-but-not-religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.”

Phileo love is what we find in church.  It’s what we look for, long for in our relationships.  It is not just an I-Thou agape relationship.  It is not just a wow, that’s a gorgeous sunset eros admiration.  It’s an affirmation that I love this person and will be by their side.  And that will model God and it will save us all from the despairing loneliness of isolation.  And God will be there, too.

Eleazar Fernandez gives us one more injunction from this scripture, lest it be interpreted as what we can simply get from another’s friendship. He encourages us to embrace the radical hospitality that is the backbone of the church. He says “We must move beyond hospitality as charity to hospitality as an act of justice.  Hospitality as charity offers crumbs from our tables; hospitality as justice offers a place at the table.  In the context of our predatory global market, hospitality involves transformation of the system that is inhospitable to many.”  We conspire to (breathe together) with the Spirit and conspire (Share the living bread) with one another. “The conspiracy of radical love is not only a strategic political necessity; it is a spiritual necessity as well.”(Feasting on the Word p.17)

Paul concludes his remarks by talking about how we are to deal with our enemies.  He says to feed them, give them something to drink.  When we do that in the face of evil, then the hot burning coals of repentance may well come upon them.  The only real way to defeat an enemy is to transform them into a friend.  That’s what Paul means when he says do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.

I know many of you live the principles Paul and Jesus talk about in scripture.  My encouragement to you is to keep on living in community.  Keep on finding moments of philadelphia in Minnesota.  Keep finding ways to recognize the humanity and the holiness of your sisters and brothers.  Keep asking the hard questions. But resist the temptation to demonize those with whom you disagree.

Remember, they are your brother and your sister.  In God’s plan enemies are to be transformed in to friends.  It is the vision of Christianity.  That is the hard and immensely rewarding task of Christianity.

So do the work of Phileo. Let your love be genuine.  Nurture that love in community.  Remember that we have each other’s backs.  And envision the day when we all live in the city known spiritually as Philadelphia.

“Let Love be genuine.
Hate what is evil
Hold fast to what is good.
Love one another with mutual affection.
Outdo one another in showing honor.
Don’t lag in zeal.
Be ardent in spirit.
Rejoice in hope.
Be patient in suffering.
Persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints.
Extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you, and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice.
Weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another.
Do not be haughty—but associate with the lowly.
Do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay evil for evil for vengeance is God’s prerogative.
Do what is noble in the sight of everyone.
Live peaceably with one another.” Romans 12:9-18