Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost — October 15, 2023

Who has influenced your faith? Who do you model Christianity to? Paul talks about these things in Philippians, John Wurster writes.

Philippians 4:1-9
Year A

For the first several years of our marriage, my spouse and I lived in a couple of small apartments. Eventually, we finished our various degree programs, found jobs, made a move, and bought a house. It was great and wonderful to have a house, though we didn’t know much about what to do with it or how to care for it. Thankfully, we lived next door to Allen, and it became clear very quickly that Allen knew everything about how to maintain a house. Accordingly, we developed a homeowning strategy that involved watching Allen and doing what he did. If he was washing the storm windows and putting up screens, that’s what we did. If he was sealing his driveway, that’s what we did. If he was cleaning the gutters, that’s what we did.  If he was fertilizing the yard, that’s what we did. We would actually get up on Saturdays, look out the window, wait for Allen to appear and start on some kind of task, then we followed suit. And it worked out very well. Our 80-year-old house stayed in good shape. We learned some things along the way and developed some skills. When we moved on after six years in that house, we even admitted to Allen what we had been doing. He smiled a disbelieving smile, befitting of someone who had been a homeowner for 40 years and to whom it all seemed second nature.

I learned to swim the breaststroke by watching Stephen. The instructor had tried to tell me about how to do it. He had diagrams and directions. He would move my arms and my legs in the right way, but I really struggled with the timing of the stroke. Finally, the instructor told me to watch Stephen, who was swimming in the adjacent pool used by the high school swim team. I stood on the deck and I watched him. Then I jumped it and tried it. Then I got out and watched some more. I learned the breaststroke from Stephen, just like I learned to care for a house from Allen.

We can gain much by learning from those who have experience and knowledge and skills. Watch what they do; practice what they do.

I’ve learned about faith from any number of teachers over the years. I suspect you have, too. Few of us can just pick up faith on our own. We need to be around others who know something about it and have some experience, some knowledge. I enjoy being in a group and asking people to share the name of someone from whom they learned about faith. Sometimes, it’s a parent or a grandparent or a Sunday school teacher or a youth group sponsor. Sometimes it’s someone you watched because of the joyful way she sang or the patient way he cared for his children or because of the warm way they always greeted you.

We learn by watching —  and by doing what we have seen. That’s one of the reasons we might assign mentors to our young people going through confirmation. You can only learn so much about faith from a book or a diagram. The learning is completed by seeing real live examples. It’s like standing on the deck and watching someone swim the breaststroke — and then jumping in and trying it for yourself.

Paul is getting at this simple, yet important, truth in this passage from Philippians. He writes, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me” (Philippians 4:9). He knows faith is learned by watching and practicing. He holds himself up as a role model. Few of us would be comfortable going that far, but it’s worth remembering that even as we are learning from others, others are learning from us. It’s not just children. We all continue to learn from one another.

Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen. Keep on doing these things, again and again and again. There is a lot of repetition to our worship for a reason. We keep on doing these things, saying these things, singing these things so that they might sink in, find a place in us, shape us, form us, comfort us. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen so that you know these things by heart.

Paul offers himself as a model for faith, and we have seen the contours of that faith in the lectionary readings from Philippians over the past few weeks. We have received from Paul words of encouragement and support (1:21-30), a soaring hymn of praise flowing from faith in the self-giving love of Jesus Christ (2:1-13), and a charge to persevere while continuing to trust in Christ’s commitment to us (3:4-14). The Letter to the Philippians is a compelling record of Paul’s understanding and practice of faith.

In the passage for this week, we see Paul, showing care and concern for those serving with him, particularly noting the valuable contributions of the women, Euodia and Syntyche. He urges joy, gentleness, and prayer. He promises the intangible blessings of a peace that passes understanding. He directs our attention to the things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy. Think about these things, Paul says. Do these things. Keep on doing them.

After all, somebody might be learning from you.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Tell about someone whose life and witness have made a difference for your faith. Whom have you learned from?
  2. What are the repeated practices in your congregation that reinforce your collective identity? Is it perhaps an element of worship or a mission project or a fellowship event?
  3. Do you have experience as a teacher or mentor? What did you discover about the ways learning happens?
  4. What comes to mind as you hear Paul’s encouragement in 4:8 to hold fast to “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable?”

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