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Something Unexpected

A homily given by Amy Rowe from Philippians 4:21-23 on Sunday, August 26.

Earlier this week I got a text from Beth, our Director of Musical Worship, that I want to read you. She wrote:

“I was looking at the verses for this coming week and wondering if there’s anything in particular you’re concentrating on for the homily. It’s rather funny trying to pick songs from a ‘Paul here, signing off’ kind of paragraph.”

And really, it is rather funny to meditate on the last few sentences of a letter, on the signoff. But when we look more closely at this signoff, we find something unexpected. Even in a few short sentences, we see that this little church at Philippi is itself something unexpected, a new kind of community living in an unexpected way.

Most letters from this time and place ended according to a pretty standard format and structure, using pretty standard words. This standard signoff would bid the reader farewell and good luck. Paul follows this format and structure, but then he does something unusual. He changes the words. Instead of ending with farewell and good luck, Paul ends with greetings and grace. I want to explore this unexpected ending and what it tells us about this new kind of community that God has formed in Philippi, and is forming here in us in South Arlington.

So first, greetings. This is kind of unusual, right? We expect to find farewell at the end of the letter. We expect “Paul here, signing off.” But instead, we get “Paul here with my friends saying hi! Greetings! Hey everyone!” Ending a letter with greetings feels like saying hello and goodbye in the same breath.

But tonight, I think that’s exactly where our community is. I think we, like Paul, are saying goodbye and hello in the same breath.

We are saying goodbye tonight to a really sweet summer together. This is our last evening prayer, our last potluck, and the end of what we’ve called our soft-launch. It’s our last night of squeezing into this room and sharing songbooks and reshuffling chairs to make space and hearing Magna-tile towers collapse and smelling spicy beans simmering on the stove in a roomful of people we’ve grown to love. Eugene Peterson calls Philippians Paul’s happiest letter, and when I think about saying goodbye to this summer season together, I get it—this summer, with all of you, has made me so happy! And tonight, we say goodbye to it. And then next week we will say goodbye to Restoration at our commissioning there, a church that has meant so much to so many of us.

But in the same breath as these goodbyes, we are also saying hello. Hello to whatever our little church will become. Hello to the unknown of what God will do in and through us in South Arlington, when we take our living room fellowship public and throw the doors open wide on 7th Road South and invite everyone in. Hello to all the new people that we’ll get to know and befriend and pray for and share Jesus with—around our dinner tables, on the soccer field, over coffee on Columbia Pike. Greetings to all those people we will someday welcome through the doors of our church, and to the baptismal, and to the communion table, and to the life of faith we share. We are planting a church that we hope will extend the edges of the kingdom out and welcome new people in, and so tonight we are right on the threshold of a great big greeting. In fact, that word “greeting” means something more like “embrace,” which is a wonderful picture for how we want to greet and welcome people in.

This capacity to say goodbye and hello in the same breath strikes me as very resurrection-y. We, and Paul, and the Philippians, are people who think differently about goodbyes, about endings. Because we are resurrection people. We are people who have been transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. We have at the core of our faith the idea that the end of one thing is glorious beginning of another, that death is the path to true life.

And that means we are also committed to seeing resurrection and transformation in others, in our communities and systems and institutions, in the world. It means no matter how comfortable and happy we are in places like Restoration or in this living room or in our Christian friendships, our life together is always oriented toward those outside. We are always greeting! We are always looking outward, we are always on mission, inviting people into this infectious gospel-happiness we share.

And there’s more. In verse 22, Paul says, “The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.” The brothers with him are probably fellow missionaries and church planters, companions like Timothy. But what about the saints of Caesar’s household? At first, I thought maybe Paul was name-dropping, giving his Philippian readers an ego boost to know that some VIPs from the emperor's entourage send their greetings. But actually, that’s not what it means at all. The saints of Caesar’s household refers to the slaves and the working poor that made up the emperor’s civil service. These are not VIPs living in palaces, but the poor, the outcast, the people who had nowhere else to go.

We see here yet another way that this Christian community is different and unexpected. Because this is a place where the poor and marginalized are welcomed and valued; in fact, they are the saints, they are the co-laborers, they send the blessing, they are the greeters!

If you remember, there were two ways that Paul changed up the formula at the end of his letter. Where readers would expect a farewell, Paul sent greetings; that's what I've been talking about until now. And then, where his readers would expect him to wish them good luck, Paul blesses them with grace in their spirits.

Paul’s last words to the Philippians are, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” And if you can remember back to 13 weeks ago, when we began evening prayer together, some of his very first words were “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:2)

Paul begins and ends with grace; he embraces, he wraps up this community in grace. He doesn’t offer good luck, which is flimsy and fleeting and uncertain. Instead, he offers them something solid and life-changing, the grace of Jesus, a grace that he wants to seep down deep inside them, to reside in them, always present, always at work, to the very depths of their spirits.

This is a picture of a different kind of community, of the kind of community we hope and pray that Incarnation will be in South Arlington. A community that draws its life from the death and resurrection of Jesus and is always extending that life outward, saying goodbye and hello in the same breath. A community where the poor and outcast are welcomed in to offer their blessing. And a community where our entire life together begins and ends in grace.


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