Rev. Teri Peterson
25 May 2014, Easter 6, NL4-38
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.
Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
Batman and Robin. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The Lone Ranger and Tonto. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Harry and Hermione and Ron.
There’s nothing quite like a good sidekick, is there? They help us relate to heroes, and put a human face on brilliance. Their foibles make the story interesting and give us a glimpse into what it’s like to be part of something amazing. They do the hard work of putting a plan into action, even though they know that all the glory is going to the hero, not to them.
All week I’ve been pondering Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and how he talks about how we “share in the gospel” but it is God who began the work in and among us, and God who will bring it to completion. Sometimes people translate this “sharing in the gospel” line to say “partners in ministry” and that conjures up for me this mental image of the Church—the Body of Christ—as God’s sidekick.
I know, it sounds weird. But I suspect that if Paul had the concept of a sidekick to work with, he might have used it, because it’s such a great image.
So what makes a good hero-sidekick story work?
First, a good sidekick knows that they’re the supporting character. It’s the hero who’s on a mission, and the sidekick helps carry it out. Harry is the one who can see the path to ridding the world of darkness, but he needed Hermione’s research and Ron’s unfailing friendship in order to walk that path and to inspire others to walk it too.
In our case, it’s God who has the vision—for the kingdom to come on earth and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. We’re the ones who are supposed to put the vision into action. It’s not our ideas, our plans, or our mission: we’re the workers who do God’s will. Or, as Paul put it: the One who began a good work among us will bring it to completion. We are the partners, not the leader. God is the master builder, and we’re the workers.
Second, a good sidekick acts as sort of an interpreter of the hero to the people, and of the people to the hero. Imagine Sherlock Holmes without Dr. Watson—he’d be almost incomprehensible, and we probably wouldn’t like him much. Watson interprets for us, giving Holmes a more human and more likeable aspect than we might otherwise see—and he does the same in the other direction as well.
Isn’t that what the Body of Christ does when we talk about God? Every time we proclaim the gospel, we are trying to interpret God’s character and God’s good news for people who do not understand, and people who see only the harsh God often portrayed in popular culture. The Church, as God’s sidekick, is to offer people a vision of Christ. As Paul said, to “let love overflow more and more, to grow in knowledge and insight” and to help others see the God we know in Jesus Christ. Paul says that our task is to proclaim Christ in every way, and to rejoice. It won’t be easy—it’s never easy for the sidekick to do that hard work, and Paul is, after all, writing this letter from prison, where he awaits trial. Yet still he says he dares to speak the word with boldness. Isn’t that our calling as the Body of Christ—to boldly speak God’s word of grace, of love, of justice? To be the image of God, reflected into the world? How will people know what God is like if we don’t tell and live the good news?
Third, a good sidekick always lets the hero get the glory. Sure, it may seem that Hermione did all the work, or like Don Quixote would have just gotten his arm cut off by a windmill if left to his own devices. Sometimes it seems unfair that the sidekick doesn’t get the praise and recognition for all their efforts…but ultimately, they know that the steam running this engine comes from the hero, so that’s where they always point.
The sidekick has a big job, and the biggest part is to always direct people’s attention back to the hero. Paul reminds us constantly that everything we do is “for the glory and praise of God.” Even his imprisonment is for Christ—meaning it is dedicated to Christ, for God’s glory. You may remember that when he was in prison before, he and Silas spent the evening singing hymns, dedicating that time to worship and praise of God! Everything is about spreading the gospel, not about Paul. He doesn’t even much care who is doing the proclaiming, as long as Christ’s redeeming love is being preached. The same needs to be true of the Body of Christ—everything is about God and God’s glory. When the church seeks recognition for itself rather than for Christ, we’ve stepped out of the sidekick role and made it about us. This story is always about God. Paul writes to the church in Philippi—the church meeting in the home of Lydia, the dealer of purple cloth—and he says he prays that they will be pure and blameless, working through Christ for the glory and praise of God. It would have been easy for them to work for themselves—after all, they have a wealthy patron, and their city was the site of a miracle when God freed Paul and Silas from prison, and the church is growing there by leaps and bounds. But Paul reminds them over and over that the job of the Church is to follow The Way, and to be a signpost for others to follow The Way. When we think we have become the way, we get ourselves into trouble.
The hardest thing about being the sidekick is that the job never ends. It is our 24/7 task to give glory to God, to tell the good news of Christ’s love, and to work toward the Spirit’s vision rather than our own. We are to rejoice and give thanks in all circumstances—not for all circumstances, but in the midst of all things, whether we celebrate or struggle, it’s about God. And here’s the thing: God is love, and love never fails. Which means that while we are busy doing our sidekick thing, always pointing the way to God, God is a much better hero than any of those other stories—because there is no circumstance in which God’s Church will be abandoned or set up for failure. God’s plan is for a future with hope, not for harm. God will never turn back from us, but instead sits beside us in the struggles and cheers beside us at the celebrations.
The one who began a good work among us will bring it to completion. The one whose vision we pursue, whose mission is our life’s work, will be working in and through and beside us all the way, even when the road seems impossible. While we don’t know what God’s completed work will look like, we do know from Scripture that it will involve peace that passes all understanding, love overflowing more and more, seeing clearly face to face.
For now that is all God’s work in progress—being carried out through our voices and our hands. Because that’s what a good sidekick does.
May it be so.