Lent, the City and Philippians

by Brian Walsh

From the book of Revelation, back to Genesis, into the Torah, through the monarchy and then on to Isaiah with his prophecies of judgement, exile and return, the Wine Before Breakfast community has spent the last number of months meditating on a biblical vision of the city. We’ve posted a number of the sermons from those services here at Empire Remixed.

And it is an ambivalent vision of the city. We began with the cataclysmic Fall of Babylon and moved in our second week to the hope of a New Jerusalem. And its been back and forth all year.

One day you’re waiting for the sky to fall,
the next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all

Apocalyptic dread and the beauty of hope. A biblical theology of the city finds itself between these two poles.

Embrace one without the other and you either have a naïve urban optimism or a crushing despair about all urban life.

But optimism and despair aren’t in the Christian vocabulary. Rather, our imaginations are shaped by prophetic critique and hope that faces head on the penchant for cities to be sites of exclusion, violence and oppression, while never leaving the city to its own fate. No, grace makes beauty out of ugly things. And so prophetic hope engenders an imagination and a praxis of justice, hospitality and restoration.

That’s where we have come to in our reflections on a theology of the city.

And now it is time to pause.

We have certainly not arrived, but it is time to pause nonetheless.

And that is what Lent is about.
A pause.
A cessation.
A stopping for a while.

To reflect.
To pray.
To fast.
To meditate.

St. Paul writes to the Philippians:

Finally my beloved, whatever is true,
whatever is honourable,
whatever is just,
whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing,
whatever is commendable,
if there is any excellence
and if anything worthy of praise,
think about these things. (4.8-9)

So we are going to take Paul’s word on this and take time to think on such things.

And at Wine Before Breakfast we’re going to do so throughout Lent by taking precisely this letter to the Philippians as our site of meditation.

But here’s the thing. This isn’t an invitation to simply put out of mind all that troubles us, all that is disturbing, all that is broken and ugly.

That isn’t meditation worthy of followers of Jesus.

St. Paul isn’t counseling that we avert our gaze from the sinfulness of our world, our city, our community and our own lives.

Indeed, he writes these words precisely from a site of great suffering and injustice.

You see, the apostle is in prison when he writes this letter, likely at the very heart of the empire, in Rome.

There we are back to the city again.

And while this letter is nothing if not profoundly confident in the power of the resurrection, the apostle’s eyes are never too far from the cross.

And while the letter abounds in calls to rejoice and to live lives full of joy, that joy is always in the face of suffering and potential death.

Imprisoned in one city, the apostle writes to a Christian community in another city. He writes in confident hope and in the face of serious trials and struggles in the community.

In the face of the power and prestige of Roman citizenship, he tells them that they have another citizenship that is far more important.

In the face of the authority and imperial hierarchy of the empire and its emperor, he speaks of one who was a victim of that empire and yet will be exalted above every name, so that at his name every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he, not Caesar, is Lord.

In fact, he will write that anything that we give priority to in our lives is nothing but bullshit (exact translation!) in contrast to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord.

Bullshit. That’s a pretty good word for sin.

And so, with Paul, we are invited during Lent to reflect on our bullshit, but not out of some twisted narcissistic preoccupation with how terrible we are. No, we face the bullshit, in the light of who Jesus is, rejoicing in grace, longing for lives of righteousness.

And in the end, that will bring us right back to the city and our call to bear witness to its healing.

So my sisters and brothers, I invite you to enter into Lent with Philippians as your companion.

With holy intention, enter into Lent to meditate on your sin, your Redeemer, and your calling in the Kingdom of God.

And maybe you would like to join us at Wine Before Breakfast and take Paul’s letter to the Philippians as your text for the next 40 days. Read this letter. Read it daily. Read it slowly. Read it prayerfully.

Let’s keep Lent together.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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