Philippians is a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to a congregation he started in city of Philippi, located in the northeastern part of Greece. When Paul wrote this letter he was in prison and believed that he would soon be killed by the Roman Empire for living out the teachings of Jesus. Which means, for Paul, this is a farewell letter. These are possibly the last words he will ever be able to say to this community of people. And Paul writes this letter the way I think many of us would if we were face to face with our own death. When faced with death, we start to open up our hearts and share the things that we’ve always wanted to say but never had the courage to. Young parents diagnosed with terminal cancer will record videos on the things they always wanted to tell and teach their children. Spouses or siblings will sometimes apologize for something that fractured the relationship years ago. When you think you are about to die, you cut through the meaningless chatter of life and you start to say the things that you think people need to hear. Which is what Paul is doing here in this letter. In this farewell letter to the Philippians, Paul is saying those important final words that he thinks this community needs to hear.
In the small section of the letter we heard today, Paul has these great one-liners of guidance and encouragement to the people of Philippi. Do nothing from selfish ambition. Regard others as better than yourselves. Don’t worry about your own interests, but be concerned for the interests of others. He shows them what it looks like to live as a disciple of Jesus, which is what Paul hopes for this community. That they will live as disciples of Jesus by giving to others rather than getting for themselves.
But then, there is one line that sort of throws everything off track, at least it does for me. Paul writes, “Therefore…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Salvation. How do you hear that word? I think most of us hear that word salvation and we think about going to heaven or going to hell when we die. Have you been saved, people will ask as you wander past a booth at the county fair. Are you going to heaven when you die? Are you in or are you out? If Paul understands salvation to be about going to heaven, then “work out your own salvation,” seems to mean we have to earn our way there. It means that when Paul tells us to be concerned for others and to not act selfishly, it is simply for the purpose of making sure we as individuals get into heaven. In the religion world, it is called, “works righteousness” meaning that you have to be come a good enough person, do enough good works, so that God will accept you into heaven when death settles over you. “Works righteousness” is something that tormented Martin Luther most of his life because he felt he could never be good enough to earn his way into heaven.
When we hear the word salvation I think most of us think about going to heaven. But here is the problem: the word salvation when used in the Bible is almost never about the afterlife.
In Scripture, salvation is almost always about an experience in this world. In Scripture, salvation means being liberated. Being freed from that which weighs you down. In the story of Exodus, when the Israelites were held as slaves in Egypt, the word salvation was used when Moses helped to lead them out of slavery, when they were released from the bondage of Pharaoh’s grasp. The Israelites experienced salvation in this life when they were liberated from Pharaoh. Sometimes in Scripture, salvation means being rescued from danger or that which threatens us. All throughout the Psalms, salvation is about being rescued. Rescued from the danger of enemies. The danger of illness. Psalm 69 says, “I am lowly and in pain; let your salvation, O God, protect me.” Save me from my pain, Lord, it says. Now. Here. Let me experience salvation in being freed from pain. Not in the afterlife, but today, Lord.
Do you see how the understanding of the word salvation has been distorted? It has gone from being about experiencing liberation from whatever threatens us in this life to being simply about what happens to us when we die. If we can restore that Biblical understanding of what it means to be saved, to experience salvation, we come to learn that when Paul writes, “work out your own salvation,” Paul is not saying, “Go and be a good enough person so that the God who lives in the sky will let you into heaven.” Instead, Paul is saying, “Go and put the interests of others before your own because that is the way to liberation, freedom, healing, fullness of life, salvation – here and now. In this life.” Go and put the interests of others before your own because that is the way to liberation AND because that is where God promises to be found. God does not live in the sky; God promises to be found in and among us. Here and now, in the ways we work together to bring about salvation here on earth. Paul says, “Work out your own salvation … for it is God who is at work in you.” And that word you…is plural. Meaning it is not just about you as an individual. It is about you and the person your sitting next to. Or the person in front of you, or behind you. It is about God being at work in and between us – in our relationships. In this very community.
I want to tell you a true story about two women. We will call them Jane and Elizabeth. When I met Jane, she told me that she didn’t really understand the Bible and that she didn’t always understand what was happening at church. Which is how must of us feel a lot of the time. I couldn’t help but think that Jane has spent most of her life feeling inadequate when it comes to God. Not smart enough to be a part of the church; not worthy enough to do God’s work. But then, in the midst of our conversation Jane started to share a story about her neighbor, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was a person who, because of a disability, was physically incapable of washing her own body. When Elizabeth’s body wasn’t washed, she would break out in rashes and sores all over. And so every couple of days or so, Jane went over to Elizabeth’s house to wash her body – removing the stench and bacteria and infection that was threatening Elizabeth’s body. Elizabeth wouldn’t say much to Jane, probably because she was embarrassed. But over time, Jane started to receive hand made gifts in the mail. Blankets and quilts for her and her children. This was Elizabeth’s way of saying “thank you.”
Remember that the word salvation means to be rescued from danger. To be rescued from that which threatens you. Elizabeth was threatened by her rashes and sores, because she wasn’t able to wash her self. Jane was threatened by her own insecurities and her own lack of self-worth. Jane washed Elizabeth’s body. Elizabeth sent Jane gifts saying “thank you,what you do matters to me.” And together they have saved each other’s lives. Together, they rescued one another from the dangers that threatened them. They were working out their own salvation together…and it was God who was at work in and among them.
But what saddens me about this story is that Jane had no clue. As she shared this story with me, she had no idea that she was both doing and receiving the work of God. She never knew that even though she didn’t understand the Bible and even though she didn’t go to church all that often, God was still at work in her and her relationship with Elizabeth.
In Paul’s farewell letter to the Philippians – where he wants to tell them the most important stuff because it might be his last chance – he says, “work out your own salvation…for it is God who is at work in you.” And he says the same to us. Work out your own salvation. But do not do it so that you can get to heaven when you die. Have no fear, God will take care of you in your time of death. But work out your salvation because people are in need of liberation here and now! People need to experience salvation here and now! Salvation cannot wait. We can see this in the Lord’s Prayer we will pray in a couple minutes. We say, “Lord, your kingdom come, your will be done ON EARTH, as it is in heaven.” We need the will of God to be done here on earth now, as it already is in heaven. Salvation cannot wait. So go and work out your salvation. Go and bring liberating and healing and rescuing salvation to the people you encounter in your work, in your home, on the street, the people in this life, in this world. For, I promise you, God is already at work in your life and salvation cannot wait. AMEN
 Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian, p. 39.
 Ibid., p. 39.
 Ibid., p. 44.
 Adapted from post by David Lose: http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=511