Paul is writing this letter to members of the church at Philippi. It was a city that historians tell us was heavily populated with veterans of the various Roman conflicts between politicians such as Marc Antony, Octavian and Brutus. Envision pensioned and disabled soldiers with a hard and realistic view of life.
Paul and a companion, Silas had been preaching in the community when Luke writes in the book of Acts that Paul cast a demon out of a slave girl who was a fortune teller. Her owners were furious at their loss of income and had Paul and Silas arrested, beaten with rods and imprisoned. Late at night, Luke continues, there was an earthquake and the prison doors were thrown open. The jailer had drawn his sword to kill himself for allowing his charges to escape when Paul called out to him that everyone was still in their cells. The Jailer took Paul and Silas to his home and washed their wounds. He and his entire household were converted to followers of Jesus and thus began the church at Philippi.
This church had sent a monetary gift to assist Paul who was now imprisoned again for proclaiming the gospel. The person that they entrusted with this task had become ill while with Paul and his return was delayed. They had written expressing their concern about his well being.
Paul is writing them back and sending the young man with his message to the church. In it he warns them to watch out for the “dogs” that were Jewish converts to Christianity but who insisted that all Gentile men had to be circumcised in order to become Christians. Paul referred to them as “…those who mutilate their flesh…”
I wondered aloud as I read this portion of the text if many Christian readers today might see the phrase; “…those who mutilate their flesh…” and automatically envision individuals with tattoos and piercings… those people who look and live so different than ourselves? Ironically, the people that Paul is warning the church about are more likely to be the ones today wearing suits and ties and casting judgments on those outside of their societal group.
If you ever have an opportunity to have an honest conversation with people outside the church today you will find that they are often rejecting the judgments, self-righteousness and hypocrisy of those who I believe Paul would call “dogs.” They are not typically rejecting God. Many of them are willing to think of the selfless acts of Jesus and admire him historically. They just do not connect his statements about God’s grace and love with what they see on television or read on the internet.
Sadly, the church leaders that get the headlines… And those members who they encounter in their lives are people whose looks and actions reject and condemn them. Why on earth would anyone be interested in walking into that church?
I believe that this passage challenges us to ask ourselves, “Have we been a reflection of God’s love to the world?” Do we allow our politics be swayed by what will cost us less in taxes? Do we love only what is comfortable to love? This is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus expressed his love by sacrifice. We are called to do the same.