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Thought for the week: Is your church different to your culture?

Today, mass media, business, travel and concerted trade agreements work together to erase local tastes, life-styles and values, and convert the globe into one big shopping mall.

In our era of idolatrous consumption, we are made to believe that financial independence, autonomy in our economic decisions, and ability to spend without constraint constitute the good life and true freedom. As our minds and hearts are captive to this ideology, we become unaware of the deadly chain that saps life by keeping a tight leash on all that we do.

We are free only to serve ourselves. We have become enslaved and don’t even know it! Globalized consumption today is consuming our very soul. Each person is out for him or herself, as in the rest of our globalized world.

We have become enslaved and don’t even know it!

The letter of Philippians was written to a church in 1st century Philippi.

In Philippi the symbols of prosperity and success were not too different from those in our current, globalized world.

Rome not only ruled supreme, making its power evident through legions and taxes. It also prescribed the standard of life for all within its imperial borders, and classed people according to their status in society. Slaves were mere property, subject to the whims of their owners. Children were considered disposable, and were often murdered if they appeared weak or unpromising.

But the Philippian church was adamant in breaking all proper social conventions, since in their household gatherings people would come together from different social strata: the privileged Roman citizens, slaves both bound and free, and women and men of many diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. They were persecuted by the Romans for their beliefs.

It is not difficult to picture how tempting it could be for the followers of Jesus in Philippi to give in to the pressure of prevailing society, to give up on the difficult work of swimming against the stream and simply focus on keeping a low profile in order to survive in a hostile environment. They were being threatened on all sides: by the religious hierarchy of the time, by Roman imperial power, by neighbors and business associates.

Paul’s letter is addressed to these believers, tempted as they are to give up hope and go with the flow, tempted as they are to split apart and gather into competing parties. He writes to thank them for their witness and also to remind them about what matters most in life.

Paul explains that thanks to God’s action, his life and theirs take on full and lasting meaning when, in the midst of the tugs and pulls of imperial power and in the midst of internal conflict, they make visible the good news of God’s love in Christ, God’s good and life giving purposes. What matters most is that their lives point to Jesus and lead others to new life in him so that they too may experience the good news.

What matters most is that their lives point to Jesus and lead others to new life in him

In the Roman Empire, official heralds would make their way around the dominated colonies announcing their kind of ‘good news’ - of wars, goods and territories won. Rome celebrated, as did all who benefited from the imperial expansion. But if you were among the conquered people, this announcement hardly rang as good news to your ears.

More armies. More oppression. More taxes. More poor and landless people… All that the expansion of the acclaimed Pax Romana, imperial peace, brought in its wake was more suffering and death.

In stark contrast to the deadly impact of imperial expansion behind the façade of peace, rests the good news of God’s love made known through Jesus Christ.

This true Lord broke into history in the shape of a poor baby from relegated Judea and gave himself away in life and death to break the power of death and bring true and lasting peace between God and humankind, between people, and between them and the rest of creation.

This great event, of God becoming human to rescue us, transformed the lives of the people in the early church. They became a loving, caring community.

Today, is our church as much of a contrast to the wider culture, as the early church was to the Roman Empire? If not, what should we do about it?

Ruth Padilla DeBorst is part of INFEMIT (International Fellowship for Mission as Transformation). This series of articles is a summary of talks given to the Keswick Convention 2014. The audio of the talk is available free on www.keswickministries.org

This series of articles is a summary of talks given to the Keswick Convention 2014. The audio of the talk is available free on www.keswickministries.org

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