With Notre Dame in the news here lately I found myself thinking about the story of George Gipp. Now there’s a lot that has become legend about Gipp’s story, its hard to know for sure what is true, but what can definitely be confirmed is that three weeks after the conclusion of the 1920 college football season, Gipp, the first Walter Camp All-American in Nortre Dame history, died in a South Bend hospital after a battle with pneumonia and strep-throat. Allegedly, on his death bed, Gip said to Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne “I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.” Rockne held on to that story until a 1928 game against an undefeated Army team at Yankee Stadium where he told his team about this interaction at halftime and inspired their victory.
Maybe all that happened. Cynicism is not, I know, an attractive quality, I wish I could just accept that that’s what was on Gipp’s mind on his deathbed, but I have my doubts. Makes for a good story though, right? Inspiring stuff. Last words have that kind of power, last requests carry a lot of weight and we see that in practice in our text this morning.
Most scholars agree that Philippians is the last letter that Paul wrote, and that he wrote it from house arrest in Rome, probably with his execution date set. Its a letter from a dying man to a group of people he loves and cherishes and wants the best for and there is inspiration and challenge in those words if we still have ears to hear them.
The church at Philippi was going through some sort of pressure. We see in the final words of chapter one that they are experiencing suffering, and while we don’t know what that specific issue is we know that the external pressures on the church are causing internal issues. There’s something going on in their world, the church doesn’t seem to agree on how to respond to it, and those divisions are getting deeper and more bitter and the way forward seems harder to figure out.
What are they facing? We don’t know for sure in this case but we see enough descriptions of church tensions during Paul’s ministry that we can make some guesses. One of the biggest issues Paul combats is the question of how seriously the faith needs to be taken. We hear a lot about the tensions over how Jewish you needed to be to be a Christian but there was also a question of how Roman you could be and be a Christian. To get ahead in Roman society you had to be willing to play the right games and schmooze the right people and one of the ways that showed up was in needing to attend festivals and events where sacrifices were made to whatever gods the locals thought were especially important to their cities. This is the issue we see on display most prominently in First and Second Corinthians, it shows up in Romans as well, early Christians seemed to be in two camps. There were those who held that going into temples, participating in festivals (even through attendance), and even eating meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods was idolatry. And then there were those on the other side who argued “none of that stuff is real so why does it matter? Who cares if I attend a festival to a god I don’t believe in or mutter some words that I know I don’t mean, here in the real world you have to do things sometimes you don’t feel great about.” And we see in Paul’s other letters that this tension tore churches apart as the “strong,” who believed they could do whatever they wanted and be fine looked down on those who disagreed and the “weak” judged and dismissed the strong.
Paul’s challenge to the Philippians, whatever their issue, was to ask them to win one for the Gipper. “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2 complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other.” If you think your faith means anything, and if you care about me, live in unity and humility. “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.” Life in a community of faith will constantly challenge us to give something up for that community. It might be our self-proclaimed freedoms, something we have the right to do that don’t do in the presence of our brothers and sisters in faith because it might put a stumbling block in their path or something we don’t think we need to do that we suck it up and participate in because it shows the folks we’re in fellowship with that we care. It might be our place on our pedestals and high horses that are given up, forcing us to wrestle with whether being right it worth risking the body of Christ. It might be opportunities to get ahead or to gain recognition that pass up because we know it isn’t right for our witness. It could be any number of things but the challenge is there for us, not because I say so or because Paul says so but because it is the example of Christ.
One of the things I think we miss about Christmas as we focus on Mary and Joseph and Shepherds and Wisemen and all the other characters is that we forget that Jesus is playing an active role in all this. Christmas isn’t something that happens to Jesus, Christmas is the active choice of God to give up all power and honor and glory and be born in humility and live a life of humility and follow a path that will call him to humble himself again and again and again until he gives up his life, hung up on display with criminals for a jeering crowd, that we might find a way back to God. The Christmas story is a story of giving up, of choosing humility and putting the needs of others ahead of anything we might gain. I hope in these lazy afterglow days of the holiday season we’ll wrestle with how we might be called to give up this Christmas. Our we can follow the example of humility that marks the kingdom of God. Amen, and Amen