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Form Follows Function

Thomas J Parlette

“Form Follows Function”

Philippians 3: 4b-14



Many people know modern architecture’s axiom “form follows function.” Actually, the more accurate version of the original phrase from 1896 is “form ever follows function.” Coined by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan around the turn of the last century, the phrase captures the idea that the purpose of a building should shape its design. Buildings are not to be monuments or things of beauty alone – the aesthetic experience of the structure, its decoration and ornamentation, is not of primary importance. Function is primary. A building is meant to be used.(1) As the architect of ancient Rome, Marcus Pollo once wrote, a building should be beautiful, but it should also be solid and useful.(2) Form follows function.

One of Sullivan’s assistant’s, a guy you’ve probably heard of, named Frank Lloyd Wright, captured this idea of form following function beautifully when he designed the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The Guggenheim’s function, it’s purpose is to house art for people to enjoy. So Wright designed the Guggenheim with a spiral shape that was ideal for walking gradually upward to view paintings and other objects of artistic value. Its form followed its function.

Now, the apostle Paul was no architect, but the axiom “form follows function” could well have been his own.(3) In this passage from Philippians for this morning, Paul is clear that all that has built him up, everything that has made him who he is – his education, his training, his status, his heritage, his background – all of that is of little importance, unless it is in service of his life in Christ.

It is not that Paul thinks his background is bad. There is nothing inherently wrong with worldly accomplishments, and in fact, Paul seems quite proud of his background, his heritage and everything he has accomplished. It’s just that, now that his form – a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a real Hebrew, a well-trained, well-educated Pharisee, blameless, at least according to the law – his form must follow his function.

And for Paul, his function, his purpose, his goal – is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.

There comes a time in all our lives when we have to hold up the things that make us who we are and see if those things are contributing to our greater goal and purpose in living. That’s Paul does here in this passage, using himself as an example.

The contours of Paul’s life are being shaped by his longing not to be the most law-abiding, well-educated Pharisee he can be – but by his longing to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. The rest of it is unimportant.

As such, Paul’s testimony is that his life has taken on a new form. His life is not something that he alone constructs. His life is now being constructed by God, by the desire to know Christ and share the good news with the world. And while this new life is not without suffering – as Paul readily acknowledges – he’s actually proud of the suffering because those dark times draw him closer to Christ and give him an opportunity to know the power of resurrection.

Last year, at a White House Easter prayer breakfast, former Vice-President Joe Biden spoke about how his faith enabled him to endure the untimely death of his son Beau. On a talk show in September, Biden had revealed that his wife Jill had taped a quote from philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard to his mirror, “Faith sees best in the dark.”

At the prayer breakfast he shared a bit more of the full quotation, it goes: “In other words, when sagacity is able to perceive the beneficialness, then faith cannot see God; but when in the dark night of suffering sagacity cannot see a handbreadth ahead of it, then faith can see God, since faith sees best in the dark.”(4)

When times are good, it’s not as easy to see God. When times are tough, faith sees God. For faith sees best in the dark.

Joan Chittester shares Paul’s attitude toward suffering and darkness when she writes, “Never fear periods of darkness in life. They are the atrium to new phases of life, the threshold to new experiences, the invitation to move on from where you are to where there is more for you to learn.”(5)

Paul uses himself as an example to illustrate how we as individuals, and as a church, can get through tough and challenging times. His advice – Make sure our form follows our function. Make sure that everything we do, everything we are, everything that makes up our identity, moves us farther along on the path that is our function, our purpose. To know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and share that good news with the world.

It has been said that if anyone is wondering whether or not there is a God, they should be able to answer in the affirmative by looking at the church(6) – the place where we try to embody God’s love for this world. The place where we share our gifts so that we may heal the world in which we live.

In our Gospel lesson for today, we heard a story about some vineyard workers that got things very, very wrong. In the bible, a vineyard is often a symbol for God’s people, it is a symbol for the church, and it is a symbol of the world. A vineyard is something that God gives us to work on and take care of. But the workers in the parable seem to forget that completely. They assume that they are the owners of the vineyard. They get caught guarding their form and forgetting their function. They are so interested in keeping the vineyard for themselves that they have forgotten what it is really for. The vineyard was never really theirs. It was lent to them, it was gifted to them, so that they could do good work in it. Our lives, our churches are not really ours, either. They are gifts from God, lent to us so that we may be of service to each other, to our community, to the world, and ultimately, to God.

That is why we are here. That is why we gather as a church. That is why we have a stewardship drive and give money to hurricane relief. Because we are here to work in the world for good – to bring about God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven. We are in this world not to prove our worth, or pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. We are here because of the good news that God loves us. We are here to embody our function – to know Christ and experience the power of resurrection. Then we are called to share that good news with the world, by giving a portion of our time and our financial resources. The church is not the place that has all the answers. The church is the place where we come to struggle with real life. The church is place we come to wrestle with the problems, the challenges, the sufferings and the difficulties we all face. But we struggle with a sense of faith, trusting that God is here as we struggle. Trusting that God will answer and show us the way in an often dark world.

Flannery O’Connor once wrote a letter to a friend named Louise Abbot. She wrote: “When you get your spiritual house in order, you arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness. Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. Faith is trust, not certainty.”(7)

Paul has discovered that in his own life. Even through the dark times of suffering, make sure that your form – how you live your life – follows your function. And our ultimate function, our ultimate purpose is to know Christ and experience the power of his resurrection.

With our form following our function, we can do what Paul did – “forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Stacy Swain, Christian Century, September 13th, 2017, p19.

2.    Wikipedia, “form follows function” retrieved 10/4/17.

3.    Stacy Swain, Christian Century, September 13th, 2017, p19.

4.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 5, p51,

5.    Ibid…p51.

6.    Stacy Swain, Christian Century, September 13th, 2017, p19.

7.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 5, p51.