They say a death sentence has a way of focusing the mind, and certainly the Apostle Paul could attest to this. He is in prison as he writes to the Philippians and even though he just went out of his way to assure the Philippians both that he was doing fine and that even the Gospel was getting a boost out of the whole ordeal, even so it becomes clear that the thought he might die soon is ever on his mind. Paul says it is fine by him if he does get executed. He will get to go be with Jesus. Remember that unlike the other apostles—most of whom had been disciples first—Paul had not had the chance to be physically with Jesus. He had met him on the Damascus Road and has perhaps had some vivid visions granted to him. But actually being in Christ’s presence? That had not really happened for Paul and so he is eager for that to happen.
Even so, he would love to visit Philippi again too. If he gets sprung from prison one of these days, he will come back to a congregation he clearly loves. In fact, in recent days it seems that Paul has concluded that for the time being at least, getting another chance to visit the Philippians seemed more likely than his dying anytime soon and so he goes with that happy thought.
And so given that, Paul returns to apostolic exhorting and urges unity among the Philippians. He urges that they lead lives worthy of the Gospel and of the Savior who called them together in the first place. Make no mistake: Philippians is probably the warmest, friendliest letter we have from Paul in the New Testament. But that does not mean Paul is unaware of some cracks in their unity, some people who are at odds (two of whom will be called out by name before this letter is finished). Even the lyric words in chapter 2 and the quoting of that great hymn about Jesus Christ are in service of getting the Philippians a bit more back into line.
What’s more, the Philippians have enemies, opponents, people trying to shake the foundation of their faith. Reading between the lines here, it looks like they are causing a degree of suffering among the Christians in Philippi too. So Paul urges them to stand firm and to see even this suffering as its own kind of gift. “This gives you a chance to identify with Jesus in his sufferings” Paul enthuses. “That is its own kind of gift, folks!” For the Philippians as for most people all through history and up to this present day, suffering for the Gospel is probably the gift no one really wants but there it is, Paul says: Jesus suffered, he said his followers would suffer, and so not only do we get closer to Jesus when we suffer, we witness to him when we bear up under our suffering the same way he did.
Suffering, opposition, and hard times are not excuses for misbehaving, Paul says. Don’t go after each other, don’t let the pressure make you crack and conclude you no longer need to act in Christ-like ways. Now more than ever is the time for precisely such a staunch witness of love and unity.
Paul says something else, though, in verse 28: he urges the Philippians to stand firm in the face of opposition because it will serve as a sign that the opposition has already lost the fight. Stalwart confidence among Christians facing opposition is like semaphore. It sends out all the necessary signals that we are utterly sure that our Jesus has already won the cosmic victory and that, in turn, signals that those who oppose Jesus are already neck-deep in defeat.
Here is a message the church has needed—but often not much heeded—all along the centuries and right on down to this current age, too. Especially Christians in the Western world—and most particularly I would contend Christians in the United States—have come to believe that not only should they not have to suffer on account of their faith, they should, as a matter of fact, be accorded extra protections and comforts. No taxes on church properties or the offerings received, tax deductions for those giving the offerings, no need ever to have to make hard decisions in the public square in terms of how live faithfully in a pluralistic society. If the nation could just get back to being the Christian Nation it was founded to be, our lives would get a whole lot easier.
But since that does not always seem to be happening in every sector of society, the reaction of Christians is very often anything but stalwart confidence and unshakeable faith in Christ. No, the reactions are angry, bitter demonstrations and marches, ugly slogans painted onto signs, shouting matches between pastors and others on split-screen cable TV news shows.
So much for letting our confidence stand as a sign to our opponents that they have already lost! “They will know we are Christians by the level of our vitriol” seems to be the way many go these days. Not everyone, of course, and maybe not even most people. But some Christian leaders with the biggest megaphones—and not a few of their loyal followers—have taken a changing society as license to yell louder and whine more about how white Christians are discriminated against so much these days.
If only Paul could sit in his Roman jail cell and hear these kinds of reports about us. Think of what might pour forth from his epistolary pen if he had the same chance to call us to our Christ-like senses as he did with the Philippians. Oh yes, and do take note: Paul wrote these admonitions about confidence in Christ from a Roman prison cell. You think you have enemies in society? Ha! Paul would laugh us to derision. Paul had real enemies and they really would take Paul’s very life on account of his faithfulness to Jesus one day soon.
Even so Paul wrote what he did, to the Philippians and by the Spirit to all of us in the church today, too. Are we listening?
Paul is a good example of someone who could look for the good even in the midst of a whole lot of bad stuff. But Paul is not the only example, and perhaps not the premiere example, either. For that we look to Jesus. In the past I have used the analogy of music to make this point. If you know as relatively little about music as I do, then you could probably listen to five different recordings of a Mozart symphony and not detect a whole lot of difference among those versions. But if you were a music major who studied this for four years at a university, you’d be able to detect many nuances of difference between one rendition of the Jupiter symphony and another. But if Mozart himself could listen, he as the composer would be by far the most likely to pick up on every dropped note, each altered phrase, each variation between one performance and another.
Similarly with life in this world: if you know just a little about God’s design for life, then as you observe the world around you, you’d now and again detect the moral equivalent of someone singing off-key or dropping a note. If you were a trained theological ethicist, you’d likely be able to detect far more discordant moral notes. But suppose you are the Son of God, the composer of the entire symphony of creation. Wouldn’t you then be in the prime position to hear every wrong note? Jesus was in that position and yet despite that, his ministry was not characterized by negativity, by incessant tirades against the clueless sinners around him, or by nit-picking critiques of his disciples or anyone else.
Instead Jesus, like Paul, seemed able to look for goodness, for signs of hope, and this enabled him to eat with sinners and tax collectors and yet not be some boorish dinner guest whose conversation was laced with nothing but moral lectures and rebukes. He was able to rub shoulders with people in the marketplace and converse with a Samaritan woman at a well and although he knew better than anyone the problems in these people’s lives, he found a level of common ground, of common good on which to build something positive.
As that well-known hymn reminds us, “For not with swords’ loud clashing or roll of stirring drums–with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 24, 2017
Philippians 1:21-30 Commentary