Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 20, 2020
Philippians 1:21-30 Commentary
One of the most lyrical expressions of Christian hope is embedded in the first Question and Answer of the Heidelberg Catechism. There Reformed Christians answer the question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” with the lovely, “That I am not my own, but belong in body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
The apostle Paul predated the Catechism’s writers by perhaps 1500 years. But this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson suggests that he would have embraced at least their Catechism’s first question and answer with his whole person.
There is a great deal of godly wisdom in the RCL’s editors’ selection of texts. Those who follow it find it to be, by the work of the Spirit, a wonderful guide for proclaiming the full counsel of God. But one of the RCL’s biggest flaws lies in its choice of where to begin and end particular readings.
That’s certainly the case with this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. It doesn’t, after all, just begin in the middle of a chapter. Philippians 1:21-30 also begins in the middle of what many English translations of the Bible present as a paragraph.
So this Lesson’s proclaimers may choose to begin their reading with verse 12, if not verse 1 – while still focusing their presentation on verses 21-30. We will certainly want to add this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s context to our proclamation of the text.
Douglas Moo notes that Paul writes to the Philippians in order to both thank the members of its church for their support of him and to encourage them to remain united in Christ. Chapter 1:21-30, in fact, touches on both of those themes.
Paul begins by singing, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (21). The second half’s “to die is gain” can found on a number of old tombstones over Christians’ graves. But they’re especially bold words for an aging apostle who almost certainly suspects that he’s under a Roman death sentence.
Philippians 1’s proclaimers might want to spend time unpacking verse 21. We might explore what Paul means when, for example, he says that to “live is Christ” for him. Biblical scholars “land” in a number of places on this. But nearly all of them land somewhere near the idea that Paul’s is celebrating how his life is caught up with his crucified, risen, ascended Lord.
So Jesus’ followers don’t have to die in order to have an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. To live in a faithful relationship with Jesus Christ is to enjoy a whole person relationship with him on this side of life in God’s eternal presence.
At the same time, however, the apostle adds that to “die is gain” for him. His death may well follow further and even greater suffering than he’s already enduring. But it will, by God’s amazing grace, also earn Paul a place in God’s eternal presence where there is no room for suffering or death.
Perhaps no society in history has had a stronger aversion to death than 21st century North America. We naturally do nearly whatever it takes to avoid dying (as well as dying people). Yet might that have something to do with our contemporaries’ seemingly increasing uncertainty about what happens to us after we die?
The theologian N.T. Wright points out that western civilization has adopted a number of theories about death. Some, he notes, assume we’ll somehow become part of some great ocean of consciousness or unconsciousness. Others think we’ll simply be absorbed into the cosmos. Those who proclaim Philippians 1 might fruitfully spend some time examining their own specific culture for attitudes about death and its aftermath.
However, against all of society’s speculation about death and its aftermath, Paul insists that the status of those who die in a faithful relationship with Jesus Christ is unassailable. In fact, it doesn’t really change. Whether we live or die, God has adopted us to be both God’s sons and daughters and Jesus’ younger siblings. In both life and in death, Christians belong to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
So Paul recognizes, as Wright writes, “he would indeed be better off dead.” Those who die in a relationship with Jesus Christ, after all, “depart” to “be with Christ” (23). But the apostle also already lives with the Lord in prison.
So if Paul somehow survives his prison ordeal, as he apparently fully expects, he can continue his “fruitful labor” (22). He can continue his ministry of both spreading the gospel and encouraging those who have faithfully received it to remain in a faithful relationship with Jesus Christ. Paul, in fact, assumes that he has more work to do. So he can even insist that it’s “necessary” (24) for his Philippian audience for him to survive his prison ordeal.
The apostle spends the rest of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson explaining why his Philippian audience needs him to survive his ordeal. Douglas Moo suggests, however, that it might be summed up as his readers needing to stay united in the face of everything that would divide them.
While Philippians might be what Scott Hoezee calls the “warmest” of Paul’s letters, it has a somewhat challenging context. Its readers seem to face threats from both within the church and outside of it. Those threats pose an existential threat to Christian unity that is so much a fruit of a faithful relationship with Jesus Christ.
Paul doesn’t identify the outside threats to Philippi’s believers. Moo suggests they may be the false teachers and their teachings to which he later alludes in chapter 3. Or, he goes on to point out, the apostle may not have anyone specific in mind.
As many as 2,000 years after Paul first wrote Philippians 1, the Church that reads it remains under duress. Jesus’ followers continue to suffer and die for their faith at alarming rates. So those who proclaim this Lesson might spend some time familiarizing ourselves with websites that highlight that misery so that we can both pray for those who suffer and familiarize our hearers with their plight.
Yet not all Christian division is imposed from outside the Church. For example, Americans who proclaim and hear this Epistolary Lesson are in the midst of a volatile political season. Some Christians are so politically divided that they can barely speak in civilized ways to their Christian brothers and sisters with whom they disagree. Add to that disagreements about how to respond to the global pandemic and racial injustice, and we have a recipe for deep divisions among even Jesus’ followers.
So while its meaning may not be the same for 21st century Christians as it was for Paul, verse 27’s “whatever happens” has profound implications for his adopted siblings in Christ. Whoever is elected the American president and other leaders, “conduct yourselves,” we hear Paul say, “in a manner worthy of the gospel” (27). Whatever happens with and to COVID-19, “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel.” Whatever happens in pursuit of racial justice and reconciliation, “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel.”
Whatever else that loaded phrase “manner worthy of the gospel” means, it at least calls for behavior that’s consistent with the status of being called by God to himself through that gospel. It’s at least so see those with whom we disagree as those whom God creates in God’s image and passionately loves. It’s to find ways to work together with even those with whom we disagree for God’s glory and our neighbors’ well-being. It’s to seek to imitate Christ in humbly and self-sacrificially giving ourselves away to the last and the least.
Those who proclaim Philippians 1 would benefit from exploring within our own hearts and lives how we might do that with Christians with whom we fundamentally disagree about things largely peripheral to the gospel. We might look for examples of how local as well as worldwide Christians are coming together across various lines to do things like feed people who are hungry, mentor students who are at risk and help people whom violent weather and fires have harmed.
That will, however, as Paul warns in verses 29 and 30, be deeply costly. After all, those who work on God’s behalf for what God is passionate about will “suffer for” Christ’s sake (29). We won’t just potentially endanger our well-being and even lives for the Lord. We’ll also give up our natural selfishness and self-interest to advance God’s interests in the world. That, after all, wasn’t just Jesus’ fate. It wasn’t just Paul’s fate. It isn’t just many of our Christian contemporaries’ fate. Suffering is also the fate of all who would follow Jesus into the world for which he gave his life.
In his book, Terms of Service, Jacob Silverman writes about a PayPal cofounder and early investor in Facebook (and another [Ayn] Rand disciple). Silverman notes that that person has “derided the inevitability of death as an ‘ideology’ while plowing millions into companies that might, as he said, ‘cure aging.’ Google’s own first foray into life-extension research, through a biotech subsidiary called Calico, reflects its belief that it can solve death — at least for a paying fee.”
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