Priorities & Purpose audio
I guess we all know that there are two types of people in the world: pessimists and optimists. One sees the glass as half empty and the other sees it as half full. Actually there’s a third type –engineers and economists realise that the glass is twice as large as it needs to be, but we’ll forget them. Some people look on the things that go wrong in their life and feel defeated by them, while others look for the good things that have happened alongside the disaster.
Paul is one of the latter. Lots of bad things have happened to him but he remains positive, optimistic about the future. But perhaps some of us may need some background. Paul has been preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ for several years now, all the way from Jerusalem to Corinth and back, several times, and he’s faced significant opposition all the way – including in Philippi. On his last missionary journey he returned to Jerusalem knowing that the Jews there were plotting to kill him. When he was arrested he knew he wouldn’t get a fair hearing and in fact would probably be killed by the Jews, so he appealed to Caesar. That meant being sent in chains to Rome. On the way he’s experienced various hardships, including a violent storm at sea, culminating in a shipwreck during which he was almost put to death by his guard. And now he’s under house arrest in Rome, guarded night and day by members of the palace guard, awaiting trial and possible execution. But his circumstances haven’t worn him down.
He says “12I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.” Far from feeling sorry for himself he sees that there’s been a positive side to his imprisonment. If you think about it he could have had a number of quite different responses to his imprisonment. He might have asked “Why has God forgotten me? Haven’t I been serving him faithfully since he called me?” Some people might think “Is God punishing me? What have I done wrong?” He might have thought “is this the end of my ministry?” In fact that thought is there later in this passage. Or he might have thought “Satan has finally won the spiritual battle.” I wonder if you’ve ever had thoughts like that?
But notice that Paul doesn’t give in to his circumstances. He looks around and realises that he’s actually in a unique place with an opportunity that few others would have. He says: “13It has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ.” So how has that happened? Well he’s probably chained to a guard day and night. So he has, literally, a captive audience. You can imagine his guards asking him how an educated man like him came to be in chains in Rome and Paul talking to them day after day, explaining why he was there, telling them about the way Jesus had appeared to him on the road to Damascus, telling them that Jesus had come to free us from the bondage of sin.
And it wouldn’t just have been his words; it would have equally have been his attitude. The fact that the bondage Jesus had freed him from was far more significant than his chains, must have had an impact. There would also have been the conversations they’d have overheard when his fellow Christians in Rome came to bring him supplies and to learn from him, as we’re told they did in Acts 28. All this would have compounded to impress the guards.
The Jews wanted to silence him and they probably thought they’d succeeded, but surprise, surprise; it’s the other way round. The elite regiment of the Roman army are all hearing about Christ.
And not only is Paul encouraged by this, it’s had an impact on the church as well: “14most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.”
Mind you it’s not all rosy in the Church in Rome. There are divisions there just like many churches today. He says some of those speaking the word are doing it out of envy and rivalry. Throughout his ministry Paul had encountered people who criticised him for thinking he was better or more important than he really was and perhaps the same was the case here. “Who does this Paul think he is? He’s in prison as a criminal and he thinks he can still tell us what to do. He thinks he’s the great evangelist but aren’t we doing just as good a job as he is?” I always think it’s sad when I hear people in ministry talking as though they’re in competition with other ministers; or worse still in competition with their vicar. Do you remember what Steve pointed out last week? How Paul presents himself to the Philippians as a partner in the gospel? Remember he doesn’t call himself “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus” as he does in other letters. He just writes from Paul and Timothy. Then he uses this sort of language, v5: “because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” And then v7: “for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” We’re not in competition with each other, we’re partners. Paul’s response is to say: “18What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.”
Still, it must have been encouraging to know that the majority were proclaiming Christ out of goodwill: “16These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel.”
How would you be feeling if it were you imprisoned in Rome; waiting for an eventual trial before Caesar? Unable to leave the house, dependent on members of a church you’d never visited before; with the possibility that you could be put to death? I think I’d be a bit worried, a bit downcast, fearing the worst. Wouldn’t you? But what does Paul say?
“I will continue to rejoice, 19for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.” I think rejoicing at a moment of deep suffering, or loss, or fear is one of the hardest things to do. Yet it’s the recurring theme in this letter.
Paul rejoices, with eager expectation, he says. Yet he’s not necessarily expecting anything good. His expectation could be that he faces lions in the arena, or crucifixion. So what is it he looks forward to with such eager expectation? It’s that he won’t be put to shame in any way. That is, that he’ll remain faithful to Christ. One of the things that early Christians faced you see was the demand that they recant their belief in Christ or face torture or execution. But he hopes to witness to Christ in his body, whether by life or by death.
It’s a brave stance to take isn’t it? I’m thankful that I live in a country where I trust I’ll never be called on to take that stance. We’ll think about what it is that we face these days in a moment, but first let’s listen to what Paul has to say.
This is one of those verses that we were encouraged to commit to memory as a young person: “21For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” It’s win-win he says. “22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”
Do you fear death? Or do you look forward to it? I’ve known a number of aging Christians who’ve said to me that they pray every night that God would take them. They looked forward to it as a relief from a fallen world and entry into God’s presence. And so it is with Paul. He sees death as gain, because he’ll finally be united with Christ in his resurrection. We’ll come back to that idea in a few weeks’ time. But he also sees that in the meantime God has work for him to do; fruitful labour he calls it. Notice how he rates his two options: one is good for him, the other is necessary for his readers. And which does he choose? Or which does he think will be chosen for him? He believes it’ll be the latter, that he’ll remain and continue with all of them for their progress and joy in faith.
Priorities and Purpose
So what are they to do? They’re to live their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. What does that mean?
What is it about the gospel that effects how we live? Some people would argue that it means living a life of purity, of obedience to God’s law. That’s the way I was brought up. There were certain things that Christians did and things that Christians never did. Sadly those things weren’t necessarily related to the gospel and I’m not sure some were even directly connected to God’s law.
Still, being obedient to God is certainly part of it isn’t it? The gospel is about God ruling over our lives. But there’s more to it than that. That was also part of the Jewish manner of life. But what difference does the gospel make? Well, what’s at the heart of the gospel? It’s the love and mercy and grace of God isn’t it? As we’ll see next week it’s the self-sacrificing nature of Christ, who humbled himself, making himself a servant for our sake. So we’re talking about a manner of life that expresses itself in love for the unlovely, grace and mercy to those who have wronged us, or whose lifestyle we don’t agree with. It shows itself in the way we put others before ourselves; in the way we stand against the self-centredness, narcissism of our culture; in the way we work for equality for all, independent of race, gender, culture, etc.
It’ll show itself in the way we stand firm for the truth of the gospel, for the authority of God’s word, not intimidated by our opponents. Of course our opponents today aren’t going to throw us into prison or physically punish us for our beliefs as was Paul’s situation. Nevertheless we will find ourselves opposed in our beliefs. We may not necessarily experience it personally but we will experience it as a body as we find Christians more and more ignored or sidelined in the public discourse, in the media and in politics.
But we need to ensure that as we stand firm for the truth of the gospel we do it in a manner worthy of the gospel. How much of our difficulty, of the opposition we face, has arisen from the ungodly behaviour of a few of our Christian brothers and sisters in the past. Nick Xenophon said last week that he doesn’t want a plebiscite because he’s worried that the debate will turn into hate speech aimed at gays. Sadly he has a point. Similarly, the Royal Commission into child sex abuse continues to unveil horrendous examples of the way Christian ministers and leaders have abused vulnerable people in their care, even representing that abuse as an expression of the love of God!
The Christian right, represented by several politicians in our federal parliament, shows terrible intolerance to people of other faiths and ethnicity.
It doesn’t help when your “friends”, your fellow believers make it so hard to stand firm for the gospel, does it?
So how are we to live in the face of this opposition?
Well, we’re not to give in to it, to take on the attitudes and standards of the rest of our culture, just because they’re in the majority. That’s not standing firm, that’s giving way. But as I just said, we’re to live in the midst of opposition with grace and love and mercy as our prime characteristic. It’s amazing what opportunities there are for us in the midst of opposition. Who would have thought that a worldly organisation like a major football club would welcome an Anglican priest as their chaplain? Yet they have. And by all accounts Steve’s work there is greatly valued.
Someone was saying to me this week “Why is it that men who have no apparent faith in God still want their mother to have a Christian funeral.” My response was that we shouldn’t be surprised. I think even atheists wish that that there was more than just this life and a funeral is one time that they appreciate the thought that maybe their loved one isn’t gone forever. A hospital chaplain I was talking to last week commented that they’d never had anyone turn down the offer to pray for them.
When Jesus said to be prepared to give an answer for your faith I’m sure he wasn’t just talking about having the 4 spiritual laws memorised. We give an answer for our faith whenever we respond with joy and contentment as Paul did when he was under house arrest; when we respond to criticism with grace; when we stand with someone who’s suffering and offer them empathy and, if possible, comfort. Proverbs 15 tells us: “1A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Finally, there will be those who suffer in their workplace or school or university because they choose to act ethically and morally against the wishes of their employers or their peers, or because they speak out for justice and truth. If that happens he says let’s not forget that if we do suffer for our faith it’s because God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well. That may not sound like much of a comfort, but as we’ll see in a few weeks’ time there’s something special about being so totally identified with Christ that we experience something of what he experienced.
A friend of ours visited Jerusalem last year and she commented how amazing it was to visit the cities and towns where Jesus walked and talked, to experience that little bit of his life. Well Paul’s talking here about something so much more profound than that: of not just being where he was but of being identified with him in his suffering.
It’s natural that people will be opposed to the Gospel because it’s about God’s rule in our lives, but opposition doesn’t mean that the gospel is silenced or deprived of its power. The expression of the gospel through love and grace and mercy can overcome opposition if we live our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel. So maybe those sorts of situation could again result in the spread of the gospel as people are won over by God’s love expressed through us.