Oct. 1, 2017 Philippians 1: 12-30
Prayer: Dear Lord, We welcome you into the midst of our worship of you. Please go with us into the study of this ancient letter of Paul, and give us insight into its meaning for us. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Mad About the Gospel
There is a branch of Christian theology known as apologetics. It is the study of arguments for the Christian faith.
If that sounds strange to you, you are not alone. I find the idea bizarre – that we would provide convincing enough arguments to persuade someone to be a Christian.
When I was writing about religion for The Greenville News, a Catholic apologist came to speak at Furman, and I wrote a story about him. In the story and the headline, I called him an apologist – which was exactly what he called himself. He was a practitioner of Christian apologetics.
But you should have heard the nasty phone calls I got. People who didn’t know “apologist” was the proper term for this particular kind of theologian thought I was making a judgment of him – as when we call someone an apologist for Big Oil or an apologist for the military.
They just couldn’t believe I would do such a thing. I had to read the man’s press release to them before they’d believe he called himself an apologist. An apologist for the Christian faith.
But even if that had not given me a bad taste for apologetics, I don’t get too excited about it. I don’t want to argue about Christianity. To me, people either see us living out the gospel or they don’t. And if they don’t, I can’t imagine arguing them into believing it’s true.
I had a pastor once who had grown very tired of the wars in Southern Baptist life. And he would say: “I’m a Baptist. I’m just not mad about it.”
That’s kind of how I feel. I’m a Christian. I just don’t want to argue about it.
The problem is that those of us who have been Christians for a very long time can get caught flat-footed when we are confronted by a non-believer who wants to know about our faith.
I once had a conversation with a very nice gentleman who wanted to know why anyone would choose a faith that promised suffering. Why anyone would choose a faith that promised picking up one’s cross, one’s means of death, as discipleship.
I mumbled and fumbled around, and probably made no sense at all. But what I tried to convey was: I didn’t choose Christianity. I didn’t select it out of the marketplace of ideas as a means of helping me to live a better or more fulfilling life.
I accepted it because I believe it’s true.
At its core, I believe that God created us, and that sometime in the first century, he came to earth as a human being named Jesus. We have many of the teachings of Jesus that we try our darnedest to follow during our time on earth. And ultimately, we will join him in the resurrection.
Along the way, we study Scripture written by the earliest believers. As we read this morning from Paul’s letter to his dear friends at the church in Philippi, we confront a central idea of apologetics, the notion of suffering and blessing that we so often face in Christian life.
Does God bless us? Does he then remove blessings because of our actions?
Does he cause us to suffer? Does he allow us to suffer? Is there a difference?
Hard questions. And don’t think you’re going to leave today with the answers.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians opens with thanksgiving, a warm greeting to the friends in that city who cheered him on, who sent an emissary named Epaphroditis with gifts while he was in prison.
Paul was still in prison as he wrote this letter, yet he wrote primarily of joy and of rejoicing. Let’s read the rest of the first chapter, which comes after the thanksgiving.
READ Philippians 1: 12-30.
12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14and most 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.
15 Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill.16These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; 17the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. 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.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will result in my deliverance.
20It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. 21For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 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.25Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing.
29For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
In the first part of this section, Paul talks about a very practical matter: His imprisonment has resulted in the spread of the gospel.
How do you increase readership of a book? Threaten to ban it.
How do you sell more CDs? Have a famous preacher go on the radio and complain about the lyrics.
Paul’s imprisonment provoked people to talk about the gospel. His imprisonment emboldened some of his friends to speak out with greater fearlessness. It emboldened others with selfish motives to somehow speak out to increase Paul’s suffering.
He doesn’t care a bit about which was which. As long as they were proclaiming Christ, he was happy.
“What does it matter?” he wrote. “Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.”
In the second section, Paul turns to his own situation. He hopes that he won’t do anything to shame the gospel. He is tired, possibly sick, probably lonely. We find out later in the letter that he’s sending his friend Epaphroditis back to Philippi.
He says he’d like to die and be with Christ. But he knows that every day he remains alive, he continues to teach and encourage new Christians in the faith.
And then he uses military language for this small church that sits in the heart of the Roman Empire. “Live your life … so … I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents…. For (God) has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well….”
God has granted you the privilege of suffering for Christ.
This is the part a non-believer cannot accept. For that matter, this is the part many believers cannot accept.
The privilege of suffering? Thanks but no thanks.
This is a hard teaching and it’s mixed up with blessings. I cannot tell you how many times I hear good, earnest Christians talk about God blessing them and then getting mad and whisking those blessings away.
We still cling to a belief we find among ancient peoples that our God – and other gods -- blessed people as a sign of their goodness, and revoked blessings as a sign of disfavor.
Remember Job? When he was sitting childless and broke and covered with boils, Job’s friends repeatedly asked him what he had done to provoke God’s wrath. But he had done nothing, nothing but give the Lord praise.
I have experienced a version of this here at Triune. For 12 years, we ran financial surpluses. We took in more money than we spent each year. And people who were familiar with us would often say, “God is obviously blessing Triune.”
There was part of me that agreed with that. But there was another part of me that thought, “What if we were living just as faithfully, and the money didn’t come in? Would that mean God wasn’t blessing us?”
This year we’re finding out. Our donations from individuals outside the church have fallen off. Our grants have fallen off. But I know that our hearts and our work and our commitment to the homeless and the hurting and the marginalized haven’t changed one iota.
As Tandy told me, we can accept surpluses as God’s good grace without thinking it confers approval. We can accept lean times without thinking it confers disapproval.
I am not sure how blessings work, but I do know this: I have seen very good and faithful people labor for a lifetime without visible blessings on their work. And we all have seen evil and uncaring people gain earthly acclaim and riches.
I think we have to be very careful about what we label God’s blessings, and what we label God’s punishments. Indeed, what may look like a revoking of God’s blessing may, according to Paul, be the privilege of suffering for Christ. And so I suffer through our financial reports every month.
The popular storytelling preacher and theologian Fred Craddock says that we can tell the difference only when the Holy Spirit transforms us.
He says, “Only by the Holy Spirit can the church experience the miraculous shift of attitude from assuming that wherever the Lord is, there is no suffering … to believing that wherever there is suffering, there the Lord is.” (Interpretation series, Philippians, p. 25)
Let me repeat that.
It is not true that “wherever the Lord is, there is no suffering.” Instead, “wherever there is suffering, there the Lord is.”
Paul surely knew this. In my early years here, I taught the Sunday afternoon Bible study that Dale Savidge and Tandy now lead. And one of my students said, “Paul was in prison more than me!”
And so he was. So you can see how important it would be to Paul to view suffering as somehow productive.
Later in chapter 3 of this letter, Paul writes, “For (Jesus’) sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death….”
The letter of I Peter also talks about suffering as a natural state for the Christian. “Rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.”
(I Peter 4: 13)
You can see how non-believers would find that odd. Why would anyone choose a faith that promised suffering, that promised picking up one’s cross, one’s means of death, as discipleship?
It’s not going to make sense until our hearts are transformed by the Holy Spirit.
For only then will we realize that Christianity is not pie in the sky, not blessings raining down. The Holy Spirit allows us to recognize that the presence of the Lord does not signal an end to suffering.
Instead, wherever there is suffering, there the Lord is.