For to me, living is Christ ... and dying is gain
| Philippians 1:12-30
||Sun, September 19, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Philippi. An small 1st century Roman city in Macedonia. The Letter of Paul to the Philippians ... to the Christians in 1st century Philippi. A short letter of but 104 verses. One wonders what such ancient correspondence has to do with a city of two million half a word and two millennia away from Philippi. In fact it is tempting to imagine that the most 'relevant' churches are those where today's issues set the agenda. Karl Barth was surely right to insist that every preacher needs to have a Bible in one hand ... and a newspaper in the other. The question remains, however, which one we will read first. For the next four weeks I propose that we begin on Sunday with the Bible ... and, specifically with the Letter of Paul to the Philippians. Then Monday's ... and Tuesday's and Wednesday's news ... can be read in conversation with Paul. To help in that process let me deliver this mail ... these copies of Paul's letter to you ... honorary Philippians ... one for each of you to read and to meditate on throughout the upcoming month. Keep it in one hand ... and the news of your life and of the world in the other. And listen for the Word of God in the emerging conversation. Today we begin near the beginning ... in chapter one, at verse 12:
"I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and 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."
"By my imprisonment", writes Paul. He writes from jail. It is true that most Christians, most of the time have not been jailed on account of their faith ... and it is true that jail is not a necessary part of a faithful life. Yet, prison seems to focus the mind and heart in a powerful way. Martin Luther King, writing on scraps of paper in his Birmingham jail cell, convicts the white clergy who say he is moving too far and too fast with his words. Though he is in prison, they are the ones who stand convicted. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, kept prisoner in Berlin's Tegel jail during the latter years of the second World War, earns the respect not only of the inmates but of the guards as well. Bonhoeffer does not come to his call unprepared. He knows Paul's letter to Philippi well: "what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ" .
I wonder what would happen if we knew this letter as well as Bonhoeffer or King? I wonder if we might be more prepared for the eventuality that following Jesus might lead us afoul of the civil authorities? We take it for granted that being Christian and staying out of trouble with the law go hand in hand. We ignore the fact that more Christians have been martyred in the 20th century than in any other. Perhaps we conveniently overlook the sacrifices of these Christians because they have lived and died in distant lands ... in Africa and Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Or perhaps we simply do not want to even consider the literal possibility of the cross.
Yet Paul discovers ... as Bonhoeffer and King do after him ... that prison affords tremendous freedom to spread the good news. They teach us that no matter where we find ourselves we "dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear"
"Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice."
And even then ... and even there ... Paul finds the church to be a place of mixed motives and sorry infighting. Some, it seems, use Paul's imprisonment as an opportunity to speak about the suffering love of Christ. Others use Paul's absence as a chance to build up their own influence and congregations. They take advantage of Paul's difficulties for their own benefit. Even today there are preachers and churches that gloat on the problems faced by other congregations and denominations. Their proclamation of the gospel amounts to a vilification of other Christians and their message. It is easy to become bitter ... to respond in kind ... to enter the fray that leads to the fracturing of Christianity into a thousand splintered denominations. Is Paul embittered by it all? "What does it matter?", he says, "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 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. It 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. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which to prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again."
"For to me living is Christ and dying is gain." These are not the words of a 'Sunday morning' Christian. For Paul all of life is caught up in Christ. It is not that he is trying to learn about Christ ... or to follow Christ ... or to become a 'better' Christian. Life has simply become 'Christ'. He experiences life as one who embodies Christ for others ... and who meets Christ in others. "For to me living is Christ" he says. And dying? "Dying is gain". Looking at God through the lens of the cross, Paul has come to see that sharing the suffering of others in life is to live in Christ ... and that dying is to be reborn through Christ into life. And he believes it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on being led away to his execution, said to his companions "It is the end, for me the beginning, of life."
One wonders if we believe this anymore. Or have we been so busy reading the newspapers and absorbing the fears of our age that we no longer live in such faith? Just look at the massive expenditures for health care ... and at the great hospitals that we construct ... and it seems clear that we live in a society that cannot imagine ever saying, never mind believing, "dying is gain". This is the reason that funerals which were once 'celebrations of life' beyond the grave have now become 'celebrations of life' that is now over. Can there be a more depressing reason to party than that ... the celebration of a life that is finished rather than the celebration of one that has just begun?!
Yet for Paul the celebration can wait ...it can wait because there are people who need him and his jail cell witness ... people like the Philippians whom he hopes to visit again:
"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, and 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. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well - since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have."
And when all is said and done ... this is the key passage in this letter for us to consider. These verses are the heart of what Paul is urging upon his beloved friends in Philippi. You do notice, don't you that Paul is not raging at the Philippians like he does when he writes to the Corinthians among others? He seems to be genuinely grateful for the little church in Philippi ... the first church ever established in Europe. Sitting there in prison Paul knows that he may never see Philippi again. "Live your life", he writes "in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ". In fact, Paul uses the highly politicized Greek word for 'citizen' here: "live as citizens in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ". This is really the underlying theme of the entire letter to the Philippians. It is what we will wonder together about throughout these next four weeks. What will it mean for us to 'live as citizens in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ' here on the campus of UBC and in the city of Vancouver in the Fall of 1999?
Paul gives some hints in the verses that follow. It means "standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, not intimidated by opponents" . There seems little doubt in Paul's mind that Christian discipleship is to be lived out in community. There is no suggestion here of being a Christian yet not belonging to the church. Paul simply assumes that the gospel of Christ means living in a Christian community that exhibits one spirit and is of one mind ... working together "for the faith of the gospel" . Think of the little households begun by Canadian Jean Vanier. Known as L'arche (Ark) communities they now exist like little grains of salt all over the world. Just last week a young woman stopped here on her way from a L'arche home in Nova Scotia to help establish a new L'arche residential community in Comox. These are Christian homes where those with all manner of disabilities and abilities live together as one family. These are not institutions for the disabled but homes for equals. L'arche family members seek to "live as citizens in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ ... standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel". The challenge for us here ... at University Hill Congregation ... is to imagine ourselves as just such a community ... one in which we come to increasingly rely upon, and to care for, one another ... not in spite of our differences and disabilities but because of them. We need one another's gifts ... and we are called to share one another's suffering.
Such a spirited and single minded community will have its opponents. The gospel is inherently controversial. It challenges the way that the world is organized. It gets Jesus' disciples in hot water. In fact, says Paul, if God is gracious to us we will be granted "the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well". The privilege of suffering for Christ. What in heaven's name could Paul mean? More on that next week! (Philippians 2:1-13). In the meantime, one thing: "live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ."