Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, January 24, 2022
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Honoring Christ

Philippians 1:20-30

 Paul’s Epistle to the Philippian church has been called “the Epistle of Joy.”  The word joy or the idea of joy appears 16 times in the letter in only four short chapters.  And it seems kind of odd for a letter that was written by a man living under house arrest, a thousand miles from home, awaiting a trial that could end in his death.  Strange circumstances for joy.

 Philippians is one of Paul’s “Prison Epistles,” one of the letters he wrote around 61 AD, from Rome during his first imprisonment there.  It seems he was imprisoned again about five years later in Rome, and that he died during that second imprisonment.  Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem, an event described in Acts.  Eventually, the governor of Judea, a man named Felix, sent him to Rome to appear before Caesar.  

He was held in Rome for two years under house arrest, and then apparently, released without trial.  There is no record of a trial in the New Testament.  And we know from sources outside of the Bible that in 62 AD, the Emperor Nero released a number of “Jewish prisoners” that had been sent to him by Felix.  It seems Paul was among them.  Nero, apparently, was not very concerned with the judicial responsibilities of his job and just didn’t bother granting a lot of trials.  

But at this point, Paul is still uncertain of his future.  While he was never granted a trial before Caesar, the time he spent as a prisoner in Rome was certainly a trial of a different kind.  There is the isolation from the larger Christian community and the uncertainty of his fate.  And so I think Paul’s words here can be instructive to us when we go through times of trial, whatever they might be.  

Paul says his number one priority is to bring honor to Christ.  Suffering has removed many of the temporary comforts of life, and so he is more able to focus on the eternal things.  Bringing honor to Christ is counted as more important than life or death.  

Do we share that conviction?  Do we put the honor of Christ above all else?  Let’s just be honest and say that I think we know we should, but we certainly never find it to be easy.

There are three ways, I see, in this text, that Paul honors Christ above all else.  The first is that he trusts in God, regardless of circumstances.  

In verse 19, which I didn’t read, he expresses his unwavering faith that everything will result in his “deliverance” or “salvation.”  What does that mean?  Well, it can’t mean that he knows he’s going to be released from jail.  Because he is quite clear he is uncertain about that.  He’s “confident,” but not certain.  

Instead it means he is confident about God being sovereign over all things and that God cares for his people.  But that confidence is in the light of eternity, not present circumstances.  He may die.  But even if he dies, he will be delivered, he will be saved.  God is master over both life and death.  

And whether the immediate future holds life and release from prison or death, he still wants to bring honor to Christ.  There just isn’t any place in the New Testament for the “prosperity Gospel” that says “If you have enough faith, if you are a good enough Christian, then everything will come up roses.  You’ll live a long and happy life and you’ll be free from illness, suffering, and tragedy.”  It’s just not there.  Being faithful to Christ might mean death, hardship, and persecution.  

Paul goes on, “For me to live is Christ.”  All of life is wrapped up in Jesus.  Jesus is where the child of God finds their sense of purpose, joy, and peace.  “And to die is gain.”  Death means union with Christ.  

“I’m torn between two desires.  But in the end, it is better for you if I go on living.”  The second way we honor Christ in all circumstances, and especially in trials, is by thinking of others.  Of course our natural tendency in times of trial is to think only about ourselves and to get stuck in that “Woe is me” way of thinking.  For Paul, to go on living meant the chance to serve Christ by building up the Church and nurturing the faith of others.  

It might not come across in English, but in verses 23-25, there is a word play in Greek.  In verse 23, Paul says he longs “to depart.”  The Greek is ANALUEIN.  It’s the word used to describe breaking down camp and moving on or releasing a ship from its moorings to depart on its voyage.  It’s also the word used to describe setting a slave free from bondage.  This is how Paul described death on a couple occasions:  It’s the end of a temporary residence and moving on to permanent one.  It’s also the end of slavery to the weakness of the physical body and moving on to the resurrection life.  

Then in verse 24, he says, “It’s better for you that I remain.”  This time the Greek is MENEIN, which rhymes with ANALUEIN.  And finally, in verse 25, he says, “I will

continue with you,” which is PARAMENEIN in Greek.  This means not just to stay with someone, but to stay with them for the purpose of helping them.  So in total, he says, “I want to depart, but it’s better for you that I remain, so I can remain to help you.”  

For Paul, as it should be for all of us, faith is intensely personal, but never individualized.  Faith is always faith lived out in the context of community.  In almost every single one of Paul’s letters, we find some of the same things:  He prays for his readers.  He thanks his readers for their prayers.  And he asks them to pray for him in his current situation.  

This modern American idea of “just me and Jesus” or “I don’t need to go to a church to be a Christian” is completely foreign to the New Testament.  There is no hint in Scripture of “just me and Jesus.”  Faith has to be personal, but it should never be individualized.

I keep thinking about this story that I saw about six months ago where they asked Americans who consider themselves as Christians to respond to statements about their faith.  “My faith motivates me to share the gospel with other people.  I am a Christian because it makes me feel secure.  My beliefs challenge me to change the world around me.”  And the result they came up with was that almost 90% of self-described Christians viewed their faith completely in terms of self-interest.  

We are not in this alone.  Our actions influence others either for the honor or the dishonor of Christ.  It’s not just you and Jesus or me and Jesus.  It’s the community, the Body of Christ, the Church and Jesus.  We’re in this together.

On a practical level, Paul may also have been thinking in terms of how his case would have implications for other believers.  Paul was a Roman citizen.  If he was put to death for his Christian faith, what would that mean for other believers?  And it was especially important for the Philippian church because Philippi was a Roman colony.

One of the things Rome did to try to cement their rule throughout the Empire was to establish Roman colonies in every region.  Every citizen of a colony was also a citizen of Rome, even if they had never been there.  And they were expected to live like Romans, to speak Latin, dress like Romans, observe Roman customs and traditions and so on.  And many of them did just that.  

One of the things we see here is that Paul fills up these last few verses of the chapter with images from athletics and the military.  Many of the citizens of Philippi gained their citizenship through military service, 21 years of it.  And athletics were very important to Greco-Roman culture.  So Paul talks about struggling and fighting together, even suffering together.

They knew that faith in Christ might mean suffering for Christ.  They’d seen that in Paul’s life.  When Paul came to Philippi, he was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned.  But Paul encourages them, “Don’t be afraid; be confident.”

“And live in all circumstances in a manner worthy of your true citizenship.”  Many of these Philippian citizens had never even been to Rome, but they were citizens of the city.  They were used to living like people of a place they’d never been.  Now they were to apply the same principle to heaven.  They had not yet been to heaven, but they were to live like its citizens in all circumstances.  Their customs, their traditions, their language, and their behavior was to be worthy of heaven.

Whatever our circumstances, and certainly in our times of trial, our focus should be on honoring Christ.  We do that by trusting in God, even in difficult times.  We do it by focusing on others, serving others, and not being self-centered.  And we do it by living in a way that is different than the world around us.  

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