When we were young one of the things we had to do after Christmas and our birthdays was sit down and write thank you letters to the various distant relatives who’d sent us a card and some money. They were people we didn’t really know that we’d only seen in old faded black and white photographs or met once or twice or maybe seen at family gathering every other year or four. So I remember asking my mum what do you say after you’ve written the introduction stuff. Dear Auntie Petunia or Uncle Bob, I’m writing to say thank you for the lovely birthday/Christmas present. Thanks, you very much.’ My mom would say well why don’t you tell them about what you are doing, about what year you are in at school, what are your interests and that sort of thing… Let them know what is happening in your life. Which we did, I don’t think there was ever more than a stilted line or two. I know it was never anything profound. The letters never got past just the superficial stuff and I doubt whether they were preserved for posterity.
In the passage, we had read out to us today Paul after his Christ filled introduction tells the church at Philippi about what is going on in his life. They had sent him a gift to support him in prison and he lets them know what has happened, where he is now and the uncertainty of his future. In this we have a window into Pauls experiences and mind, but also because of who Paul is we are given an example of true Christian living in the face of suffering and uncertainty. A statement of principle to guide all the saints, the church in Philippi way back then and there, and us, as God’s people, here and now.
This winter we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. A letter he wrote to thank them for their support and prayers. A letter that he writes to encourage them to stand firm in the faith in the face of external persecution and false teaching within. A letter that uses the word joy sixteen times and encourages the church to rejoice because of what Jesus Christ has done and is doing and can be trusted to do in the future. That in Christ we can know Joy regardless of the circumstance. In the passage, we are looking at day, Paul gives two reasons he rejoices in the face of suffering: while he is in chains the gospel is unchained, Jesus Christ is being proclaimed, and while his future is uncertain, whether he lives or dies he is certain it is held in Christ.
Paul starts by saying what has happened to him in the past has served to advance the gospel. We know form the book of Acts of the things that Paul has endured and the suffering he has faced, and in those situations the gospel has been advanced. People have heard the gospel message. People have encountered Jesus Christ and become his disciples, there have been many who have been healed and set free in Christ. We know Paul’s journey to imprisonment in Rome. In Acts 21 we see that Paul is arrested in Jerusalem and falsely accused of taking a gentile into the temple. Even as he is being arrested and guarded by roman soldiers he gives his testimony to the crowds gathered. He speaks to the Jewish governing body the Sanhedrin and to the Roman officials. He is a Roman citizen so he makes an appeal to have his case heard by the Emperor, and is transported to Rome. We read of his ship wreck and the founding of the church in Malta as a result. Acts finishes with Paul in house arrest in Rome awaiting his hearing before the Emperor. He can look back at all these things that have happened in the past and see that God has used them to further the gospel
That is the confidence that you and I have as well, that if we serve Christ and are about his business that God can use the ups and downs in our life to further the gospel. The good times and the tough times for the furthering of his Kingdom. When we were in Napier I had a suspicious possibly cancerous lump on my leg removed. I spent about a week in hospital lying on my back unable to move in case I disturbed the skin graft on my leg. I was in a hospital room with four other men and you know in the evenings we had some of the best conversations I’ve ever had with non-Christians about the faith and I got to share the Christian faith with them in a way I don’t think would have been possible in everyday life. They may not have come to faith at that moment but I know that the Holy Spirit gave each of them a nudge in a Christ-ward direction. God can use what has happened in our past both the good and the bad for the sake of the gospel. It can be used for the glory of God.
Then Paul turns to talk of his present situation. In our minds, we think of prison as punishment for wrong doing, but in this case Paul could be said to be on remand awaiting trial. He is waiting to have his case heard before the emperor. He s under house arrest and is chained all the time between two guards, soldiers form the prestigious Praetorian guard. He is not able to leave his place of residence but he is allowed to have visitors, and meets with those whom Acts tell us are with him, like timothy and even Luke, and also people from the fledgling church in Rome and from the end of Acts we see also the local Jews as well. Maybe we are used to the legal system taking a long time and it seems Paul has a two or more year wait for his audience with Caesar.
From this passage also we can see that Paul’s reception in Rome seems not to have been totally warm from the Church and there are groups within the church who do not regard Paul highly as an apostle, it maybe a case of jealousy, that this big wig has turned up on their patch, we don’t know but this is adding to Paul’s suffering. You see very often in the Psalms of David, that David’s suffering is often amplified by peoples gossiping and speaking ill of him. Maybe you’ve experienced that as people have talked about what you are facing and how you are dealing with it behind your back.
Yet even amidst this waiting period, this period of captivity and inactivity Paul rejoices. While he is in chains the gospel is unchained. He maybe a captive but all day everyday he has a captive audience, who listen to his prayers, his meeting with Christian brothers and sisters and his speaking with the Jews about Christ. Who when they are alone with Paul he speaks with and shares his faith, prays for them and their families. Paul reports that Jesus Christ has become known amongst the whole palace guard. It’s very subversive but those who are tasked with protecting Caesar as Lord are coming to know ‘Jesus as Lord’. God is using Paul’s captivity to reach into a sphere of Roman society that it may well have been impossible to reach any other way.
Paul rejoices that while he is in chains, the gospel is unchained, because of his courage the church around him is encouraged more to speak and share and proclaim Jesus Christ. It’s not the leaders that Paul sees only doing this but rather it is the people who are inspired to talk of their faith. Maybe Paul being in Rome has been a catalyst for people to inquire about the Christian faith. I’ve had a lot of discussions with non-Christians about the faith because of Brian Tamaki. For a while there Brian got lots of stick from the media, when people find out I’m a minister they want to know what I think of him and what really is the heart of Christianity. I’m sure Brian does not like the adverse publicity but its opened doors for the gospel. Yes I know it has hardened a few as well. Even says Paul those whose motive are wrong, who are wanting to compete with Paul are preaching the gospel. These are the things that make Paul rejoice.
Richard Wurmbrand was imprisoned for many years under the communist and Ceausescu regime in Romania, he suffered torture, illness, physical and phycological pain. Yet during that time his imprisonment encouraged the church outside to continue and he witnessed to many of the prisoners who were with him in prison, seeing them come to the Lord. AS the regime continued and various factions fell out of favour, Wurmbrand found himself sharing his cell with the people who had tormented him, prosecuted him and even tortured him and was able to speak with them and share Christ’s love. When he was released he has influenced many Christians by his testimony of God’s grace and love for enemies. In communist China one of the ways in which the gospel spread was through the witness of Christians in prisons and labour camps. They were the only ones the guards could trust to shave them, as they knew they could be trusted not to cut their throats. The Christians would give up their precious eggs a major source of protein to give to the prisoners in the infirmary. Even in Egypt today as Christian face persecution and death at the hands of Islamic extremists, their willingness to forgive their neighbour has meant that young Muslim’s men are seeing Islam killing people and destroying villages and they don’t want that kind of religion and are starting to ask questions of the Christian faith. There is a real challenge for us as well to be prepared to step outside the western ideology of materialism and look at a different way of living and we will see the same thing, but as long as we continue to be chained to the same things as our neighbours they won’t see the gospel unchained.
Finally Paul looks to his uncertain future, not with trepidation but continuing to rejoice. His case has been on appeal to the emperor and his life is literally in the emperor hand. Will he see Pauls case as a squabble amongst religious factions or will he see it as a threat to the empire, saying Jesus is Lord is a very political statement. It is to claim another king, to claim to be part of a different kingdom. Will he live or will he die? Paul faces that with the certainty of the unchained gospel.
He knows that with the prayers of the saints and the provision of the Holy Spirit that God whatever happens will turn out for his deliverance. The word deliverance can mean that he will be saved from his current predicament. It is the confidence that the God who saved Daniel from the Lion’s den and who saved Shadrack, Meshach and Abendigo from the fiery furnace can deliver him from the emperor. The situation is the same their wholehearted devotion to the heavenly king, puts them at odds with the realms of this world. Pauls certainty is more than just a divine get out of jail free card it is a certain hope that God has provided for his full salvation. He is forgiven and bought into relationship with God through Christ, it is God’s will that will prevail in this situation. Whether it is death or continuing living he knows it means for him Christ. To die is to go and be with his saviour face to face, to continue living is to know and be known By Christ. To continue living is to continue to work for and with Christ to build up the Church. Either way Paul’s desire is to Glorify God in his body, in death and in life. In that certain future through Paul his death or his life that the gospel will continue to be unchained and do God’s work of redemption and restoration.
This is the joy filled attitude that Paul demonstrates for the Church to follow, the church in Philippi that they can find joy in Christ trusting him to complete his work in them. This is the attitude he offers them that in whatever circumstance they face they can have a certain hope, confidence in Christ.
This is the joy filled attitude that Paul models for you and I as well. We can rejoice in the face of past suffering, present challenges and sorrow and future uncertainty because of the certainty of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That he who started a good work in us will bring it to completion in the day of the Lord as Paul had told the church in his prayer of thanksgiving for them in Philippians 1:6. The certainty he showed them in his own life, facing an uncertain future.
This is the joy filled hope we have that whatever chains us up and tried to hold us down, the gospel is unchained. It is able to achieve what God desires. Illness, age, social standing, the things from the past that try and hold on to us and drag us down, our own internal dialogue, that image we see of ourselves, real life persecution and opposition that try and chain us, none of them can chain the gospel down to do its work in us, to do Christ’s work through us… The gospel is unchained. It will continue to bear fruit, and we can rejoice in that.
This is the Joy filled challenge to you and I , that in all the circumstances we find ourselves in we would follow Paul’s example and desire that Christ might be glorified in our body. That brings it down to a very practical level, in hands that reach out with Christ’s love, feet that are willing to go to the places God calls us to, hearts open enough to a world God loves, the places of ease and the places where we face constraints and uncertainty, a voice that speaks and tells of what we know. In how we live and in how we die, both to ourselves as we allow The things of this world to fade in comparison to the great joy of knowing Jesus Christ and as we give our lives in service to him. That the thank you letter we write with our lives to Christ might be full of rejoicing that Christ proclaimed.