I remember one summer night when I was about twenty and living in west Auckland I went out to Piha with a group of friends. It was a very wild west coast kind of evening.so instead of swimming or surfing we explored the rocks to the south of the beach. One of the guys who was with us ran along the rock ledge just above the waterline when a wave… a huge wave… came and broke over the top of him…. Boom. We thought we’d lost him that he’d be swept away, gone… But as the water drained away there was our mate hanging on to the rocks, a bit bruised and battered but alive.
Now being young, we decided that looked like fun and we’d give it a go. So we found a place just a bit further up the rocks and wedged ourselves in and let the spray from the waves break over us. Now and again a big set would come in and threaten to break our grip on the rocks. Looking back It was kind of dangerous and stupid but it was also exciting and exhilarating, and one of those male bonding things. We held fast together against the wind and the waves.
In the passage we had read to us today Paul turns from sharing his own experience with dealing with suffering and opposition to encourage the church to live a life worthy of the gospel and stand firm together in the struggles that they are facing, the same struggles that Paul had faced at Philippi and was facing now, opposition and persecution. What reminded me of that night out at Piha is a comment from New Testament scholar Frank Thielman, he says that Paul is not talking about suffering in general or standing firm for our own personal agenda but rather he is writing to "encourage a small group of people who stood as an Island of commitment to the gospel amidst a raging sea of pagan antagonism." And what Paul says is as encouraging to us today as it was to his first hearers in Philippi.
Over the winter months we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. A letter where he thanks the church for their support and prayers and encourages them to stand firm in the faith. It a letter in which Paul uses the word joy sixteen times he encourages the church not only to stand firm but to rejoice in what Christ has done, is doing and will do for and through them. That encouragement is not only for his original readers but for us as we stand firm on our joyous journey following Jesus.
The passage we had read out to us today starts “whatever happens” and it links us back to what Paul had said previously. He had started his letter with formal introductions and thanksgiving and prayers for the church at Philippi, then he had told them about what was happening to him. That he was in prison in Rome awaiting his case to be heard by the emperor. He does not know whether he will live or die . He can rejoice however because even though he is in chains the gospel is unchained and people are hearing of Jesus Christ, and whatever happens to him his future is certain, it is with Christ. Now he turns to the church at Philippi and addresses them in their situation. It is part of Paul’s ministry, he continues to live, so he continues to build up the church.
Paul starts by telling them whatever happens to me, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. This imperative acts as a subject heading for the rest of the letter. Paul is going to expound ways in which the church at Philippi can live in that manner. The Greek word that we translate ‘conduct yourselves’, is only used two times in the New Testament, here and in Acts 23:1. It has a political context of living as a citizen, behave like a good citizen, in Acts when Paul uses it is translated Duty, Paul says he has fulfilled his duty to God. Philippi was a Roman colony, which meant that its inhabitants were citizens of Rome by right. Just as Dunedin was designed to be the Edinburgh of the south, Philippi was designed to be a little bit of Rome on the shores of the Agean. It’s people were to live as citizens of Rome, keeping the roman law and order and exemplifying Roman culture. In telling the Church to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel, Paul is telling them they are to live their lives not as a bit of Rome far away from home, but as citizens of heaven, people of the Kingdom of God, to live out God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. We’ve got the British and Irish lion’s tour in New Zealand. The first test was last night, when you see the stadiums you can tell who are citizens of Britain and Ireland down here to support the Lion’s they are in red and chanting “Lions, Lions” and you can tell the All Black’s fan’s because they are dressed in black and chanting ‘Tutiramai nga iwi’ or Black, black…
But it is not clothing or chanting that is going to distinguish the church as Citizen’s of the kingdom of God, it is the way in which they live. Paul goes on to tell the church at Philippi to stand firm in one spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel. The conduct that Paul is looking for is their unity and love for one another.
It’s a unity of one spirit, now there are different interpretations of this, Paul is a bit ambiguous when he says that. It can mean that the church shares a sense of shared comradery and belonging together, a very human emotion or understanding of being together. It could also be talking of being one in the one Spirit, the Holy Spirit. We are united and stand firm together because we share the same promised Holy Spirit. I think it is not a matter of either and here, but of both and, We do belong to each other we have that spirit of comradery because we do share the same Spirit, the Holy Spirit given to everyone who believes. I might not have much in common with you and you may not have much in common with me, but what makes us united is that we have both, all been bought to know God through Jesus Christ and the same Spirit lives within lives within me. The Irish and welsh and English and Scotts don’t always get on together, but on the lion’s tour they see each other and instantly there is a sense of being one as Lion’s supporters.
“with us on the contrary, you will find unlettered people, tradesmen and old women, who though unable to express in words the advantages of our teaching, demonstrate by acts the value of their principles. For they do not rehearse speeches but evidence kind deeds; when struck they do not strike back when robbed they do not sue, to those who ask they give, and they love their neighbour as themselves.”
You may have heard that saying ‘Share the gospel, and if you have to use words’ Well it’s not biblical. In his Introduction Paul had talked of defending the gospel, then he goes on to talk of the gospel being proclaimed in his personal circumstances and now he talks of a life that is worthy of the gospel. Proclamation and living out go hand in hand together and are how all of us strive for the faith of the gospel. The gospel is a beautiful song, with profound life giving lyrics and what makes it catchy is the music that goes along with it, which is our lives lived worthy of the gospel. It’s best performed by all of in playing in unison and being in harmony.
Paul goes on to say we are to do this striving without being frightened of those who oppose us. In fact this is a sign that they will be destroyed but that you will be saved. Paul had already given the church a look at his own attitude to suffering. Yes he was in chains he was at the emperors mercy but he didn’t let that rob him of his courage or his joy. Paul was seeing one of the elite units in the roman army become aware of the gospel. The gospel was permeating Roman culture and power. They respond to opposition with kindness and exemplary behaviour. There are good examples of this in history… I’ve mentioned it a few times but when the berlin wall came down, massive prayer meeting had had a major part in it and one East German official had said ‘they were ready for riots and revolution, violence and uprising, but they were not ready for prayers and candles.’ The civil rites movement in the US’s use of non-violence showed the brutality and evil of racism up for what it was and was able to overcome it and tear it down. In the end our hope is that it is not the power of the majority or the mighty but of God that is at work and for us.
Paul finishes by saying that the church has not only been given the gift of believing in Jesus Christ but also to suffer for him. This is a hard thing for us to understand because we do not see suffering as a gift. This passage can be skewed to make us think that all the problems we face or suffering we have are gifts from God, which is not true. What it does mean is that suffering opposition and struggles are not a sign of God’s forgetfulness, that he has abandoned us, but rather that just as Christ’s suffering was redemptive and carried out God’s will, when we face opposition and persecution for the sake of the gospel, we are identifying with Christ, and we know his suffering was redemptive, and that is our hope that God can bring his grace and redemption through our persecution an trouble. That was Paul’s experience and it is the church at Philippi and ours as well.
How do we tie all that together and apply it our lives, how do we go from the then and there to the here and now?
Firstly, Just as the church at Philippi was told to live a life worth of the Gospel, so that is Paul’s words to us as well. We face the same challenge, how are we to live as good citizen’s not of our western democracy here in New Zealand but as citizens of the kingdom of God. Together in Christ!
Just like with the Church at Philippi does with Paul, we can share what we have with them to help them to continue proclaiming the gospel. We have newsletters from groups like voices of the Martyrs that advocate for persecuted Christians in our church foyer. Although I went looking for them during the week and sadly I think some of them went out in the working bee.
But also in our own country, we don’t face such overt persecution, but there are more subtle waves that pound against the church and the Christian faith. There is a prevailing tendency to trivialise the spiritual, and what Spiritual things are permissible are not from the Christian faith or organised religion. Christianity is often mocked. Increasingly Christian notions are excluded from public debate. Christian thinking is marginalised in academic institution, whereas for centuries it has been foundational. And as one commentator says ‘ there are subtle pressures on believers to view their answers to life most profound questions as unimportant and slightly backward. This can lead to feelings of isolation and depression. It may not be wild west coast waves of persecution, but faith can be undermined by the constant lap of these kinds of waves… But Pauls words are equally relevant calling us to unity, not so we can huddle together and hunker in the church like it is a bunker, but that our unity in spirit and action would be a defence for the gospel. Together our love for one another and in acts of kindness and exemplary behaviour opponents might see Christ like love and who knows be drawn to Christ. That we conduct ourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel.