Sunday, April 17, 2016

To Live is Christ. To die is gain.

For the most part, politics and pulpits don’t mix.  Not so today, for now is the exact time to bring politics into the middle of everything, Roman politics that is.

Philippi was a Roman Colony.  It was established by Phillip of Macedon in 357 B.C. and Octavian, who you know better as Caesar Augustus, had established the city as Ius Italicum.  That is to say it was as if the city were on Italian soil.  

Roman law prevailed in all courts.  Many taxes placed upon other conquered areas did not apply.

The city was heavily populated with Roman war veterans.  By the second century the main east-west route—the Via Egnatia—would make Philippi quite the crossroads of the empire.

Philippi did not have a Synagogue.  That’s right, there must have been fewer than ten faithful Jews in this massive metropolitan area.

Remember in Acts 16, on the Sabbath, Paul led his team outside of the city to a river where he thought that what Jews there were might gather for prayer.

Paul liked to begin bringing the gospel to the Jews first, however many or few there were.  Then he proceeded to proclaim the good news to the Gentiles.  There were not many Jews in Philippi, but by the time of his letter, there was a church, and evidently it was a thriving church.  It was a church that Paul truly loved and it served the Lord in Rome East.

It was a church that had grown out of a populace that liked being Roman.  In other parts of the empire, the Romans were the force to be tolerated.  You paid your taxes and didn’t stir up trouble and you could enjoy as much of your local lifestyle as the Romans would tolerate.

In Philippi, your lifestyle was the Roman lifestyle and most people liked it.  Yet, out of this comes a church—followers of the Risen Lord.  Philippi was in fact the first church that Paul established in Europe and he had great affection for this body of believers.

We should not envision a handful of believers, but a church that warranted leadership among its people—bishops and deacons and surely many ministry leaders.

Paul writes to Philippi from Rome, probably at the end of a two year bit in prison around A.D. 62 and from the empire’s capital.  Timothy is with him, not likely incarcerated as Paul found himself; though it is unlikely that Paul is treated as a common criminal.  He was a Roman citizen.

Paul begins his letter by thanking God for this group of believers, a special group of believers.  They were a group that knew they were on a journey.  God was working with them and they were confident that God would finish what he started in them:    being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

These are more than just wonderful words.  This verbiage acknowledges that these believers knew they were on a journey, walking a path, or for the more athletic among them, running a race.  God was working with them in their lives and Paul was thankful that they “got it.”

They got that part.  Paul did not have to dread writing to these folks.  This was a letter than surely he had looked forward to writing at least as the next best thing to visiting.

Paul writes, with a little license here, “I really miss being with you guys.  Well, maybe not the prison stuff, though God did use that for good and surely for his glory.  I just miss being among you.”

Paul wants this group to know more discipleship and fullness in their relationship with God.  He doesn’t remind them that they are holy and blameless before God.  He prays for their discernment that they can live out what they have been made to be.  It seems that in this area, Paul has less explaining to do than he did with the Galatians and Ephesians.

These believers “get it” and Paul prays that they may discern what is best as they live out lives of love.    Where in other letters he counsels to make the most of every opportunity; here he prays that these Philippians will excel in their opportunities.

It is the difference between praying,” I hope the tomatoes make it” and “Look out neighbors, you are getting some tomatoes this year!”

Paul was writing to a church that understood much and now he hoped they would do wonderful things.

Paul next described his own circumstances in what we might call some win-win language.  He was in chains for preaching the gospel and because he was there others were inspired to continue to preach the gospel.

Some inspired by Paul’s dedication and perseverance.  Others were inspired by the fact that they could keep him locked up if they kept preaching this gospel of Jesus.  Paul looked at it as a win-win.  Christ was being preached.
That gets under my skin just a little bit.  Preaching the gospel of Christ from false motives just seems wrong.

Sometimes I hear a preacher somewhere and wonder, does this guy really believe what he is saying?  He or she just does not come across as sincere to me.  Sometime later—sometimes much later—in the course of a seemingly unrelated conversation, I will hear how a message from that same preacher made a big difference in someone’s life.

So I am reminded of what Joseph said to his brothers after their father, Jacob, had died and been buried.

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

Paul goes beyond considering his imprisonment.  He considers his very life.  What if his life was demanded from him?

Good!  I am so ready to be with Christ!  Yes!  If they want my head, they won’t have to drag me to the executioner screaming and kicking.  I am sure that Paul already had a first draft of his letter to Timothy bouncing around in his head:  I have run the good race, fought the good fight…

Paul continued, if I am to live on, it is to bring more to Christ.  Paul was not looking for an earthly retirement plan.  If he lived, he preached.

This is a complicated model here, so I will review it once more:  If Paul was alive, he was preaching.

To live is to preach Christ and bring more to know him.

To die, well that’s a victory celebration all its own.

Paul said, I am living the ultimate win-win.  To live is Christ and to die is gain.

Personally, Paul surely wanted his victor’s crown now, but there was so much more to be done.  Paul had checked off being shipwrecked, snakebit, stoned, and run out of more towns than anyone to date; but there was still a gospel of life and love and peace to be preached.

If he lived, he preached, and Paul would preach for as long as he could, though he did not dread crossing the finish line in this world.

It is amazing the outlook that you have when you know your purpose in life.  It is amazing the things that you will accomplish when you can enjoy the paradox of living this life to the full and eagerly wanting what comes next.

As the NBA regular season wraps up, it is interesting to watch the teams headed to the playoffs.  Some play to continue their rhythm.  Some rest key players.  Some are fighting just to get in and may expend themselves just getting there.

Paul already knew there was victor’s crown in store for him.  He didn’t need to be rested.  He did worry about making the playoffs.  He would play every minute of every game until he died, not for him but so that others may know the life that was in store for him.

To live is Christ.  To die is gain.  Paul lived the ultimate win-win.

Paul returns to the Philippians with counsel:  Stand.  Stand as one.

Paul tells these believers that he loves so much that they will come under attack.  While Paul told the Ephesians to put on the full armor of God; he tells the Philippians to stand as one man.  They are to be one in the Spirit.  They are to live in one accord. 

In this oneness, they will stand and prevail but they will also suffer for Christ.  This suffering is not punishment.  It is privilege.  Recall the excitement of the followers of Jesus who having come before the ruling council were released mainly because of the argument of a godly man named Gamalial, but not before they were whipped.

These men were excited because they were persecuted for the name of Jesus.  When you stand for God so much that you stand out from the world to the point that the world has to do something, that’s something to get excited about.  That’s standing in the company of the prophets.

That’s a good standing to have.

If the world hates you because you look too much like Jesus, then be happy about it.  If the world can’t tell the difference between you and the man living just for himself, take note.  

If you were accused of following Jesus, pray that you are not acquitted.

But stand with your fellow believers as one. 

That’s a good rallying cry.  It might even make a bumper sticker or a Facebook post, but what exactly is it to stand as one? 

We will get a little more from Paul later, but for now, there should be no divisiveness among us.  Remember Paul’s counsel to the Ephesians to submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.

We revere Christ so much that getting our own way is not even a factor.  There are church leaders.  Converse with them.  Share your opinions.  Discuss things to your heart’s content but put aside all personal agendas.   Set aside everything in you that says, “Well, it’s got to be this way.”
If the decision is that the carpet will be bright blue and the dishwashers battleship gray, then get excited about it.  If we are going to sing Holy, Holy, Holy for 19 consecutive Sundays, then put on your Lord God Almighty voice and lift the roof!

For we may be attacked by the world for following Jesus but we will not break ranks.  We stand in one Spirit, in one accord, as one person.

And the world is going to hate us for it.  We may suffer some because we follow Christ and we should thank God that we are not being mistaken for those who follow the ways of the world.

I don’t know that everyone can get to the point where we say to live is Christ and to die is gain, but I hope we are on our way to that point.

I pray that the things of this world matter less and less to us and connecting people with real and eternal life matter more and more each day.

I hope—that is I believe it before I see it—that we will lead many to Christ in whatever days we have left on this planet in these bodies, and that this purpose will be the most satisfying experience that we will know in these days.

I petition God and each of you that we stand as one, putting aside any selfishness and personal agendas, and willingly put forth our gifts and talents to be God’s love in this world.  For when I read Paul’s words to the body of believers in this very Roman city, I hear him speaking to this body of believers in the heartland of America.

I see us moving towards desiring to share Christ more than we long for our heavenly rewards.  I see people with such diversity ready to stand as one in reverence to the Lord.

I am blessed to stand with you as we stand as one in following Jesus.


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