Here’s the sermon I’m preaching on Sunday, September 21, 2008. I hope you have a wonderful day at your church.
Standing Firm in the Struggle
Philippians 1:21-30 NIV
21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.
27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel 28without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
We Are Not Afraid
I don’t remember being afraid even though he was bigger than I was, and he had a knife. Fortunately, we were both in the fourth grade, so the situation was not as serious as it might have been, but he was the class bully, and I was determined not to be bullied. As he waved the knife in my face, taunting me and daring me to back down, I had a great idea. I simply put my hand around the blade of the knife.
Now, fourth grade logic is not great, but I was face-to-face with the class bully and all my friends were looking on. If I backed up, or acted afraid, I knew that he would ruin our entire school year. So, I reached out my hand and wrapped it around the knife blade. He looked at me kind of funny, but he didn’t move the knife. I just looked at him, and then after what seemed like an hour, but in reality was only a few seconds, he shrugged. I let go of the blade, he took the knife, folded it up and put it back in his pocket. He never bothered me or my friends again.
Now, I am not a particularly courageous person, but something inside me said, “The knife is dull. There’s nothing to worry about.” And sure enough, it was not sharp and I could hold it with my chubby fourth grade hand without injury. And I really wasn’t afraid.
Fortunately, I have never had to face down anybody else in my lifetime with a weapon or without, so I’m not sure how I would react now. But in the fourth grade, I acted without fear.
Others, however, have acted without fear more recently. After the terrorists attacks on London’s transit system on July 7, 2005, some Londoners were so determined to live their lives normally, and not in fear, that they started the website, We’re not afraid dot com.
Visiting the site, you are greeted by dozens of pictures of individuals, families, couples, and corporate employees all displaying in some manner the words, We’re Not Afraid. Their point is to stand together and encourage others to live their lives, even in the face of terrorists’ threats, without fear.
Paul’s Reason for Writing to the Church in Philippi
Paul writes to his friends in Philippi with a similar message. Don’t be afraid! Paul is telling them that because he is in prison, in chains specifically, in the capital of the empire, Rome. But, Paul has a long and heart-felt history with the people who make up the church in Philippi. In Acts 16 we find Paul and Silas have been arrested and thrown in the Philippian jail for exorcising an evil spirit from a young woman. You might think that most folks would find that a good thing to do, but unfortunately for Paul and Silas, when they cast out the young woman’s evil spirit, she lost the ability to do fortune-telling and her owners were furious. Luke says, “She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling.”
Paul and Silas were definitely bad for business, so after the mob that gathered stripped and beat them, they were thrown in prison. You remember the rest of the story — Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns when at midnight the foundations of the prison were shaken by a violent earthquake. Prison doors were thrown open, chains fell from their wrists, and the jailer feared the prisoners were about to escape. Since the jailer was responsible for keeping the prisoners in prison, he was about to take his own life, when Paul and Silas called out to him that all the prisoners were still there. Which is amazing in itself.
The grateful jailer, not sure if he could believe what he was hearing, called for a light, rushed in and found Paul and Silas and everybody else. Realizing that Paul and Silas must have tremendous power, the jailer fell down before them and asked, “What must I do to be saved?”
Now, we’re not sure what the jailer was asking. Did he want to be saved from the Roman officials who would question him about why his jail was standing wide open? Did he want to be saved from the other prisoners, who were standing around? I really don’t think at this point he’s asking how to get to heaven, but Paul seizes the opportunity to tell him anyway. Paul says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved — and your household.” In other words, your wife, your children, your servants, everybody under your roof will be saved now and in eternity.
The jailer responds, and he and his family are baptized immediately. He took Paul and Silas to his own home, fed them, and they spent the rest of the night, until dawn, rejoicing in their new found faith.
So, the jailer and his family are part of the church at Philippi. But, before the jailer, a woman named Lydia and her friends also had found Christ. Paul went down to the river outside the city on one sabbath and found “the place of prayer.” Lydia and her friends were ‘God-fearers’ — people who weren’t Jews, but who believed in the one true God, the God of the Jews. They trust Christ, and Lydia then invites Paul and Silas into her home as well.
So, Lydia and her friends are part of the church at Philippi. Paul teaches and encourages them, until he and Silas run afoul of the mob that day, and afterwards they leave town. But, the church at Philippi remains one of Paul’s favorites.
Now Paul is in prison, and the Philippian believers have heard the news. Their dear teacher, Paul, is in chains in Rome awaiting trial before Ceasar. As you can imagine, the outcome does not look good, and the church in Philippi has sent at least one letter to Paul expressing their concern and offering their prayers for him. Paul writes to reassure them, and to encourage them to remain steadfast in their own faith.
A Life Worthy of the Gospel
In the verses we did not read this morning, Paul reminds the Philippian congregation of his circumstances. He is in prison in Rome, about to be tried before the emperor. The possibilities are that he will be found innocent of the charges against him and set free — he will get to keep on living. Or, he will be found guilty and be put to death. All of Paul’s friends are very concerned, but Paul assures them that the choice between life and death has taken on new meaning. They’re almost the same to Paul.
Paul says, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Then, he explains what he means. It’s better for Paul to go to be with Christ, no doubt. But, it’s better for the Philippians, and others, for Paul to remain alive, and continue to teach them. So, Paul assures them, I’m sure I’ll be around a little while longer. But, then he urges them to “live lives worthy of the gospel.”
By worthy of the Gospel, Paul does not mean that the Philippians are earning their salvation. Rather, he encourages them to live lives that reflect the good news of God through Christ. How will they know if they are living lives worthy of the gospel? Well, Paul gives them some clues.
First, they will stand firm. The image here is of someone with good footing on slippery soil. A person who has planted his feet in such a manner as to be unmoveable. The Greek word is hupomone’ — and it literally means to ’stand under.’ Hupo- is the prefix that we use most often when we use the term hypodermicneedle. A hypodermic needle is one that puts the medicine we need — the shot — under our skin.
The idea is that they are standing under a heavy load, a burden that weighs down on them. But, because their footing is firm, the Philippians are not moved or shaken. They bear the burden well.
Secondly, they stand firm together. Paul encourages them to stand as ‘one spirit.’ Literally, ‘one soul.’ Act as one. Stand as one. They are a community of faith, and particularly in times of testing they are to stand together. Very much like Benjamin Franklin, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who turned to his colleagues and said, “Gentlemen, we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Unity of the body of Christ is Paul’s message to the Philippian church. Apparently there were two women in the church that had a disagreement. Euodia and Syntyche were at each other for some reason, and Paul meant to reunite them and strengthen the Philippian church.
Thirdly, they will stand firm together in the struggle for the Gospel. Paul uses the word contending to describe the struggle they are having. The picture there is of an athletic contest — a wrestling match or a race — where the athletes are contending, struggling, for the victory. But, this is not individual effort. It’s a team sport, and Paul wants them to be victorious in the contest.
Finally, they will stand firm together in the struggle without being afraid. Scared — that is literally the word Paul uses. Frightened, afraid, living in fear. Paul encourages them to stand firm together, so that they will not be scared of those who persecute them.
We in the US do not suffer much for our faith. But in the first century Roman empire things were much different. A person who became a follower of Christ — a Christian — could lose their job, have their property confiscated, lose their status in the community, be ostracized, or even be arrested, imprisoned, and put to death. We are still a few years away from an all-persecution of Christians in the empire, but the beginnings of persecution are already there.
The empire at first ignores this tiny sect of Jesus-followers, believing them to be an off-shoot of Judaism. But the Jews quickly disclaim the Christians, and begin to persecute the church. Paul knows this story, because he was one of the persecutors. At every opportunity, these persecutors sought help from the civil authorities. After all, Rome’s Pilate had been complicit in putting Jesus to death, so what were a few more of his followers?
Paul says that the Philippians have been given the privilege not only to believe in Jesus, but to suffer for him, too. Today that doesn’t seem like such good news to us. We’re kind of like the father, Tevye, in “Fiddler of the Roof” who complained to God –
I know we are the chosen people. But once in a while, can’t you choose someone else? -Tevye
But, Paul says, it is their privilege to not only believe in Jesus, but to suffer for him. Not something we know much about. But others do. Others like a young mother named Perpetua. Perpetua was killed on March 7, 203 AD, in Carthage. Only a hundred years before her death, the city had outlawed infant sacrifice and public suicide. Carthage had a culture of violence, and as Christianity spread throughout the empire, Christians became the scapegoats for public problems.
But that day, March 7, was a celebration. The emperor Septimus Severus had a son who was celebrating a birthday. So, a fitting spectacle was needed and none was more fitting than killing Christians. Almost at random, Perpetua, who was 20, and the mother of an infant son; her pregnant servant, Felicitas; another servant named Revocatus; two free men named Saturus, and Saturninus; and another man named Secundulus were all arrested.
Secundulus was killed by a prison guard, but the others were held in jail awaiting their fateful encounter with the gladiators. Perpetua’s father came to her in prison, which was really just a sweltering pit into which she and her servants had been thrown. He begged her to renounce Christianity and Christ, to save her own life. He fell at her feet, pulled out his own hair and beard, so urgent were his pleas to his own daughter. But, Perpetua stood calmly before him, refusing to deny her faith.
Perpetua had the gift of visions, and she was asked by her fellow prisoners to seek God’s vision of their fate. Here is what she saw in a dream that night. These are her own words, written by her own hand, and preserved by an unknown editor:
“…I saw an immense garden, in the center of which sat a tall, gray-haired man dressed like a shepherd, milking sheep. Standing around him were several thousand white-robed people. As he raised his head he noticed me and said, “Welcome, my child.” Then, he beckoned me to approach and gave me a small morsel of the cheese he was making. I accepted it with cupped hands and ate it. When all those surrounding us said, “Amen,” I awoke, still tasting the sweet cheese. I immediately told my brother about the vision, and we both realized that we were to experience the sufferings of martyrdom. From then on we gave up having any hope in this world.” — Saving Paradise, Brock and Parker, p. 68-69.
When March 7 came, Perpetua and her fellow prisoners were led into the arena. Gladiators fell upon them, taunting them and wounding them repeatedly. As the sport began to lose its appeal to the crowd, the gladiators moved in for the kill. Perpetua was last to be killed. As the gladiator approached her, he aimed his sword for her heart, the way an enemy would slay a man in battle. Perpetua took the gladiator’s hand, and instead guided it to her throat, the accepted death for a woman.
Christians killed in the arena were supposed to die in humiliation and fear. Perpetua’s final act demonstrated to her captors and killers that she knew a higher authority than Caesar, that her power was greater than the power of the empire, and that death came to her as her choice, not theirs.
More Than Courage
How could these martyrs die so serenely and fearlessly? It was not their personal courage that enabled their faithful deaths. They knew the testimony of Paul for it was their testimony, too. ”For me to live is Christ…” Their very lives were sustained by the presence and person of Jesus the Christ. Life for them revolved around glorifying Christ.
The early Christians did exactly what Christ had commanded them to do. They cared for each other, and for widows, orphans, the sick, the elderly, and others unable to care for themselves. If one family had no food, the entire community fasted until there was enough food for all. If someone had no place to stay, others took them in. If a new Christian lost his livelihood, the church’s underground economy sustained them until they could get back on their feet.
The empire did two things to placate the masses. Great coliseums were built, not only in Rome, but in outlying cities a well, and the empire entertained the masses in the contests to the death. Kind of like wrestling today, only people died.
But, the second thing the empire did was feed people. Free bread distribution took place regularly, to keep the masses from rebelling. When the church began to take over this function, and to do it with grace and love, the empire was shaken. So, Christians became the scapegoat for a brutal empire, and thousands of Christians were killed in an effort to eradicate this threat to the primacy of the empire.
The early church valued the sacrifices of these martyrs — the witnesses of Christ. These who had given their lives became for “the seed of the church” according to one bishop. Early congregations believed that these martyrs were present in the “great cloud of witnesses” of which Paul wrote in Hebrews 12.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. — Hebrews 12:1-3
They saw their struggles as the continuation of the struggles of those who had gone before them. They took heart from the courage and bravery of earlier believers who gave up their lives for their faith in Christ. So important were those who had gone before that Christians often observed sacred meals at the entrance to the burial place of martyred Christians. They would place a chair with a lit candle to symbolize the presence of those who had preceded them in death and would keep their memories alive through these symbolic suppers.
The eucharist meal was the model for these sacred suppers. They believed that as surely as Christ was present with them in the breaking of bread and drinking of the cup, their predecessors in the faith were present with them, encouraging and strengthening them in their daily lives.
They were reminded of Stephen who, as his life was about to end, said, “Look I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” There belief was that Christ was present in our lives and aware of our persecutions. That heaven was not a far-off land, but another dimension as close to us as breath itself. Those on the otherside were not unaware, nor were they disinterested in the lives of the saints still in this life.
So, they could say with Paul, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” And it literally made no difference to them whether life was lived in this world or in the world eternal, for Christ was present in both, and the veil between the two was torn in half by the resurrection of Christ.
The point of Paul’s letter, and of early Christian belief that the martyrs of the faith helped them, was to remind us that we are not alone as we live for Christ. We are part of the story of God. Others surround us in this community of faith we call the church. Others have gone before us. Others have suffered far more than we have. But, they are also cheering us on, encouraging us to live lives worthy of the gospel in our own day and time. To take courageous stands, to seek God’s justice, and God’s transforming love for His creation.
These are the same struggles others have faced, Paul reminds the Philippians. So, stand firm. Stand firm together. Stand firm together unafraid of those who oppose us. Stand firm because there are many who have gone before us. It is not our courage, but Christ’s life that sustains us. And in the face of uncertain futures, we are not afraid. ”For us to live is Christ…”