Category: Philippians

Crucifixion: Everything you wanted to know and more

If you think you know everything you need to about crucifixion and the cross, think again.  I’m preaching a 13-week series on The Apostles’ Creed, and this past Sunday we arrived at the phrase about Jesus —

“suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…”

So, of course, my sermon was on the crucifixion, and I used the text of I Corinthians 2:1-2, where Paul says when he arrived in Corinth he was determined to “know nothing… except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  Which is a very strange statement when you really think about it, which I did.

Thinking about the crucifxion and the cross led me to Martin Hengel’s small book titled, Crucifixion In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Which is an incredibly long title for such a short book of 90 pages.  But Hengel, who died this year, packs more than you’d ever want to know about crucifixion and its significance into this brief work.  Hengel was Emeritus Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism at the University of Tübingen, and specialized in second-temple Judaism.

He traces the use of crucifixion from its invention by the Persians to its adoption by the Romans, who continued to describe it as barbaric.  Roman literature considered the mention of this form of execution as too coarse for public sensibilities, and little was preserved in the more refined works of Graeco-Roman authors.

When crucifixion is mentioned in ancient references, the descriptions are more horrific than even the depiction in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, which was rated R because of the brutally violent acts shown.  Did you know, for instance, that….

  • Dead people, as well as the living, could be crucified?
  • Crucifixion was one of three forms of capital punishment preferred by the Roman empire.  The other two were burning and being torn apart by wild animals.  Sometimes crucifixion was combined with one or both of the other methods.
  • The largest number of crucifixions known at one time was over 500.
  • Bodies were often left on the crosses to decompose and be consumed by wild animals and vultures.
  • Jews were “scandalized” by the cross and crucifixions because of Deuteronomy 21 — anyone hanged on a tree was cursed by God.
  • However, some in Judea liked the Roman system of justice because common robbers were crucified, and roving bands of robbers were a problem for rural Judeans.
  • Early Christians were ridiculed for following a common criminal who had met his death by being stripped naked and hung on a cross.
  • To wish someone a “cross” was to insult and curse them.
  • Crucifixion was reserved for common criminals, and slaves who had attempted escape.  The execution of slaves takes on new meaning when you read Philippians 2:5-11, where Jesus is said to have taken on the form of a “servant” which usually mean a slave.

Okay, enough of that or I’ll have all 90 pages summarized right here.  But the most enlightening chapter, which is also the last, was Hengel’s explanation of the Jews inability to believe Jesus was the Messiah.  Add this book to your reference library.  Disclaimer: You can get yours the way I got mine — buy it for yourself.

Sermon: Good Thoughts Bring God’s Peace

Good Thoughts Bring God’s Peace

Philippians 4:1-9 NIV

1Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!

2I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

4Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

The Power of Positive Thinking

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church from 1932-1984, is best known as the author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale was so convinced of the connection between the mind and the spirit that he established a program of Christian psychology in the basement of the church. Peale sold over 20-million copies of The Power of Positive Thinking, and his life is summarized this way —

Peale applied Christianity to everyday problems and is the person who is most responsible for bringing psychology into the professing Church, blending its principles into a message of “positive thinking.” Peale said, “through prayer you … make use of the great factor within yourself, the deep subconscious mind … [which Jesus called] the kingdom of God within you … Positive thinking is just another term for faith.” He also wrote, “Your unconscious mind … [has a] power that turns wishes into realities when the wishes are strong enough.”


The world-famous Mayo Clinic encourages its patients to practice positive thinking. Research indicates, according to the Mayo Clinic, that the results of positive thinking can include:

  • Decreased negative stress
  • Greater resistance to catching the common cold
  • A sense of well-being and improved health
  • Reduced risk of coronary artery disease
  • Easier breathing if you have certain lung diseases, such as emphysema
  • Improved coping ability for women with high-risk pregnancies
  • Better coping skills during hardships
So, if nothing else, as we move into cold season, positive thinking can prove helpful. USA Today reported on the research of Dr. Carol Ryff, psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Ryff noted —

“There is a science that is emerging that says a positive attitude isn’t just a state of mind,” she says. “It also has linkages to what’s going on in the brain and in the body.” Ryff has shown that individuals with higher levels of well-being have lower cardiovascular risk, lower levels of stress hormones and lower levels of inflammation, which serves as a marker of the immune system.” USA Today, Oct 12, 2004

 

So, there is something to thinking positively. The question is — Should we as Christians practice positive thinking? And, is positive thinking all we need to live a full and peaceful life?

Paul’s Encouragement
Paul writes to his friends in the church in Philippi and tells them — “8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Sounds like positive thinking to me — true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable — all positive attributes that we as Christians are to think about. But why is Paul saying this? What brings him to give the Christians in Philippi this advice? After all, things are bad there.

It was in Philippi that Paul and Silas were thrown in jail. The population of Philippi consisted of few Jews, so few that Lydia and a handful of God-fearers were meeting down by the river at “the place of prayer.” Philippi was actually named for Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. It was a military and agricultural center located on the Egnatian Way, the main east-west road in the Roman empire.

According to Jona Lendering, the city was home to “two bathhouses, a forum, a temple dedicated to the emperor, an aqueduct, and inscriptions in Latin. There’s also a temple for the Egyptian gods Isis, Serapis, and Harpocrates.”

Why then, was Paul telling them to think about good things? Well, the key to understanding that is found in the verses that conclude Philippians chapter 3. Here’s how Paul winds up that chapter —

17Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. 18For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Paul couldn’t have given a more apt description of life in Philippi. With the temple for emperor worship looming over them, the Philippian Christians well understood that there were those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” It was as Roman cross, a Roman governor, and a Roman system that tried to do away with Jesus.

Paul says of those who live in the culture of the empire —
  • their destiny is destruction: The purpose of the empire was power and conquest. It’s destiny was both to destroy and to ultimately be destroyed. The founding of Philippi itself was testament to that destructive power. The conflict that brought the end to the Roman republic, and saw the rise of the Roman emperor was marked by the founding of the city of Philippi as a colony for retired Roman centurions and commanders.
  • their god is their stomach: Appetites for the Roman life is what Paul is referring to here. The Philippians live to consume; to eat more than they need; to satiate, not just satisfy, their passions and longings; and, to do so with the approval and encouragement of the Roman empire.
  • their glory is their shame: The glory of Rome, a familiar phrase, was based on power, wealth, excess, and corruption. Living by the Roman system made them partakers of the glory that was Rome’s — the pax Romana — which brought death, destruction, cruelty, and inhumanity to the cultures Rome conquered and ultimately it’s own citizens.
  • their mind is on earthly things: Everything Rome stood for, and by extension Philippi, was fleeting, earthbound, and tenuous. They worshipped gods they make fun of, jockeyed for power and position, and sought their own good at the expense of those who were most in need.
Wait a minute! Does any of this sound familiar? A culture that values military power? A culture that celebrates wealth and status? A culture that gives lip-service to a religious system that has little influence on its ethical and moral choices? A culture that has been the envy of everyone else in the world, and has basked in the glory of its place in history?

Well, if you’ve followed the financial crisis or the presidential election, you’ve heard all of these things before. This is the culture that the followers of Christ found themselves in 2000 years ago, and it is the culture that we find ourselves in today. Same song, second verse.

A Contrast Society
But, Paul says to the Philippians, “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

Now, when Paul says “our citizenship is in heaven” that is a direct challenge to the Roman empire. The residents of Philippi held citizenship in the Roman empire. They, like Paul, were citizens of Rome. With all the rights and privileges that included.

But Paul challenges that notion. By saying, “our citizenship is in heaven” Paul doesn’t mean “wait until you die to get out of this place.” No, Paul means, we’re citizens of a different community, a community that lives in contrast to the Roman empire. We are citizens of the kingdom of God, not of Caesar.

And to further assure them that he does not mean “heaven-when-you-die” citizenship, Paul says, “We eagerly await a Savior from there (heaven) who will come here (earth) and bring everything under his control, and transform us into his image, his glory. In other words, we live as citizens of heaven here, and while we’re doing that we’re waiting for Jesus to come back. When he does he’ll change the world, and he’ll change us. Not a bad thing to hope for.

Then, chapter 3 ends and chapter 4 begins with these words —

“Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!”


So, the idea is this — the way you are to stand firm in the Lord is to realize that 1) there are those who live as enemies of the cross, and 2) you are to live as a citizen of heaven.


How Do We Then Live?

Alright, took us awhile to get here, but what does that mean? How are we to live if we are citizens of heaven? That’s exactly what Paul tells us and the Philippians in Chapter 4.


First, Paul encourages them to agree with one another — to be united in their community of faith.


Secondly, Paul encourages them to rejoice in the Lord, be gentle to others, don’t be anxious, but pray.


Finally, think good thoughts —


Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.


One of my favorite writers, Thich Nhat Hanh, Nobel Peace prize nominee and Buddhist monk, says that the things we take in to our lives are important. Nhat Hanh says that those things include parts of our culture like TV, movies, books, media, and other intellectual things we consume that affect our lives. There are times, he says, when we need to turn off those programs or songs or movies that do not help us to live lives of peace and well-being.


Paul’s version of the power of positive thinking isn’t wishful thinking. In Paul’s mind we are not building castles in the sky, but are living our lives by an alternative vision — the vision that God has sent Jesus and that through Jesus, God is making all things new.


Followers of Christ are hopeful, positive, and good, not because thinking like that will make us rich and powerful, but because those are the attributes of the kingdom of God. We think about beautiful things because the Creator of the Universe is the author of beauty. We think about good, true, noble, pure, praiseworthy, and admirable things because these are part of the image of God in us. An image that Christ is coming back to complete in resurrection power.


We think this way because we serve a living Christ, a risen Lord, who has defeated the most negative, destructive force in our world — Death. And if death is dead, then life abounds.


But, Paul also reminds us that we think positive, good thoughts because we have seen others do think that way. Paul makes the bold assertion —


“Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”


Wow. Would you say that to someone else? Anything that you have heard me say, or seen me do, or learned from me, put it into practice? We learn from others whose faith has enabled them to think differently. To embrace a hopeful vision of God and his plan for all mankind. A positive message of good news for all people. A counterpoint to all that the empires of this world present as a competing vision.


Christian Thinking Is Centered in Christ and Learned from Others

So, that’s it. Paul’s take on the power of positive thinking. And the amazing part is that all humanity seems to be hardwired to think positively. When we do we are healthier, happier, more faithful, and more hopeful. Our reason to think good thoughts is in Jesus, our example comes from others.


Let me tell you a story that will help you understand how all this works together.


In south Florida, a pretty typical American family composed of mom, dad, and four kids was living a pretty typical American life. Until their oldest son, CJ, started complaining with stomach and back pain. CJ’s parents took him from one doctor to another. Tests were ordered — x-rays, blood work, examinations — but the pain would return and the cycle would start all over again. Did I tell you that CJ is 9 years old? And that he plays flag football, loves his dog Diamond, and is a pretty typical 9-year old boy.


One doctor ordered an MRI for CJ, but in its infinite wisdom, their insurance company denied the doctor’s request. So,two more months’ of pain and doctors’ visits continued. Finally, an orthopedic specialist ordered the MRI, and this time the insurance company okayed it.


The results were bad. CJ was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma, a very serious, but treatable form of cancer. We heard about CJ from Debbie’s sister, Christy, who sent us the link to the family’s website. The website has morphed from being about typical family stuff, into a journal of their walk through CJ’s battle with cancer.


As in any case where a child is sick, their story is heart-wrenching. But, CJ is amazing. This little 9-year old boy has become the encourager of the family. And he’s a poet, too. CJ’s mom has posted several of his poems, and the grace and courage of this little boy is astounding. I want you to listen to this poem by CJ. It’s titled “There Was God.”


There was God….

God created the Universe.
Inside that universe was a solar system;
inside that solar system was a planet,
inside that planet was a continent,
inside that continent was a country;
inside that country was a state;
inside that state was a city;
inside that city was a county;
inside that county was house;
inside that house was a boy;
inside that boy was a heart;
inside that heart………

There was God. by CJ George


CJ understands what Paul meant —


whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things —


Because CJ knows that God has a plan, and that plan includes him.



Sermon: Pressing on Toward the Prize

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, October 5, 2008. I hope your day is a good one.

Pressing On Toward The Prize

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
7But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Choosing A Story
This has been an interesting presidential campaign. Long, but interesting. If you have followed the campaigns since each party convention, you know that both the Republicans and Democrats have chosen a presidential candidate, and they each have chosen running mates. At each of their conventions, both the Republicans and Democrats adopted a party platform. But, that’s not what we’re voting on in this election.

Each party has their own favorite hot-button issues. But those issues are not what we’re voting on in this election. What we’re really voting on are stories — the stories of the candidates. And, they are all interesting stories.

John McCain. Former Navy pilot. Son and grandson of admirals. Known as a maverick both in the Navy and since. War hero. Prisoner of war. Torture survivor. A compelling story of honor and service to country.

Barack Obama. His father came to the US from Kenya during the Kennedy administration in the days in which our country sought to educate, train, and inspire hope in the world. A mother from Kansas, grandparents who raised him. College, law school, state legislature, and US Senate. A real story of the American dream and hope for even the most disadvantaged.
Sarah Palin. Hockey mom. Moose hunter. Mayor of Wasilla. Governor of Alaska. Highly competitive in high school sports, earning the name Sarah Baracuda. Maverick, reformer. One of the regular people who cooks for her family, drives to work, and juggles the demanding responsibilities of a family of five and running the state of Alaska.

Joe Biden. Three decades in the US Senate. Survivor of family tragedy when his wife and daughter were killed and his sons severely injured in a car accident between the time of his election and swearing in to the US Senate for the first time. Biden took the oath of office standing in his son’s hospital room. Survivor of a brain aneurysm. Commutes to Washington DC by train each day, like thousands of others who work in the Capitol. A story of persistence in the face of tragic loss, competence, and achievement.

Those are the stories we’re voting on. And, guess what? That’s what we’ve always done in selecting our leaders. For example, if I say George Washington, what story comes to mind? Might be the winter at Valley Forge, or crossing the Delaware, but probably the first story is the legend of the cherry tree. Historians have pretty well proven that the cherry tree story is not factual, but it still seems to represent the “Father of our Country” doesn’t it?

If I say Thomas Jefferson, what stories come to mind? Monticello, and Jefferson’s talent in the fields of architecture, farming, and gardening. Or, maybe you think of the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights, or freedom of religion. All of those define Thomas Jefferson for us.

Abraham Lincoln? Log cabin, humble birth, dry wit, a common man with uncommon wisdom. Of course, we think of Lincoln also as the Great Emancipator, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. And, tragically, part of the story of Lincoln is his death at the hands of an assassin.

Personal stories capture our imagination and play a great role in who we choose to lead this country. And, that brings us to this passage today, in case you’re wondering what in the world the presidential election, the stories of past presidents, and Paul have in common. And the answer is — stories.

Paul’s Story
In this passage from Philippians 3, we get Paul’s version of his own story. It’s one thing to have someone else tell your story, but no one knows your story better than you do. Or at least, no one will emphasize the parts of your story you want to emphasize more than you will. What was important to Paul in his story? Well, just listen –

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:

  • circumcised on the eighth day,
  • of the people of Israel,
  • of the tribe of Benjamin,
  • a Hebrew of Hebrews;
  • in regard to the law, a Pharisee;
  • as for zeal, persecuting the church;
  • as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
So, that’s it. Paul is telling us the parts of his story he wants us to know, the parts that are important to him. Or were important, but we’ll get to what happened in a moment. Here Paul takes us through his life from birth to adulthood, highlighting the parts that are important to him.

His life begins in the home of observant Jews, because when he is eight days old, he is circumcised according to Jewish law and custom. Then, he reiterates that he is a Jew, but not just any Jew. A Benjamite, a Jew with special heritage. A Hebrew of the Hebrews — outstanding, in other words. Perhaps Paul is referring to his time spent learning in the school of Gamaliel, one of the outstanding rabbis and teachers of Paul’s day.

Perhaps Paul meant that his family was a devout practicing Jewish family, and that as he grew up he learned and incorporated those values into his life as well. Paul does tell us that as an adult, he was a Pharisee. The Pharisees get a bad rap today, and the very word ‘Pharisee’ has come to mean hypocrite, legalistic, and hard-hearted. But, in Paul’s day the Pharisees interpreted the Law. They helped all of the Jews observe the myriad laws, and rules, and regulations with great precision. The Pharisees were the conservatives, the group who promoted a literal application of scripture, and the group that made sure the Law was being properly kept.
To be a devout Jew meant you observed the Law, the rituals, the feast days, the dietary regimen, and all the other strictures on Jewish life. The Pharisees, however, were also overbearing, pompous, self-righteous, and arrogant. But, hey, their job was to make everybody fall in line behind them.

Part of Pharisaic precision demanded that splinter groups, those who would dilute the faith, be dealt with. Christians were first viewed as a break-off from Judaism. All the followers of Jesus were Jews. They gathered in the Temple when in Jerusalem, they kept the Jewish dietary laws, and were basically observant Jews. Except, they kept teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah — the Anointed One. Of course, that was ridiculous because Jesus had been crucified by the Romans, and buried. And, despite reports that he had been seen alive, Paul saw Christians as a nuisance and threat to the Jewish way of life.

Rome allowed conquered territories to keep their local religions, as long as it was not a threat to the empire. Jesus was clearly a threat, because the Romans killed him. Paul was very interested, as a Roman citizen, of making sure that the Christians did not get all Jews in trouble by talking about and promoting the memory of the rebel Jesus. The best way to handle that was to stamp out this renegade sect before they caused more trouble.

So, Paul gathered letters from the Chief Priest, letters of introduction, allowing him to travel into Jewish communities in cities outside of Jerusalem, to look for and actively persecute Christians. That’s what Paul means when he says, “As for zeal, persecuting the church.”

Then, Paul adds — “As for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” In other words, Paul kept all the rules. All of them. Faultlessly. And, gave himself great credit for doing so.
The Center of Paul’s Story
Paul’s story revolved around Paul. The story Paul told about his own life was about his privileged birth, his national heritage, his superior education, his rise to power among the Pharisees, his relentless zeal in pursuing Christians, and his faultless observance of the Law. Paul was Paul’s best advocate. Nobody knew Paul’s story better than he did, and nobody could tell it better.

And, that is the story he would have lived out, except for one thing. Jesus. Paul is traveling, about his business of seeking out and killing Christians. He has already had a hand in stoning Stephen, one of the first deacons of the church. Now, Paul is on a mission to wipe out all the Christians. He is on his way to Damascus with credentials in hand, to continue his mission.

But a blinding light and a booming voice stop him cold. Paul cries out, “Who are you?” And Jesus answers, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” And all at once, everything about Paul’s story changes.

Paul is no longer the center of Paul’s story. Paul is no longer the best of the best, a Hebrew of the Hebrews. Paul has come face-to-face with this rebel, this Jesus, whom he now knows to be the risen, living Messiah of God. And, everything changes.

Paul’s story, which to him was a volume by itself, quickly becomes just a footnote in the story of God. For Paul did not realize that his story, the story of which he was so proud, was contained in a much bigger story, the story of God.

Remember when your kids or grandkids were little. They thought the world revolved around them. When they cried, someone grabbed a bottle or a diaper, or both. When they laughed, everyone smiled and laughed with them. When they said something cute, it got repeated until everybody they knew had heard it. But, then they went to school. And there they found out that they were one of 25 or 30 other kids, and that the teacher only had so much time, and everybody had to take turns, and you couldn’t always be first. And, then they went to high school, where you had to compete for a place on the football team, or cheerleading squad, or debate club because there were lots of kids who were talented and capable.
And, so the story goes. As we grow, we adjust our story to find our place in society.

Well, Paul had to adjust his story, too. Where Paul had once been the center, now Jesus was. Where Paul’s thoughts and desires were once the purpose on which he acted, now the words and life of Jesus gave Paul’s story new purpose. Paul’s understanding of his story changed when he found himself inside the story of God.
New Stories Bring New Hopes
Paul says he counts everything as loss, worthless, rubbish for the sake of knowing Christ. The story of Jesus changed everything for Paul. Now, Paul has a new purpose. Paul has new friends. Paul has a new agenda each day. Paul has a new vision — to be like Christ in his life, in his suffering, and in his death.

But, the story of Jesus isn’t just about living and dying, it’s about resurrection. And for Paul, this is the best part.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
The resurrection of the dead — the promise of life with God. The resurrection of the dead — the evidence that death does not have the last word, but that the story of God is the biggest story ever because it encompasses not just life and death, but life, death, and the defeat of death, ushering in the kingdom of God in all its fullness. Paul knows that is not yet a reality, but he also knows that God’s Kingdom is closer than it’s ever been, and Paul wants to be part of it.

This is the same Paul who thought he had it all figured out. The same Paul who knew the rules, and knew them so well that he could enforce them and preserve the true faith. Until he met Jesus. Now Paul has a new story, because he has found his place in the story of God. Listen to what Paul says now:
12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Christ Jesus took hold of Paul so that Paul could find himself within the story of God. The prize of which Paul speaks is not heaven — it is the heavenly call of God to faithfulness to Christ, to finding your place in the story of God, to expressing the image of God in which you are made.

In the ancient games of the Greco-Roman world, runners strained for the finish line to win the laurel wreath. It was not that the wreath itself was of value — it would soon fade and wilt. But the winner’s wreath was placed on his head by the emperor himself. That was the tribute of a race well run.

For Paul, the victor’s wreath was not the culmination of his life’s story; it was the confirmation from the King whom he served that Paul had found his place in the story of God and had played his part faithfully.

The Story Before Us
We have today a story before us on this table. A story in bread and wine, symbols of a broken body and of shed blood. Symbols of self-giving and love. Symbols of sacrificial death. But, these symbols are also symbols of life — Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” And, for his first miracle he turned water into wine.
So, the story before us in these simple elements is both a story of sacrifice and of life. Of death and of hope. Of sorrow and of joy. For we do not enter the story of communion today alone. The risen Christ is here, standing at this table, inviting us into the story of his life, death, and resurrection. Reminding us that he is with us now, until he comes again later. That he has set both a memorial meal and a festival before us. Our sorrow must give way to joy, and our mourning to hope. For we have found ourselves in the story of God, and we are pressing on toward the prize.

Let us pray.

Sermon: The Mind of Christ

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, September 28, 2008.  

The Mind of Christ

Philippians 2:1-13 NIV
1If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  

 5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 
 6Who, being in very nature God, 
      did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 
 7but made himself nothing, 
      taking the very nature of a servant, 
      being made in human likeness. 
 8And being found in appearance as a man, 
      he humbled himself 
      and became obedient to death— 
         even death on a cross! 
 9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place 
      and gave him the name that is above every name, 
 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 
      in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
      to the glory of God the Father.

 12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

False Identities 

We live in an interesting culture.  I ran across a website this week called “Fake Name Generator.”   The idea is that when you need to fill out an online form on the internet, but really don’t want to give your real name, you can get a fake identity by using “Fake Name Generator.”  So, of course, I tried it.  Guess what?  You are now looking at James Y. Baptiste.  No kidding!  A Baptist named Baptiste.  I thought that was pretty cute.
 
And as they say on the Ginsu knife commercial — But wait, that’s not all!  
I also received…
  • a fake address
  • a fake phone number
  • a fake website all my own
  • a fake email address
  • a fake social security number
  • a fake mother, whose maiden name was “Berry” 
  • a fake credit card number
  • a fake birthday (although they made me 5 years older than I really am)
  • and, a fake UPS tracking number.  I have no idea why..
Of course, it’s all in good fun, I suppose, but the internet is known as the place you can be whoever you want to be.  Don’t like your name, choose a nickname.  Don’t like the way you look, choose someone else’s photo.  Don’t like what you weigh, or how tall you are, or your age — pretend to be someone else.
 
Of course, pretending to be someone else isn’t just confined to the internet.  The recent case of Clark Rockefeller, whose real name is Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, illustrates how easy it is for someone pretending to be someone else can fool lots of people, including the woman he married.
 
Pretending to be someone else is usually reserved for actors and politicians, but that brings us to Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he encourages them to act like someone else.
 
Like-Mindedness
You might remember that last week Paul had told the Philippian Christians that they not only got to believe on Christ, but they had the privilege of suffering for Christ also.  And, Paul reminds them that he is in prison for the Gospel and tells them to stand firm and live a life worthy of the Gospel.  Here in chapter 2, Paul is cheering them on in their attempt to stand firm and live worthy lives.
In Philippians 3:1-2, Paul goes through a laundry list of reminders to give them hope.
  • If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, 
  • if any comfort from his love, 
  • if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion,
  • 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.
For Paul, the thing that will make him joyful is for the Philippians to be like-minded.  He goes on to explain that like-mindedness means having the same love, the same spirit, and the same purpose.  Paul has already told them in 1:7 that “It is right for me to feel this way about you.”  The Greek word the NIV translates “feel this way” is from the root verb phroneo, which means “mindset” — the way one thinks about something, or our predisposition to something.
 
It is the same word Paul uses here to encourage them to be like-minded.  It is the same word he will use when he says “Let this mind (attitude) be in you that was also in Christ Jesus…”
It is also the same word he will use in Phil 4:2 when he encourages two women in the church, Euodia and Syntyche, who are quarreling, to be of the same mind — to agree with each other.
 
This idea of “like-mindedness” is important to Paul.  Paul sees it as the key to unity in the church in Philippi. The church has been riven with the same problems of any church — facing difficulty, different people have different perspectives, different viewpoints, and they are dividing the church community.
 
Paul pleads with them — “If you have any encouragement from being united in Christ, any comfort from his love, any fellowship with the Spirit, any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded.”
Paul is pulling out all the stops here to get them to come together.  He lays a subtle guilt-trip on them, like only a mother can — “If all I’ve done for you means anything, please be nice to your brother.”  Your mother ever do that to you?  Any sentence that starts with “After all I’ve done for you…” is a guaranteed guilt-tripper.  But, Paul is a little more subtle than that.  And, to give them some help, he shows them how they can be of one mind.
The Example of Jesus
Paul, Phil 1:30,  has previously appealed to his suffering — “Since you’re going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”  Paul wants the Philippians to know that he understands what they’re going through.  He understand persecution and what it means to stand firm.  He understands how difficult it is to live a life worthy of the Gospel.  He is an example to them.
But, then Paul also wants them to make his joy full and complete as their community becomes like-minded. And, so Paul gives them the ultimate example to follow — the example of Christ.
I like the King James here —  “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:”-Phil 2:5
In other words, be like-minded with Christ.  Have the same attitude, the same mindset, the same predisposition to others.  Have the mind of Christ.
 
Now, how do you have the mind of Christ?  How do you have the same attitude Jesus had?  Our own attempts at having the mind of Christ are as doomed to fail as the Clark Rockefeller’s false identity.  We can’t be Christ…or can we?
 
In their extraordinary book, Saving Paradise, Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker tell us that early in the life of the Church, there was the idea of theosis — the possibility of Christians partaking of the divine nature of Christ.  This idea began with the Creation story, as God creates humankind in God’s own image.  But, the idea that followers of Christ were partakers of his divinity is echoed in 2 Peter 1:3-4, where Peter contends,

3His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. – 2 Peter 1:3-4

The idea of theosis was not primarily individual, it belonged to the community.  As the church was the body of Christ, partaking of the divine nature was the experience of the community of faith, not just privileged individuals.  And, theosis expressed itself in very real ways.  Tertullian said that Christians created “an alternate social order” that was different from the social order of the Roman empire.  Theosis expressed itself as Christians acted –

“…to support the destitute, and to pay for their burial expenses; to supply the needs of boys and girls lacking money and power, and of old people confined to the home…we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another.”  
– Saving Paradise, page 178.

Paul also gives the Philippians concrete instruction on what the mind of Christ is.  Paul says that Christ
  • did not “grasp” or hold onto his heavenly position for personal benefit;
  • made himself nothing — literally, “emptied himself” in the image of pouring out a bottle until it is empty;
  • took a servant’s form, human likeness;
  • humbled himself;
  • became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
So, if you want to know what mindset Jesus had it was giving up, letting go, pouring out himself for others.  
Paul goes on to say that because of that mindset, God highly exalted Jesus, giving him a name above every name, and that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow in heaven, in earth, and under the earth.  In other words, because Jesus had the attitude he did, the mindset, God placed him in the highest place, and all of heaven, all the world of the living, and all the world of the dead recognize that Jesus the Messiah is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
 
Jesus mindset, lived out in his life of humility, service, and sacrifice, gained the acknowledgement of the entire creation that Jesus the Christ is Lord.  Not Ceasar, not empire, not wealth, not power, not privilege, not prestige, but Jesus is Lord.
A Fable
 
In his book, How (Not) To Speak of God, Peter Rollins tells this story:
There was once a princess who grew up in a kingdom that had been ravished by decades of famines, war and plague.  One night, as the princess slept she had a dream.  In this dream she was walking through the market that lay by the sea, when a young beggar looked up, but before their eyes could meet the dream ended and the princess awoke.  As the dream faded a haunting voice arose in her mind that informed her that if she were ever to meet this young man, he would shower her with riches beyond her wildest dreams.
This dream etched itself so deeply on the princess that she carried the vision deep in her heart, until one day, years later, as she walked through the market, her gaze caught hold of the same man who had visited her in her dreams all those years ago.  Without pausing she ran up to him and proceeded to relay the whole vision.  Never once did he look up, but when the princess had finished her story he reached into an old sack and pulled out a package.  Without saying a word, he offered it to the princess and asked her to leave.
 
Once the princess reached her dilapidated castle she ripped open the package and, sure enough, there was a great wealth of pure gold and precious diamonds.  That night she placed the package in a safe place, and went to bed.  But her mind was in turmoil and the long night was spent in sleepless contemplation.  Early the next morning she arose, retrieved the treasures and went down to the water’s edge.  Once there she summoned all her strength and threw the riches deep into the sea.  After watching the package sink out of sight, she turned and without looking back went searching for the young beggar.
Finally, she found him sitting in the shade of an old doorway.  The princess approached, held out her hand and placed it under his chin.  Then she drew his face towards hers and whispered, “Young man, speak of the wealth you possess which allows you to give away such worldly treasure without a moment’s thought.”  – pg.50-51, How (Not) To Speak of God by Peter Rollins.
 
That is the mind of Christ.  That is the mind possible for the followers of Christ.  ”Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”  Amen. 

Sermon: Standing Firm in the Struggle

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.

Heavenly Cheerleaders

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…”