09.08.15 Sermon: Philippians 1:12-30
Paul is in prison.
I went to prison once; through those heavy doors and past those iron bars into that courtyard covered in tiny pebbles and full of people.
Paul is in a different kind of prison, though. He is in a kind of house arrest. But instead of a bracelet on his ankle binding him to the property he has the Praetorian Guard bearing down on him. So, not really at all like house arrest as we know it.
Paul is in chains. He is bound. But he is not alone. He has visitors; his fellow servant, Timothy, comes and they co-write a letter to the church in Philippi – the first church in Macedonia.
Paul is imprisoned, probably in Rome, and everyone there knows why. It has become clear throughout the whole palace guard (kind of like the Secret Service and Navy Seals combined) and everyone else that Paul is in chains for Christ. It’s no secret.
Paul disrespected Caesar and dishonoured the Imperial Cult. And he’s making no apologies for it. Paul counters Caesar’s claim to divinity, saying that someone else is Lord, that Jesus Christ is Lord.
In a place like that it’s probably a good idea to keep your head down and your mouth shut. But not down so low that you’re crawling on the ground and calling attention to yourself. Yet low enough to avoid eye contact but high enough to maintain some kind of composure and air of confidence so that your opponents cannot sense any kind of fear.
That’s what I tried to do that time I went to prison. We were in the Philippines, not this time just gone, but the time before, back in 2013. We went to the prison in Calapan.
We walked in through the front gate into an open area with picnic tables and walls all around, I was trying to be all confident-like so nobody could smell my fear. In the far right hand corner was a passage way that led to the main courtyard. We ushered the kids past barred cells, through to the courtyard and sat down on plasic chairs in the shade.
The courtyard was lined will cells filled with people who poured out and perched themselves in front of us.
There was nothing separating us from these sinners, nothing guarding the gap between us and the guilty. The prisoners kept a respectable distance, laughing loudly at Warren Curtis-Smiths jokes, moving rhythmically to the music that was made, and listening intently to our words of hope. We were quite safe.
We don’t know what kinds of crimes these men committed, but I suspect that none of them were there for the same reason that Paul was.
Paul was in chains; guilty as charged. It was quite possible that he could be executed, but that didn’t stop him sticking his neck out, he doesn’t keep is trap shut, he doesn’t sit tight. Instead, he continues to speak out boldly, courageously, recklessly. He keeps telling everyone that Jesus is Lord. It makes you wonder if he had a death wish. After all, he tells the Philippians that for him, dying is gain. He says,
“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
What Paul wants, while bound in chains, is to be obedient...obedient to Christ, who is his true master. He is willing to be obedient unto death, whatever that death might be. Paul knows that when he enters into death he will be with Christ. He has such sure hope and solid assurance. Death is not the end, and Paul knows it.
Yet, if we focus too intently on death we can lose sight of life. Paul says,
‘to live is Christ’. Sometimes we can use Jesus like a Get Out of Jail Free card. We are ready to die, but are we really ready to live?
One commentator says this:
Life in the flesh is synonymous with fruitful ministry. It is not that it will (or might) result in fruitful work, but that our life in Christ is God’s good works working through and in us for the world. (Cohick p 57)
‘To live is Christ and to die is gain.’
You see, Paul dies daily. Every day he submits himself to the true authority, to the true Lord and King, not to Caesar, but to Christ.
That’s what landed him in prison in the first place, locked up with the palace guard looming over him. Paul had said something that Caesar wished wasn’t true. Caesar wanted to be Lord and King, Caesar wanted to be God. And Paul would not submit to this megalomaniac with his delusions of grandeur and desire for deification.
Paul disrupts the status quo, and he is imprisoned, but...he is not silenced.
Paul is no longer free to make tents and move around the countryside telling people about Jesus the Christ. His hands are tied...but...he’s not tongue tied. As Paul is restricted and held in one place, the gospel of Jesus Christ expands and spreads even as far as Rome.
The palace guard, of all people, have heard about Jesus the Christ, who has come to set captives free. Because of Paul’s chains, strangely, others have become confident to proclaim the gospel without fear.
These is this strange association between bondage and freedom. And perhaps, freedom in Christ is best described in terms of bondage. Elsewhere in Scripture phrases are used to describe our relationship to Jesus such as, ‘bound to Christ’, ‘yoked to Christ, and ‘slaves to Christ’. Yet, there is also freedom for us in Christ, ‘it is for freedom that Christ has set us free’, ‘if the Son set’s you free, you are free indeed.’
It seems that there is also a boundary to freedom.
I am currently coaching a hockey team of 8-10 year olds. The turf we practice on has a hockey field marked out with a little bit of space less that a metre long all around the edge before the fence. At the end of each training session we play a short game, the Year 5’s vs. the Year 6’s. One time I said, ‘no outs’, and by that I didn’t mean that the game could be played beyond the fence, I mean that the game could be played up to the fence, so including that little bit of space beyond the white line. I said this because it can be fun when you don’t have to stop and start the game every time the ball goes over the line. I was thinking ‘freedom within boundaries’. It didn’t mean this at all for the kids I was coaching. It’s not that they wanted to play over the fence and far away. They wanted to play within the white lines, within the boundaries that were already set. They wanted boundaries because they wanted freedom. Within that space they are free to run and play and live.
In Christ we are free to run and play and live. When we are bound to Christ, we are still free, free to experience life in all its fullness.
Paul gets that. Though he is bound, caged, imprisoned, he is free, because that physical bondage is different from his spiritual bondage – the kind of spiritual bondage that Paul is experiencing is not an oppressive kind of bondage, rather, strangely, it is a bondage that set’s him free. Paul is bound to Christ, and in Christ Paul is free to experience life in all its fullness, he is free to rejoice.
In the midst of suffering and physical oppression Paul is able to rejoice:
I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.
His bondage will lead to his freedom.
The same commentator I mentioned earlier said this:
Paul knows the secret to a healthy spiritual life: joy. It is joy that allows one to have confident hope that all will be made right in the end through God’s work in Christ. It is deep joy in the Lord that grows contentment, thus muting the siren calls to pursue passions, prestige, wealth, and fame. It is joy in the Lord that guards the heart from utter despair. (Cohick p. 59)
Paul is anything but despairing, at this stage anyway. In other of his letters written from prison, Paul is in deep need of encouragement, but here, now, his desire is to encourage the Philippians:
Whatever happens...stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.
You see, the Christians in Philippi were struggling too. We don’t know of what exactly. We can make some summations though. Philippi, in Macedonia, was a Roman colony and a mixed bag of Romans, Greeks, Jews and other ethnicities. This in itself can cause tension, hence the call to unity in Christ.
Alongside this multi-cultural element there was potential Roman oppression and strong social hierarchies that kept people in their place, namely Patronage, as well as mutually supportive Tradesmen’s Guild. These two systems worked fine so long as you were happy with the status quo.
Christians, however, quickly became dissatisfied with this way of relating to one another. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, Slave or Free, Male or Female, all are one in Christ. See; unity. And how can you maintain that kind of unity across class systems unless you cross over the boundary?
With the Tradies, to confess allegiance to Christ, and not to Caesar, would get you cut off from the Guild. Your Trade Union would no longer support you. It would be harder to get work, harder to feed your children, harder to live.
But remember, to live is Christ. And Paul reminds the Philippians that:
It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.
Suffering is not something we like very much. And Paul is not telling the Philippians to toughen up as though to prove their faith. What he is saying is that to live is Christ, and Christ is the one who suffers for us and with us. If we are united with him, bound to him, then we are bound to suffer. And in this way suffering is redemptive because it testifies to Christ’s work on the cross, which brings freedom to captives, and forgiveness to sinners.
When Jesus came he broke the barrier between us and God, he crossed the border stood in the gap between the guilty ones and the Righteous One, and he suffered for it. We didn’t keep a respectable distance, like the prisoners in Calapan, we didn’t laugh at his jokes or sing his songs or listen to his words. Rather, we hurled insults and held him down while we hammered nails into his hands, holding him fast, binding him, killing him.
But the Good News is, it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him (Acts 2:24), his suffering ended and he was raised to new life, which in turn has brought life to us all.
And though we are not exempt from suffering in our lives, we are able to endure suffering because of the immeasurable hope and immense joy we have in Christ, and the power and provision we receive from his Spirit.
So, whatever bondage and suffering we are experiencing, whether it be physical, social, emotional or spiritual, be encouraged that what has happened will turn out for our deliverance.
May we be bold, courageous, even reckless enough to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to a world who might not want to believe us, who may even condemn us. To say that Jesus Christ is Lord is means that we are not, and people don’t really want to hear that. It is easy for us to have a bit of a Caesar complex, thinking that we are the divine Lords of our own lives, maybe even of others as well. But we’re not.
Rather, we are servants, citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We are bound to Christ, in whom we live. And as such,
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ...stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you...for it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.