Sermon, September 24, 2017

Sermon.09.24.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Exodus 16.2-15; Psalm 105.1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1.21-30; Matthew 20.1-16

 

Having considered St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, we now focus on his letter to the Church of Philippi. The city was named after King Philipp II, the father of Alexander the Great. Philippi was located ten miles inland from the coastal city of Neapolis, on the north side of the Aegean Sea. Neapolis is where Paul had landed when he first carried the gospel to Macedonia in response to his vision at Troas of a man from Macedonia who was standing and begging, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16.9; NRSV). Philippi was a prosperous gentile city located on the Via Egnatia, the main route from the eastern provinces to Rome.

Paul had considerable affection for the Church of Philippi as is evident from the early paragraphs of his letter. Paul wrote, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now … It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Philippians 1.3-5, 7; NRSV). Paul further writes that his prayer for them is that their “love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help [them] to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ [they] may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1.9-11; NRSV). Paul’s tenderness toward this church is also seen in that he refers to them as “beloved” (Philippians 1.12).

We are not sure exactly where Paul was imprisoned when he wrote this letter. Some believe Ephesus; others Caesarea; still others, Rome. Paul was not woeful about his imprisonment; he recognized that it had “helped to spread the gospel” as it had “become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that [his] imprisonment [was] for Christ,” i.e., for having preached the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1.12-13; NRSV). Furthermore, he was aware that his imprisonment had given others greater confidence – they dared to witness “with greater boldness and without fear” (Philippians 1.14; NRSV).

Paul acknowledged some proclaim Christ out of envy, rivalry and selfish ambition while others proclaim Christ from love and goodwill. He rhetorically asked, “What does it matter?” and replied, “Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1.18; NRSV).

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is also unique in that Paul is not addressing some defect or shortcoming in their community. The tone of joy and rejoicing which pervades this letter is far different from the stern admonishment written to church of Corinth about their incessant quarrelling. It also differs in that Paul shares more about his own existential situation and thought. As noted, Paul was imprisoned; he could have been executed.

Although imprisoned, he rejoiced in the proclamation of Christ. Paul wrote, “I will continue to rejoice for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1.19-20; NRSV).

Noting the uncertainty of his personal situation, Paul wrote, “To me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Philippians 1.21; NRSV). Why would dying be gain? Paul is living in Christ; Christ’s spirit is with him in this mortal realm. But if he were to die, he would be in Christ’s physical presence within the heavenly realm. Paul further wrote, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” (Philippians 1.22; NRSV). Paul’s teaching and preaching, his missionary work was fruitful and rewarding, but Paul admitted, he did not know which he preferred – the fruitful labor of this life or the joy of the heavenly realm. Each was appealing, but if given a choice, he desired “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1.23; NRSV). Yet, Paul noted, remaining in the flesh, in this mortal life, was more necessary for the Church of Philippi. Hence, Paul said, he knows he will remain with them for their “progress and joy in the faith” such that he may share in their celebration in Christ Jesus when he visits again (Philippians 1.25-26; NRSV).

Paul next encouraged them to stand fast in the gospel, to remain firm in their commitment, to “live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” such that he would know they were “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by [their] opponents” (Philippians 1.27-28; NRSV). In his encouragement, Paul further observed living in this manner would serve as evidence to their opponents of their impending destruction, but of their own salvation. “This,” Paul says, “is God’s doing,” for God “has graciously granted [them] the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well” (Philippians 1.28-29; NRSV).

So what personal insights into living the Christian life can we gain from this reading? How does it relate to our own existential situation and time?

First, given the current state-of-affairs in our world, I suspect that many of us can identify with Paul’s reflections concerning whether it would be better to live or to die. Amidst global suffering resulting from war, displacement, famine, disease, and natural disasters, and in the face of burgeoning global population and threat of atomic warfare, we pray, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” Even our youth are suffering more intensely. According to USA Today, “children’s hospital admissions of patients 5 to 17 years old for suicidal thoughts or actions more than doubled from 2008 to 2015” (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/05/30/youth-suicide-rates-rising-school-and-internet-may-blame/356539001/ ).

Like Paul, we are called to remain steadfast, to bear witness to the hope that lies within us. As Paul said, “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel … in no way intimidated by our opponents.” Last Friday’s demonstration at the Swiftel Center on behalf of the Dream Act witnessed 140 people standing firm in one spirit and one mind for Judeo-Christian values.

Second, we are “called to live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” What might that look like? We are called to bring a message of hope to the hopeless, to bear witness of Christ’s love for all. We are called to action – to walk alongside those who suffer. We are called to give freely of what we have been given that other’s pain and suffering may be lessened.

Third, we are called not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer with Christ. Believing and living in Christ means our values are counter-cultural – they call to question the prevailing values of our culture. We should expect to encounter opposition. To the extent that our faith community is united in one spirit and one mind, we are better able to stand – to bear witness – in the face of such opposition. We need to remind each other that Christ has graciously granted us the privilege of suffering with him. May Christ be exalted as we bear witness, as we live and speak with boldness.

Amen

 

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