"Hanging On in Hardship"
July 6, 2008 Philippians 1:12-30
When What is Vile is Honoured...
"What am I here for?" is one of the most important questions in life. Deep inside we sense the reason we're here has got to be more than just to exist and to consume. This becomes especially apparent to the younger generation as they see the emptiness of an older generation's preoccupation with amassing 'stuff'. Affluence does not translate into meaning or purpose.
In many ways the 20th century, in retrospect, could be labelled "Canada's Century". We started out in 1900 as a lesser colonial entity on the world stage. Through the decades we started to play a more significant role in the community of nations. Our resource, industrial, and technological bases developed amazingly. By the year 2000, we were among the most desired places in the world in which to live - and part of the enviable G8. "With glowing hearts we see thee rise, the true north, strong and free..." In many ways, as a country, we have it made!
All the more reason to 'stand on guard'. We need the right sort of heroes, mentors, and leaders - or we will slip into moral decay. Affluence tends to make one grow soft, indulgent, decadent. On Canada Day my devotional reading happened to be Psalm 12: "Help, LORD, for the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men...The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honoured among men." (Ps 12:1,8) In the news that day, abortion clinic founder and advocate Henry Morgentaler was confirmed as being on the list to receive the Order of Canada. How can we consider bestowing an honour on someone whose name is practically synonymous in this country with the killing of unborn babies?! Approximately 3 million abortions have taken place in Canada since the procedure was decriminalized in 1969; the Morgentaler clinics facilitated many of these. Isn't this like awarding the Nobel Prize to a mass murderer?
A few days previously, I was reading the weekly religion page of the London paper. A prominent area clergyman was honouring the comedian George Carlin, recently deceased. I will admit Carlin did make me laugh in his basically decent role as the 'hippy dippy weather man'. But the comedian was also known for breaking legal ground with his routine called "7 words you can never say on television". Is that really the kind of person it's wise to honour? Might not 'pushing the limits' with such performances be in part responsible for the slide downward in family-viewable entertainment over the past few decades? A good comedian (like Phil Callaway) helps you laugh at yourself and at life's funny moments without having to resort to degrading language. But the Bible warns against mockers - that's different from pure comedy. Mocking insidiously attacks what's righteous. Psalm 1 says the person is blessed "who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers." The more we're coaxed to laugh while standards are stretched, or approve of those who capitalize on the vulnerable and break the law, the faster society decays. To re-state that final verse from Psalm 12: "The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honoured among men."
We started by asking, "What am I here for?"...In answering that question, we look for heroes to honour and imitate - heroes that demonstrate the qualities considered to characterize a worthwhile life. Honourable qualities, godly or righteous virtues. Together those virtues make up a vision of the kind of person we want to be. We need that sort of constructive vision if we ever want to really make the appeal as we sing our national anthem, "God keep our land glorious and free." So we look for heroes that have a positive, God-honouring vision that's bigger than themselves - a vision in harmony with God's revelation, a vision that connects us to Jesus Christ as the One who alone offers true direction, linked to eternity.
Rejoicing Despite Stressful Situation
In the book of Philippians we're introduce to one such hero - Paul. This book was written about 61 AD, towards the end of Paul's ministry (but before his 4th missionary journey) when he's really in a pickle. Actually imprisoned, held under custody by a soldier guard 24/7. He makes reference to being 'in chains' in vv 7, 13,14,17 in chapter 1. Verses 12 and 19, the phrase "what has happened to me" isn't really spelled out, but it doesn't sound pleasant. This is probably the period referred to by Luke in Acts 28:30 as Paul stayed 'for two whole years...in his own rented house' under house-arrest. He's very restricted in movement, but people can come and see him, and he's watched if not actually chained to a guard which rotates in shifts. This is an extended period of custody waiting for a trial to appeal the case raised by fierce Jewish enemies from Jerusalem.
The charges are serious - it's not so immaterial that a fine would be all that would result. There's a real possibility he could be put to death if his commitment to Jesus' lordship would be viewed as threatening his loyalty to the Emperor. V20, "whether by life or by death"; 21, "to die is gain" - there's a definite risk of being killed, as Jesus and Stephen had been. Jews would be coming to back up the charges as vehemently as they could.
Imprisonment - threat of the death penalty - as if that weren't bad enough, some people from within the Christian church were out to make things hard for Paul. Judaizers believed it wasn't enough to believe in Jesus to be saved; they taught it was also necessary to be circumcised and observe the law of Moses. It seems they had been following Paul and had now come to Rome, trying to challenge him with their own preaching. Vv15&17, "It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry...[they] preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains."
So Paul had plenty of reasons to feel sorry for himself. He had every right to whine if he'd chosen to: in chains, threatened by death, criticized by misled church folk to boot. But strangely, although he's in such a hard place in life, he writes a book that echoes again and again with JOY - it's mentioned over 16 times in various forms in these 4 chapters. "Rejoice in the Lord - always!" (3:1; 4:4) How can he be so joyful when things are so totally NOT going his way?
Precious Partnership: Paul & Philippi
A big factor that helps Paul stay upbeat is a sense of close supportive partnership with the believers at Philippi. The letter opens with warm affectionate language that is almost GUSHY. Unlike most other letters Paul wrote, there's no mention of his apostleship or authority; it's more on a peer basis. V3, "I thank my God every time I remember you." VV7-8, "It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart...God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus." Sense something special here - how close they are?
One of the reasons Paul may feel particularly endeared to the Philippians is the fact they've sent financial gifts over and over unlike any other church. V5 refers to "your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now." V7, "...you share in God's grace with me." In 4:10 Paul rejoices that they've 'renewed their concern' for him; this becomes clearer in 4:15f where he explains, "Not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only...you sent me aid again and again when I was in need." 4:18, "I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent." So they sent a lot of tangible support Paul's way - when he was in Thessalonica; then in Corinth (2Cor 8:1ff); and now again when he's in Rome. The believers at Philippi chose to help underwrite Paul's missionary enterprise in a way no other church did. So he was really encouraged by their love shown for him by their giving.
Besides that precious partnership, Paul's morale was also boosted by the vision that drove him. It's a vision of the community of disciples Christ is creating, the power of the gospel to initiate that, and Jesus' own identification with believers in their struggles.
Look briefly at Paul's prayer in 1:9-11. In his praying we glimpse his vision of what every believer can become in Christ. He prays "that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ-- to the glory and praise of God." See his mental picture there of things that characterize a mature disciple? Love, knowledge, insight, discernment of what's best, purity, blamelessness, and righteous fruit. V27 talks about them 'contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened' - there's strength, vigour, boldness. He says, "conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ." The word 'conduct' in the Greek has the sense of 'live as citizens' - so the New Living Translation has "live as citizens of heaven'.
So although he's imprisoned, Paul has this mental picture of clusters and crowds of disciples springing up around the Mediterranean. God's power is changing people's lives so they live in a wonderful new way that's honouring to Jesus. And how does that start? By them hearing and responding to the Gospel message. Although he may be chained, the Gospel isn't. The Good News message is out there, doing its thing - the means by which people come to enjoy the benefits of salvation and life in Christ.
How might Paul answer the meaning-question, "What am I here for?" Look closely at v16, "The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel." There's a clear purpose for him to be where he is. V12, "what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel." 13, "I am in chains for Christ." Yes there may be opposition and confinement and verbal attacks, but that's not important as far as Paul is concerned; what is important? V18, "But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice." So Paul was able to overlook so much negative stuff if only Jesus was being promoted. That's what made it possible for him to rejoice despite the hardship. The vision, the mission, was going ahead - even if those Judaizing false apostles were preaching out of rivalry trying to undercut Paul, as long as Jesus was being presented - that's what mattered.
Vv 20-21 define even more exactly what Paul's priorities were, what he valued and honoured as most important. "I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always [don't miss it now] Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death." NLT puts it, "I trust that my life will bring honour to Christ, whether I live or die." The Greek verb behind 'exalt' or 'bring honour to' is literally 'to make great, to magnify'. Does our life direct attention to Jesus? Do we 'make much of' and honour Him - or strive for our own earthly satisfaction?
V21, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." How'd you finish the sentence, "To me, to live is..." What goes in the blank? For a disciple of Jesus, 'to live is Christ.' We are born-again in Him, we're identified with Him through faith and baptism, sunk into His death, risen with Him to eternal life as God's cherished sons and daughters. So now we don't honour what's vile; we exalt Him, we live for Him!
This vision and purpose embraces more than our earthly life - it embraces our eternity, including our death. You've noticed in v20 Paul wants Christ to be exalted in his body "whether by life or by death"; 21, to live is Christ but "to die is gain" - how can that be? Here we find the secret to a believer's Puzzling Perseverance, how to bear with suffering all the way.
In v23 Paul's weighing the pros and cons of surviving the court trial versus being executed. He may live, but, he says, "I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far..." The verb 'depart' is related to unloosing, like tearing down a tent, breaking up camp, weighing the anchor to put out to sea. Interesting metaphors for death. Thus to "be with Christ" Paul says is "better by far", literally "much rather better" - sort of a triple comparative. So he's not troubled by the possibility of losing his life if condemned by the Emperor: that's actually the preferable alternative. He can face the threat calmly.
As Christians we shouldn't be surprised by hardship; the New Testament warns, "everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (2Ti 3:12) Paul even says such fiery trials are granted to us along with faith. Study v29, "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him..." The Philippians had witnessed first-hand the fury of the crowd attacking Paul and Silas after they had cast a demonic spirit of divination out of a slave girl (Ac 16:22).
Commentator Robertson notes, "Suffering in behalf of Christ is one of God's gifts to us." Peter wrote quite a bit about suffering as part and parcel of the Christian experience; "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.But rejoice [there's that word again!] that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed." (1Pe 4:12f)
When we suffer according to God's will, we have an invisible ally. Peter calls it 'participating in the sufferings of Christ." Look at how Paul describes it in v19: "I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ..." [things will turn out for his deliverance.] The word translated 'help' there means supply, 'giving out of stored wealth'. So we might say that suffering according to God's will is the spigot that taps us into the maple trunk of the Spirit's sweet-sap reserve.
How we respond to suffering is something others notice very much. Paul notes one effect on observers in v14, "Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly." Perhaps they thought, 'I guess if Paul can take it - we can, too!' Paul predicts faith will enable the Philippians to stand firm (v28) "without 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." They would be bolstered by the Holy Spirit to not be frightened - such perseverance would puzzle their opponents and suggest God was supporting the believers.
When Jesuit priest Jean de Brebeuf was tortured to death by the Iroquois in 1649 right here in Ontario, the torture lasted over 3 hours; but Brebeuf's insensitivity to the pain enraged the natives, who took pride in their ability to torture. He didn't cry out but kept on praying aloud. Finally, after the awful tortures climaxed in him being scalped, seeing him near death, the Iroquois laid open his chest and devoured his heart and drank his blood, thinking that they might imbibe some portion of his courage. His perseverance finally to some degree won their respect.
To Live is Christ: A Quebec City Heroine
This week Quebec City celebrated its 400th anniversary. An early Canadian Christian hero is Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation. She was born in 1599 in France; at age 7, she saw the Lord Jesus in what she later described as a mystical dream. He asked, "Do you want to be mine?" She answered, "Yes." Following a brief marrage at age 17 which left her a widow 2 years later, she lived with her father and earned a living as an embroiderer. Later she went to help her sister and brother-in-law in their shipping company; they made her the company manager because of her knack for administration. At age 31 she entered an Ursuline convent to become a nun. Eventually she became an instructor in Christian doctrine. She read about the Jesuit missions in New France and prayed fervently for church work in the colony. In a dream God took her to a vast country full of mountains, valleys, and heavy fogs. She heard the Lord say, "It was Canada that I showed you; you must go there to build a house for Jesus and Mary." She interpreted this to mean she was to go to New France to evangelize the natives and build a convent and a school. Such a project was unheard-of and there was strong opposition, particularly because she lacked social status. But God provided partners: in 1639 she sailed from Dieppe with 2 other nuns and one of her main lay supporters, Marie-Madeleine de la Peltrie.
So after a 3-month voyage they came to the future site of Quebec City, then a community of a few dozen inhabitants. (Think of it - a woman at age 40, heading off across the sea away from the civilized world into the bush - where natives are torturing, the same year Brebeuf died!) Marie strove to be of service through teaching native girls and saving souls through sharing the Gospel. She catechized adult Indians and treated them with sagamite, a dish of corn meal and meat. By 1642 she had established the first school and built a convent. She studied Indian languages under the Jesuits and mastered them to such a degree that she wrote Algonquin, Iroquois, Montagnais, and Ouendat dictionaries and a catechism in Iroquois. Not to mention some 12,000 letters, an invaluable documentation of colonial history.
At age 51 she was active as ever, high atop scaffolding supervising the reconstruction of the convent after fire destroyed the original. Finally this woman, who is considered to be one of the greatest of Catholic mystics, died in 1672 after a bout with hepatitis. In Bishop Laval's eulogy he said, "She was dead to herself to such a degree, and Jesus Christ possessed her so completely, that one may assuredly say of her, as of the Apostle, that it was not she who lived, but Jesus Christ in her, and that she lived and acted only through Jesus Christ."
Despite suffering, hardship, and opposition, this early Canadian heroine persevered - devoting her life to advance the gospel and see Christ preached in hostile circumstances. As Paul said, "to live is Christ": may we come to experience the same help given by Jesus' Spirit! Let's pray.