Sermon for September 24, 2023
If you just take today’s scripture reading at face value, it may seem like Paul is either being too philosophic, or maybe even way too dramatic. He is debating life versus death, and openly asking which is better for him. Should he live or should he die? It’s all the same to him, he seems to say, but for the sake of the Philippians he’s writing to, he thinks he just might go on living.
If I were to write such a letter, I think it would seem like I was trying to squeeze all the sympathy I could out of whoever I was writing to. I’m pretty sure that any such words coming from me would be manipulative. I wouldn’t consider it healthy communication.
But to force my own motives onto Paul’s words would be very wrong. And if I read the entire opening of his letter to the Philippians, and if I have any notion of what the context was, I am exposed as rather rash and selfish.
First of all, Paul was writing to let the Christians in Philippi know how he was doing. I’m sure they always cared how Paul was doing. After all, he was the one who personally founded their church. His sharing of the gospel of Jesus Christ was the reason they had become Christians in the first place. But much more than that, they were very worried about Paul.
You see, Paul was writing to them from prison. Now, to be a prisoner is never a good thing. But to be in prison two thousand years ago was a horrible thing. Life was hard back then for nearly everybody. So you can imagine how miserable their prisons must have been. Conditions would’ve been horrible, and that’s not even taking into account torture—something that was commonplace in that place and time.
We know that Paul was imprisoned multiple times, but we’re not sure exactly how many. We also know that the last time he was in prison, he didn’t make it out alive; he was put to death by the Romans. That time was not this time. But Paul—and the Philippians—did know that Rome used the death penalty for lots of crimes—really just about any time they wanted to make an example of somebody.
So Paul was writing to the Philippians from prison, and he couldn’t be 100% sure whether or not he’d ever see them again in this life. So I hope that helps explain some of the things he said. He wanted the Philippians to know whatever happened, it was okay. In a single verse, he once wrote his philosophy of life to the Christians in Rome (the same city where he was probably now imprisoned). He said, If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God. Here in Philippians, he says that to live means to live for Christ, and to die means actually being with Christ, and so he can’t decide which is better.
So that’s the context of this little scripture passage. Paul is in prison, and there’s no guarantee that he’s going to get out. His faith tells him that, even if the worst happens, he’ll be fine, because he belongs to God. But for the sake of the Philippians, he really does want to get out so that he share with them—not the misery of religious persecution, but the joy of being able to trust so completely in God.
And though the Letter to the Philippians is being written from prison, it’s one of the most optimistic books of the Bible. Remember, it’s in Philippians where Paul said, Rejoice in the Lord at all times—I repeat, rejoice! [4:4]
Also remember, please, that Paul’s joy, his optimism, isn’t a belief that nothing bad can happen to him. He knows full well that the world can throw all kinds of negative stuff his way. He’s experi-enced pain and imprisonment and illness and persecution. So he’s not telling the Philippians that everything will be rosy if only they have enough faith. What he’s telling them is that, through it all, they have the joy of believing and the peace of knowing that they belong to God.
I’ll repeat for you something I’ve said in probably two or three sermons from this pulpit—the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…
Paul belongs to God. And because of that, Paul is also a member of the body of Christ. And so, even in prison, with a very uncertain future, Paul had something to live for, and that something was the people of God. And so he writes to the Christians in Philippi that, though he’s not afraid of any punishment the Romans might dish out, for their sakes, he hopes to live. God is not through with them yet, and Paul still has a rôle to play in their growth: I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith [v 25].
Another prisoner, writing to Christians on the outside, said something very similar. In a poem we know as By Gracious Powers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer shared this prayer from a Gestapo prison in Berlin,
Yet, when it’s your will to once again send joy and sunshine to the world,
then we’ll remember the past, knowing that our lives belong completely to you.
Whether we live or die, we belong to God. And so no matter what, we have something to live for, and that is one another.
When the elder read to us from the scriptures earlier in the service, she read once again from the New Living Translation. If you’ll remember, that was the translation we heard last week as well. This translation is growing in my esteem, not just as a good translation, but, at times, as the best translation. For example, the NLT’s rendition last week of that phrase God so loved the world in John 3:16, correctly interpreting it as this is how God loved the world. And now this week, let’s look at Philippians 1:27 to see why I actually prefer this translation (and it’s really just a bonus that it’s in simpler, easier-to-read English)—
The NRSV says to live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel, and the NIV says to conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel. The New Living Translation is a lot wordier here, but it’s going out of its way to translate one particular verb correctly. That verb is πολιτεύομαι, and if you heard in that strange word syllables that sounded like politics or political, then you’re already on the right track. It doesn’t just mean live your life or conduct yourself, it means to live as a citizen. And so the NLT reads like this:
Live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News.
In case you’re wondering if this might be a bit much, a form of that same Greek word (the noun πολιτευμα) is used in Philippians 3:20. The King James translated this as, Our conversation is in heaven. But just about every modern translation (including the New Living) says, Our citizenship is in heaven.
The point of all this is that, no matter what’s going on elsewhere in our lives, God has given us all a reason to be here (no matter where “here” is). God has given us something to live for, and that is one another. When Jesus talked about it, he talked about the Kingdom of Heaven—a Kingdom which was not in heaven (at least not only in heaven), but a world in which people loved one another, prayed for everyone—including their enemies, lifted one another up, and lived lives of humble service. John talked about it in terms of love. He highlighted those times when Jesus commanded us to love and told us that people would know we are Christians by our love. He told is that God is, in fact, love, and that those who don’t love their neighbors (whom they can see) can’t really claim to love God (whom they cannot see).
And here Paul talks about it in terms of our literal citizenship. Thomas Manton, a Puritan pastor in the 1600’s, said that this is the first part and office of justice, to perform the debt we owe to our country, for public interests must be preferred before private. He was actually talking about England. Paul says basically the same thing, but he’s talking about the Kingdom of God.
Paul was willing to give up his life for the sake of the gospel. But for the sake of other Christians, he hoped for the freedom to celebrate the joy of believing with them. How do we celebrate this joy? How do we live as citizens of the Kingdom? When we think about our reason for being in this world, do we remember that we have blessings to share, gifts to give, service to perform, and a place—namely the church—where we belong?
In another place in Philippians (3:17), Paul told his readers to imitate him. This wasn’t arrogance or vanity. He had already shown them what he meant: His life was lived for God, and his fellow Christians were his reason for living. We would do well to follow his example.
—©2023 Sam Greening