The church’s identity and relevance (Philippians 1:27-30)

We live in a world of paradox.  On the one hand, evangelical Christians raise the alarm about the corrosion of religious freedoms.  Yet on the other hand, my progressive friends often lament about the power and dominance of the religious right—as if these are shackles to be freed from.

Who’s right?  Who’s wrong?  Could it be some of both?  To be honest, I don’t know if I can parse out such a complex issue—I can only be sure that today’s culture is becoming increasingly polarized.  The divide between religious conservatives and non-religious progressives is at an all-time high, and destined only to become larger.   How is the church to cope?

The church has always struggled with just exactly how to be “in the world but not of the world.”  It seems almost a balancing act between the church’s identity—what she believes—and the church’s relevance—the way we show love to a dying world.

That’s what Paul is getting at when he writes to the church in Philippi.  Did Paul have any specific conflicts in mind?  Unlikely.  I think it’s way more probable that Paul had seen what happens when the church collides with the world—and he didn’t want the Philippian church to experience hardship, or worse: to fall away entirely.

Listen to what he tells the church about their own destiny to suffer:

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,  28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.  29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,  30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Philippians 1:27-30)

I believe a good way to unpack this section is to look at it through the lens of Christian identity and Christian relevance.  Do you see what Paul’s saying?  The church will never be relevant to a dying world until the church learns to stand unified in her identity in the gospel.  And when she does, even conflict and suffering can be seen as a sign of spiritual health.

So let’s do something: let’s extrapolate a bit on what Paul’s saying.  What would it look like for a church to get off track in these areas?

ISOLATION (ALL IDENTITY; NO RELEVANCE)

This isn’t hard to imagine, unfortunately.  Today’s churches have become adept at forging an identity that never needs to come into contact with the outside world.  If we’re painfully honest with ourselves, we’ve allowed our greatest dreams to become a steady paycheck, kids who don’t cuss, and a pleasing worship service on Sunday mornings.

I know I can be a little bit…caustic in this area.  I’m not saying these aren’t great things.  But when we take a great thing and make it the greatest thing, it’s the worst thing that can happen to the contemporary church.  I believe that the church will never experience revival until people within the walls begin to believe the gospel for the first time.

Thus, the church can never truly experience identity until she also recognizes her relevance to the surrounding world.  As Christ’s example shows, self-sacrifice can never remove us from the world; it presses us further into it.

ACCOMODATION (ALL RELEVANCE; NO IDENTITY)

Of course, it’s quite possible to be so focused on loving the surrounding world that we sacrifice the message of the Bible for the safety of cultural relevance.  We saw this a generation or so ago.  Many of the so-called “mainline” denominations became increasingly focused on social issues: alleviating poverty, promoting peace, preaching tolerance.  And then a strange thing happened: the battle was soon won—maybe not by churches themselves, but by a larger cultural movement.  In other words, the church’s values very quickly came to match those of the Democratic party.   The church no longer had anything to offer that couldn’t be found inside a piece of political literature.  So why bother at all?

Or—to get a bit more personal—maybe we’ve experienced the cold sweat that comes from the fear of being labeled “a fanatic.”  Nothing is more deadly in our world than being too committed to any one thing—especially a religious belief.  “I don’t want to shove religion down anyone’s throat,” we might say.  But what are we really saying?  I’m not comfortable making anyone uncomfortable.  So we mumble something about how “it’s not a religion; it’s a relationship,” and the conversation rolls on without us ever having to truly reveal our Christian identity.  It’s safe; but it’s far from good.

MISSION (BOTH IDENTITY AND RELEVANCE)

So when we return to Paul’s message to the Philippian church, we see that he emphasizes both identity and mission.  Suffering, it seems, is the price—or maybe even consequence—of commitment, but also the surest badge of unity.  Christianity has always thrived under persecution.  This was true in Paul’s day, and it can be true again today.

 

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The gospel and suffering (Philippians 1:12-26)

In our search for happiness, our world offers more means than ends.  The next time you’re at the supermarket, or chain store, take a look around you as you stand in the checkout aisle.  There you find what one author calls the snapshot of the “good life.”  Magazines offer fashion advice and dating tips—or the not-so-subtle allure of celebrity gossip.  Rows of candy offer a quick sugar fix for you or the kids.  Batteries, shaving cream, breathmints—a host of impulse buying items gives you one last chance to feel like you’ve got everything you need and have it all together.

But you don’t.

See, even advertisers understand this.  That’s why most advertising is a religious experience.  In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observes that most advertising isn’t about the nature of the product; it’s about the character of the consumer.  You have a problem, every commercial tells us—whether it’s an outdated car, an unbalanced diet, or bad breath.  And, the commercials insist, we have the solution.  There’s only one problem: the solution never lasts.  It never can.  Happiness is fleeting, circumstantial.  That’s why Christianity insists that joy is superior to empty promises of happiness.  Joy does not depend on circumstance.  And the most shocking thing of all is that we pursue happiness, Joy pursues us.

What does this mean for Paul and the Philippian church?  It means that even suffering can be used for good.  The presence of joy means that we live for something even greater than greatness itself.  And most significantly, the presence of joy helps us understand how God operates in ways that defy my present circumstances, and lift my eyes toward his eternal kingdom.

THE ADVANCE OF THE GOSPEL

Listen to what Paul tells his readers in Philippi:

12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,  13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.  14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.  (Philippians 1:12-14)

Paul’s not merely being a blind optimist; he’s living out his life’s purpose.  See, because his life is defined by the joy of the gospel—and not temporary happiness—he can see the ways that he fulfills his mission even while suffering.  For one thing, the whole Roman guard learned of the gospel.  For another, Paul’s imprisonment galvanized other believers—vaulting them to new heights of boldness.

The spread of the gospel isn’t something easily slowed by suffering and brokenness.  On the contrary; history shows us that Christianity routinely thrives during periods of persecution and suffering.  Why?  Because the gospel promises that God’s story extends beyond the borders of our current circumstances.  If I am going through a hard time, it’s only because God’s not finished with me yet—he’s not finished with the world at all.

GOSPEL RIVALRY

Paul then says this:

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.  16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.  17 The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.  18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice,  19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,  20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.  (Philippians 1:15-20)

It’s unclear what Paul’s trying to communicate here.  Who are these other teachers?  Apparently there are some who got into the ministry because it gave them a sense of authority, privilege, or power.  Turn on some of today’s TV preachers, and you’ll see the same thing.  Should that trouble us?  It didn’t trouble Paul.  He says he’s glad for the chance for the world to hear about Jesus.

Keep in mind that Paul didn’t live in a world where you could buy a “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirt at the local mall.  He lived in a world that had never heard the name of Jesus, so he was just happy the word was getting out.  And as before, it reflects his deeper purpose—and greater joy.

TO LIVE IS CHRIST…

So we finally come to one of the most famous passages from Paul’s letters:

21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.  23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.  24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.  25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith,  26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.  (Philippians 1:21-26)

Suffering is something we all go through.  Most of our lives are spent trying to avoid it.  And for most people, that’s where the pursuit of happiness comes down to: maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain.  Paul says there’s something more to live for, something we can’t buy with fashion, cleansers, creams, or sport utility vehicles.

See, the way we handle suffering says everything about where our hope truly lies.  It’s the reason C.S. Lewis would write that “crises reveal character.”  If I am a deeply religious person, suffering will devastate me.  What have I done wrong?  What did I do to deserve this?  Suffering fills me with guilt and shame.  I want to hide from others, lest my suffering be evidence of my wrongdoing.  But if I am not a religious person, I’m also devastated by suffering.  Why?  Because it only reveals the arbitrary nature of the universe.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  What kind of God would allow this?  And there really are no good answers to these questions.

For Paul, joy means looking into the face of suffering and recognizing that this world is not all there is.  Death cannot have the final word.  So for Paul, death is only a chance to escape the world and find—in Jesus—everything he ever wanted.  That’s why in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther would write that for the person who understands the gospel, the words of scripture “turn death into sugar” and every sorrow “into sweet, sweet wine.”  The joys, the pleasures of our present world only point us toward the source of all joy—God himself.

So what’s the purpose of living?  Paul recognizes that his life’s purpose could only be fulfilled by enduring, by facing his hardships head-on.  Only by doing this would he be of continued use to the Church.

The same is true of us.  It’s easy to check out when problems overwhelm us.  It’s harder to have an eternal perspective.  None of us can see the future in its detail, but through God’s word, each of us can see the future as an unending spring of joy.  Joy is magnified in pain—because it points us away from the gifts of this world to the Giver of all gifts.  And, for each of us, suffering becomes a chance to abandon our trust in self, and live each day with a purpose parallel to Paul’s.

 

No one gets anywhere alone (Philippians 1:3-11)

No one gets anywhere alone.  Think you’re the master of your own destiny?  Just wait.  Sometimes something as simple as a cold or a check-engine light can remind you that you don’t have it together the way you think you do.

In a very real sense, that’s what the letter to the church in Philippi was all about.  At its simplest, Philippians represents a thank-you letter, issued by Paul to his supporters in the metropolitan city of Philippi.

These past few days we’ve looked at Paul’s relationship with the church as its founder.  But to better understand the themes of this great book, we have to peel back its pages to see the larger story that lies underneath.

THE THEOLOGICAL STORY

Our understanding of the gospel has to begin with the character of God.  I don’t know about you, but growing up Christianity always struck me as a list of rules.  Don’t cuss.  Don’t watch R-rated movies.  Read your Bible more.   In other words, God always seemed like a cosmic traffic cop, watching with his radar gun to bust you at nearest available opportunity.  Want to stay out of jail?  Simple.  Avoid sin.  Be nice.  But as I’ve grown older I’ve begun to wonder how much of this message has to do with the Bible, and more to do with the mixed-up religious culture that we’ve created.

Instead, what if God was deeply, powerfully, ferociously committed to our joy?  What if his fundamental design for all of reality was that we experience overwhelming joy in his presence, his character, and his creation?   What would change?

See, now I understand that God’s desire for my heart and for my life are not rooted in arbitrary standards of “goodness,” but in the eternal designs that he has for the whole world.  The Bible says that if we violate those designs, we are in a state of “sin.”  The only thing that stands between you and your joy…is you.  Sin, therefore, is displaced love.  Instead of a steadfast love of God, I’ve come to value things like career, sex, entertainment—even religious duty—as ways to measure myself, and find value and security.

The cross changed all that.  On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for my misplaced love.  The empty tomb promises hope for a better world to come.  What do we do in the meantime?  We pursue God’s kingdom by sharing the good news of the gospel with everyone we meet.

PAUL IN PRISON

That brings us to Paul.  Have you ever looked through the Bible and struggled to know how you’d relate to these obscure characters?  When you meet Paul, your search is over.   As we’ll learn later, Paul was one of the most religious people you’ll ever meet—raised in a devout home, privileged with the finest Jewish education.  But Paul was equally one of the least religious people you’ll ever meet—when Christianity was beginning, Paul was so desperate to silence this disruptive movement that he had early Christians dragged from their home and executed.  Do you get these extremes?   Home school kid.  Murderer.  No matter where you lie on the spectrum of belief, Paul will tell you, Been there; done that.  Who better to pen the majority of our New Testament?

So after Paul has a miraculous vision of the risen Savior, his whole life changes.  Now, he abandons his religious pedigrees to become a church-planter throughout the Mediterranean world—we touched on this in the book of Acts in our previous posts.

But toward the end of his life, Paul is taken into Roman custody.  He’s placed under house arrest.   Now, being in house arrest was better than being in an actual prison—but this wasn’t exactly high living, either.  He was free to write, but he was entirely dependent on supporters for supplies and for meals.

So imagine Paul’s joy when a knock came at the door.  The man’s name was Epaphroditus.  He’d come with a gift basket for Paul—which probably included some writing supplies and some food.   This, then, forms the occasion for Paul’s thank-you letter to the church.

When I was a graduate student at Dallas Seminary, I went through something similar.  Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the idea; I’d just lost my job—didn’t know where to turn.  Checking my mailbox one day I received a slip informing me that a package had arrived for me at the campus mail center.  The sizeable box confused me, since I hadn’t ordered anything.  Opening it up, I found a small—maybe 10” tall—doll in the shape of Bob’s Big Boy.  And I was confused.  But when I heard the rattle, I pulled its head off (it was designed that way—don’t give me that weird look) to discover it was filled with wadded-up bills.  I assumed—based on the quantity—that they were dollar bills.  They were twenties.  To this day, I have no idea who sent it; I only know that I received enough to pay my upcoming bills.  I named the doll Epaphroditus, whose gracious gift came to me while I was (ahem) imprisoned in graduate school.  He’s been on my shelf ever since.

THE LETTER TO PHILIPPI

We finally get to the actual text of Philippians.  This is the story that Paul’s been living; now we see how he responds to his supporters in Philippi:

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,  4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy,  5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.  6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.  7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.  8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.  9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,  10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,  11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.  (Philippians 1:3-11)

If there’s a key phrase to the book of Philippians, it’s found in verse 5.  The “partnership in the gospel.”  No one gets anywhere alone.  The gospel gives the church her identity; its love that fuels her mission.

Do you hear how the gospel penetrates Paul’s every word here?  Righteousness—including righteous deeds, or “fruit”—isn’t something that comes naturally.  It comes supernaturally, through the One who “began a good work” in us.  And that tells us something else: no matter who we are, no matter where we are, God’s not finished with us yet.  If our joy ever seems less than full, if our love ever seems less than complete, it’s only because we are but a few chapters into a much larger, much more expansive story.  And to best understand this story, we need each other.  We need the Church.  And we need more grace than we could ever have conceived.