a sermon on Philippians 1:21-30
Sometimes it can be a bit strange to read letters like what we read this morning from Philippians. I often find it to be something almost like eavesdropping on a conversation between two good friends. There is so much more being said that what we ourselves can hear. There is so much written between the lines—shared experiences, conversations at meals about the meaning of life and the importance of faith, even inside jokes—that remains beyond our grasp and yet is integral to understanding what is being said. In the case of reading letters from the Bible, add in two millennia of of time difference and at least one layer of translation and you’ve got the perfect recipe for confusion, misunderstanding, and head scratching!
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is very much one of those letters that doesn’t always sense to us at our distance. Many scholars think that the Philippians were Paul’s favorite church, so when we read the letter, it really does feel like we’re missing something here. There’s a real sense of affection throughout his words to them. His tone is never harsh but always encouraging, never focused on lifting up the places where they have gone wrong but on rejoicing in their faithfulness, never distant but very personal and friendly and loving. All this makes Philippians a wonderful, warm book to read, but it can also make it a bit difficult to connect to our lives.
The first line of our reading this morning is a perfect example of this: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” What? That just doesn’t make sense to me on a linguistic level, let alone a practical one. Paul’s attempts to explain what he means just make me all the more confused. Some of the confusion is a translation issue—there are certainly other ways to look at these words beyond the trusty New Revised Standard Version, descended as it is from the good old King James, which has nearly the same confusing translation. The thoughtful paraphrase The Message clarifies Paul’s intention a bit, I think: “Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his bounty. Life versus even more life! I can’t lose.” But what does this mean, anyway? What is the life that Paul is referring to? Does he really prefer life after death to life here and now? Or is he trying to get at something else here?
As he goes on to explain all of this, Paul appeals to that deep relationship that he shares with the Philippians. He says that he prefers to “depart and be with Christ,” yet his continued life on earth “is more necessary” for them. He is so devoted to them that that relationship, among other things, pulls him back toward this life. He has been living in the tension so prevalent in the New Testament between the here-and-now and the world-to-come, the already and the not-yet, life in the flesh and life with Christ. He has every reason to want to move on—he has lived a good and faithful life, he is suffering from an unknown-to-us physical affliction, and he is living under Roman imprisonment. Yet he doesn’t set this world aside. He longs to be with Christ, to know the fullness of God’s love, to set aside the pains of living, and yet he knows that there is still labor for him in the days ahead, that he can continue to grow in his own faith, hope, and love, and share the joys of life in relationship with communities like the Philippians.
All this focus on the life here-and-now, though, requires careful attention to the way of living in this world, not just for the sake of living today but to find a faithful way forward in this in-between time. So Paul insists that this beloved community “live… life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” which for him is grounded in unity of spirit. This unity of spirit brings them together and gives them common purpose for the actions that live out the gospel. This unity also forms the basis of their witness against anyone who may oppose them, for these opponents will not realize all the ways in which God is working through the Philippians’ faithfulness and courage to seal their destruction. This unity supports the Philippians and brings them together, helping them to believe and to face the challenges of faithfulness together along the way. This unity takes its clearest form as he and the Philippians face the suffering that they both endure, and he assures them that this is not just something that must be endured but indeed is a privilege to be celebrated!
While the deep relationship between Paul and the Philippians makes for beautiful reading, it can make it a little more difficult for us to figure out where we fit in in these words. What does all this mean for us in our world? What does it mean for us to live our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ? How are we to understand this call in our world where we are still in this in-between time many centuries after Paul would have suspected that all things would be made new?
Perhaps Paul’s call to unity of spirit is more important for us than we might realize. It is far too easy to let the fractures of our world break into our lives. We see a broken political system where women and men spend more time campaigning against one another and posturing against another perspective than in finding a solution that brings us together. We lament the end of the structures that have bound together our communities for years, yet we ourselves no longer contribute the time and resources to them that are necessary to make them work. We complain that society is changing from the way it always was and fail to recognize how even what we remember is the product of so many different perspectives of time and place. We sigh that our churches no longer have the members or privilege that we remember in them, yet we ourselves have too often looked only within these walls rather than seeking to work in new and different ways beyond them.
When challenges and struggles like these come before us, the temptation is to let those things push us apart, to allow conflict to blossom and flourish, to set aside the call to live in peace together, to be intimidate by others who shine light on our divisions, to be divided even amidst our unity in Christ. So perhaps in our fractured world we are called more than ever before to live life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, coming together from our different perspectives to stand firm in one spirit. In our world where those with different perspectives are best placed in entirely different camps, we are called to strive side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, not focusing on our own understanding but on the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ. In our world where everything is changing and our temptation is to hold tight to the ways that we know, we are called not to be intimidated by change, to struggle with the different and emerging understandings of faithfulness in our lives and our world, to seek together, amidst all our differences, to find the new life that is coming into our midst in Jesus Christ.
Like many Presbyterians and Americans, I’ve followed with some interest the news of this past week as the people of Scotland voted in a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. When I was last in Scotland about two years ago, this referendum was still a good ways off, and most people assumed that the result would be a clear vote against independence, so I think many people ended up a bit surprised that the vote was actually as close as it was, with the “yes” vote for independence receiving about 45% of the total.
What has been most amazing about this referendum, though, is the way in which it seems to have brought out the deepest passion for the good of the nation. Some 85% of registered voters cast ballots in the referendum—compare that with the meager 10% of New Yorkers who voted in our own party primaries two weeks ago! As one commentator put it, “That nearly every Scottish adult over the age of 16 has been engaged, peacefully, in a crucial political decision is widely recognised as the referendum’s great achievement.”
Both sides offered impassioned arguments for their perspective, yet in the end the result seems to have brought everyone to want to work together for a better nation. Our sisters and brothers in our parent church, the Church of Scotland, maintained intentional institutional neutrality in the referendum, recognizing that people of good faith and practice might disagree on the best pathway for the work of God’s kingdom in our midst. Good, faithful, Christian people worked on both sides of the referendum, yet the church did not take its own stand. Some criticized the church for its neutrality, yet it may be the Church of Scotland’s very example of unity amidst differing opinions that can be its most powerful witness in these days. Amidst the fractures in society, it can stand as a witness to the ways in which God’s faithfulness can bring people together.
So may God guide us to live lives worthy of this in-between time, striving together for the unity we know in Christ so that we might be a witness to new life even as we struggle to live these lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ until all things are made new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.