Sermon - September 21, 2014
2 1For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29 For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
"Abandon all hope, all who enter here." Dante's legendary words which hang as an omen of defeat over the gates leading to Hell, gates which the poet travels through in order to return to his desired location- home with Jesus.
But those might as well be our words hanging around our necks on white poster board signs when we face the meaning of passages such as this. "In the world we live in, abandon all hope... Its just simpler that way," so many feel.
Certainly I wish to go home to see Jesus. It is the goal I strive to attain in my Christian walk. I have family there. Family I miss; family I've not met. I know precisely what Paul speaks about when he proclaims that he wishes to be reunited to Christ, but in a defeated voice we think, he says he will remain here being a participant in the church.
I too want to stay close by Jesus and leave behind all that drags me down in Creation for the eternal glory of heaven, as I know you do as well. There are discussions with my children I never wanted to have at their tender age. Information around a hospital bed I don't want to hear that leads me to make decisions I don't wish to make either.
Instead, I want to run on the streets of gold and walk with him by the sea- as I know you do as well. I can hear Paul saying, as I read this text, that "A part of me doesn't want this..." I don't want to hear or see these things. But we are called to stay here. We are called to serve here. We have work to do.
Yet the burden of those statements, and that call that I spoke about, causes us to hang our own signs around our necks in corporate defeat, "abandon all hope" in the places we live and in the churches we gather in. Living for God may be gain but I feel defeated.
This is a world of sin- I have spoken of it before. It is a world where a growing majority believes Jesus Christ is NOT the only means of salvation- which is a ridiculous statement to be certain. This is a world where job loss, death, estrangement are as real as the Holy Spirit can be in our lives and somehow, you and I are supposed to have something to say that speaks truth into the deep darkness the world is walking in and calls their behavior into line with Jesus.
This is a world Paul did not want to reside in either but he was bold enough to tell us of his struggle because his struggle is our struggle, and the victory he wins is a victory possible for us as well. "For to me, living is Christ."
Move 1- "Living in Christ"
Paul, with guards chained to his hands and feet, invites his friends to ponder what it means to live in Christ when it seems that Christ has forgotten his church. It was one his major themes and it is a complex one. This is a challenge the church has wrestled with since Philippians was canonized as scripture.
Theologians have debated it. Church leaders have argued about it for years. Even our denominations have struggled to understand "living in Christ" as verse 21 begins as many out there work to divide Christ from his gospel. In an effort to try to figure out what Paul meant I consulted the normal resources and writers. When they didn't concisely provide an answer I asked google (as someone who stopped by the church suggested)... and when google didn't know I asked Siri (which was the second bit of advice this person gave me). Even she had an answer- which surprisingly was clearer than most other resources. To live in Christ is difficult to understand.
Over and over again Paul has challenged the church to deepens their faith by preaching the gospel accurately and truthfully- he challenged them to live in Christ. The concept of 'living in Christ' will helps us overcome the hopelessness we find ourselves living among as it helped Paul survive in prison when it would have been easier to give up.
The person who has nothing to live for will lose hope and die quickly. Paul sees these people, those without hope, those who come to church every week, those who wish to stop struggling with issues of faithfulness, living among the church, being content with second place being content with the scraps of life.
He knows that it is God's will that we experience life and not death. It is God's will that His church prospers that her faith in Him grows and deepens as she attends to her call and live worthy of the gospel as offered in verse 27ff.
And we have lots to live for... We have Christ and we have the glorious task of "living in Christ."
To "Live in Christ" is to define oneself as being a part of Christ, to identify with Christ. Paul can make this bold proclamation that he wishes to go to his heavenly home, and yet will remain because, Paul has found the presence of Christ with him. Paul can put his finger on the exact place where God resides, in the person of Jesus, with and in him. Paul understands, as far as humanly capable, where Jesus is for him and that makes the apostle desire to endure.
He is not afraid. The apostle does not worry about what the future will hold for him. Paul is resolute in following Christ.
Move 2- He stays
Because Paul identifies living "in Christ" as better than dying, and he identifies himself as willingly 'living in the person of Jesus' when he wants to actually free himself of the burden of Christianity as return home, Paul can freely choose to follow a path he does not wish to follow knowing it will be full of pitfalls and trials, knowing there will be nights when the faith seems to difficult.
He purses the knowledge of God in his life; he follows the example of Jesus. He follows this example not just on a few days of the week or for a few hours, but he follows the example of Christ as best as he is able to, wherever it leads him. He follows the example in suffering as he follows it in preaching.
He can choose this path that is filled with rude people cutting in front him at the deli counter because they are Christ's people. He can choose this path where complaining individuals express frustration about everything from the price of gas to the length of a school day not to mention the length of time they must invest in their daily relationship with God.
Because Paul identifies himself with Christ, he is resolute- he will stay active in the Lord's work and word when the choice presents itself to be less than faithful and leave the work of evangelism and service for another to attend to. He is hard pressed to remain faithful to his call (verse 23-24), but he will because he understands something about growing in the Lord and he is able to locate the Lord in this places with all types of people.
Like Bonhoeffer in 1940s when he choose to return to Nazi Germany and face the persecution which was to come, Paul follows the path. He follows that path that led Bonhoeffer to say, in the face of what was to come, "for me this is the end but also the beginning."
But ultimately it was Paul's choice to reside in the person of Jesus to stick with it. It was his choice to identify personally with the man Christ called him to become.
Move 3- So I continue on
And so as Paul says to me in these words, I choose to stay. I choose to stay with the Lord's people and I choose care for them as I received that same care in my life, if the choice was ever mine in the beginning. I choose to be faithful to my high calling because Jesus chooses to be with me helping me believe and helping me in my suffering and doubts.
I chose to engage myself in the lives of people I see everyday who are lost, frightened, and/or confused by the terrible things this world has done to them. I choose to stand firm as verse 27 says because I stand beside countless masses who have chosen this path as well. As the choice was presented to me, it is also presented to you. Will you choose to live in Christ knowing that the alternative is more appealing, returning to him, but also knowing it is you call to be his hands and his feet.
It is in the name of Christ, and by that authority, that Paul says that even though he wishes to return home to be with the Lord, and even if that is more appealing, he will remain here doing the work of his call. It is by the name of Christ, the Christ he "lives" in, that Paul will stay resolute. 7 times in this text, Paul refers to Jesus by the work he has done, referring to him as "Christ" or "Christ Jesus." Seven times he says, in this short passage that he wishes to stay with the Lord's people.
"Henri Nouwen, the late Dutch Roman Catholic priest, once wrote that you cannot minister in the name if you are not living in the name" (The Crucifixion of Ministry). You have to be living in Christ if you expect to have the sense of dread and/or hopelessness you feel in this world rebuked.
Dante did feel hopeless. As Virgil led him through Hell layer by layer, the poet did not see anything but suffering around him. The deeper he went the worse the sins he encountered were until he came to the center of Hell and found Brutus, Judas, and Cassius, the three people he defined as the worst of sinners. But Jesus had a plan for that vision for the journey.
It was only after he saw the depravity of life without Christ that he was able to choose to climb back out of Hell and journey toward heaven.
We can find a great number of places where Jesus seems absent and it could make us wish to leave it all behind and retreat. But to live in Christ, as Paul defines it in this text means we do not lose hope. Instead we stay the course, we care for the world with all its depravity, because we are choosing to live in the person of Jesus.