|Rembrandt, Paul in Prison|
Paul wrote his letter to the Philippian church from a jail cell, and yet the defining word for this letter is joy. We see this in Paul’s word of thanksgiving for the Philippian church: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy for all of you” (Phil 1:3-4). He’s grateful that he can share in their “progress and joy in the faith” (Phil. 1:25).
Now, this joy isn’t rooted in their circumstances. After all, Paul is in jail and they’re suffering some form of persecution. Nevertheless, they’ve found joy in God’s presence. It’s for this reason that Paul can write: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). This joy that marks the letter is rooted in a spirit of friendship and affection.
Now, Paul does have a life and death dilemma. He’s ready to die and be with the Lord, and yet he knows he still has work to do. So, he declares: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21 KJV). He’s ready to face martyrdom if that’s his fate because he would be with Christ. But, if he lives, he can continue his work on behalf of the Gospel, which he knows is more important at the moment. Either way, he experiences the joy of the Lord.
So, Paul looks forward to visiting his friends in Philippi so he can “share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus.” That hope leads to a word of instruction and encouragement in verse 27, where he writes: “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Or, as the NIV puts it: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
Ekaputra Tupamahu points out that what Paul is doing here is reminding the Philippians that “as followers of Christ, they have to be a citizen of Philippi worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Tupamahu points out that the word translated here as “conduct yourself” is a political term. What that means is that “Paul is telling them to get involved in politics.” When he speaks of politics here, he’s doesn’t mean modern partisan politics, because that didn’t exist in the first century. But, it does mean living in such a way in the community that the gospel is honored. Or, as Jeremiah put it: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7).
As followers of Jesus, we’re bound together in a covenant relationship with God. That covenant relationship requires that we live our lives with integrity. This past Wednesday, the Bible study group read through Genesis 17, where God appears to Abram to make a covenant with him. And God said to Abram: “I am God Shadday. Live your life before me and be a person of integrity” (Gen. 17:1 The First Testament). I chose John Goldingay’s translation here because he uses the word “integrity.” The Oxford Dictionary defines integrity as “The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.” I think that’s what Paul means by conducting our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel. What we believe, and what we say and do, should match. Now, none of us is perfect in our walk before God, but Paul encourages us to live our lives with integrity so that the Gospel will be honored.
The eyes of the world are upon us as Christians. Because the Christian community doesn’t always exhibit integrity, our witness gets muted. When statements of hate, exclusion, and violence are uttered in the name of Jesus, the Gospel is not honored. So, if we’re to live in a manner worthy of the Gospel, then our message should be one of love, justice, mercy, grace, and peace. And as Paul writes near the end of the letter, the peace of God, “surpasses all understanding.” This peace should “guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).
May we, as Paul asks of the Philippians, “stand firm in one spirit.” May we strive “side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,” even though this might lead to suffering. Nevertheless, as Paul writes, let us not be intimidated by our opponents, for to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
This call to conduct our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel can begin with something as simple as properly wearing a mask during the pandemic. That means, covering the nose! From there, it leads to addressing concerns such as climate change, civil rights, and economic inequality, to name just a few of the concerns of this moment in time.
As we struggle with these and other concerns at a time when we may feel disconnected from each other because of the pandemic, may we find encouragement in the words of Paul, who writes to his friends from a jail cell. Paul found joy in the Lord, through his prayers for the community. May we find joy in our prayers for one another and for the community at large.
May we find inspiration in the hymn we began the service with. Pat has been playing as the prelude each week James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as a sign of solidarity with the African American community. I chose this hymn, which is known as the Black National Anthem, as our opening hymn because it speaks to this moment. May these words from the third verse be our prayer as we continue the journey into the peace of God:
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray. [Chalice Hymnal, 631]