16th Sunday after Pentecost

September 20, 2020


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.

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 honoured in my body, whether by life or by death. 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 labour
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.

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 1:12-
14,19-30 ESV)

Today we begin in our Bible readings to hear from Paul in prison – think house arrest – confined –
possibly chained to a soldier – rather than stuck chained to a wall down a dungeon or some other cold
wet hole. The soldier is a captive audience and with the freedom he has in the house to receive visitors
and support, Paul is able to continue talking and writing. What do you write from prison? Well, a
number of the New Testament letters qualify as examples so you might want to check out Ephesians,
Colossians, Philemon, and for us today, Philippians. If we think of Paul in prison, I think, we frame
him as the persecuted, unjustly imprisoned, and that perhaps elevates the letters somewhat and we
simply don’t think of them as ‘letters from prison’. However Paul is still in prison with all the stigma
that might bring and he is reliant on support. Who wants to be associated with a prisoner, someone in
goal? Those in authority and those who are law abiding, I dare say see all prisoners a certain way –
maybe it is still the same today – that, of course, they will plead their innocence or mitigating
circumstances – but they are still in prison, so they must have done something. Prisoners are
withdrawn from society and subject to the controls of others precisely because their freedom is
curtailed. They are confined. Limited. No longer working in their former job and seriously restricted
in their relationships, they are viewed poorly in society, it’s embarrassing, shameful, degrading to be
in such a situation. And yet Paul seems to be functioning irrespective of his postcode or circumstance
– as an apostle (because the Lord called him) and as a pastor because he is hearing from the
congregations he formed on his missionary journeys news of troubles and issues that have arisen and
so he is ready to respond as he is able to do so.

Our second reading today is from Philippians and when I say it like that people might think that it is
from the Philippians – from the Christians in Philippi (situated in northern east Greece of today) but
back then was a Roman colony privileged to be granted status that made it equivalent to being in Italy
itself – in other words, it had prestige in the Roman Empire and thought itself – and was – close to
Rome. Philippians is not their letter to Paul but Paul’s letter to them and all letters have contexts – still
today – we write with a purpose – so this letter is written to the Christians in Philippi because they
had sent Epaphroditus, one of their own, to help Paul in Rome and to give him their gift of financial
support – they had taken up an offering! – for his time in prison. Paul’s letter is his ‘thank you’ but it
seems to have been written over a period of time – we can’t be sure – but Epaphroditus gets seriously
ill, close to death, the Philippians hear about it and are concerned and upset for him, he hears this and
is worried about them, and Paul writes this when he sends Epaphroditus back with the letter – of
thanks, of rejoicing, and of guidance and advice – because for all the joy and support the Christians in
Philippi brought Paul, they were not perfect and they were also targets for the forces trying to pervert
the Gospel.

So we heard in our Second Reading Paul reminding them that his imprisonment has been used by God
to further the Gospel – the story of Jesus who he is and what he has done and why he is good news for
every person. Paul might be captive – awaiting trial in Rome – and strictly, legally, if found to be
guilty as an enemy of Rome, death awaited him – but in reality those around him – particularly the
guard were a captive audience to hear this good news. Paul is not an enemy of the people, a villain or
terrorist, but he is a follower of Jesus, and his imprisonment is encouraging others to speak up as well
about Jesus.

That Paul weighs up life or death shows his uncertain future according to human standards and he
reveals his concern because he doesn’t want to slip, fall, be ashamed somehow in his life with Christ
whether he faces the day unsure of the future or sure that the executioner is coming. His focus is on
honouring Christ – whether he lives, in his dying, and by his death. If he dies, he’s with Jesus – he’s
the winner, he gains – but if he lives another day, then it means more work, more following Jesus. In a
way I don’t understand personally – maybe I’m not old enough – he would opt for going to Jesus if he
had the choice but he can see that he has work still to do – and he says that the Philippians can still
learn from him – he has more to teach – if he stays. Whether he is praying as he writes, whether the
Holy Spirit gives him a revelation about his immediate future, Paul seems convinced that for now – he
will get to finish the letter, and while he can’t travel until his case is resolved, he hopes that they will
rejoice that God is spreading the Gospel and one day he hopes they will meet again.

Having written about himself, he, like a former pastor who knows his former congregation, writes
instructions that they will live their lives worthy of the Gospel, be united together, and not be
surprised when persecutions come and not be afraid by what attackers might do. Because they are a
target in this world, the Philippians should see this as a sign that the attackers have lost because they
are really rejecting Jesus when they attack you – you don’t see Jesus but they do (in you) – and so
your persecution for sticking close to Jesus is a sign of your salvation in Christ and then Paul makes
what I think is the most controversial statement of our reading, a statement that is counter intuitive to
us about success or a good life, seems a crazy way to attract people, and is …
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 1:29,30 ESV)

I can almost hear people say, ‘What?! Here as well – another hard saying?!’. It is part of the deal with
Jesus, with a cross, with picking up your own and following him, that suffering comes because we are
not neutral to the world – repent because Jesus and his kingdom offer life like you can’t imagine – and
the world fights back. We are not neutral to our sinful self – repent because Jesus has given you his
life in Baptism – but we find ourselves sinning, selfish, and simply fighting Jesus. And we are not
neutral to the fear of death or death itself – don’t be afraid, in this world you will have tribulation but
take heart, I have overcome the world – but we can still wonder how true such words are. What can
help the Christian is, in such times, other Christians who are united in Christ and honest about what
this means – that following Jesus is not a magic carpet ride of prosperity, respectability, unlimited
health and affluence – but is up and down in this world and over time we grow in learning that God
brings good out of each day, even as the days can be hard and tough. Paul reminds them that they and
he are involved in the same struggle – his chains are more visible, his tough times more obvious – but
they and the Philippians are united together – as is evident in their financial gift to him (he mentions
this towards the end of the letter). They are united together against sin within and without and
wanting, above all, to point to Christ and not fall over or be ashamed doing that – which is why
Christians need other Christians.

COVID-19 and the trials and tribulations of living at the moment have not destroyed the Church and
we know of these past months and of the, at times, surprising realisation that we are not isolated or
alone at home but have others – particularly those in our congregations – supporting us. No
congregation or Synod is perfect but where the cross of Jesus is central then there is no false hope
about magic carpets but only sure promises that because Jesus’ grave is empty, he is walking with us
so that we may serve each other. Look at each other in the room or on screen and there in all those
who are baptised are family – the children of God – helping each other live to the glory of God, even
on the day we die. Our life in Christ transcends prisons, chains, reputation, fear, sin, shame, and death
and the Word of God, the Word made flesh, gives life to the full, forgiveness, and hope – by which
we live. It was true for Paul and the Philippians and it is true for us here at Ascension, Ipswich, Good
Shepherd, and Redeemer.

What else does Paul say? More next week.

Bible References

  • Philippians 1:12 - 30