Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
We don’t get it. How can Christian suffering make other Christians confident in the Gospel? As a matter of fact, it seems as though many Christians today have decided that it would be better to be silent than to suffer the ridicule and frustration that we meet when we try to share our faith with the world. A woman lost her job just for saying “God bless you.” Children are suspended from school for wearing “Jesus loves you” t-shirts or reading bibles during free time. Business owners are fined for making business choices that reflect their understanding of the scriptures.
American Christians have not yet had to deal with the suffering that Paul experienced: prison, beatings and even death. We see it happening in other places like Africa and China, but that is far away and completely removed from our experience. It is much easier to just go along with expectations of the world around us than to stand firm on what we believe. After all, why would we risk our lives and our livelihoods when it is just as easy to say “Have a nice day” or wear a different t-shirt? We can even find ways to remain principled in our business dealings while minimizing risks. We aren’t willing to be one who suffers for the Gospel if we can avoid it.
We are using Eric Metaxes’ DVD study on Dietrich Bonhoeffer in our study group right now. He was a Christian who was willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He fought society, the church and even his friends to ensure that Christ was glorified in the life of Christians. Most Christians, including many of those who agreed with Bonhoeffer in many ways, gave some leeway to the Nazis and the German Christians in an attempt to redirect the direction of the conversation. They hoped that they could indulge them in some ways so as to have the respect, authority and power to stop things before they got too bad. Bonhoeffer saw the dangers from the very beginning, even when Adolf Hitler was highly popular with the German people. He warned them over and over again, constantly trying to convince them that they had to stop it immediately or it would be unstoppable. He was right.
The German people at first saw Hitler as a type of savior. They had suffered greatly after the first World War, perhaps even more than they should have. The treaty of Versailles destroyed Germany; it caused incredible hardship every citizen. They turned to the one man who they thought could restore Germany’s prosperity. Hitler, for his part, understood how to manipulate the Germans to his benefit, and he managed to usurp all the power not only in the government, but also the military and the church. It did not take very long before standing on principle meant death. At that point the people realized their mistake but it was already too late.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer risked his life for the sake of the Gospel. His life story is amazing and his commitment to the Gospel is inspiring. I have noted, however, that as we go through this study that we keep asking “Where is our Bonhoeffer?” Yet, despite the parallels we see in today’s world, none of us are really willing to risk it all for the Gospel. Dietrich’s suffering has not made it any easier for us to speak the Gospel. We are still afraid and we justify our timidity just as they did in 1930’s Germany.
So, how did Paul’s suffering make the Christians of Philippi more confident and bold to speak the word without fear? Shouldn’t they have been running off into the catacombs, hiding their faith, safely worshipping God apart from the prying eyes of their enemies? I think it is important to understand Paul’s history with that Christian community to see how much of an impact he really had on them.
Paul was in Philippi because he had a dream of a man in Macedonia begging him to come help. He and his companions believed it was God calling them to go, so they went. In Philippi they met Lydia a faithful woman who gathered with others on the Sabbath at a place of prayer. She believed the Word Paul spoke and was baptized along with her entire family. She invited Paul and his companions to stay at her home, and from there Paul founded the Philippian Christian church. There was a slave woman with a spirit who was frustrating the disciples. One day Paul ordered the spirit to leave the woman and she was set free. Her masters, however, knew that he had destroyed their source of income and they had Paul arrested. Paul faced prison with faith, singing hymns and sharing the Gospel with the other prisoners. One night an earthquake caused Paul and his companions to be freed from their bonds, but they did not leave. They called out the jailer who was about to kill himself rather than face the punishment of failing in his duties, and saved him not only in flesh but with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Imagine having a person of influence like that jailer in your congregation! Paul begins today’s lesson by saying, “Now I would have you know, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the progress of the gospel; so that my bonds became manifest in Christ throughout the whole praetorian guard, and to all the rest…” It wasn’t Paul that told the praetorian guard the story, but the jailer himself, who shared his conversion story with all his friends. The Christians in Philippi saw the impact Paul had on one man, who then had an impact on the entire congregation. His imprisonment really did make them more confident in the Lord.
It wasn’t his suffering that did it, but rather it was the fact that Paul lived for the glory of God. The Church grew because Paul knew that whether his circumstances were good or bad God could make incredible things happen. Paul simply trusted God and the people of Philippi learned from his example. It wasn’t his death or his suffering that encouraged them, it was the way he lived his life. I think the same is true about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We study him today not only because he was martyred for his faith, but because he lived his life for the Gospel no matter what his circumstances. He willingly risked everything to glorify God.
I really do understand Paul in this passage. The second half is a monologue in which Paul talks about what he really wants. To put it bluntly, Paul wanted to die. He wasn’t suicidal, but he knew that life would be so much sweeter in eternity. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” I feel the same way. However, Paul knew that it was not yet time for him to be with his Lord Jesus. He still had work to do; he still had Christians to encourage. He was, as they say, between a rock and a hard place. He wanted to be with Jesus, but he knew that his life had purpose. “But I am in a strait betwixt the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ; for it is very far better: yet to abide in the flesh is more needful for your sake.” He fought his martyrdom as long as he could so that he could continue preaching the Gospel and teaching the Christians how to live.
In his story we see the hope and expectation of the world to come and how it impacts his life today. We are not meant to rush the destination but to enjoy the journey. We live in the hope of the things to come, and I admit that I cry out almost daily, “Come, Lord Jesus, come,” but there is a reason we are here as we wait. In good times and in bad, we are here to glorify God by sharing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the world.
It is easy to complain when things are hard, especially when there are people who preach a message of faith in all the wrong things. Those preachers who tell you that your life should be perfect, that you should be rich and that you should never suffer are leading you down the wrong path. The German Christians were following a message that Germany was more important than Jesus and eventually that Hitler was their god. New pastors were forced to take oaths since they were considered civil servants, employees of the state. “I swear: I will be faithful and obedient to the leader of the German empire and people, Adolf Hitler, to observe the law, and to conscientiously fulfill my official duties, so help me God!” They had been surely and easily manipulated away from the true faith by words that at first sounded good and right but that led down a road of destruction.
Isaiah reminds us that our lives are meant to be focused on God. As we travel through this journey of life, we learn that we aren’t in control of everything and that we shouldn’t even try. We want to avoid suffering and so we let ourselves be led down a dangerous path. It just doesn’t seem worthwhile to fight that which seems like it can’t be fought. Sometimes these experiences are painful or inconvenient. Yet, God uses them for our good, to bring us to a deeper faith and closer relationship to Him. God knows what He’s doing, and His ways are always perfect. We can’t imagine any good that might come from our suffering, but we can be like Paul, trusting that God can and does do incredible things even through our pain.
I think, sometimes, we get so comfortable in our own salvation that we don’t think about those who still need to experience the love and mercy of God. We even, sadly, hoard it for ourselves, as if God does not have enough grace to go around. Now, I don’t think that we necessarily want everyone else to go to hell, but Jesus warns us about being frugal with our faith. During this summer we’ve learned about the radical generosity of God in scattering the seed. We have learned that forgiveness is limitless. We have learned that God is strong enough to carry all our burdens. We’ve learned that God will make sure everything works out according to His will and purpose. Our job is to go about His work while we live in the world, joyfully sharing His Gospel so that all people will repent and believe.
Sadly, there are just some people we’d rather not share in that joy. We don’t want our enemies to know God’s forgiveness or ours. We withhold God’s grace from those we have judged unworthy. We don’t think it is fair that someone can lead of life of willful disobedience to God and His Word and then make a deathbed confession and rejoice in His salvation for eternity.
That’s what we are seeing in today’s Gospel lesson. Now, we can make this a story about a living wage and God’s generosity. We can discuss the rightness and fairness of an employer paying the guy who works an hour the same wage as the guy who works ten. That’s where the discussion always goes. We take our human experience and put it into this story. In a sense we are reminded that even the human landowners have the right to be as generous as they please, as long as they uphold their promises. That’s what happened in this story. The first to be hired, however, expected that if the landowner was so generous to the ones hired last, then surely they must be worthy of even more. There was nothing unfair about this landowner: he paid the promised wages.
As we look at this story from a spiritual perspective, the wage being an eternity in God’s presence, how could be possibly expect anything greater than the promise? Do we, who have been Christians for our whole lives expect to have a larger mansion in the heavenly city than the guy who made a deathbed confession? Is there anything greater than an eternity at the feet of our Lord God Almighty, worshipping Him and singing His praise? Why would we expect God to give the latecomer less? We should rejoice that the landowner has guaranteed our neighbor and his family will survive another day. Even more so, we should rejoice with our brother in Christ that he has been saved in time.
I will admit that I can name a few people I hope I won’t see in heaven. I can name a few who I don’t believe could possibly be saved. Top on my list, and on many lists, is Adolf Hitler. He was evil. He destroyed too many lives. He was a type of anti-Christ, abusing the church and God’s people. He does not deserve God’s grace. It seems wholly unfair to even think of him as receiving the same reward I’ve spent my life earning. It seems absurd to think that the man who ultimately killed Dietrich Bonhoeffer might actually kneel next to him for eternity praising the God he spent his life trying to destroy.
Yet, we can’t possibly know whether or not Adolf Hitler experienced the love and mercy of God in a way that brought him to true repentance in his final moments. God’s grace can heal the dis-ease and cast out the demons that created a monster like Adolf Hitler. This is, perhaps, a most extreme example. But if a man like Adolf Hitler could be saved, then shouldn’t we at least rejoice with our neighbor who has been saved even if he or she has done something to bring us harm?
Paul could have escaped the prison and let that jailer end his life. I’m sure he wasn’t very kind to Paul and his companions. As a matter of fact, he put Paul into the worst part of his jail and chained them to ensure they could not escape. They were beaten before prison and were probably abused inside. Their wounds went untended, their hunger ignored. He didn’t deserve their forgiveness. Yet Paul knew that it was up to God to deal with that man’s sin, not his. Who was Paul to let the jailer kill himself and go to hell without hearing the Good News that is Christ if God saw something in his heart?
The world is a dangerous place for Christians, and lately it has seemed like the dangers are more imminent. Our human nature, of course, tends to make us see our situations as worse than anyone else’s. Our pain is greater, our suffering deeper, our needs more intense. We think it should be easier for them to get over it, to pay their debts, to offer their forgiveness, but we think that no one knows what it is like to really suffer but me.
We might have good reason to be afraid. There are folk who are determined to steal our lives, to harm our children and to destroy the things we hold dear. Yet, we are called to fear only one: the Lord God Almighty. This isn’t a fear of loss, as if God will steal, harm or destroy us, but rather an attitude of awe for the One who is our light and salvation. No matter what threatens us, we can know that God’s grace and mercy and love. In Him we can find peace in even the most difficult of circumstances; we can trust that He will make all things right.
Paul’s suffering gave the Christians in Philippi reason to be confident in the Lord because God did a good work in that prison. One man and his family were saved in that encounter, but that man shared his story with the entire praetorian guard. It is possible many of them came to be saved; at the very least they looked at the Christians with a new understanding through their friend the jailer. Each one, despite the harm they may have caused to Paul and the other Christians, were given the chance to know the Lord God Almighty, to experience His grace and receive His forgiveness so that they might, too, spent eternity in His presence.
It wouldn’t be easy for the Philippians. They would still experience persecution and possibly death. The same is true for us. For Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ creates an expectation of life for himself and for others who have heard the good news. He expects that Christ will be glorified whether he lives or dies, is free or imprisoned. Paul also expects that those who have come under the grace of God will live the life worthy of the Gospel, the life that expects Christ to be glorified in good times and bad. The life lived in faith will always glorify God with confidence. Let us trust God for our bold proclamation of the Gospel can impact the world in ways that we would never expect. He has plans we can’t even imagine and can make the impossible possible. He has given us the promise of eternity and has invited us to share that same promise with the world even those we think do not deserve His grace. He is generous beyond our imagining and has more than enough for us all.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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