September 20, 2020
Today we move to another of Paul’s letters, to the church in Philippi. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today from chapter 1 starting with verse 21.
READ Philippians 1: 21-30
I want to carry over a verse from last Sunday’s reading in Romans because I think it encapsulates pretty well the situation that Paul is in as he writes this letter to the church in Philippi. “We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” That is mature Christian theology from a man who had been through much for his faith... a man who had faced death without regret because he was following where God led. Paul, as he writes Philippians, is in prison. He is in one of those situations where he isn’t sure if death is near. It could be. But that’s not his focus… life and death. His focus is on belonging to God through Christ Jesus. His focus is on knowing… and having every confidence that he has been claimed by God through Christ. His foundation for such confidence is the grace shown to even him… a man who had previously used his faith to condemn and to murder… to terrorize and work evil in the world. Paul used death to separate people from God. He is a man… and this is crucial to understanding Paul and his theology… he is a man who through grace was made to know his own unworthiness.
Before his encounter with Christ, Paul was a man who thought himself better than others… who thought more highly of himself than he ought. He was a man without humility because through his position… through the precepts of his faith… he was in control. And he was surrounded by others who believed the same… who confirmed his beliefs and his sense of power. He was a man who likely believed that God honored him because of his strength. That was important. His strength. His rightness. The power he could wield over the lives and deaths of others.
Those who are reading through Acts with me in our weekly Bible study know how Paul is introduced in that story by observing the stoning of Stephen. Paul stands there watching these angry men… like him… kill Stephen by throwing rocks at him again and again and again… until he’s beaten and broken and dead. Paul stands watching and approves. This… he says to himself… this is a right and faithful response to Stephen’s differences of belief about God and what God is doing in their midst. God desires the death of this man and his beliefs in order to separate him from God forever. God approves of this murder by stoning. Or so Paul believes at this point.
Let that idea sink in. Imagine yourself… not as one of those who hurled the stones at Stephen. Imagine yourself as Paul… watching… approving. It’s an easier more passive action… watching and approving of this death. Perhaps you can find a time in your own life when you watched… so easy with TV these days… so much to see… so many describing and defining what you are to think… camera’s everywhere like they are… watching a scene like this… watching… and approving. Passive. Distanced. Yes, that murder is right. I approve of that killing. I can justify why that person needed to die like that. God wouldn’t have me mourn over that death. Stephen wouldn’t have died if he hadn’t been so bold in his speech… if he had used a bit more tack and not riled these men to anger. Stephen could have found another way of giving witness that bring such violence upon himself. In a way, Stephen brought his own death upon himself. How easy it is to watch and approve. Death deserved. Death shows that Stephen did not belong to God.
The later… experienced… humbled… mature Paul would write to the church in Rome… “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
One of the other lectionary readings for today was the story of Jonah. And it is a travesty that Jonah’s story has been reduced to the story of him getting swallowed by the whale. That’s all we think about. But Jonah’s story is crucial… especially for today. Because Jonah the prophet… Jonah who knew well the character of God… yet, Jonah was more filled with hate for others than he was love for the God he knew.
Jonah was given the task by God to go to the city of Nineveh to warn the people that their wickedness had come up before God. And Jonah’s response to God’s mission to Nineveh was to hop onto a boat going in the opposite direction. When a storm comes up and the boat is being swamped by the waves and looks like it will sink… Jonah tries to convince the sailors to throw him overboard because one… it will save them since he is the cause of the storm… and two, he will drown. Dead Jonah cannot give God’s message to the people of Nineveh. You see, Jonah hates the people of Nineveh. Jonah wants nothing more than God to rain down destruction upon the people of Nineveh… perhaps imagining the city destroyed as Sodom was destroyed… or maybe suffering through plagues like the people of Egypt in the time of Moses. Jonah hates the people of Nineveh so much that all he wants to do is watch God stone them… murder them while he stands there watching and approving. And Jonah is willing to die himself so that their destruction will be ensured.
Why? Because the people of Nineveh are the enemy. They are Jonah’s enemy. Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrian Empire who came and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. Jonah wants revenge and wants God to enact that revenge. The wages of sin are death. Jonah embraces his own sin… Jonah separates himself from God so that the people of Nineveh will stay in their sin. In death, Jonah believes, he does not belong to God. In death, the people of Nineveh will finally get what they deserve.
But… and here’s the problem… Jonah knows the character of God. Jonah knows that God is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. That’s why Jonah does everything in his power not to bring God’s warning to the people of Nineveh… in the hopes that their wickedness will finally cause God’s wrathful judgment. He embraces the sin and the death. The last thing Jonah wants to happen is exactly what happens in the story… he delivers his message from God… the people repent… and God forgives. God shows mercy to Jonah’s enemy. God brings grace and life to the unworthy people of Nineveh.
At the end of Jonah’s story… he is angry… and all he wants to do is die in his sin… die with his hatred of the people of Nineveh intact. He is angry and he wants God to kill him and be rid of it all. It is better to be dead in sin than alive by God’s grace… that’s how Jonah feels. At the end of Jonah’s story, he is isolated and alone in his anger. He is alienated from God and people.
Paul, unlike Jonah, dies to his sin. Paul embraces the grace of God given to him through Christ Jesus. Paul goes beyond his own social, cultural and religious boundaries… goes out into the world with his message of repentance. Paul doesn’t become perfect. He is still ornery and can be a grump. He still has his hard edges. But Paul goes out into the world to the very people his earlier faith had told him to hate… or at least be indifferent to because they were already dead in their sin. Paul goes out into the world to the people whom he had written off… who he knew well through his own prejudice would stay in their sin. Paul goes to the people who have been called his enemy. Paul goes to these people with a message of grace and mercy and forgiveness. He suffers for these people and their repentance. He fights to make sure that they are included as equals when others try to erect new barriers to keep them in their place of sin and death. Paul embraces his role as apostle to the Gentiles… as apostle to all those that others would keep from God because they would deem them unworthy. And Paul finds genuine community through grace. Earlier in this letter he writes… “For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
In life and in death, Saints, we belong to God. As we live we are freed to bring God’s message of grace to the world. As we live we are able to bring the dead to life as we forgive sin and create community… as… instead of trying to separate people from God through death… we are able to bring the good news of resurrection to all peoples that life eternal is not life everlasting in time… it is life lived in the goodness of this God who is steadfast in love. And Saints, we cannot embrace such life if we keep our hands holding onto death as Jonah did… as the young Paul did. Let go of your hate and embrace the grace of God… standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel. Amen.