Week of January 6: Proclaiming Christ's message, even in the most difficult circumstances
By Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers
Week of January 6
Lesson Scripture: Philippians 1:15-26
Background Scripture: Philippians 1:12-30
Key Verse: Philippians 1:18
Of all the letters of Paul, there is none so full of joy or more uplifting than Philippians. Since the letter is a thank you for repeated support and encouragement, Paul’s spirit is lifted, and it shows! There is no controversy about the authorship or the timing of the letter. Paul is in prison in Rome and the future is uncertain. The circumstances determine the message and its importance to the church then and now.
We learn that Paul’s imprisonment is overseen by the Emperor’s own elite troops—the Praetorian Guard. They know his confinement is because of Christ. Curiosity and admiration combine to make Paul’s witness both unique and strategic. In faith, Paul believes what most would see as a setback is really another step forward in the spread of the gospel. A new and wholly different crowd is hearing the story of Jesus and His love. At the close of the letter we see that this strategy is working! “All the saints (read Christians!) send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household.” And Paul doesn’t care who tells the story!
This is one of the most remarkable statements anywhere in scripture. We wondered why 1:18 would be the key verse when 1:21: “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” is in the same passage. For Paul the critical issue is not who carries the message, but the message itself. Paul has no ego invested in the unfolding drama of the ever-widening circles in which God’s gift of Jesus is becoming known.
The messengers have different agendas. Some are picking up where Paul had to stop because of their commitment to the gospel and their admiration for what Paul is enduring for the sake of the gospel. Others see a personal opportunity to advance their own position within the fledgling Christian community. But Paul declares: “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives are true, Christ is preached.”
O, could we only believe and act that way. We become tied up in knots when people don’t believe, or think, or worship as we do. Think of the personal differences within Christianity today: traditional vs. contemporary worship; mainline Protestant vs. independent churches; charismatics vs. conventional Christians; liberals vs. conservatives; evangelicals vs. social activists. The list goes on and on.
Paul is our great example. He was cleansed of self. He never lost sight of the goal! Georgians love football and have witnessed again and again a player who commits a foul that costs the team crucial yardage or even a score because of something he takes as personal. Momentarily, he forgets the goal of a winning team. We contemporary Christians must not let ego and pride interfere with the ultimate goal for the winning of the world for Christ.
Then Paul uses the word that resonates throughout the letter: REJOICE! Again and again the sound of rejoicing is heard in the experiences of Paul. Here is the place to stop and ponder the experiences of your own life. Too often our joy is conditional. Think about it: when life is good and blessings are numerous and bountiful, we express gratitude. But let things get tough, and we begin to say, or at least think, “why me?”
Where is the source of Paul’s joy as he was cut off from his work and his friends in Philippi? There is a critical word in verse 19 that gives us a clue to the source of joy. That word in Greek is “soteria.” This word is the root of “salvation,” but both NRSV and NIV translate the word as “deliverance.” The CEB translates it “release.” Paul says that regardless of how his trial goes, either acquittal or condemnation, he will be delivered—to life or to Christ. Such joy is not subject to the circumstances of the moment. Its source is in the very nature of God.
Paul is concerned for the Philippians not to worry about him. Yes, he would much rather be free and doing his work for Christ, but there is more—far more. Here is where one of our childhood memory verses is found: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Wow! How focused can you be? Living or dying, you are in the hands of a loving God.
The movie “Amazing Grace” is a powerful story of the life of William Wilberforce. He was the major factor in abolishing the slave trade in English ships while serving in Parliament for 45 years. He and William Pitt were boyhood friends, going to university together and colleagues in Parliament. Pitt became the youngest Prime Minister in British history, but because of the American and French Revolutions the two men found themselves temporarily on opposite sides politically. When dying, Pitt asked for his old friend to come and visit him. Wilberforce was a well-known Evangelical Christian, whose mentor John Newton wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace.” Pitt, like most of us, confessed his fear of dying. Holding his friend’s hand, Wilberforce shared his faith in Jesus Christ as Pitt entered eternity. Today they are buried together in Westminster Abby.
Not only was Paul facing an uncertain future, but so were the Philippians. Across the Roman Empire, Christians were being persecuted. How could this happen? The loving, all-powerful God of the universe was allowing His people to suffer, and they could not understand it. Stand firm, writes Paul, and do not be frightened by those that oppose you. You are not alone. We are in this battle of life together. Count your sufferings as blessings. There is truly a fellowship of suffering. We only have to look to the Cross to catch a vision of the One who has gone before and waits to welcome us home. Paul, the Philippians, and we can have this “Victory in Jesus!”
Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers are a retired clergy couple. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.