St Barbara’s 14.09.14
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Imagine the situation.
You are in prison, awaiting trial. You’ve been there months already, and you have no idea how much longer you will have to wait.
You are under constant surveillance.
No food is provided, so you are dependent for all your needs on the kindness of friends, who may visit at great risk to themselves.
The news you can gain from your visitors, and from what you can eke out from the guards, is not encouraging. Your fate lies in the hands of Emperor Nero, a man who is by all accounts becoming increasingly unpredictable and cruel in his behaviour. He has just recently had his mother and his wife killed on trumped-up charges of treason, and many of his closest advisors have been forced to commit suicide. He is showing an ever-more flagrant disregard for the law and for justice. Life feels very uncertain.
That is the context which Paul finds himself in when he begins writing his letter to the church in Philippi. Paul knows the church there well. It was the first place where he preached the gospel when he crossed from Asia into Europe, and he remembers them with great love and affection. He is also very appreciative of the gift of money he has just received from them to help him buy food and clothes.
And so he writes this letter. Partly to say thank you. Partly to encourage them in their faith. And partly to give them his final words in case things suddenly take a turn for the worse.
As he writes, we get an incredible insight into his attitudes – his attitudes to prayer, his attitudes to his difficulties, and his attitude to life and death – attitudes that serve as an inspiration and challenge to all of us as we too seek to follow Christ.
Well, firstly, his attitude to prayer. With the advent of email and texting and Facebook and twitter, letter-writing seems to be a dying art. I don’t know about you, but it is rare for me nowadays to put pen to paper in a formal letter. When I tried the other day, I found it took several attempts before I got back into the swing of it.
Paul, however, would have been fully conversant with the art of letter-writing – after all, it was the only form of distance communication that existed. And his letter follows the prescribed format: Name of writer, name of reader; greeting; brief perfunctionary prayer (“I pray to Apollo for your health”) – our equivalent of “I hope you are well”. Apart from the fact that his prayer is anything but perfunctionary.
He tells his readers in the Philippian church that he prays for them with joy and thanksgiving. He is overjoyed that they know Christ and that they are living faithfully for him. Paul sees their faith in Jesus and just rejoices. “I thank my God every time I remember you,” he says. “In all my prayers for you I always pray with joy.” I wonder how often our prayers for one another are filled with that genuine sense of thanksgiving, of delight, in our shared faith in Christ. And this joy emanates from a man in chains, with his life in constant danger – not the most obvious place from which joy and thanksgiving would come.
Its a real encouragement to us. Have a look around you and give thanks to God for one another, for our shared faith in Christ and our shared work in his kingdom. Whatever our personal circumstances, we should be mown as a joyful, thankful people.
Paul not only gave thanks for their faith; he prayed for their faith too. He writes: “And this is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best.” He is praying that they will be loving, compassionate people, who have wisdom in the best way to express that love.
Often we may only be prompted to pray for someone when they are ill or in difficulty. But here Paul is praying for all the Christians, not just some, and praying they may be wiser and more loving. How all of us need more of those two qualities. Like Paul, let’s pray for one another for those things.
The second attitude that this first part of Paul’s letter reveals is his attitude to the difficulties he is facing. Here is a man who knows with total conviction and passion that God has called him to preach the Gospel, to tell people of the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ, throughout the world. It is his reason for being. There is nothing that drives him more.
Imagine the most fanatical runner you know, or the most workaholic colleague, or the keenest gardener, and then imagine them no longer able to do that thing that so impassions them. Magnify that ten-fold, and you begin to get something of an insight into how it must have been for Paul, sitting in prison, unable to get out and do what he longed to do. This wasn’t a hobby. It was his life-calling, seemingly thwarted, possibly ended for good.
And yet Paul does not descend into what would be understandable despair. Instead, he finds hope in his situation. He writes in his letter: “I want you to know brothers that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. Because of my imprisonment, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.” It should be noted that the palace guard were not some ceremonial escorts (like the beefeaters outside Buckingham Palace). They were the hub of power in the Empire. The last three Emperors had come to power on their say-so alone, and Nero a few years later, would be deposed by them too. Paul has an audience with people he would never have come close too if he was free.
It is the story of God’s work in our world. Like with the story of Joseph, God can take the most unpromising of situations, the darkest of times, and bring his good out of them. Most spectacularly of all, he takes the death of his own son, and brings about through his resurrection the salvation of the whole world.
We may ourselves be going through difficult and dark times. We, like Paul, may feel that our calling, what we were made for, the things that make us fully alive, are slipping through our fingers, whether through age or illness or the pressure of other commitments. Be encouraged – God can still use, he can still redeem those dark times, even if it is not in the way we would have chosen or expected. Like Paul, let’s look for how God may still be at work.
And the third attitude of Paul’s that comes across so powerfully in this first part of the letter is his attitude to life and death. He writes: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” As we have seen, these were not idle words. As he sat in his prison cell, death was a real possibility. But Paul has come to a point of readiness to face death. He sees it as a blessing, not because of it being an escape from this life, but because beyond death lies Christ himself. His words remind me of a couple I met many years ago. When one of them died after decades of many happy years together, the other had been happy to let go of life soon after, “wanting to be back together again”. It was not a dislike of life; it was just the depth of love for the one who has gone ahead.
For Paul, such is his love of Christ, such is his faith in the life to come, that he is willing to see death, should it come, as a blessing, a blessing that draws him closer to God.
There were times when Paul could face his death with perfect peace and equanimity and other times when he was deeply distressed and anguished at the prospect, but the belief that Jesus would be there on the other side to welcome him did not waver.
But this is not where Paul leaves us. The thought of being fully united with Christ in the life to come may be wonderful, but now is about living, and living for Christ. Paul, I suspect, would have been confused by our portfolio or pick-and-mix approach to life, where faith and going to church fits in alongside other equally important activities such as tennis or golf or keeping fit or work. For him, as it should become for us, Christ should be our centre, our life, our purpose. To live is Christ.
That requires quite an attitude shift. A shift in our attitude to prayer, a shift in our attitude to difficulties, and a shift in our attitude to life and death. May God help us.