Interpreting the Chains

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Sunday, September 15, 2019
Scripture: Daniel 6:14-23 & Philippians 1:12-26
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

There is a freedom in having nothing to lose. Think about the football team that is a major underdog. Everyone expects them to lose the game, but since they’ll expect to lose, why not take all sorts of risks? Fourth down no longer becomes an automatic punt, but rather puts more pressure on the defense to perform for one more down. Fake punts and onside kicks can be useful in keeping the favorites on their heels. Even trick plays are worth a shot. When you’re expected to lose, you have the freedom to play without fear.

Perhaps a sports metaphor won’t register for you, so how about this? We’ve all seen people skydiving here in Grand Haven. I know people who have done it. I know the logic of the sky dive. People have even posted videos online of their jumps, so I have a visual idea of what it would look like to jump out of a perfectly fine airplane, free fall, and then casually glide down to the ground with a parachute. It all makes logical sense, but I won’t do it. Why? Because I have something to lose. I love the life God has given me too much to take the small risk. I value my presence in my family too much. I value my calling as a pastor too much to do this. I have more to risk losing than the potential gain. so it’s just not worth it to me. Not that I’m saying you shouldn’t do it, but the calculus just doesn’t work out for me. I’ll keep my feet firmly on this earth, thank you very much!

Our text today shows us how Paul has found freedom in having nothing to lose, which emboldens him while he is prison awaiting trial. It is this freedom that allows him in verse 21 to declare, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” It’s the same freedom that Daniel finds in trusting God in the lions’ den. Living or dying, they knew God’s claim and love in their lives, and so, come what may, they could face the unknown future with complete confidence in God. So, I invite you to walk with me through our text in Philippians so we can better understand both what it is saying and what it means to us today.

It begins, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel” (Phil 1:12). So, what has happened to Paul? He’s in prison (again) awaiting trial, but what put him there? Some time around the year 53, Paul shows up in Ephesus, which is a major city in the Roman Empire. Ephesus was home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Ephesians revered Artemis, but Acts 19 reports that Paul’s arrival caused “no little disturbance” because of his message and then tells about the massive riot that began because a silversmith named Demetrius grew enraged that the gospel was a threat to their business of selling Artemis statues. These statues were not just  souvenirs; they were objects of worship. But if people started worshiping gods not made of human hands, then these craftsmen would be out of business. As
N. T. Wright describes it, “Imagine a huge football crowd, angry at a wrongly awarded penalty, setting up a rhythmic shout that became louder and louder….It might have been fun if you were  one of the crowd, shouting in unison with fifty thousand others….It wouldn’t have been fun if you were the person it was all aimed at.”[1]

Paul is in Ephesus from 53 to 56, and for a decent portion of it he was in prison. What was prison like in Paul’s day? Entirely different than it is in America. To begin, the prison was a place to keep people who were awaiting trial. They were not typically used as a place of punishment following trial, but the conditions of the prison were difficult. If Paul wanted food, friends had to supply it. If he needed care, they would have to provide it. So, imagine with me that it likely took time for word to get out about Paul’s imprisonment.[2] It is likely that many were frightened to be associated with him for fear of what could happen to them, just like Peter’s very real fear of being identified with Jesus on the night of his arrest. Eventually, Paul does get comfort from friends, including the Philippians who have sent one of their own to Paul.

If you were in Paul’s shoes, what you might be thinking? Why do I keep suffering so? If God is all-powerful, why does this message keep getting me in so much trouble? Is it worth all the trouble? Paul does actually write of this time of struggle in 2 Corinthians. “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would not rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead (2 Cor. 1:8-9). It is out of these conditions that our text in Philippians comes, although it seems like Paul’s outlook has improved a bit. He’s gone from despair (“we were so utterly, unbearably crushed,” right?) to a new interpretation that God is able to work in the midst of suffering. He’s even been given the eyes to see God at work in his suffering. His jailers know who he is and have heard the gospel of Jesus Christ – verse 14. His friends are bringing word that others are acting in boldness because they have learned they have nothing to fear. As Fred Craddock observes, “Only by the Holy Spirit can the church experience the miraculous shift of attitude from assuming that wherever the Lord is there is no suffering to believing that wherever there is suffering there the Lord is.”[3] Some of the best Christian theology is forged in suffering, and this passage bears witness to that fact.

Here is Paul writing about his circumstances to a church he loves, and rather than reporting on his own health and well-being, he gives them a report on the health of the gospel. In his suffering, he sees God opening doors for good news. This really is the paradox of the gospel – that God’s power is revealed in weakness, that life comes from death, and even chains can lead to freedom.

Moving into verses 15-18, we see a surprising openness in Paul, particularly because he has a reputation for being a “my way or the highway.” Paul has expressed the opportunities he’s had to bear witness to the gospel while imprisoned, but he is also clearly hearing reports about the work in the wider world. Now, I’ve often read this section assuming that these are some of the rival Christian groups that are spreading the gospel but with add-ons that Paul doesn’t like. It’s almost like Paul is a Presbyterian (because…of course he is!) but while he’s in trouble, the Baptists, Methodists, and non-denoms are all using his sidelining as an opportunity to gain more members. That’s possible, but it might be more likely that the locals who rioted over Paul’s message are now talking about it on the street. They’re not Jews or Christians. Imagine what they might say. “‘Have you heard?’ they’ll be saying to each other. ‘They’ve caught that strange fellow who’s been going around saying there’s a new king – a new emperor! And you won’t believe it – this new king turns out to be a Jew whom they crucified a few years ago, and this jailbird is saying he’s alive again and he’s the real Lord of the world!’”[4] Paul celebrates that God is at work, even while Paul’s hopes are thwarted.

Paul’s mission in life is to spread this gospel, so his imprisonment is a huge snag in his plans. Yet he sees God at work in his life and in the world. This letter Paul writes to the Philippians is a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of Paul in that moment. He does not know how things will turn out for him. The future is unknown. He could lose this trial and be sentenced to death. So, the final part of our passage reveals both Paul’s confidence in God and his own dilemma. In life and in death, he trusts that God will be with him. He knows that being with God will be better than his present life, but he also strongly believes that his life has value in encouraging others to profess Jesus as risen Lord. Paul has hope, and it is a hope that provides meaning even in the midst of suffering. It is this hope that allows him to write this, his most joy-filled letter, while he endures prison and an unknown future.

Hope is vital to full life. A Rabbi named Hugo Gryn used to share this story of his childhood experience in Auschwitz. You can imagine the conditions – food was precious and meager, so they did all they could to use every morsel. It was Hanukkah, so his father took a morsel of margarine and used it as a candle to mark the festival. When Hugo questioned his father on this waste, his father replied, “We know that it is possible to live for three weeks without food, but without hope it is impossible to live properly for three minutes.”[5]

Paul lives in the unknown, but he has hope. As Paul will later write to the churches in Rome, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:24b-25). Paul believes he will see the Philippians again, but he does not know that. His confidence is in the Lord – come what may.

I want to get back to quote on your bulletin cover as a way of wrapping up. “Only by the Holy Spirit can the church experience the miraculous shift of attitude from assuming that wherever the Lord is there is no suffering to believing that wherever there is suffering there the Lord is.” We all will suffer. Sometimes it is for choices we have made.  Sometimes suffering just happens to us. Regardless of whether it’s our fault we’re suffering or we’re the victim, part of God’s call to us is to choose to enter into another’s suffering and still live with hope. It’s why we visit people in the hospital. It’s why we sit with those experiencing loss. It’s why we weep with those who weep with those who mourn. It’s even the root of why Christians engage in prison ministry.

A few years ago Calvin College and Seminary began its first-ever satellite campus inside the Handlon Correctional Facility near Ionia, Michigan. Some of the inmates are now Calvin students, graduating with degrees in Ministry Leadership. Their presence, like Paul’s, is changing the prison. They planted a large garden, and it was producing like crazy. So, the inmates put their heads together to determine what to do with it. As they talked, they realized that almost every one of them, prior to their incarceration, had been guilty of abusing women, and now as Christians trying to live out the gospel, they knew they should do something about it. They had once caused suffering. Now they were trying to cure suffering. So, they connected with a domestic violence shelter in Grand Rapids, and donated their vegetables to it, a tangible way of showing their repentance and new life in Jesus.[6]

Like these inmates, we have been both the cause of suffering and its cure. Like Paul and Daniel, we have a call to trust God, come what may. Like Paul’s friends, we can come alongside those who are suffering and offer them support. We’ve been talking about letters and encouraging you to write letters of encouragement this month. Perhaps you’ll consider writing a letter of encouragement to someone who is in prison. If you’d like to do that, Paul McNergney and Hal Fitzgerald will be in the Gathering Area after service to give you insight into how to do that. It’s a way of showing God’s presence in the midst of suffering.

Friends, Christianity is all about bringing hope where there is hopelessness, life where there is death, freedom where there are chains. Paul experienced this while imprisoned in Ephesus. He expressed it in so many of his letters, including Philippians. It is an encouragement to us today. There is freedom in having nothing to lose because of the hope we have in Jesus. What steps can you take to show that hope and freedom to others?

[1] N. T. Wright. Paul: A Biography. 261.

[2] ibid. 265.

[3] Fred Craddock. Philippians. 25.

[4] N. T. Wright. Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters. 89-90.

[5] New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary. Vol. XI. 492.

[6] https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-3c-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel