Sunday, September 22, 2019
Scripture: Luke 19:1-10, Philippians 1:27-30
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
In a little under two months, nineteen people from this church will board planes to Belize. There we will be serving alongside Pastor Ed Perez and Koinonia Ministries. It’s a partnership in the gospel that I have had for the past six years, and I’m eager for our church to know him and to share together in ministry. The challenge, however, of having any mission partner who lives far away is that keeping track of how things are going is difficult. Our presence in Belize will certainly tighten connections, but it’s not the same as their being present with us here.
Over the years I have tried to get Pastor Ed to the U.S. for a visit, but it has never been possible. We would send him letters of recommendation and promises to the U.S. government that Ed would return to Belize, yet each time he would be denied. My church wanted him to be present in Michigan. We wanted him to see how the gospel work was going here. We wanted him to share his story of ministry with people in Michigan, but it was not possible.
We’re on our third week of Philippians 1, so if you’ve been following along, you know that Paul is wrestling with a similar issue. His imprisonment in Ephesus for almost two years has left him helpless to be present in person to these churches he loves, just like Pastor Ed could not come to the States because he could not get a visa. Paul wishes he could be present in person with the Philippians, but since he is not, he wants to encourage them. Verse 27 lays it out. “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know you are standing firm” (Phil. 1:27). Paul wants to make sure they’re a viable church, whether or not Paul can ever get to Philippi again. I’ve felt that same way about my ministry partners in Belize. It’s been four years since I’ve seen them in person, and I cannot wait to see what has been going on there in my absence.
Paul’s main point in these few verses is this: How we live as followers of Christ matters. Our lives should be discernably different from others. Now, they should not be different just for the sake of being different. Rather, they should stand out because the gospel is transforming who we are on a daily basis. Paul uses very interesting language in verse 27, and I believe he knows what he’s doing here. In other writings, Paul speaks frequently about how Christians are to live, and he uses a common Greek word for that kind of lifestyle and behavior. Yet, when he writes “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” in Philippians, he uses a totally different word. Why would he do this? Here’s the thought of one commentator on why. Philippi was “proud of itself as a little Rome, official, patriotic, suspicious of any persons or movements not aligned and loyal to Caesar, probably quite anti-Semitic (Acts 16:20-21), this city could and did make it difficult for the disciples of Jesus. Paul knows this firsthand and so drops his usual word, which we translate conduct or lifestyle, and uses the local term for living out one’s citizenship (v. 27). He means by it one’s manner of life as it faces upon and intersects with life in the city. The church is not to hide nor apologize for its existence. It is possible for them, in fact, it is incumbent on them, to live among the people and institutions of Philippi in a way that is informed and disciplined by the gospel of Christ.” Imagine with me that you are part of this small house church in Philippi. Around a half decade ago, Paul met this group of women outside of the city limits at a river, and out of that God started a church in this midst of an important Roman colony that was suspicious of anything that could rival allegiance to Rome. As we’ll see in a couple of verses, it’s very clear that things are not smooth sailing for the Philippians. Yet Paul urges them to stay the course. Paul wants their whole lives, including their public behavior, to reflect the reality that Jesus is Lord.
The church is not to hide nor apologize for its existence. Christianity is not merely personal, although it is that. We do need to have a faith that is deeply rooted in the personal and in the times when no one but God knows what we’re up to. Christianity is also public. The church stands as a counterforce to the brokenness and greed of the world.
This summer we heard stories from Rachel and Michael Ludwig, Presbyterian Mission Co-Workers we support who work in Niger, Africa. Niger is a predominantly Muslim country, yet the Ludwigs and their church partners have found ways to enhance public health in these impoverished communities. They have been training pastors in community health initiatives. The village leaders and the government have seen their success and now they’re willing to welcome these Christians into new places. Their public behavior is worthy of the gospel.
Or, let’s look at another example. This summer our youth went to St. Louis for a mission trip. One evening they got to work with a group called Churches on the Streets. This is a church effort that isn’t worried about denominational lines. That Monday night we joined them in a parking lot next to the highway. Many homeless came for food and clothing. They had a chance to interface with the people gathered there. While hundreds of cars zoomed by, this small pocket of the church gathered to let their public behavior bring the good news of Jesus in word and action to people most of us just pass on by. Their public behavior is worthy of the gospel.
The story of Zacchaeus from Luke’s gospel provides an interesting glimpse into this same idea. Jesus was passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. By now Jesus was pretty well known, and so crowds of people would gather to hear what he would say or to see him do something miraculous. A local tax collector named Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming, but he only wants to see Jesus from a distance. His work would have made him wealthy, but because of it, most people would despise him. So, he climbs a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he passes on by, but I suspect he was hoping no one really would notice him. After all, it must be hard to be hated everywhere you go, right? Yet, Jesus sees him. Could you imagine what that would be like – to have Jesus look you straight in the eye and truly see you? When their eyes locked, I could imagine that Zacchaeus felt his heart stop. He probably held his breath. What may have been a few seconds must have felt like an eternity. And then Jesus – in full view of the public – asks to eat at Zacchaeus’ house. He goes to the place no one else wants to go to. Talk about public witness by Jesus himself.
This being seen by Jesus leads to an equally public transformation of Zacchaeus. He doesn’t just think, “Sweet! Jesus is coming to dinner.” No, he makes a public change in how he has behaves towards his community. You see, tax collectors didn’t just collect what was owed to Rome. They were allowed to extort their own portion in addition to what was demanded by the government, which was why they were loathed. Having met Jesus, Zacchaeus realizes this is no way to live, so he publicly pledges to give away half of his possessions to the poor and to make things right with anyone he has wronged. His public behavior was worthy of the gospel.
So, we’ve heard stories from Belize, Niger, St. Louis, and Jericho, but what about here? What are our gospel issues right here in the Tri-Cities? In a few minutes we’re going to hear from Josh Bytwerk on behalf of Love in Action, so we’ll hear some of the ways Christians are responding to the needs of our community. What are some of our local gospel issues? We know that suicide touches our community with terrible frequency. How do we support and love those who despair over life itself? We know that poverty and affordable housing are two gospel issues right here, with families sleeping in cars or couch-surfing while trying to sock away enough money to pay for the security deposit and rent. In this beautiful and relatively affluent area, we’re good at hiding a lot of our need. Do we make personal and household decisions that reflect our belief that the gospel can make a tangible difference in our community both spiritually and materially? How much easier is it for us to budget for that next thing we want or that next vacation we want to take, than it is to budget for the gospel work going on around us? Are we living our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel?
But Paul does go further than verse 27. Paul knows that none of this is easy. It’s not easy for us right here on the shores of Lake Michigan, and it was a struggle for the Philippians 2000 years ago not far from the shores of the Aegean Sea. To show that this goes way beyond personal belief, Paul uses several athletic images to convey the effort that goes into living in a manner worthy of the gospel. Towards the end of verse 27, he encourages them to strive side by side. The Greek here is sunathlountes. The word contains the same root we use to get our word for athlete. In verse 30, Paul uses the word “struggle,” which comes from the Greek agon, which is another athletic image and where we get the word “agony” from today. There is no magic here. Living for Jesus takes intentional effort. When I determined to run another half marathon this summer, I had to strive to do all the work necessary to accomplish my goal. I had to get out of bed when I didn’t want to. I had to deal with blisters and bruised toes. I had to combat fatigue. Yet, I was able to do what I set out to do because of the striving and struggle to get there. So it is with faithful living.
Paul knows all too well there will be opposition. With my athletic training, opposition was mostly mental (Do I really want to get up and do this?). For Paul and for the Philippians, it goes way deeper. It is clear that the gospel challenges the political and economic gods of Rome. Paul sits in jail in Ephesus because the silversmiths who made Artemis statues found the gospel to be a threat to their livelihood, so they rioted. Surely the Philippians have faced consequences for their belief. You may recall that Paul was run out of Philippi not too long after first bringing the gospel to it. It’s recorded in Acts 16, but he also writes about it in 1 Thessalonians 2. Paul went to Thessalonica after Philippi, and he writes, “Though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition” (1 Thess. 2:2). While in prison, Paul knows that the church in Philippi is undergoing the same struggle he is for the gospel. But Paul wants them to know that is to be expected. Opposition will happen. Stand firm side-by-side anyway. They have a different and higher calling, so whether Paul can ever be with them in person again or not, he wants them to live fully into their Christian identity – a citizenship in heaven that supersedes their national citizenship.
Friends, the world is watching. The world has given the church a bad rap at times. Some of it is undeserved, but frequently we’ve earned it. The world is watching to see if we’ll actually live the compelling way of Jesus in the world. Striving side by side, will we live out the whole gospel that not only transforms hearts but also changes communities? The world is watching. As though training for an important athletic event, will we do the work to live out the gospel public and privately? The world is watching. While we eagerly expect the coming again of Jesus, where he will right all the wrongs, will we be about the work that turns communities to this good news? The world is watching, so let’s get to work.
 Craddock, Fred. Philippians. 32-33. italics mine.