Philippians 1 gives us a greeting, an update on Paul’s situation along with how He and the Philippian church can respond in light of a shared persecution and suffering. In this text, we read that the Gospel mission is BOOMING from Paul’s imprisonment and struggle. This is meant to serve as an encouragement for the Philippians and we end up with these interesting statements in Philippians 1:15 and 17, “Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill… the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering and imprisonment.”
Paul is in prison right now and his imprisonment has encouraged two types of preachers: sincere preachers and rival preachers. Paul was a controversial individual in the early church. Paul originally tried to suppress and eliminate the “Jesus movement” immediately from its beginning. Now, it seems that Paul has competitors for his positioning as an authoritative voice in the early church. It may seem odd that two polar opposite reactions occur in response to Paul’s imprisonment, but I think we can unpack them to see how these responses can help us think about how those who might use our misfortune for their own benefit.
A long held trend in Christian history is that the church grows the most when challenged by the powers of the world. This may have to do with how much easier it is to relate to Christ in suffering than in prosperity. This may be difficult for us understand in Canada, because the vast majority of us live in relative wealth to the rest of human history. This is not to dunk on us for our comfort, but to put our lives into perspective and think about how we might need to listen to other voices a little more because our Western culture is a bit removed from this suffering culture of the early church. When Paul is imprisoned, for sincere preachers, this is an encouragement. For them, it’s validation that God is moving. Something *good* is happening because suffering is occurring. Why? Because Christ suffered. Suffering = being like Jesus. If our desire is to be like Jesus, then enduring and sharing a similar suffering to Jesus is the natural consequence of following Him.
Ironically, another long held trend in Christian history appears in this passage: preachers competing for position and influence. People have a lot of ideas about who we might apply this idea to in modern days, but Paul’s discussion does not care for the specific people or their actions. Paul cares about the Philippians response. Specifically, these envious preachers are people who oppose or compete with Paul but are still preaching about Jesus. We can all see the hypocrisy here, right? Paul is talking about people who are preaching Jesus, but doing so with a competitive attitude, hoping to have personal gain from Paul’s misfortune. But Paul is focused on something different: Christ being known to people. This is what is important for Paul and so in contrast to a status-obsessed society, Paul accepts his imprisonment and even accepts wrongful attacks on his own reputation, as long as it leads to people knowing Christ more deeply and more intimately.
I want to note that this does not mean Paul is willing to give up his position of influence. Paul is bursting with conviction that He is called by Christ to be an apostle to the Gentiles. He regularly defends this in other epistles because competitors might be leading people astray, away from Jesus. Paul does not have this concern with the Philippians, and they have no misgivings about Paul. Paul is focused on instructing how to be partners with him in ministry. Ultimately, their response to persecutors and envious preachers is to praise God that they could share in the suffering of Christ, being unified with Christ in that suffering, while Christ is greater known in the process.
This leads us to the final point and one of my favourite lines of the New Testament: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. (s 1:21)” You could just print it on a mug, right?! Seriously though, I have a deep affection for this statement from Paul. It is powerful because Paul is equating staying alive with unity with Christ. There are multiple angles to think about this, but one fundamental belief of the early church is that we are unified with Christ. This unity includes suffering, but also, in Paul’s case, means service to the Philippian community, in hopes that he sees them again. Much is often made about the fact Paul calls dying “gain”, but sometimes this is thought about superficially because it’s a one time event – we die and that’s the end of things. Even for Jesus, He was not content to leave His mission with one man and one death in Himself.
Jesus is calling a new people out from the peoples of the world. This new people were to be servants. They would come to serve. They would talk about why they serve and why they love. This may not always be beneficial to those in charge, though, but nonetheless, to love one’s neighbour was to be the trademark of Jesus’ people. That is my focal point for today. The primary tradition of the Church should be to the love our neighbour. In doing so, we are better able to relate to Jesus and hopefully, we might be able to stand with Paul and say, “to me, living is Christ.” We are called His people, bearing His name and called His body. Bodies do stuff and we need to reflect on what happened to Jesus’ body when He was on earth. His second body, empowered by His Spirit and a passion to love our neighbours is promised to undergo the same fate when we seek His kingdom: loving God and our neighbours. Let us be characterized by a consistent obedience to Christ’s call to accept struggle and trial while we love our community.
I can see this being a difficult word for us to hear. I get to be the first to say my life is filled with things that are not loving people. I struggle with the amount of time spent not doing things I think would love my family, friends, or community. But we are called to maturity. It is one of my favourite messages that I hear from Forward City. Progress is the goal, and we partner with God in that pursuit, trusting that He is the one writing that story, bring us from “glory to glory.” My hope is that this not bring shame but casts a vision of the people He can empower us to become. We relate to our God now, with a greater relationship with Him on the way.
Speak to us about how we relate to you God. We want to be more like you, being close to you. We want to love the world and our community the way that you loved the world. We want you to teach us what it means to suffer for you. Teach us what it means to be in unity with you at the cross. Let us be a community that learns to consistently serve those around us, a community who sees living to be Christ.