Proper 20A

September 15, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 20:1-16

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 16:2-15

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 145:1-8

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Philippians 1:21-30

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

                As I reflected on this fifteenth reading in Ordinary Time, which calls us to extraordinary Christian living, I thought of an episode from the hit TV program, “Friday Night Lights.”  I’m a little embarrassed to admit I watch it. But it was my brilliant philosophy professor friend who got me hooked on this football themed exploration of the agonies and ecstasies of adolescence in small town Texas.  In this particular episode, the gorgeous cheerleader who slept with the best friend of her now paralyzed boyfriend has become a devout Christian.  She is answering phone calls on a Christian radio station when that “best friend” calls in using an obviously faked falsetto voice.  He and his football buddies are drunk and they are mocking this now sober and chaste young Christian.  Their obvious message is that they are living it up, while she has no life.  Christianity is for wimpy losers.  The scene reminded me of Algernon Swinburne’s famous taunt, “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath.”

                In a world that sees the Christian life as a pale grey reduction of real life, Paul’s words here are a bracing reminder that a genuinely Christ centered life is vigorous and risky, even death defying.  “Extreme” is the word that comes to mind.  Paul was in extreme conditions.  Not only was he confined to prison for daring to preach a gospel that sounded blasphemous to the Jews and treasonous to the Romans, but he was also experiencing nasty competition from fellow preachers.

    Even though everything is all wrong, Paul continues to rejoice (verse 18).  Indeed, the over-riding theme of this prison epistle is joy; it is mentioned some 16 times.  Paul has joy in the face of opposition, continued imprisonment, and even the possibility of death.  He expresses his joyful conviction in the verse just before our reading begins.  “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”   There are the elements of vigorous Christian living: joy, optimism, eager expectation, hope, courage under fire, even in the face of death.

    How can we possibly live that way?  Paul shows us by sharing his personal testimony.  “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  This is not the melancholy, borderline, suicidal Hamlet contemplating the uncertainties of both life and death: “To be or not to be, that is the question….”  This is the joyful apostle boldly claiming that he can’t lose, live or die, because of Christ.  The Greek of these famous words is a bit problematic, but the sense is very clear.  Because Christ is the center of his life, it doesn’t matter to him whether he lives or dies.  Obviously he doesn’t say that in a spirit of defeated resignation.  He virtually thumps his chest as a man who can’t lose, a “hyper-conqueror” as he puts it in Romans 8:37.

    “To live is Christ….”  Other passages in Philippians help to flesh out that enigmatic statement.  He means that he derives his strength from Christ (4:13); he has the mind of Christ (2:5-11); he knows Christ intimately and experientially (3:8); he is covered with Christ’s righteousness (3:9); he rejoices in Christ’s nearness (3:1, 4:4).  An old gospel tune captures Paul’s meaning: “Jesus is all the world to me, my life, my joy, my all; he is my strength from day to day, without him I would fall.”  Even if I do fall, says Paul, if I remain in prison, if I am executed, that would be gain.  Death would be even better than life, because, as Paul will say in a moment, death would bring him even closer to Christ.

    Which shall I choose, says Paul, life with Christ or death with Christ?  Both are such wonderful options that Paul is torn between the two– not with a Hamlet-like dread of both life and death, but with a deep desire for both.  Paul will never know the agony of defeat, even though life could be real agony (cf. verse 30 where the word “struggle” is agona in the Greek).  Death will not be defeat for Paul, no matter how agonizing the Romans can make it.  The last enemy cannot conquer him, because the realm of the dead will not be his final destination.  Rather, death will be simply a departure from this life that will land him safely in the presence of the living Christ.  No wonder he says, “I desire to depart and be with Christ.”  Christ is his life now, but when he dies, he will have an even closer relationship with Christ.

    Paul doesn’t seem to anticipate some sort of waiting period between death and being with Christ.  There’s no hint of “soul sleep,” in which thousands of years may pass before the resurrection of the body and the new heaven and earth.  Paul seems to think that he will die and immediately be with Jesus.  I’m well aware that many contemporary scholars believe the traditional Christian teaching about the intermediate state, about existence in heaven before the resurrection, is a Hellenistic importation into Christianity. But this text certainly seems to teach something like that.

    For Paul that immediate post mortem enjoyment of the presence of Jesus is a wonderful stimulant to vigorous Christian living.  Contrary to Marx’s claim that such Christian ideas are the opiate of the people, Paul’s powerful conviction about this made him a fearless agent for change throughout the corrupt Roman Empire.  Maybe the problem with today’s pusillanimous Christians is not that we are too heavenly minded, but that we aren’t heavenly minded enough.  Maybe we don’t really believe that dying for Christ is gain, because we are not sure that death will land us squarely in the presence of Christ.  Or, more likely, we don’t really believe that being with Christ in heaven is “better by far” than anything earth has to offer.  The Greek of that phrase is fascinating.  It is a triple comparison—pollo mallon kreisson, “much more the better.”   We’ll never be fearless, death defying, extreme Christians like Paul unless we believe what Paul says here.

    But Paul was clearly no world fleeing mystic.  Immediately after contemplating his first choice (“my desire is to depart….”), Paul lands squarely in the middle of the needs of the day.  “But it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”  This is a man, a Mensch as the German puts it, a human being with backbone, character, courage, and a clear eyed view of what is really important in life.  I have my own desires, but your needs are more important than my desires.  How Christ-like!  I’m willing to sacrifice my desires for your needs.  And what you need is me.

    There’s no mealy mouthed self deprecation here, nor is this the worldly pride that pounds its chest and struts in the end zone.  This is a God given sense of one’s own importance in God’s plan for the world.  This is a man alive to his reason for living.  He is here to make a difference in the world for Christ.  And he knows that fulfilling his God-given purpose is more important right now than departing and being with Christ. That kind of conviction makes for vigorous living.  Even though he is still in prison, Paul confidently anticipates his ongoing ministry with the Philippians, so that they can share his joy: “for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again, your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.”

    Having shared his testimony, Paul now calls his friends (and even his enemies) in Philippi to join him in this kind of daring, death defying, extreme Christian living.  “Whatever happens [to me],” here’s what I want you to do.  Actually the word translated “whatever happens” in the NIV is the Greek word “only.”  The idea is not so much “whatever happens to me” as it is “here’s what really matters for you.”  And what matters is that they and Christians everywhere conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.

    The word translated “conduct” is really the Greek politeusthe, from the word polis, city, from which our word “politics” is derived.  It could be more accurately translated “exercise your citizenship,” or “live your public life.”  Is Paul talking about their citizenship in the Roman Empire, or their citizenship in the kingdom of God?  Given that Phil. 3:20 says, “Our citizenship is in heaven,” it is likely that Paul is referring to citizenship in the kingdom first of all.  But he probably means, as you live as citizens of Rome, make sure that you conduct yourselves as citizens of the kingdom of God.  That is your ultimate loyalty and it must trump your loyalties to your city or your state or your country.

    Here is a word that desperately needs to be preached in our politically divided church, where partisan politics so often trump spiritual unity.  No matter what party you belong to, no matter what platform commands your loyalty, no matter what earthly cause you are committed to, make sure that the promotion of Gospel of Christ is your first and last concern.  Paul is obsessed with that Gospel; he mentions it 6 times in this chapter.  We will live as vigorous Christians only when we are more deeply committed to the story of what God has done in Christ than to any other narrative.  Let the Gospel be the driving force in your life.

    What is a “life worthy of the Gospel of Christ?”  Paul uses three verbs to describe it: “stand firm,” “contending,” and “without being frightened.”  Vigorous Christians don’t waffle or give in; they dare to contend for the faith of the Gospel.  Vigorous Christians don’t allow difficult issue to divide them from each other.  They stand in “one spirit;” they contend “as one man/person/body.”  They fight side by side against the common foe, like gladiators chained together in the arena (picture Russell Crowe chained to the other gladiator in the movie Gladiator).  No matter how we may disagree politically or socially or even theologically, Christians must stand together as we contend for the faith of the Gospel.  What’s more, vigorous Christians aren’t afraid of anything, because whether they live or die, they belong to Christ.  Obviously, the kind of life Paul here describes has nothing to do with a “pale Galilean” whose breath/Spirit turns the world into a sickly shade of grey.  This is a clarion call to follow a Christ who marched through hell to bring full blooded life back to a dying world.

    This is a daunting challenge, so it’s a good thing that Paul closes this section with a bit of the Good News.  Here’s what you must do, says Paul, and you can do it because of what God has done, is doing, and will do.  But this is not your Sunday School version of the Gospel, not “Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sins” Gospel.  To encourage embattled Christians, Paul preaches the hard edges of the Gospel along with the softer, more comforting parts.  So, he says in verse 28 that “you will be saved—and that by God.”  But just before that he claims that the opposition these Christians are experiencing and the Christ-like way they are enduring it are “a sign to them [their opponents] that they will be destroyed….”  The hardships we experience at the hands of those who hate Christ are the “proof” (endeixis) that God will destroy those enemies.

    Now, we modern Christians don’t like that kind of talk.  It sounds mean spirited and vindictive.  But Paul is simply saying that evil won’t win, that the rebellion cannot succeed, that justice will finally be done.  Though we shouldn’t take pleasure in the death of the wicked any more than God does (Ezek. 33:11), and though we ought to grieve over the wickedness that vaunts itself against God as God does (Gen. 6:6), we can take comfort in the good news that God will finally set everything right.

    Paul ends this call to Christian living with another hard edged Gospel truth, this time a truth uncomfortable for us Christians.  Not only does God grant us the privilege of believing in Christ, but also the privilege of suffering for Christ. (verse 29)  The word “grant” is a derivative of charis, grace.  Not only faith in Christ (ala Eph. 2:8), but suffering for Christ has been given to you as a gift.  How is that Good News?  Well, it means that even the awful things we suffer for our faith are a part of God’s gracious plan for our lives in this world.

    While that comes very close to making God the author of our pain, what Paul means, I think, is that these painful experiences are not just accidents, out-of-control natural occurrences, nor just attacks by the Evil One, malevolently intended efforts to kill our faith.  Even more, God’s grace will use them to work out the good of becoming like Christ (Romans 8:28-30).  The Good News is that we are not simply victims of sin and evil; we are victors because the grace of God controls even suffering.

    I don’t know how to make complete sense of this aspect of the Good News, but Paul says it is true.  And it is a key to living strong through the challenges of the Christian life. It worked for Paul and the other early Christians.  Think of Acts 5:41.  After persecution first began, Luke reports, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.”  No wonder that Paul’s message always included something like Acts 14:22.  “We must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.”  Yes, this is hard stuff, but we have to know these truths if we are going to live bold and strong in the public square.

    Illustration Idea

                  As I pondered Paul’s words about “not being frightened in any way by those who oppose you,” I thought about how mild our opposition is, and how frightened we still are by it.  Imagine being an Iraqi Christian in Mosul.  Severely diminished in numbers by the persecution inflicted on them by jihadists, the few Christians left in that historically Christian region were recently given a choice by ISIS:  convert, leave, or die.  Most chose to leave.  Do you think they were afraid?  I would have been.  Only someone who could honestly say, “To me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” could face that kind of opposition with no fear at all.