"Father God, we thank you that you are a God who loves to speak to us. So as we open your word now, we pray that your Spirit who caused these words to be written would open our eyes to their meaning and help us to believe them. Amen."
Well I don't know about you, but there is so much to do that often it feels impossible to do everything we really need to do. Life is so frantic, isn't it? We might make lists, get stressed, or bury our head in the sand like ostriches hoping it will all just go away, but mostly we try to find ways to simplify things and do what is most important. For example, I don't know if you've heard these kinds of phrases shouted out at your home or work:
- Whatever happens – don't forget to put the bins out!
- Whatever happens – don't forget your doctors' appointment!
- Whatever happens – just get me that report!
- Whatever happens – don't forget to pay the credit card bill!
- Whatever happens – don't forget to pick the kids up from school!
Think about it – what's the most important thing you need to remember this morning? Whatever else happens in life, what do you need to remember to do each day? Well as we bite off the next chunk in the letter to the Philippians this morning we find the Apostle Paul giving his first instruction to the Christians who met there. And Paul is saying here that if you're a Christian, there is no competition as to what's most important. Whether you live in Philippi or Jesmond, every morning as you wake up the most important thing on your to do list is (v27)…
"Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ…"
In case you haven't been here in recent weeks, what we're looking at here in the Bible is a letter written by one of the earliest followers of Jesus, to a group of folks who had become Christians in Philippi just 10 years earlier. And Paul had heard that these guys were finding it tough to be Christians there. They were experiencing opposition from outside the church and conflict within it. So Paul wrote to them urgently saying: 'Don't forget this one thing! Whatever happens – whether life is on the up or on the slide, whether you live or even whether you're about to die – whatever happens, make sure you live lives worthy of the gospel of Christ.'
1. Live for the Gospel
As Paul says that, what we need to know about these Philippians is that they knew what it was to live a life worthy of something. They were a bunch of people who were really privileged, as Philippi was a Roman colony, which automatically meant that they had better rights than anyone else living around them… and they were really proud of that. So a Philippian mother would say to her naughty children: "You're not a Greek, you're not a Barbarian, you're not a Cretan! Conduct yourself like a Roman!" And Paul has this image in his mind as he's talking to the Philippian Christians – as verse 27 can be translated like this: 'Behave as citizens worthy of the gospel.' You see Paul knows that these folks have a bigger citizenship to live for. God had in Christ Jesus made them, and us also, into his sons and daughters – citizens of heaven. God gives us an unbelievable status that our actions do not deserve. And with that privilege comes responsibility.
It's just over 14 years since the Queen Mother died, and I remember reading at the time of her death the story of how whenever her daughters went to a party, she would say to the young Princess' Elizabeth and Margaret these words: "Royal children - Royal manners". With the privilege of being royal comes the responsibility of behaving royally. So there was no need for a long list of rules and regulations, no need to spell out curfew times. The matter was simple: remember your privileges and act appropriately. And that's what Paul is saying to Christians here! 'Royal children – Royal manners. If you are a Christian then you have the privilege of being the children of the King of all heaven and earth. You have the privilege of having your sins forgiven, of knowing Christ, of being filled by his Spirit. And by his Spirit you have the privilege of being transformed to be like him and the guarantee of an eternity with him. So live up to your privileges!'
Now let's be clear – Paul is not saying: 'Make sure you are worthy of the gospel. Make sure you do enough things, that you're good enough day to day, that you're worth Jesus dying for.' That is not what Paul is getting at here. The gospel, or good news of Jesus Christ, is for sinners and failures like you and me. It's for those of us who finally realise that we need God's forgiveness and that without it, we are totally lost. That is what the gospel is all about. So Paul isn't saying 'Make sure you deserve the gospel.' Because we don't! And no matter how hard we try we never will! No! He is saying: 'Make sure your life reflects the worth of the gospel. Make sure you live in such a way that it shows you really value the privileges you have in being a Christian.'
In just over two months' time, I will have been married to my wife Fiona for 17 years. That's one of those 'whatever happens, don't forget' things, isn't it? "Whatever happens, don't forget your wedding anniversary!" Don't worry folks – it's locked away! But because I'm married there are loads of things other than remembering anniversaries and special occasions that I should do to show I value my marriage. And there are loads of things that I shouldn't do too! So if you heard that I have a profile on Tinder or the latest dating agency website – what would you think? I'd hope that most of you, especially those of you who know me well would be pretty shocked by that. Because I am privileged to be married to such a lovely woman, my best friend no less – I should want to act in a way that values that shouldn't I? As a married man I should act like a married man.
Well Paul is saying here: 'Having received the greatest gift in all the world – God's forgiveness, so that now you have been called the children of God – live up to your name! Live up to your name in gratitude and thankfulness. Thank God for his goodness to you in rescuing a sinner and a failure. And you thank him by living lives that show you really value knowing Jesus more than anything.' So let me ask you: what is your Tinder moment, so to speak? What would folks be surprised to find in your life? What does your life show that you value? At work? At home? On a night out? Is it Christ and his gospel… or is it something else? Something less worthy? Hear Paul's encouragement (v27):
"…let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ…"
But hear him also say – that if you want to do that, you'll never manage it on your own. As in order to live for the Gospel we need to...
2. Fight Together for the Gospel
Notice again in verse 27:
"Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel…"
The phrase "striving side by side" here was used of Roman soldiers who were fighting in a battle. Each soldier was trained to defend one square metre of ground against an invading army. But of course you'd never do that on your own – for as soon as you saw the marauding enemy army coming at you, you wouldn't care about your little square metre; you'd drop your shield and peg it as fast as you could go! But shoulder to shoulder, linking arms with your comrades? Well that's a different story, isn't it? You could defend the entire front line as a group, as a regiment, as a company.
Paul says here that we are also in a battle – there are those who oppose us. There's the devil and his evil spirits trying to take us down, and then there's the world and its influence and opposition to Christianity. Let's not be naive about this – they are not neutral! They stand against us. Whether by actively opposing us, or imperceptibly distracting us – they seek to keep us from living lives worthy of the gospel. And we often feel that don't we? It's not easy to live for Christ in this world. It's even harder to speak for Christ in this world! Well, whether you feel it or not, Paul says you don't fight in isolation. We engage in spiritual warfare together. We are to (v27):
"strive side by side for the faith of the gospel".
That's why there is no such thing as a Lone Ranger Christians in the New Testament. No free agents, or free spirits, claiming to serve God without any connection to a local body of believers. No; in the Bible there is always this expectation that God's people will be committed to one another. There is to be love and care for one another in community. It's so important if we want to grow as Christians and stand as Christians in a world which is opposed to Christ that we do it together. That's why church happens every week. That's why we don't do it whenever we feel like it. We don't email or text round saying – 'anybody fancy it this week?' No; coming to church on a Sunday and coming to a mid week small group is absolutely crucial, because we need each other every week! So that we can kind of regroup and recalibrate ourselves so that we're ready for Monday morning once again.
I'm sure many of you will have heard of the illustration of church being like a coal fire. It's lovely and warm to come into on a chilly evening, which was exactly what's been needed this last week! When all the coals are together then they burn brightly, but take one coal out of the fire and put it down on its own and pretty soon it fizzles out. There's no light and no heat. That's why we need each other. That's why we need to meet together every week, to remind ourselves of the reality and truth and beauty of the Lord Jesus Christ. And in doing so, we re-warm or reignite each other's faith so that we don't grow cold towards Christ and his purposes.
You see spiritual growth or spiritual decline doesn't just kind of happen by accident. It's not a mystery! It's not a secret! No; spiritual decline happens for many reasons, but one of the main reasons is that you stop meeting regularly with God's people. And you just drift away. So my question for you this morning is: who are you actively encouraging in the Christian faith? Who might you be able to actively encourage this morning? And who encourages you? Gathering regularly to encourage others is one of the keys for spiritual growth – so that we are:
"standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel."
And as we do that we will discover another key for spiritual growth – and at first glance it's a bit of a shocker. As Paul tells us we need to:
3. Suffer for the Gospel
Check out verse 29:
"For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have."
So there are two great privileges there, aren't there? Privilege number one is to "believe in him". We talked about that earlier – but if you're a Christian you probably find yourself taking that for granted. It's an incredible privilege. To know Christ, to be forgiven by Christ, to be accepted by Christ, to be part of Christ's family - the church, to be used by Christ. Imagine living without Christ. There would be no forgiveness, no washing, no belonging and no hope.
Yet privilege number two is – "not only [to] believe in him but also suffer for his sake." In fact Paul says this is something that has been "granted" to us – like it's a gift! I was talking to a couple recently, who are getting married this year about putting together their gift list for their wedding. You can imagine all the crockery and cutlery and other household items that are on that list, but you can't imagine that "suffering" is an item on that list. I don't think John Lewis do that, do they? Although if my memory serves me right from when we did our list all those years ago, there was a certain amount of pain involved. And with the benefit of hindsight it was mainly my fault! Yet Paul says Christians should see suffering as a gift. That's extraordinary, isn't it? Yet it's nothing new – Jesus taught the very same thing, in Matthew 5.11-12:
"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
Now notice what Jesus isn't saying. He is not saying that you are 'Blessed, when you are so difficult and obnoxious that people get ticked off with you and want to take a swing at you'. And neither is he saying: 'You should consider yourself really lucky when things go wrong and your world starts to fall apart.' Jesus would never be so crass. No! He says "because of me"! That's when you're blessed -when you suffer because of your faith in Jesus, because you stand for him in a world that stands against him.
Sometimes when you seek to live as a Christian or speak for Christ's standards, you will ruffle feathers. Some people will get upset with you. Why? Because it confronts them with the one thing they are trying to avoid – Jesus Christ. Most folks have a sneaking suspicion that there is something more to life, and they have a begrudging respect for Christ and a sense that they need to think about who he is and where life is going before it's all too late – but they push those thoughts aside because they want to stay in control of their life. So when Christians stand firm in their faith right in front of them – and do so in numbers, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel – then verse 28 happens:
"This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God."
If you try to speak the gospel and live out gospel values, that will give people an uncomfortable reminder of what they know deep down – that living ignoring God will one day come back to bite them. So as they try to push those thoughts aside they will inevitably push you aside too. And Jesus says you shouldn't be surprised by that at all. It's part of the territory. He says in Matthew 5, 'If you belong to me there will be from time to time, in one way or another, insults, opposition and character assassination coming your way.' That's what happened to the prophets in the Old Testament. It happened to Paul too. And it even happened to Jesus himself. So don't be surprised if it happens to you – instead rejoice! And consider it a privilege to suffer for Christ. Partly because you get to be like him! You get to follow in his footsteps! But also because those footsteps get us ready for heaven. Did you notice the motivation Jesus gave? "Because great is your reward in heaven." Suffering now, but glory later!
And every step of the way to heaven, Jesus uses our suffering to stretch our faith and get us ready for living with him there. It is suffering that proves, strengthens and deepens our faith. Faith is a little like a muscle in the human body. It is as it is worked out that it grows. It needs something to push against. Physical training is a painful and sweaty process. The athlete preparing to compete in this summer's Olympic Games doesn't get ready by lazing around on the sofa drinking sangria and munching on Doritos. No; muscle growth requires discomfort. And faith needs the pushback of trials for us to grow spiritually. Our faith will remain flimsy and weak if we never suffer for it, if we never have it tested.
In a lot of movies, what are the kinds of characters that you make your heroes? I think for a lot of us it's always the ones who go out on a limb and put their life on the line for a cause. They fight for what's right, take a few hits and suffer. It's never the ones who take no risks and stay at home or, worse still, collaborate with the enemy out of protected self-interest. This is what Jesus said is going on here – there is a spiritual battle going on at all times. And if you side with him, you will suffer for him. Though it's tempting to try to avoid that at all costs – it is worth it! For, even though it's often hard to see it in the midst of the battle, it is a blessing to suffer for Christ. It is a gift.
We are fortunate to live in a country where there is (for now) relative religious freedom – but I do sometimes wonder if we are not in some way being opposed that it's because we are not being clear enough or open enough in our faith. I don't think we need to be sadomasochists looking for trouble. But I do wonder - if we experience no opposition or difficulty at all for our faith, are we really being clear enough about who we belong to?
Perhaps you are suffering for your faith. You're in a family or workplace where there are no other believers. And you do experience not an active physical kind of persecution, but there is opposition to you and your faith and your Bible and your Jesus. And that can sometimes be very painful. Well Paul says here: 'Don't lose heart! Don't be discouraged! This is a sign that you will be saved. It's a sign that you are part of the family of God. And it's a sign that those who oppose you are in big, big trouble.' So don't be discouraged at all. Keep seeking to live for the gospel, fight together for the gospel, and suffer for the gospel. Let's pray:
"Father God, We don't want our hearts to be too cast down by the difficulties of living for you in a culture that disowns you – but it is hard. So send your Spirit to speak to our hearts of the astonishing goods and glories we have and will have in you. That as we remember those privileges our hearts will be reignited to live, fight and suffer for the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Not just for our sake, but so that we may win round those who oppose us with Christ-like words and deeds. We pray in his precious name. Amen."