Summary: When we focus on Jesus Christ in our day-to-day lives, we discover purpose and meaning that outweighs the fear of suffering and death.
[Sermon preached on 16 September 2018, 17th Sunday after Pentecost / 3rd year, ELCF Lectionary]
Today, the topic for our sermon gets really serious. No more and no less than a matter of life and death: “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” The apostle Paul is dead serious—forgive me the expression—as he thinks aloud about the implications of going on to live or having to die soon. It sounds as if he is given the choice between the two—as if he is allowed to decide about his life. But in reality, somebody else will be making that decision really soon. But what is most striking about the letter to the Philippians, is that despite the long shadow that an imminent death sentence throws upon his life, Paul is full of joy. If we should summarize this letter in three words, they would be: Joy, joy, and joy!
I remember about ten years ago an elderly man telling about the death of his wife. She had had some serious symptoms, and after several examinations he and his wife were to see the doctor for a verdict. The doctor looked very serious, took on an appropriate posture, and delivered the verdict to this couple. It was cancer, incurable, terminal. She would have somewhere between two and twelve months left, the doctor informed them. As the implications dawned on the woman, her face started to brighten up, and a smile of joyful anticipation came over her as she turned to her husband and said, “Oh Elias, how wonderful! It means that soon I will be with Jesus and I will see him face to face.” Her husband answered her in a mixture of joy and grief. But the doctor was flabbergasted. He just could not understand how the death sentence, combined with the imminence of physical torture by the growing cancer in her body, could bring joy and anticipation instead of fear and panic.
I think of another woman. She was also a Christian, be it almost thirty years younger than Elias’ wife. When she heard that she had incurable cancer, she went into a mode of panic that got worse as time went by. First, there was denial: “No! It cannot be true! It must be a mistake!” Then came the bargaining phase: “God, you cannot do this to me. Get somebody else! If you heal me, I will (so and so)!” The fear and panic and rebellion against God during those months before her death made her suffer so much more than the actual cancer with its pains and the side effects of her medication. Only when she had not more than a day or two to live and she was fully exhausted by her cancer and her fight against God, she gave in and commended her life and spirit to God.
When the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, he was in prison in Rome, waiting for a trial before the Roman Emperor Nero. It was his first trial before Nero, and as far as we can tell, he was judged not-guilty and set free. We don’t know exactly what the charges were against him. The book of Acts tells us, that the real issue was a religious dispute between Paul and the Jewish Council in Jerusalem, not a crime against the Roman authorities. Objectively speaking, Nero had no reason to waste his time on this case, much less to convict Paul.
But Nero was not just any judge. He was a madman with a distaste for the Jews and an even greater—and ever growing—distaste for the Christians. When a huge fire destroyed much of the city of Rome—two or three years after Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians—Nero blamed the Christians and initiated a fierce persecution. Christians were thrown before the lions, burnt alive, or crucified. We know that in the persecutions following the great fire, both Paul and Peter were executed by the Romans. So with a judge like that, you just couldn’t know how your trial would end.
What would you do, if you were in prison waiting for a trial under such circumstances? I know that I would be completely upset and mixed up: both physically and mentally. If I could, I would try to lobby with people who could get the Emperor on my side. I would work out my arguments, write my defense speech, and rehearse it, morning and evening. But the odds are that I would suffer from severe depression and hardly be able to eat or sleep or do anything coherent.
But look at Paul! When a messenger from the church of Philippi comes to visit him and bring him a gift from his church, Paul bursts out in joy and thanksgiving. And he wants to share that joy and gratitude with the church in Philippi and encourage them. That is why he just has to write this letter to them. Regardless of whether he will survive the court case or be sentenced to death, he wants them to know that all is well. — It couldn’t be better! Either way, Christ will be glorified, the gospel will be made known, and the kingdom of God will advance.