Peace in the City: Striving side by side
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, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 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. Philippians 1:27-30
This short passage in the New Testament gives us an insight into where courage comes from. Living on mission is not easy. We need courage and tenacity and crazy joy. Where do we get that, no matter what we face, and in endless supply moment by moment? Where does courage come from? The gospel answers that question. The answer is in 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.” See that word “granted”? That verb is directly related to the New Testament word for “grace.” So, we are freely given, abundantly given, we are graced with, two privileges we don’t deserve: believing in Jesus, and suffering for Jesus. Faith is a gift. And so is suffering – when it’s for his sake. Do you see that twice in verse 29? “For the sake of Christ,” and “for his sake”? That’s grace. I mean, what are we doing here, identifying with Jesus and sticking our necks out for him? We don’t deserve that honor. We don’t deserve to be related to him in any way. The grace of it all is obvious in who he is – the Son of God, the Son of man, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Resurrection and the Life, the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Only One, the Word, the Way, the Door, the Light, the Bread, the Vine, the Shepherd, the Servant, the Bridegroom, the Man of Sorrows, the Crucified and Risen One, the Messiah, the Redeemer, Immanuel. How on earth did we get inside his world? It’s grace all the way! And when our hearts sense his glory, that’s where courage comes from. Gospel courage doesn’t come from our own swagger and bravado. It comes from an awareness of his grandeur. That is when our thoughts move from “I don’t deserve this adversity” to “I don’t deserve this privilege.” And we become brave, even unstoppable.
We are on mission together for the sake of Christ. Let’s think of 2014-15 at Immanuel as a missions trip for all of us. It’s just that we’re not leaving town. We are living on mission right here. Our campaign this year is “Peace in the City.” I can’t think of anything more relevant to our poor nation than peace and shalom from above. A new humaneness comes down not by some wonderful luck but through people who love Jesus. That is why we’re having three special events this year – for his peace to flow into our lives and our friends and our city, to the praise of the glory of his grace. In November Paul Tripp is coming to speak on gospel marriage, Rosaria Butterfield in January on gospel sexuality, and Dr. Russell Moore in April on gospel citizenship. We all need God’s peace. We all feel the pain of our failures in these tender and meaningful areas of life. But God loves failures! So I am asking you to pray and to bring. Pray for God’s blessing, and bring a friend to these events. Do not think that bringing a friend to church is a small, unworthy thing. It’s huge. Bringing a friend to church is a big part of living on mission right here in Nashville.
But we are looking at this passage today, because Jesus is controversial, so we need courage. He’s always been controversial. When he was just a baby a prophecy was declared over him that said, “Behold, this child is appointed . . . for a sign that is opposed” (Luke 2:34). Jesus himself said, “The world hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil” (John 7:7). Not only that, but our Lord repeatedly said to us, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Matthew 10:22). Our angry world is most deeply divided not between Democrats and Republicans or any other merely human divide but between those who love Jesus and those who reject Jesus. He is the greatest controversy the world will ever see. And as a church happily identified with him, we do get caught in the crossfire. What the apostle Paul says here will help us accept that as a privilege and walk together on mission with gentle courage. Let’s take it one step at a time.
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ Philippians 1:27a
Why is the word “only” there at the front of the sentence? Paul is in prison. He has just told them he’s not sure whether he’ll be executed or set free, though on balance he thinks he’ll probably live (verses 19-26). And as Dr. Johnson famously said, “The prospect of being hanged wonderfully concentrates the mind.” Facing death frees us from everything that doesn’t really matter and gets us caring about the very few things that will matter forever. That’s why the word “only” starts this paragraph. Paul is saying, “Whatever becomes of me, and for that matter whatever becomes of you, the only thing that finally matters is your manner of life together being worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
So if that is what matters most in our church – not even survival but our manner of life being worthy of the gospel – then what then does it mean for our manner of life to be worthy of the gospel? The Greek wording is unusual. Paul doesn’t talk about “walking worthy of the Lord,” as he does elsewhere (Colossians 1:10). Paul uses a surprising word. In fact, we get our word “politics” from Paul’s word here. So, one of our translations reads, “You must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ” (NLT). Paul is talking not about individual Christian living but being a colony of heaven together right here on earth, what we call a gospel culture. What then is Paul saying here in verse 27?
For starters, “worthy of the gospel” does not mean deserving the gospel; it means consistent with the gospel. If a church embraces the doctrine God’s grace, while at the same time that church itself is angry and tense, that church is denying the gospel, however actively it might wave the gospel flag. Our manner of life together, our culture and vibe and feel and relationships – we can’t deserve the gospel, but we must be consistent with the gospel, so that people can experience a community unlike anything they’ve known before. We make it easier for people to believe the gospel as we embody the gospel. So, “worthy” doesn’t mean deserving; it means consistent.
We see, then, what is at stake in the dignity and vibrancy of our life together. How on earth can people be persuaded that Jesus is real and successful and worth believing in? Through us. That’s why Paul is saying, “Whatever might happen, only make sure of this – that your life together as a church is living proof of the gospel of Christ in a dying world!”
The original readers of this letter would have felt the force of this, because the city of Philippi had been given the special legal status of being a Roman colony. Philippi was not just another city. It was a colony of a greater city. That capital city of Rome was 800 miles away, but the soil of Philippi was Roman soil, the citizens of Philippi were Roman citizens, the laws and customs of Philippi were Roman laws and customs (Acts 16:20-21). The distance between Philippi and Rome didn’t matter. To experience Philippi was to visit Rome. Oh dear friends, may it always be said of us here at Immanuel Nashville that our community helped people to see that heaven is real! That is not easy. But is there anything more joyful than to be in church where Jesus is present as King?
So then, verse 27, which heads this entire paragraph, is calling us to make the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city by a manner of life, a church culture, consistent with the gospel of Christ. We don’t have to have a brilliant answer for every objection to the gospel. Our greatest argument for the gospel is not a concept; our greatest argument for the gospel is a community. Then we can just invite people to church and say, “See for yourself. Is he real or not?”
Then the apostle gives us three ways our manner of life together can be consistent with the gospel. What does it look like when we embody the gospel together? What does a colony of heaven look like? One, unity. Two, courage. Three, gratitude.
. . . 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 Philippians 1:27b
Francis Schaeffer used to say, “The early Christians were not persecuted because they worshiped Jesus. They were persecuted because they worshiped Jesus only.” That was the pressure these early Christians were facing. That is the pressure our Iraqi brothers and sisters are facing. We all need to stick together, because living for Christ is not easy.
Chrysostom, the early Christian preacher, said about this passage, “Nothing is so incongruous in a Christian as to seek ease and rest.” Tertullian, the early Christian theologian, took it further when he said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” And history bears that out, to some extent. But the way some Christians talk, you’d think persecution would solve all our problems. I disagree. Persecution is mean and messy. And it can make us Christians weird. It can turn us either into boot-licking cowards or into trigger-happy fanatics. Both are wrong, obviously. How does the gospel teach us to respond to the pressures and temptations of our modern world? Stand firm in one spirit, shoulder to shoulder, steadily advancing the gospel of Christ. Let’s never give up, and let’s never lash out. Let’s always stand together. And that isn’t weird. It’s beautiful. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his wonderful book Life Together, explains why we need frequent shoulder-to-shoulder contact with one another.
God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother. Therefore, a Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged. He needs his brother as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother. His own heart is uncertain; his brother’s heart is sure. We meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.
I need you. My heart is often weak, and you strengthen me. I am so thankful for you. I feel energized by you. And I want everyone who comes in here to experience that. Unity in Christ is empowering. Don’t you need it too? Let’s enjoy it and share it.
. . . and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. Philippians 1:28
When the opposition does its worst, and we’re still standing for Christ, that is “a clear sign,” a prophetic warning to the world, that God is really with us. When the Empress Eudoxia, in the fourth century, threatened John Chrysostom with banishment, he told her, “You cannot banish me, for this world is my Father’s house.” “But I will kill you,” she said. “No, you cannot, for my life is hidden with Christ in God.” “Then I will take away your treasures.” “No, you cannot, for my treasure is in heaven, and my heart is there.” “But I will drive you away from your friends, and you will have no one left.” “No, you cannot, for I have a friend in heaven from whom you cannot separate me. I defy you, for there is nothing you can do to harm me.” John Chrysostom was not intimidated. And his courage made him a clear sign of the weakness of her power and of the power of his weakness, and she had to think about that. The tactics of this world are weak, though they appear powerful. The gospel is strong, though it appears weak. Jesus is Lord, and the world is stuck with him, because they can’t impeach him, and he isn’t going to resign. But how is our generation going to see his glory? Through our courage.
We face a wide continuum of opposition, ranging from awkwardness in our families all the way to martyrdom at the hands of ISIS. But the Bible says to every one of us, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). If you love Jesus, you will suffer for him. You don’t need to go looking for it; it will come find you. And it helps. It’s clarifying. For example, one of our men, after getting pushback from a family member for his desire to serve the Lord, told me it only strengthened his sense of the divine call. A pastor friend back east had to lead his church out of the Episcopal denomination to be faithful to the gospel. As a result, they were kicked out of the building they’d been using for nearly 300 years. It’s been hard for them. But in his letter to me, my pastor friend said, “It makes me think, I might be a real Christian after all.” And our dear Iraqi friends, when told to convert to Islam or die, and they choose to die – they are a clear sign to ISIS that their violent religion is judged and condemned already.
The early Christians, when they were beaten because of their loyalty to Jesus, walked away from it, the Bible says, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” of Jesus (Acts 5:41). How in the world did they get that courage? Gratitude for grace:
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. Philippians 1:29-30
Christian courage is not so much the victory of the will as it is the vision of the eye. The grander our vision of Jesus, the easier it is to stand for him and keep advancing the mission. The more amazed we are that he loves at all, the more privileged we feel in living for him.
And when we are finally and forever with him, we will never say, “O Lord, I gave myself too much for you. Now that I see you face to face, I’m so disappointed. If I’d only known, I would have lived for myself back in the world. I now realize that suffering for you was beneath me. And while I’m at it, your heaven is boring. Can I get cable up here? Can I phone in a pizza?” We will never say that. We will be lost in wonder, love and praise.
Some years ago I was in Washington D.C. with a friend. We went to the Viet Nam memorial. It was moving to see those thousands of names of my generation inscribed on that beautiful black wall. But I didn’t fight in Viet Nam. I’m not inside that brotherhood of suffering. I will never go to a dinner party and discover there another guy who fought through the Tet Offensive of 1968. I am excluded. But it means a lot to me to know that, when I go to heaven I will be included, and so will you. You see the word “engaged” in verse 30? We are not passive. We are engaged in the conflict of the ages, along with all true Christians throughout history, until Christ returns. And you and I will go to dinner parties in heaven and discover comrades from old battles. And there will be handshakes and claps on the back and scars glorified and stories swapped and memories savored of struggles for the sake of Christ. And he will smile. And we will smile. And we will thank him for the privilege.
But for now, only this: may we be united, courageous and grateful for the privilege of serving his mission!