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Rejoice in All Circumstances
Winter Quarter: Our Love For God
Unit 2: Loving God by Trusting Christ
Sunday school lesson for the week of January 20, 2019
By Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers
Lesson Scripture: Philippians 1:12-21
Hallelujah! What a lesson lies before us, as we join the voices across the centuries in giving thanks for Paul’s letter to the “saints in Philippi!” What a contrast in tone and content from last week’s tough message from James! Paul’s message is not easy or free from pain. Just the opposite: he is in great distress and danger, but rejoices. How?
A little history is in order. The city was named for Philip, the father of Alexander the Great. Later, in the Roman era, Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius, two of the assassins of Julius Caesar, in a bloody battle there. When Octavian became Caesar Augustus, he made land grants to his veterans at the site of his triumph. Thus, Philippi became a Roman colony.
Paul, Silas, Timothy (and probably Luke) came to Philippi on the Second Missionary Journey. Here is where Acts, written by Luke, begins first person (not third person) accounting. From Acts we know of several members of the Christian fellowship there: Lydia, the wealthy dealer in purple; the woman being used for financial gain by unscrupulous men for divination; and the famous jailer. The Philippian church was very generous in the offering for the Christians in Jerusalem. The letter bearing their name was a “thank you” for financial support, sent during Paul’s imprisonment.
Oh yes, Paul was now in prison in Rome, awaiting trial before Nero, the current Caesar! Certainly, these circumstances prompted a spiritual crisis for this congregation: proud of their Roman heritage, but bewildered because Paul was under criminal charges by Caesar. The Praetorian Guard, like the U.S. Secret Service, was entrusted with protecting Caesar in all ways, including guarding anyone who was considered a threat to the stability of the Empire. Thus, the conflict: allegiance to Christ or allegiance to Rome.
In addition to this conflict, there were deeper divisions among the fellowship. Later, in chapter 4, Paul names two women – Euodia and Syntyche – as leaders of the split. Sam always said the split was over the color of the carpet, but Helen felt chairmanship of the Parsonage Committee was at the heart of the conflict! Paul doesn’t say, but in this loving “thank you” letter he pleads – repeatedly – for the two women “to agree in the Lord.” Christ will be at the center of their reconciliation, as well as the Author of their salvation. Here is the heart of Paul’s ability to rejoice in the circumstances of imprisonment and possible death.
As Jesus willingly suffered and died for the sins of all, Paul sees his incarceration as an opportunity to visibly show the way of the Cross to all. He is a sermon in action, but he is also a “talker!” He is telling everyone about Jesus – who he is and what he has done for humankind. Even his guards listen and are influenced by what he shows and says.
The Good News advances by the same way it began: by faithful, lowly self-sacrifice.
Paul explicitly states the palace guard (the Praetorian Guard) is aware he is a prisoner for Christ. The last place anyone would expect acceptance of such a message would be among this elite guard. After all, they know Jesus was a rebel Jew crucified on a Roman cross.
Yet, this was the result of Paul’s imprisonment. The message of Christ is being told through the life of this messenger. Paul’s captivity reflects Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. The message and the messengers are inseparable.
The spill-over value is visible as well. The Christians in Rome are gaining encouragement and confidence in their Lord and are becoming preachers of THE STORY. Paul’s chains have unbound their chains of fear and silence.
Next Paul hits head-on another problem within the Christian community: persons who use preaching to advance their own selfish purposes. Sound familiar? Remember the scandals surrounding several television evangelists? They preached the selfless Christ for selfish reasons. Quite a contrast with Paul’s life!
Paul knows such inconsistency cannot stand long. They are using his imprisonment to advance their claim of superiority to Paul. How does Paul react? Attack and defend? Verse 18 is astounding! “What does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.”
Once again, Paul reflects Jesus’ response to opposition. Jesus falsely accused, he made no defense; from the cross, he prayed for his enemies; mocked to save himself, he remained on the cross to the end. Message and messenger are, once again, consistent. Paul’s reputation is unimportant. Christ is preached.
He is grateful for the outpouring of concern in the prayers and gift of his Philippian brothers and sisters. He is confident whatever happens will bring his “deliverance.” The word does not mean his eternal salvation, but life in the Spirit now and forever. The life Paul now lives is the “saved” life – the restoration of life God created “in the beginning,” reflected in the life of Jesus. Deliverance from prison and possible death is for which the Philippians are praying, but for Paul that outcome is also irrelevant. The prayer he asks them to make is for courage and faithfulness in the days ahead. He wants to face the Imperial tribunal as Jesus faced Pilate, the Roman governor.
We conclude this lesson with one of the best known, most loved, words of scripture. “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Our human understanding is rendered incomprehensible. Death better than life! No way!
Here we face the heart of the Gospel: through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, death for Christians means something totally new. In life, we live like Jesus and we discover his promise is true: “in losing life we find it.” (Mt. 10:39) Even death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:34-39) The promises are made sure and certain.
We are not made to hold on to our lives, but to give them away. Holding on, we run away from the purpose for which we were created. When we let go, we find joy – the real purpose for which God gave us life. Hallelujah!
Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers are a retired clergy couple. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.