I invite you to turn with me to the book of Philippians. Philippians 1:12-18. Philippians is in the New Testament – Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians. Last week, we started our fall sermon series: Rejoice. Philippians is a letter of joy from a place of hardship. A much needed word for all of us in the year of our Lord 2020. But before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me.
Lord, dig out our ears to hear your word and prepare our hearts for it to be planted with the gospel and water us with your Spirit that we might grow in grace and produce an abundant harvest for your kingdom. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ, and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dared to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.
Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
“Surely there has never been a generation in the course of human history with so little ground under its feet as our own. Every conceivable alternative seems equally intolerable. We try to escape from the present by looking entirely to the past or the future for our inspiration, and yet, without indulging in fanciful dreams, we are able to wait for the success of our cause in quietness and confidence. It may be however that the responsible, thinking people of earlier generations who stood at a turning point of history felt just as we do, for the very reason that something new was being born which was not discernible in the alternatives of the present.” (Prisoner for God 13-14).
I have heard a lot of descriptions of the year 2020 in the last couple months. Can’t we just turn it off and turn it back on? Just reboot the year? If 2020 was a potato chip, it would be toothpaste and orange juice. I have friends coping with the stress and uncertainty by playing ‘apocalypse bingo,’ guessing just what disaster will befall the world each month. But I have not heard any description quite so poignant as the one I just quoted. ‘so little ground under its feet’ – I think we all feel that right now. ‘Every conceivable alternative seems equally intolerable’ – check. ‘We try to escape from the present by looking entirely to the past or the future for our inspiration’ – every day. Yet, this paragraph was not written yesterday referring to 2020, but was written by the pastor and soon-to-be martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his prison cell sometime between 1943 and 1944.
We are not the first to feel like there is little ground under our feet. We are not the first to navigate a world shift and roiling with uncertainty. Nor are we the first to feel like life has come to a halt, wondering whether there are any possibilities for the future, for us, for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul was there too, just as Bonhoeffer was. In prison, in the halting stages of life, we find a God who turns even prison into mission and calls us to leave everything, including our ego and ambition, for the sake of Christ.
Paul’s gospel ministry has seemed to come to a screeching halt. After being blinded by Jesus on the road to Damascus and having the scales fall off his eyes – both literally and spiritual – Paul has been consumed with only one mission, with only one goal: to tell the world about Jesus. The man who once held the coats while they stoned Stephen is now being whipped and stoned himself for the name of Jesus. The man who once drove others out of town and arrested them is now himself arrested and driven out, fleeing in the night or sitting in the stocks. His burning, consuming passion is Christ and him crucified, to proclaim his name everywhere. Paul goes on one missionary journey after the other. One town after the other. One synagogue after the other. Planting church, nurturing believers. Always on the move, always traveling and moving forward, no matter what obstacles come in his way. Paul is like a gospel avalanche, unstoppable as he moves with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Until he is. Until everything comes to a grinding halt as Paul is placed in prison for good. Not a one night stay. No angelic earthquakes to lead him to escape, like happened in Philippi. Instead, Paul the traveller, Paul the moving missionary, is now trapped in prison. And Paul will not leave this prison until he dies.
He could have been angry. This was not how the story was supposed to go. Where is the triumph? Where is the reward for all his hard work? Blood, sweat, and tears and it ends in failure? It ends with Paul stuck in jail, unable to go out and preach the good news that has become the passion of his life. Paul could have been angry at God, angry at the world, angry at himself, that the story seems to end this way, to end trapped.
Paul could have been fearful. Rome was not known for their kindness in responding to dissidents. Paul knew what they had done to his Lord and Savior. He knew that his loyalty to Jesus would put him right in the crosshairs of the cruelty of Rome. He knew the death that likely stood before him. Paul could have been locked in prison and responded with fear.
Yet, when Paul takes the time to write to this beloved church in Philippi about his imprisonment, he expresses neither anger nor fear. Instead, Paul sees God doing something unexpected through his time in prison. Verses 12 to 14: I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ, and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dared to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.
Far from being a failure, being an end, being a end point to Paul’s missionary endeavors, God has turned this around so that the gospel is actually being spread. Yes, there are stumbling blocks and obstacles in the way, but God’s good news is advancing even in spite of that. Prison is not a trap, not an end, but a new opportunity. Paul’s imprisonment has opened a new and unlikely mission field – imperial soldiers. How amazing is God’s providence that the soldiers – instruments of Imperial oppression, the ones who crucified Jesus and guarded his tomb – are now able to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Apart from this imprisonment, how would Paul have made in-road with this community? How would they have heard the good news of Jesus? Yet, because Paul was in prison, he now had a whole new mission field before him.
The Philippians would have likely rejoiced even more over this because when Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi, the Roman jailer was converted. Paul and Silas were arrested and put in jail for the night. While they were singing and praying, there was an earthquake and they were set free. But they did not run. The Roman jailer, assuming everyone had escaped, prepared to commit suicide. Paul stopped him and when the man asked “What must I do to be saved?” Paul told him the good news about Jesus. The man and his whole family were baptized. Paul’s stay in prison in Philippi became the opportunity for the jailer to be saved.
Can you imagine him and his family sitting in the congregation hearing this letter for the first time? He knows how imprisonment can be the vehicle of the spread of the gospel. His brothers in arms in Rome would also – through Paul – hear the good news of Jesus.
The imprisonment that should have been the end, should have snuffed out Paul’s sharing of the gospel, turns out to be the entryway into a whole new phase of Paul’s mission. God turns prison into mission.
One commentator calls this ‘divine jujitsu’ (Hunsinger). I love that picture. Jujitsu is a martial art that focuses on using your opponent’s force against them. When someone comes at you aggressively, you don’t meet force with force, strength with strength. Instead, you turn their own power against them. They are undone by their own aggression.
Paul’s imprisonment is a form of divine jujitsu. God turns the aggression of Rome into a vehicle of grace. Everyone knows that Paul is in prison, not for wickedness, but for Christ. “His shackles are the occasion for telling anyone within earshot about the difference between Roman captivity, however dismal, and the joy of belonging to Christ.” (Hunsinger 18). The force intended to stop mission, stop zeal, stop the spread of the gospel is turned on itself and actually works to spread the gospel. I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.
When our life comes to a screeching halt, we can be tempted to respond in fear. When, for instance, a pandemic derails our lives, derails the church, and leaves us feeling trapped and stuck for months, we can be tempted to respond in fear. Like a turtle pulling its head into its shell or a hedgehog curling up into a ball, we can be tempted to withdraw in fear and wait for things to change. Instead, Paul saw something different happening. Prison, far from being an end, was an opportunity. As the church father Theodore said, “the chains that bind him have themselves become the instruments of salvation to many.” Through God’s divine jujitsu, the prison time that looked like it would only squash his mission actually helped to spread it.
I know that many of you, like Paul, have felt life come crashing to a halt. The news came in, the treatment failed, he’s not the same person anymore, or the house feels empty now and you wonder if the days of joy and service for Christ are over. What would it even look like now, now of all times and here of all places?
The God who turned prison into mission is at work in your life as well. Perhaps in ways we cannot yet see, but he is working nonetheless.
God’s work called Paul and all who saw him to live and speak with greater boldness for Christ. He says, most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dared to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.
Trusting in God, Paul lived with a contagious fearlessness. His chains caused the believers to have greater confidence in the Lord and to speak with even greater boldness. They spoke without fear.
I know the Raptors have been eliminated from the playoffs, but during the last series, they were down two points with less than a second left. The in-bound pass came to OG Anunoby in the corner and he drained a three point shot as time expired to give the Raptors the win. After the game, he was asked about taking the shot. He said, “I don’t shoot trying to miss.” That’s boldness.
Christians, trusting in the God who turns prison into mission, can take their shots without fear. When we see God turn Joseph’s imprisonment into the opportunity to rescue his family and feed the world, when we see God turn the persecution of the church into abundant growth, when we see God turn Paul’s imprisonment upside down for mission, we can take our shots with greater boldness and without fear. When we see God turn suffering into sanctification, turn obstacles into opportunities, and even turn the shameful cross of Christ into the salvation of the world, we can take our shots with greater boldness and without fear.
What the world thought would crush Paul, would be the end of his work, God turned into an advance, into an opportunity.
But there is another layer to this. While Paul is in prison, the rest of the believers are out serving God and sharing the good news. Yet, even if they have caught on to the fearless boldness of Paul, even if they trust in God and believe in the goodness of the gospel, there are problems. There are plenty of believers who, out of love for Paul, have increased their passion for service and mission. Knowing that right now, Paul has been placed in prison for the defense of the gospel, but he cannot go out to the synagogues, homes, and agoras to share about Jesus, they are happy to go in his stead. It is as if they are saying, “Paul, your mission field has changed to the prison and the guards, we will pick up where you left off in the streets.” This is a great. Yet, there are others who share from a different motive. Oh, the gospel they share is the same, but their hearts are not. They are envious of Paul. Paul the apostle, Paul the church planter, Paul this, Paul that. They enjoy that he is in prison and they are not. As they preach and share about Christ, they find a perverse enjoyment in Paul’s imprisonment. They are the kind of teammates who enjoy coming into the game while you sit miserably on the bench. They don’t care as much about the team winning as they do about rubbing it into your face how well they have done.
While Paul was in prison, this was happening to the church. Listen to what he says, Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. There were people letting their egos, letting their rivalry, and letting envy and selfish ambition guide them. When I was younger, I found this section of Philippians odd. Would people actually do that? Could you actually share the good news out of spite? Could you share Christ out of a spirit of rivalry, in order to one-up another Christian?
The short answer is, you shouldn’t.
The church is not the place for your personal agenda, your pet cause, or your rivalry. The church is not about you, it is about Christ. The teammates who focus more on themselves, on being better than the star player, turn out to be terrible teammates. I have come to be less surprised by this passage than when I was younger. I have seen enough celebrity pastors write books denouncing each other, seen enough rivalry and competition between churches, denominations, and ministries, I have seen enough of – as they saying goes – “how the sausage is made”, that this no longer surprises me. Somehow this seems to happen even more in Reformed circles. The saints of God can do even the good work of sharing the gospel out of a spirit of rivalry.
May it not be so with us. The church is full of sinners, myself among them. We all have those things that light a fire in us. We all have people we wish we were, even pastors. Yet, let envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition never make its home in our congregation. Friends, that is the way of the world. We are not surprised when we see it in politics or business, but that is not the way of Christ and certainly not the way of his church.
So set aside your rivalry. Set aside your envy. Set aside your agenda, your ambition, your ego. Set your sights instead on what truly matters. Listen to Paul, What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
What does it matter? Paul is so committed to the cause of Christ that he shrugs off the fact that there are people out their working for God to spite him, out their enjoying his suffering and wanting to increase it. What does it matter? Honestly, whether you get the credit or me, what does it matter? Whether you get your way or I do, what does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
Paul is willing to lose, willing to endure to have other mock and jeer, willing to have every indignity fall upon him because the cause of Christ is more important. Christ’s name, Christ’s glory, Christ’s gospel being proclaimed is so important that Paul simply does not care whether those who proclaim it like him or not. He does not care whether they shun him or love him. What does it matter? If Christ is proclaimed and the lost are saved, who cares? Who cares if their church is bigger than ours or smaller? Who cares that their pastor is more well-known, more distinguished, more hip? Who cares if they have more children or less? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
Paul has his priorities straight. Christ first, then those who have not heard, and a distant last is himself. This single-minded focus on Christ allows him to let go of his ego, his selfishness, his own ambition, because there is something far more important. A soldier in battle will make great sacrifices, even of his life, for a goal that is greater than himself. Paul, a good soldier of Jesus Christ, is willing to sacrifice even his pride and reputation for the cause of Christ.
Paul’s life and ministry has come to a screeching halt. Yet, God turns even prison into an opportunity for mission. Through divine jujitsu, what was intended to bring Paul down was turned by God into the spread of the gospel. As those who serve the God who turns the wrong to right and the down to up, we can serve him and share Christ with greater boldness and without fear, even in the midst of challenging circumstances. And we can do so, setting aside our ego, our agendas, and our envy, because nothing matter more than Christ and his kingdom.
What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
May we rejoice whenever and wherever Christ is proclaimed and may our voices be counted among the witnesses.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.