Monday, July 27, 2020

Envy, Rivalry, and Better Intentions: Sermon on Philippians 1:12-18

One Thursday, in the heart of September 1955, the 63-year-old cardinal gazed from his third-story window down at the garden. This wasn't his house. But he was stuck there. Jozsef Mindszenty was a political prisoner in his native land. Flanked by the trees on almost all sides, this manor house in this forest village in southern Hungary was his latest place of confinement – admittedly a lot better than any before it. It was now the tenth anniversary of his appointment to the highest church post in the whole country. Not so long thereafter, in spite of losing elections, the Communists managed to worm their way into power and take over. Mindszenty vowed to be a thorn in their side no less than he'd been to the Nazi collaborators of the Arrow Cross Party a few years before. Mindszenty outspokenly challenged the government's behavior. And so, two days before Christmas in 1948, he'd found his home surrounded by squads of policemen. The day after Christmas, he was formally arrested on phony charges of treason, conspiracy, and espionage. Turning to the clergy before being hauled away, he reminded them, “The world can take a great deal from us, but never our faith in Jesus Christ.”

Mindszenty recalled being taken to a secret prison, where he was kept for 39 days. Every day he was beaten. He was kept awake for days at a time, in one case for 84 hours straight. He resisted eating, because he knew they were drugging the food they served there; but slowly he was drugged all the same. All with the goal of getting him to sign confessions of his so-called crimes. He tried to keep his bearings through prayer, through meditation on the Psalms, through remembering the lives of believers who'd been through similar times before. But the drugs and the torture and the psychological manipulation slowly left him feeling abandoned and defenseless; he was hallucinating circles of bright color spinning on the walls; his powers of resistance gradually weakened. He wondered if he might be guilty after all. In February 1949, he was put on trial. The whole thing was rigged, and even his defense attorney was against him. Jozsef Mindszenty was sentenced to life in prison. In September, they transferred him to the penitentiary on Conti Street in Budapest. Now clearer in mind, a confrontation with a high-ranked Communist official led Mindszenty to return to his cell, kneel, and give thanks to the Lord Jesus Christ for counting him worthy of being shamed for Jesus' sake. Mindszenty kept up his life of prayer and felt strengthened by the conviction that people around the world were praying for him.

Meanwhile, the Communists had banned religious education in the schools, had dissolved the monasteries, and in July 1951 pressured the bishops of the country into taking a pledge of allegiance to the Communist regime. The Communists were determined to take over the churches, and they used pawns whom Mindszenty called “peace priests” – clergy who'd been intimidated into collaborating with the government, or corrupt Communist functionaries who'd managed to infiltrate the priesthood. The government manipulated them into churches around the country, raising them up to pursue the state's agendas and minimize the resistance of the faithful.

By 1954, many faithful church leaders had been similarly arrested, and “peace priests” moved into position. That was when Mindszenty's health broke down. He lost nearly half his body weight (down to 97 pounds), and the government couldn't afford the international spectacle of his death. So they'd transferred him to a prison hospital, where they kept him for fourteen months. And, for the sake of his health, they thereafter sent him here – this village, this castle. It may have sometimes been rainy and swarming with mice, but here – with one priest for company, aside from sixteen members of the secret police – there was at least fresh air and sunlight, a far cry from the penitentiary. But he was still a political prisoner, his only offense being the challenging of injustice for the sake of God and church and country. He prayed and waited in hope for the day of freedom. And as he fed anew on the bread of life, he prayed for the faithful to outlast their oppressors.

On days like that, Jozsef Mindszenty couldn't help but think back to the life of the Apostle Paul. Arrested in Jerusalem on phony charges (Acts 21:33), he'd been taken to a hearing before a corrupt governor who kept him jailed for two years in hopes of a bribe (Acts 24). When the new governor asked Paul if he wanted a fresh trial in Jerusalem, Paul had insisted on taking his case straight to the highest court, that of the emperor in Rome (Acts 25:11-12). The trip took quite a while (Acts 27-28), but once in Rome, Paul was allowed to rent an apartment and stay there under house arrest, with a soldier or two to guard him (Acts 28:16). And there he stayed for two years, waiting for a congested court system to reach his case, waiting to see if his accusers would ever even show up to prosecute him at all. Christians near and far contributed toward his upkeep, since he wasn't allowed to work. He remained in light military custody for two years... as Paul the political prisoner.

Late in those years, the Philippian Christians had sent him their pastor Epaphroditus with a sizeable donation to help him pay for his food and board; but the challenging trip to Rome had left Epaphroditus seriously sick. So Paul is in the process of writing a letter to the Philippian church, explaining that – contrary to the worries they feel about Paul – he actually sees God's hand in everything that's happening. Rather than complaining, Paul is rejoicing. His work hasn't been stifled, and the gospel remains unchained!

It might seem like house arrest would prevent Paul from carrying out his mission, but in fact it had become a vessel for his mission. For the responsibility to oversee prisoners brought from the provinces fell not just to any soldiers, but to the Praetorian Guard. Think of them like an ancient Roman Secret Service. They were elite soldiers whose responsibilities included the personal protection of the emperor and his family and property. They were paid several times what an average soldier could expect, they enlisted for shorter terms of sixteen to twenty years in the service, and your family had to be well-connected even to try out to join this elite team. In addition to acting as the emperor's bodyguards, they went around Rome and other places in Italy as secret police, spies, and assassins (not to mention security at sports games); they were feared and dreaded even by senators, since they as a body were accountable only to the emperor himself. Around the time Paul was writing, their commander Sextus Afranius Burrus was dying under suspicious circumstances (some suggested the Emperor Nero poisoned him) and being replaced by two new co-commanders. One, Lucius Faenius Rufus, was popular with the Praetorian Guard, known for doing his duties faithfully, selflessly, without seeking personal profit. The other, Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus, had the opposite reputation, being notoriously regarded as cruel, corrupt, scheming, and depraved.  Two sharp opposites, responsible for joint command of one and the same Praetorian Guard.

During the entirety of his house arrest, members of the Praetorian Guard took four-hour shifts stationed at Paul's apartment. The apostle was physically tethered to the soldiers by chains. It would ordinarily have been an embarrassing thing, to be chained up to soldiers like that. But Paul saw himself as really chained to the gospel, really chained to Jesus – his sufferings were linked to Christ's. And Paul couldn't pass up the opportunity of having, in effect, a captive audience for the gospel. During his years of house arrest in Rome, Paul was free to receive visitors, including local Jewish leaders and others who came to talk with him.  Thus, Luke closes his account in Acts by saying that Paul “welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30-31). And one or two members of the Praetorian Guard had to be present during every conversation, every impassioned case. As a captive audience for the gospel, Paul had the ears of some of the very men in whose hands the emperor's own safety would rest. And so, shift after shift after shift, day in and day out, Paul's story – which can't be told without celebrating Jesus – was passed throughout the Praetorian Guard and to other Roman administrative bureaucrats who had to deal with Paul's legal case (Philippians 1:13).

And by evangelizing so forthrightly and boldly while under house arrest, Paul inspired others. He lit a holy fire under the rest of the Roman church networks. Where once they'd felt pressured to keep their heads down and fly under the radar, Paul's example galvanized them. His very chains, instead of a sign of shame, became an encouragement, making Roman Christians “much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:14). Evangelism was on the rise. And most of those evangelists (not unlike Faenius Rufus, the incoming praetorian prefect) were concerned with doing good. They knew what was at stake in Paul's case: the liberty of the gospel itself and its status in the Roman world. They had a teamwork mentality. They preached Christ “from good will..., out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel” (Philippians 1:15b-16).

But Paul had to admit that there were others in the Roman church whose evangelistic ministry came from less noble motives. You know, Paul's letter to the Romans a few years earlier probably hadn't satisfied everybody. In fact, with such a wide array of local churches, some people probably resented Paul sticking his nose in what they felt was their business. And now he was chained up as a prisoner, which they saw as unworthy of associating themselves with and which they took as an opportunity to put themselves forward – not so unlike the “peace priests” of Communist Hungary centuries later. So Paul admits that some Roman evangelists are driven by bad motives. Their real aim is to add pressure and weight to Paul's chains, and they guess that their success will make Paul feel irrelevant and distressed. They aren't sincere, but are seeking to be cruel like Tigellinus, “thinking to afflict [Paul] in [his] imprisonment” (Philippians 1:17b).

Paul describes their motives with three Greek words. The first is a common one, and it means 'envy.' They've been envious of Paul's prominence and want to overturn it, take it away, steal his status for themselves. The second word can be rendered 'rivalry' or 'strife,' and it could be used to describe political partisanship, used to describe factionalism. It's a competitive motive. Envy has driven them to see Paul as an opponent, an enemy. And instead of working toward harmony, they're implicitly stoking division by not lining up as one team with him (Philippians 1:15a). The third word is more interesting still. My Bible says that they “proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition” (Philippians 1:17a). If thou speakest the King's English, thine might call it “contention.” But it's actually a word from Greek political discussions. When Aristotle uses it, it often gets translated as “election intrigue.” It carries the idea of a politician going door-to-door to promote himself, making whatever promises he has to in order to win your support, not because he wants to make the world better, but because he wants to take a step up in social privileges. It's the word for “the self-seeking pursuit of political office,” and treating it like a transaction: they'll buy support with whatever will sell. In church circles, evangelism sells, so these envious opponents of Paul are trying to buy support and promote themselves that way. If something else would get the job done better, they'd be doing that instead.

Now, Paul has nothing good to say about their motives. Envy, rivalry, 'election intrigue' – these things are toxic. Paul uses some of these words elsewhere to name some pretty rough sins (e.g., Romans 1:29). And as one of Paul's early readers (St. John Chrysostom) remarked on this passage, “not only won't they receive a reward, but also they will be subject to vengeance and punishment” for those sinful motives. But Paul is astonished and delighted to see that God is so sovereign, God is so clever, God is so wise and faithful and amazing, that God is using even the evil intentions of his would-be adversaries – and using it to spread the gospel! Their goal is to weigh Paul down and demoralize him – but Paul can survey that field and say, “Well, so what? In every way, whether in pretense or in truth, whether from bad motives or good motives, Christ is proclaimed – and in that I rejoice!” (Philippians 1:18). Paul may be annoyed at one level, but at a deeper level he sees the bigger picture, and that picture lifts him up more than some of the details weigh him down! Like Joseph in Egypt, he can say to them, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20). Even Paul's self-appointed opponents are being used to bring life in Christ to people who otherwise might not have heard! And so Paul can celebrate even in his imprisonment: “What has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,” to move it forward like a conquering army pressing on and taking more territory, step by step (Philippians 1:12). Paul sees victory ahead where it really counts!

Today, we know we live in a country of mixed motives. Two years ago, one political scientist (Gwyneth McClendon) wrote that 'envy' and 'strife' are two major “antisocial status motivations” that are especially “likely to spill over into politics.”  (You will see them functioning as active temptations among all political camps and parties.)  And certainly the same kind of mercenary canvassing that Aristotle and Paul both mentioned is a pervasive feature of political campaigning today – people saying whatever will sell, so they can take the next step up the ladder. Sadly, I've seen churches that look like what Paul saw: some proclaiming Christ out of love and good will, but others doing what they do out of envy and rivalry and self-seeking ambitions, trying to displace God's appointed leaders, trying to jockey for prominence and dominance. 

Whether in secular politics or church politics, the problem of bad intentions – of impure motives – is something Paul warns against.  (In our personal lives, too, we're likely to deal with people who don't always act with the purest motives towards us, or some whose motives are difficult to untangle and map out clearly.  You will meet people who act as they do toward you because of love and good will.  You will also meet people whose actions toward you are driven by envy, or geared toward producing discord and rivalry and strife, or seeking to sell you whatever they think you'll buy so that they can achieve their ambitions and aims.  This problem is perpetually relevant.)  

Certainly, God (speaking through Paul) calls us to scrutinize our own hearts first of all, to be certain that we are keeping ourselves pure in our motives until the day of Christ should come (Philippians 1:10), as we heard last week.  But when it comes to others, Paul reminds us that the same God who could use people's envy of Paul and somehow spin that into a real evangelistic ministry in spite of the evangelists' intentions is the very same God who today can intend for blessing what people around us mean as a curse. God can use a politician's selfish heart and make it promote the real welfare of the commonwealth! God can take the most inglorious passions of the populace and use them to 'accidentally' make a positive difference! This God put Paul through years of imprisonment just to position him with a captive audience he could never have otherwise reached: the Praetorian Guard and others with access to the higher authorities of the worldly empire.  This God transformed Jozsef Mindszenty's imprisonment into an international platform that outlasted a lifetime.  And this God is the same today as yesterday, and so shall be forever – Christ crucified, Christ risen, Christ coming again!  Not only does this God work all things together for your ultimate good (Romans 8:28), but even better than that this God works all things together for the gospel's good advance.  So in this God we trust.

It certainly didn't look like house arrest could be helpful to Paul's mission. But it was. It really did help the gospel advance – spreading into the mouths of more evangelizing Christians as well as the ears of more Roman soldiers and officials. These past months, plenty has happened to us, and during the period of shutdown, lockdown, quarantine, whatever you wish to call it, you may have felt not unlike the Apostle Paul, not unlike Cardinal Mindszenty like a prisoner, like you were cooped up under house arrest. It pales next to the real thing, and yet even this small taste may well have been quite aggravating. But for all that aggravation, from what Paul says, we can pray and hope that somehow – in ways we just don't see clearly yet – all we've gone through will prove to have “really served to advance the gospel,” when the story is fully told.  We don't know how.  But in a God wise to do such things, we trust.  So go on and be “bold to speak the word” – let the gospel march!

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