Sunday, August 30, 2020

No Knee Left Behind: Sermon on Philippians 2:5-11

Almost three thousand years ago. It was 833 BC (though they hardly knew that), and the people of Tarsus were quaking in their boots as the shock forces of the mighty foreign army laying siege to them marched right into the heart of the city, setting up a throne carrying a leader. Tall with flowing black hair and plaited beard, he stared at the chiefs and nobles and, with a booming voice, introduced himself: “I am Šulmānu-ašarēdu, king of the universe, king of all people, great king, strong king, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters, ruler of all lands. I am the one who makes rulers bow down; I tread all lands under my feet like a footstool. I am the commander of all rulers, the king without rival, the Lord of Kings!”

The Assyrian king Shalmaneser III had been having a fine year. Like every year, he'd gone out on a holy war, determined to force the submission of still more rulers and cities, still more mountains and nations, before him and the gods he represented. For the empire of the world had been given into his hands. Why, just a few weeks or so earlier, Shalmaneser had laid siege to another city not so far away called Tanakun. Its king Tullu had, most wisely, come out with tribute to surrender. Shalmaneser had watched with satisfaction as King Tullu had bowed down at Shalmaneser's feet in submission. It reminded Shalmaneser of all the other petty rulers who'd wisely bowed the knee to him, like Sua of Gilzanu and Jehu of Israel. They'd crawled on their hands and knees to him, with servants carrying treasures to appease Shalmaneser's wrath and acknowledge his overlordship. So now, here in Tarsus, Shalmaneser watched as the nobles of the town, together with the people, got down on their own knees, bowed the knee to him. He gave orders to have Kirri, the brother of the late king Kate, installed as their ruler. And Kirri, for his part, once crowned, bowed the knee before Shalmaneser and confessed Assyrian greatness with tongue and tribute. So many kings bowed the knee to Shalmaneser. He truly felt the conviction he was king of the universe, king of the four quarters, lord of kings. And he, in turn, bowed the knee never to any mortal, but only to his gods – especially to the god Aššur his lord.

Tarsus, through submission, was able to wave goodbye to Shalmaneser. Over two centuries later, there'd be another Assyrian king who would declare, “All of the kings in the midst of the sea, from Cyprus and Ionia to Tarsus..., bowed down at my feet. I received their heavy tribute. I achieved victory over the rulers of the four quarters, and I sprinkled the venom of death over all of my enemies.” So wrote Esarhaddon, great king of Assyria. Another six centuries went by. A Jewish family settled in Tarsus, and in its environment they'd birth and raise a son there – a son named Sha'ul. And when their son's life was changed by an encounter with God's Son, Sha'ul – whom we know better by his Roman name Paulus, or 'Paul' – would find himself under house arrest, not in the capital of long-fallen Assyria, but in the heart of another empire: Rome.

Like Shalmaneser, the emperors of Rome made lofty claims for themselves and accepted them from others. The Emperor Augustus didn't much care for being called 'Lord,' but his stepson Tiberius would hail the late Augustus as a god, calling himself “the son of the deified Augustus the Savior and Liberator, son of the deified Caesar.” The common people, especially in the provinces, happily used the word dominus – 'Lord' – for both of them, and set up temples dedicated to the worship of Tiberius' parents Augustus and Livia. As the years unfolded, provincials especially could readily speak of “our lord the emperor.” And so by the days of Augustus' great-grandson Nero, the one under whose authority Paul was a captive, it's not so surprising that one priest of the imperial cult could address the Emperor Nero as “Lord of All the World, Supreme Commander..., our Lord Augustus.” And Paul knew that in the province of Macedonia, the city of Philippi welcomed talk like that. They built temples for the imperial cult, Roman politics gone religious. They hailed Nero Caesar, and his supposedly deified ancestors, as the lords before whom their Philippian knees bowed and whose propaganda their Philippian tongues confessed. And Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus knew and relished it.

From Shalmaneser and Esarhaddon to Tiberius and Nero to today, countless political leaders – rulers of men and women – have either outspokenly presented themselves as 'Lord' or else welcomed others' embrace of them as 'Lord.' Countless such rulers, down through the pages of history, have longed to watch others bow the knee to them and confess their sovereignty, even if in more subtle ways than Shalmaneser quite openly did it. But into such a world, Paul sings a different song, and asks the Philippian church – and ours – to catch the tune.

Shalmaneser had believed that his so-called gods had commissioned him to go forth and conquer, to represent their mastery of the whole universe by forcing all the kings and peoples of the world to submit to him – and thus to them through him. And so, obedient to that ideology, Shalmaneser had marched from land to land with brutal violence, receiving tribute from the submissive and butchering the unsubmissive. Paul's song sings of a king with a different approach. “Have this mind among yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus – who, though he was in the form of God, did not count the equality with God as a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself, and took upon himself the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. Being found in human appearance, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).

Jesus, Paul says, from all eternity past had existed “in the form of God.” He existed in the fullness of divine splendor and light, had existed in the Father's embrace. He was, by very nature, everything his Father was. And so he was, substantially, God the Father's equal. He was at the very summit of the great chain of being. There was no greater glory than his, no higher kingship than his. He was God the Son, God the Word, the regal and radiant face of the Most High, the perfect stamp of God's infinite shape. He had this eternally. He didn't have to conquer to get it. It was his. But although eternally he had the highest station, he never viewed it as a thing to exploit, to use for grasping and clawing and taking advantage of, the way Shalmaneser exploited his military might to get tribute. Instead, God the Son did what Shalmaneser would never have dreamed of. He emptied himself. He hollowed out his treasury and began to climb down the ladder. He was born in human likeness and pattern. He took on the form, not of Almighty God, but of powerless slave – the sort whose life and death the likes of Shalmaneser and Nero would deem cheap and expendable. And he humbled himself, pursued a lowly mindset. He obeyed submissively – following his Father's will, ultimately, but letting himself be bossed around by a Roman governor named Pilate and his soldiers, following orders to strip and be beaten, to wear a thorny crown, to carry this hunk of wood up a hill, to stretch out his arms and legs to receive their piercing nails. He was obedient all the way to his last labored breath. Unlike Esarhaddon, who boasted in having “sprinkled the venom of death” over all his enemies, Jesus himself drank the venom of death for his enemies. He embraced the lowliest and most embarrassing death – not a heroic death in battle, but a death of human helplessness and humiliation – the kind of death you get on a cross. Shalmaneser would never have done that. Esarhaddon would never have done that. Augustus would never have done that. Nero would never have done that. But Jesus stepped down from far above their heads to do exactly that.

And therefore,” Paul says – “therefore, God even highly exalted him” (Philippians 2:9a). In that one phrase, Paul flips the story around. Precisely because Jesus acted so little like Nero, precisely because Jesus acted so little like Shalmaneser, his story turned out differently than theirs. For Nero died a cowardly death and was buried in a Roman mausoleum. Shalmaneser lived out his years and was buried. Both remain under the earth, and the gods they served are exposed as frauds. But the true God declared that it was unthinkable to let death keep its hands on the Jesus who climbed down the ladder (Acts 2:24). God not only raised him from death to life in the resurrection, God then raised him from earth to heaven in the ascension; and God not only raised him from earth to heaven in the ascension, God even raised him from obscurity to central glory in the exaltation. A psalmist long ago sang, “You, O LORD, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods” (Psalm 97:9); and that same word, 'exalted far above,' is where God puts Jesus. God elevates Jesus to the top, to the high throne, to center stage with the spotlight.

Yes, God highly exalted Jesus – “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5:31). Jesus is now “exalted above the heavens(Hebrews 7:26), even. And God “bestowed on him the Name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9b). What name? The unique name of God – Yahweh – which Greek copies of the Old Testament held to be so sacred that they usually just glossed over it as, 'the LORD.' There's no name higher than that one. It's the name above every other name. “All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name,” says the psalmist (Psalm 86:9). “From the rising of the sun t its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised” (Psalm 113:3). “Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted (Psalm 148:13). Just listen to the way God talks through Isaiah:

I am the LORD, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness … I the LORD speak the truth; I declare what is right. Assemble yourselves and come; draw near, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols and keep on praying to a god that can't save. Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Wasn't it I, the LORD? And there's no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:18-22)

And that, God says – that is all for Jesus. God the Father throws that name, that public identity, around Jesus – or, rather, makes the veil of Jesus' flesh so transparent that the glory can't be hidden. God names Jesus with his rightful name, the name of that LORD – the LORD the only God, the LORD who declares what's right, the LORD who speaks the truth, the LORD who saves. In this one name, what's claimed for Jesus is everything any king has ever dreamt of. All the exalted titles are summed up in this name. Jesus is the King of all people. Jesus is the King of the four quarters. Jesus is the Ruler of all lands. Jesus is the King of the Universe. All lands – the whole earth – is his footstool. He is “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:16), “Lord of Lords and King of Kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Revelation 17:14).

And so, where Yahweh – the LORD – said, “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue will confess to God” (Isaiah 45:23), Paul quotes that dazzling pledge and cracks it open and finds Jesus enthroned upon its heart! For Paul explains that “at the name of Jesus 'every knee will bow' – in heaven and on earth and under the earth – 'and every tongue confess' that the LORD is Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). What a promise! To bow or bend the knee – that means to recognize authority and power, and to submit to it, like the people of Tarsus did to Shalmaneser, like so many kings and rulers did to Shalmaneser. Or, at least, so Shalmaneser tried to make them. But he lived in one little slice of history and one region of the globe. No king of the Zhou Dynasty in China ever bowed the knee to Shalmaneser. No ancient Britons bowed the knee to him. No ancestral speakers of any Algonquian or Iroquoian languages ever confessed a word for Shalmaneser or hailed him. Certainly no American presidents have ever or will ever bow the knee to Shalmaneser. He has no authority over them. But all will bow the knee to Jesus – not only dwellers on the face of the earth, but what's buried beneath it and what soars above it, physically and spiritually – Paul throws the net wide as the universe, wide as heaven and hell and all that's between, wider than history.

And Paul says there's one confession – only one confession, one open acknowledgment, that rightly gives God the credit, that truly gives the Father his due. God says through Isaiah, “My glory I will not give to another. … I am He: I am the First, and I am the Last” (Isaiah 48:11-12). But Jesus is not 'another,' not a rival; he's the equal the Father finds in his own heart, he's the Father's perfect Image, he's the very mind of God. And the only way to rightly glorify God is to confess that the LORD – the LORD God, and the Lord on the highest throne – is Jesus Christ, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Father's Anointed Son. Jesus is the One who bears the Name above every other name. No other confession will do. No pious-sounding deistical rubbish can measure up. The most highfalutin talk about God is aimed entirely wrong 'til it reaches the confession that Jesus Christ is LORD!

And when Isaiah discerned that, he knew that some would make that confession with joy and willingness: “In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory” (Isaiah 45:25). And so true spiritual Israel has been redrawn based on this willing confession of Jesus as LORD (cf. Romans 2:29; Galatians 6:16). Others currently refuse to confess and bow – but, Isaiah promises, they will, though not willingly and not gladly: “To him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him” (Isaiah 45:24).

Willingly or unwillingly, though, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. That includes angel knees and demon knees, knees of muscle and long-bloodless kneecaps. Michael and Gabriel will bow their knees in holy gladness. So will Satan and all his demon host, though with shame instead of delight. And every knee that either now walks the earth or ever did shall likewise bow to the dirt in submission to the Lordship of Jesus, and every tongue will admit, openly and before everyone, the truth about who he is.

The knees of Shalmaneser III and Esarhaddon, ancient kings of Assyria, will bow at the name of Jesus. And their tongues will confess that Aššur was a pointless fraud and that Jesus is the only King of the Universe. The knees of Augustus and Nero will one day bow at the name of Jesus, and their tongues will confess that the imperial cult was a sham and that Jesus is the real Dominus of All the World. The knees of Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan will all bow, and in Greek and Hunnic and Mongolian their tongues will confess, awestruck, that Jesus is the truest Conqueror of hearts. The knee of Adolf Hitler will literally bow to Israel's Messiah and confess that a Jewish carpenter has been named Leader of the Eternal Empire. The knees of Joseph Stalin and Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping will some day bow to the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Love.

The knees of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Donald Trump and Joseph Biden – they all will bow, they all will hit the dirt, they all will submit and throw themselves into the waiting hands of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the tongue of every president and presidential hopeful will in that day confess – willingly or unwillingly – that Jesus was always King of Kings, Jesus was always Lord of Lords, Jesus was always President of Presidents, and that Jesus' way is the only truly presidential way. Jesus has no term limit. No election can change it, no crisis can interrupt it, no scheme can subvert it. Not all the riotous uproar of the nations can cast away the cords of Christ (Psalm 2:2-3). The rulers of the earth are warned now to be wise and to serve the LORD Jesus with devotion, because his Kingship is unavoidable. Whatever they do and whatever they say, however they scheme and however they govern, we know in advance that their knees will bow, and they'll have to admit that wherever they stepped out of line with Jesus, wherever they picked a fight with him by slandering his church or harming his creatures, they led wrongly. And wherever they attained their power through conquest or electioneering or deceit, they'll know and admit that they are now humbled because they exalted themselves, while Christ humbled himself to the lowest and therefore was exalted to the highest.

Every knee will bow. No knee will be left behind. God has passed a No Knee Left Behind Act, and it's forever in force. And every tongue will confess that Jesus is highly exalted, that Jesus bears the Name above all names. “Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth, young men and maidens together, old men and children! Let them praise the name of the LORD [Jesus], for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven” (Psalm 148:11-13). Not just the princes and rulers, but the people, too – man and woman, young and old, rich and poor, of every culture and every color, every language and every tribe. My knees will bow. My tongue will confess. Your knees will bow. Your tongue will confess (Philippians 2:10-11).

The risk we run here is that needing to have it dragged out of us with chagrin and shock and shame. The risk we run is that we'll so live in the meantime that it will not be a joy to kneel to Jesus, to confess his truth in the open. Oh, we gather here to speak his name. But do we bow the knee – submit all our opinions to him, all our attitudes to him, all our hopes and dreams to him? Do we confess that this Lord deserves more allegiance than a party or an agenda, more allegiance than a race or a nation, more allegiance than a flag or a constitution, more allegiance than our own heart? One day, we'll have to bow that knee, one day we'll have to confess. How much better it would be, brothers and sisters, for that day to be the greatest joy, because we've been practicing all along? How much greater will it be to throw ourselves at Jesus' feet because that's where we've made our home, and to swear allegiance to his Lordship unreservedly that day because we've made Jesus the center of our politics and our civics, the center of our economics and our rhetoric, the center of our soul's devotion now?

The day is coming. The day is coming when all will be summoned, when all will be raised, when all will be called down to be faced with the truth that Jesus, who humbled himself from equality with God to a slave's death on the cross, has been raised and highly exalted as King of the Universe. Practice for that day. Practice for joy on that day. Practice so that, when the day comes, you can show Nero and Shalmaneser and all the mighty ones of the ages how it's done. “Turn to [Jesus] and be saved, all you ends of the earth! … Only in the LORD are righteousness and strength. To him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him. In the LORD [Jesus], all the offspring of [the Israel of God, his holy church,] shall be justified and shall glory” (Isaiah 45:22-25) – for whoever now willingly confesses with the tongue that Jesus is Lord and trusts from the heart that God raised him from the dead and exalted him as Savior-King, will assuredly be saved (Romans 10:9). So bow the knee and confess your Savior-King this day with a joyous hallelujah! Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Interests of Others: Sermon on Philippians 2:1-8

In a town in Bithynia, a philosopher stands in the heart of the theater, where the townsfolk have gathered to hear him out. It's about the same time John's Revelation has been hitting seven churches to the south. But up here in Nicaea, something else is afoot. The Nicaeans have had an exhausting year – a year consumed in a knock-down political brawl between different parts of the city government. And as neighbors chose one side or the other, it all led to the fraying of their civic fabric. Lately, they've managed a tender truce. Hearing that their rival city of Nicomedia granted honorary town citizenship to the distinguished speaker and philosopher Dion, who grew up about fifty miles from Nicaea in Prusa, the Nicaeans didn't want to be left out. So they resolved to do the same, and invited him to come receive the honor and give a speech to inspire them.

So Dion came. He was in his later fifties, and these colder months weren't quite as pleasant to him as they used to be. He caught a winter cold on the way over. But he went. Now, Dion was no Christian. And neither were most Nicaeans, or perhaps any. They were pagans. They believed, and he believed, in the gods of the ancient Greeks. And the myths they cherished told how the town of Nicaea had been built and named by none other than the god Dionysus, and had again been raised up by the half-divine hero Heracles. So as he commenced his speech in Nicaea, Dion began there. The gods, he assumed, model perfect friendship among themselves in their heavenly bliss. And so “it is fitting,” Dion told the Nicaeans, “that those whose city was founded by gods should maintain peace and concord and friendship toward one another.” Dion knew that they knew the old definition of the Roman writer Cicero, who held the essence of friendship to be “complete agreement in policy, in pursuits, and in opinions.” This was what the gods must have, so surely their founding gods desire Nicaeans to have the civic friendship that will result in “orderly politics.”

And, Dion said, they had already begun to rebuild those ties of friendship. Dion's own joy was increased, was made fuller, he told them, because when he came among them, he found them “wearing the same costume, speaking the same language, and desiring the same things.” And he asked them:

Indeed, what spectacle is more enchanting than a city with singleness of purpose? And what sound is more awe-inspiring than its harmonious voice? What city is wiser in council than that which takes council together? What city acts more smooth than that which acts together? What city is less liable to failure than that which favors the same policies? To whom are blessings sweeter than to those who are of one heart and mind? … When a city has concord..., it's just as if some god had made a single soul for so great and populous a city.

As Dion spoke, he found his strength failing him. With an apology for his weakness, he wrapped things up a bit earlier than he otherwise might have. Offering a short prayer, he called on the gods who meant the most to the Nicaeans, asking that they “may implant in this city a yearning for itself, a passionate love, a singleness of purpose, a unity of wish and thought; and, on the other hand, that they may cast out strife and contentiousness and jealousy, so that this city may be numbered among the most prosperous and the noblest for all time to come” (Dion Chrysostomos, Oration 39.1-8).

Dion spoke those words several decades after Paul had already claimed his martyr's crown; indeed, Dion was born during the earlier years of Paul's ministry travels. He did not learn from Paul, likely never heard of Paul. But some of the initial structure of Dion's logic might remind us of what Paul says in today's passage.

Where Dion held out to the Nicaeans the myths of their founding by Dionysus and Heracles, gods and demigods of Greek lore, Paul pointed to the one true God before whom all such idols must fall. But Dion pointed to the imagined divine founding of Nicaea to say that, if Nicaea prides itself in the benefits of a divine origin, then that should lead to changed behavior. And Paul says much the same to the Philippians: if the Philippian church can claim divine benefits, then that should lead to changed behavior, harmonious behavior. The Philippians have been honored and graced by a “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” They, like Paul, have received the gift of “encouragement in Christ,” the person of the Son. They, like Paul, have received “comfort from love,” from God the Father's love. They, like Paul, have savored “participation in the Spirit,” the Holy Spirit. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Paul is covering all the true divine bases there are. And, between them and Paul, they've also maintained “affection and sympathy.” Now Paul leverages all that. Dion rejoiced to the extent the Nicaeans were living according with their supposed divine founding, and Paul rejoices to the extent the church in Philippi lives according to its divine graces. So, he says, if he and they have shared those graces, and if they feel even the slightest bit of affection for him, they should “complete [his] joy,” should give Paul something to celebrate (Philippians 2:1-2a).

And what would Paul celebrate? He'd celebrate if the Philippian church could live out the same kind of concord and friendship that Dion hoped to see from the Nicaeans. Dion was happy to see the Nicaeans matching – to see them “wearing the same costume, speaking the same language, and desiring the same things.” Dion lauded a city that moves with a “singleness of purpose,” that “acts together,” that “favors the same policies,” where the people are “of one heart and mind,” that acts like it has “a single soul.” He prayed that the Nicaeans could have “a unity of wish and thought,” expressed in a passionate love for the good of the city. That's civic friendship at its best, in the Greek world. And Paul sets the bar no lower for the Philippian church. Just as the Nicaeans had been torn by civil unrest, Paul sees the first petals of that flower opening in this church, and he wants to rip that out by the roots. So he calls them to “be of the same mind, having the same love, united in soul, of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). Paul asks the church to set their minds to the same channel, as it were, and participate in a shared life, focus on matching their ways of thinking. They need a singleness of purpose. They need to act as a single soul, to live from one heart and mind, to unite in their wishes and their thoughts, to be driven by intense love for the good of the church. They need to want the same things.

But here's where Dion and Paul part ways again. Dion and the Nicaeans could only learn from the idols of the Greeks. Dion lived in a world where the natural expected behavior of any town's citizen was to pursue upward mobility in honors – to promote himself through bigger and better stations in life. 'Think big' was the cry of the hour. So Dion, as a young man born to wealth only because his father Pasicrates had been a successful loan shark, had been determined to climb the social ladder, rising to prominence in his hometown before going off to Rome and making powerful connections that made him realize how paltry his old ambitions had been – so he strove for empire-wide fame beyond the usual city course of honors. Dion viewed this kind of behavior as fully compatible with his vision for the Nicaeans – Dion thought they could still live in this way, grasping after status and honors, and have real concord and friendship. And the Philippians are inclined to agree. Philippi, as a Roman colony, is obsessed with ladder-climbing. Even among slaves in Philippi, they tended to put on their tombstones who their most famous master was, so that they could even in death compete with other slaves for bragging rights! And Philippi was filled with clubs where people angled for privilege and prominence and post, all so they could list their upward climb in an impressive resumé of honors. It was natural for Philippians – yes, even those who became Christians – to carry the built-in assumptions that the world works that way.

But Paul says no. No, that's not how it should be. That's not the way to go. Paul sees that ladder-climbing as the heart of two critical vices. One is electioneering, or 'selfish ambition,' as your Bible might have it. That's the same vice that drives some Roman Christians to try to take advantage of Paul's house arrest to pressure him and hurt him (Philippians 1:17), and Philippian Christians should be ashamed if they say they love Paul and yet act toward each other the way his detractors do to him. And the other vice is vainglory, baseless self-exaltation, empty bragging about things that don't really bring credit, all born out of a fundamental insecurity. Everywhere in Philippi, you could see monuments where people brag about things that are just so empty. To break these, the Philippian church has to reject the whole ladder-climbing worldview. Instead, they have to embrace something that would have horrified Dion: humility (Philippians 2:3).

To us, that sounds perfectly normal. But to the ancient Greeks and Romans, 'humility' was a dirty word. Greek authors actually listed 'humility' as a vice, as a character flaw! Because the word Paul uses here literally means “low-mindedness.” Greeks associated this word with cowering and groveling. They sneered at it as being the way low-class people think to get ahead. They said that this kind of behavior was the way slaves act. So for the Philippians, all of whom were converted out of this background, the word 'humility' stings! Should they lower themselves and grovel and simper and cower and flatter? That may be what it looks like to pagan eyes. But for Paul, humility is 'low-mindedness' in the sense of recognizing that all our perceived social differences between a president and a janitor are basically flat when we realize we're all just creatures confronted by a Creator who looms infinitely large. And with God in the picture, humility becomes a sensible thing. It was in the Hebrew scriptures, which repeatedly praise those who “humble themselves before the LORD.” But it's even more sensible in light of Jesus Christ, whose intentional downward mobility was what saved us. For, existing in divine glory, he rejected out-of-hand this grasping and clinging behavior the Philippians were addicted to; and instead, he emptied himself of everything showy and bright, put displays of glory aside, and stepped down into mortal shoes; and not only that, but he dressed in the costume of a slave; and not only that, but he submitted obediently to God his Father and embraced crucifixion, the uttermost shame a Greek or Roman could think of (Philippians 2:6-8). There's no greater course of dishonors than to go from visible equality with God, down through posts like human and slave, all the way to the cross. That's humility – and the Philippians can't claim to be followers of Christ while refusing to admit humility as a virtue (cf. Philippians 2:5).

So what should humility look like in practice for the Philippians? It means to give regard to one another's needs and concerns as more pressing than one's own. It means paying less attention to one's own vested interests and instead paying the greatest attention to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4). That's how Paul explains it. It turns the Philippians' world on its head. To ignore one's own interests means not angling for prominence, not seeking to climb the ladders that will impress their neighbors. It means being willing to take a step backwards, even many steps backwards, if that's what will be helpful to other people. Paul encourages the believers to make a habit of prospering the things that profit those whose interests seem to diverge from your own. Dion could have pictured a city where people are united in wishing the common good. But Paul goes so much further than a pagan philosopher could dream, then and now. Paul hopes for believers, in humility, to actively seek to promote each other's interests, even at their own personal expense. He wants them to invest where others will reap the dividends. And that only seems out of place because we haven't yet swallowed what Paul's dishing out: the command to pay more attention to others' needs and interests than our own, to put greater weight on what affects other people than on what affects us. And that, Paul says, is real civic friendship – this behavior alone will really lead to a convergence of loves, a convergence of mindsets onto the model of Jesus Christ.

Where does that bring us today? In March 1801, a new president was sworn into office. His name was Thomas Jefferson, and he'd made quite a few people nervous. Almost two months after President Jefferson took office, a Pennsylvania man named Thomas Dill wrote him a somewhat rambling letter, reminding the president that, as his calling was such a weighty one, he would need God to instruct and guide him. And Dill urged Jefferson to work for a country that would take the Apostle Paul seriously – a nationwide city that would “live in love and unity and goodwill and concord and harmony, furthering the wealth and outward estate and welfare of one another, forgiving and lending freely one to another without grudging, and let every man look upon the things of others as well as their own things.” Dill hoped President Jefferson, though hardly a Christ-follower, would be stirred by Paul's vision of civic friendship.

Because too often – as the ugly election of 1800 proved, and as we've proven over and over since – our country sometimes thinks more like the pagan Greeks and Romans than like the early Christians. We can get tied up in various sorts of ladder-climbing and other quests for honors and power. Our politics are full of electioneering, selfish ambition, empty claims to glory. But real humility, the way Paul defines it? Not so much. Sometimes, perhaps. But not as a rule. The same is as true of everyday citizens as of those who campaign. We tend to bundle ourselves into groups defined and divided by our interests. We project those interests as if they're good for the country as a whole, but rarely do we pause and ask how they impact those whose lives look differently.

But what do you suppose would change in our civic life if what loomed large in our mind was what benefited the people we have the hardest time seeing ourselves in? If we're young, maybe that looks like asking whether the policies that most appeal to us would really serve the interest of our elders – and, if not, find some that would. And if we're older, asking whether the policies that most appeal to us would really be in the best interest of the younger generation – and again, if not, find some that would. If we live in the city, are we taking care to look out for the interests of those in the countryside? And if we live in the countryside, are we really thinking most about what would make life better for the cities? For many of us, a humble approach to civic life might mean focusing on what would most serve the interests of the poor, on what would most serve the interests of the chronically ill, on what would most serve the interests of those who face unjust discrimination. Their interests might diverge from what feels like it works for us. But if we all started advocating for the interests that diverge from our own, over time we might see real civic friendship transform our community.

Of course, while Paul's words begin by echoing the political language of his day, he doesn't stop there. Paul is determined to speak to the church. For it's the church that has received the encouragement of the Son, that has been comforted by the love of the Father, that has been blessed to share in the Spirit. It's the church that has been saved by the humble mindset of Jesus Christ, whose pursuit of downward mobility bought our salvation. And the church is itself the 'city' Paul wants to see transformed by humility.

In this church, we can be trained to see one another's concerns as weightier than our own. And I rejoice that I see that! For many of us have accepted some uncomfortable measures during this season, not for the protection of our own personal health, but as a way of looking out for the health of others. In this church, we don't see the sort of ladder-climbing mentality that afflicted the Philippians. I rejoice in that, too! In churches, as we grow in humility, we learn to prefer the songs other people like over the ones we already know. In churches, as we grow in humility, we learn to prefer what's helpful to others over what's convenient to ourselves. In churches, as we strive to live out Paul's vision, we aim to see others' spiritual growth as the goal of our own.

So, if I might paraphrase and blend Dion and Paul together:

It's fitting that a church powered by God's grace should maintain peace, friendship, and love to one another! So I rejoice to find you wearing the same costume of the pure robes of righteousness, speaking the same praises of Christ, and desiring the same new creation. What sight could be more enchanting than a church with singleness of purpose? What sound is more awe-inspiring than the church's harmonious voice raised in worship? What church is wiser than the church that takes council together? What church acts more smoothly than a church that acts together? What church is less liable to failure than a church that agrees on the same mission? To what church can blessings taste sweeter than a church whose people are of one heart and one mind? To what church are afflictions lighter than to the church that bears one another's burdens? When a church enjoys friendship in Christ, then and only then are all our blessings and assets truly useful. So let this church live as one soul, joined by the same love, tuning our minds to the same frequency broadcast by the Jesus who descended from glory for us, who humbled himself for us, that we might live. In the same humility, let this church weigh one another's needs as the more significant, putting aside ambitions and empty pride to pay greater attention to each other's needs, each other's concerns, each other's interests. Let this church have the mind of Christ our Savior.

Let us pray:
Father, Son, Holy Spirit – one God, the Founder of all our divine graces, the Giver of all our benefits, the Fount of every blessing, of the encouragement of Christ and the comforting love of God and the sharing of the Spirit – I pray that, from this day forth, you would implant in this church a passionate love, a singleness of purpose, a unity of wish and thought, of soul and mind fixed on love and humility; and that all contentiousness and jealousy and self-seeking would flee before the outpouring of your grace, so that this church may forever be a spark that ignites our neighborhood and the world, burning up our ladders and dividing walls, but warming the heart of a cold world. Preserve us in the unity of the faith delivered to the ancient saints and handed down through thousands of years. Preserve us in the common hope for our souls, a Savior from heaven, Jesus Christ, who will make all things new. Preserve us in the bonds of love that unite all virtues together in one. Teach us the mind of Christ for the redemption of the world, for the joy of the church, and for the glory of his name above every name. Amen.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Fearless: Sermon on Phillipians 1:27-30

“Hey, let's put some water on the Reverend!” Up until he heard those words, Fred had been having an excellent day. He was so proud, so full of praise to God, for the protests. Finally it had reached the breaking point. At last change would be forced, whether Birmingham was ready for it or not. The Rev. Fred. L. Shuttlesworth, 41-year-old Baptist preacher, had been going toe-to-toe with Bull Connor and the monumental demons of racism for years, and these marches had finally overflowed the city's jails, finally caught nationwide attention, finally forced the issue. Fred was proud. But as he turned his head toward the source of those words, he caught sight of the massive column of speeding water descending on him, arching full-blast from the fire hose trained in his direction. Scarcely did he have time to protect his face, but even as he turned, the water hit his shoulders and ribs, slamming him into the brick wall of the church with bone-crunching force. As it hit, short words of prayer flashed through his mind: “Lord, I've been coming this way a long time. This is it. I'm ready when you are.”

Fred had been coming that way a long time. For over seven years he'd been standing up for the vulnerable in the name of Jesus; for over seven years he'd been calling Birmingham's city government to let his people go. Seven years and then some he'd opposed all manner of Jim Crow laws and segregationist policies. It's been six and a half years since the Christmas Eve of '56, when a car full of Klansmen pulled up outside his parsonage, tossed a bundle of dynamite at his bedroom, with him inside it. Shattered the house, blew out the windows, caved in the roof... and somehow, the blast hurled the mattress Fred had been sitting on out from under him and turned it into a protective shield from the storm of deadly debris. In the moment of fiercest fiery wrath of man, the Holy Spirit applied the word of God to Fred's heart, he believed, and he heard the words of scripture well up within him, how “the eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27). Cradled in those everlasting arms as the dynamite detonated just feet beneath him – Fred knew God was saving and protecting him. Sustaining just a bump on the head, he knew God was calling him to stay and lead the fight against the violence and terror that those Klansmen and their dynamite represented. That fight, a campaign of love, would be the gospel in action, the gospel fleshed out with skin like his, the skin they hated. So when friends wondered if they should slow down after the bombing, Fred refused to be frightened.

Fred remembered, too, that day in September 1957 when he took his family to integrate the high school. As city government dragged its feet in implementing the Supreme Court's ruling, Fred would push the issue. But there was a mob waiting for the family. Not only was his wife Ruby stabbed, but Fred was set upon with baseball bats and brass knuckles and chains, thrashing him with demonic fury, knocking him to the ground over and over again as they brutalized him. But as the beating subsided, Fred heard a voice say to his heart, “Get up, I got a job for you to do.” And so he got up, pressed on. Miraculously, the knuckles and bats left him scarred but failed to crack his skull. He quipped God knew he'd live in a hard town and so had given him a hard head.

Fred remembered that night in June 1958, when his quick-thinking guards narrowly averted the bombing of his church – a massive load of dynamite in a paint bucket placed against the wall. It was the city commissioner's doing, working in concert with the Klan. So, too, did Fred remember the persistent intimidation campaigns – the detectives sent to infiltrate his every meeting and scare people away, the repeated harassment, the daily ringing of the telephone with mockery and threats. Fred remembered all the times he was arrested, the constant court cases, the frequent fines imposed by unjust judges. Had Fred been less convinced he was marching for God, it might have been easy to let all that intimidate even him. But still he'd pressed on, determined to live the gospel. And that had brought him to these latest marches, demonstrations by the thousands joined not just by adults but by young folks, teens, even children. For the Birmingham authorities to be bullying and arresting eight-year-olds would prove to be an especially bad look. Now he was here. Dogs had been unleashed, and the police and firefighters met the marchers with ferocious repression. Fred was under the hose himself. He was wondering if his time to die had finally come, this day, this march on Tuesday, May 7, 1963. Was this it?

The spray of the fire hose, powerful enough to strip a tree bare of its bark, thudded into Fred's ribs, pounding him against the brick wall continuously, knocking the breath from his lungs and preventing him from drawing another one. “I'm ready when you are,” Fred silently prayed to the Lord of life and death. “Not here,” came the answer as the hose finished, leaving a barely conscious Fred crumpled on the ground. “And not yet.” Dazed and in pain, suffering for the cause Fred saw as the service of the gospel in action, soaked to the bone, Fred Shuttlesworth gathered himself. Not all the water they could ever spray could extinguish the fire in his soul. He would not be frightened. Would not be intimidated. Would keep striving. So he gazed fearless at the fury and refused to flinch. Rev. Shuttlesworth determined to march and pray 'til good news became social reality in civil rights, in integration, in reconciliation – in the day when he and the men who formerly beat and bombed him could at last sit down as friends and eat from the same table, being of one blood and one body in the Lord.

In all this, Fred knew that Paul had gone before him. Whenever Fred was jailed, he remembered Paul, jailed once in Philippi on charges of disturbing the peace and upsetting the social order. He remembered how before being tossed in jail, Paul and Silas had been beaten by a mob, just like he was. In Philippi and elsewhere, Paul stood up for Jesus, marched with the gospel from land to land, and took his share of licks for it. As Paul told one of his churches, “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea. On frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). And now here's Paul, under house arrest, where the everlasting arms have upheld him, too, these past couple years. Writing a letter from Rome to the Philippian churches, he's got some guidance to offer those whose destinies are bound up with the same cause for which Paul marched and prayed.

And the first of four words of guidance Paul has is this: “Only act like citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). Your Bible may say it a bit differently, but that's literally what Paul says. He's got a word he usually uses when he wants to talk about our Christian walk. He doesn't use that word here. Instead, he uses the word we get 'politics' from. He tells us to behave like model citizens. He tells us to do our civic duty. This would have hit the Philippians right at their civic pride. They lived in a Roman colony. As colonials, people in Philippi were obsessed with gaining and enjoying citizenship in their mother city, Rome. Paul speaks to the church there, though, of another mother city and a different empire, whose citizenship reshapes our civic lives here. What it means to be a citizen of Rome or a citizen of America is transformed by citizenship in the Empire of Jesus. Fred Shuttlesworth had to fight for the benefits of American citizenship, which he held as a birthright, to be applied to him and those who shared the color of his skin. We have to use those benefits – and the duties they carry – as vehicles for the gospel. Paul puts it this way: we have to undertake civic duties worthily of the gospel – have to reside in America as its citizens in a way that honors our higher citizenship well.

We're used to thinking of the gospel as a gift – and it is. The gospel is the announcement that Jesus, Messiah of Israel and Hope of the Nations and Light of the World, although he was crucified by the powers of the world, has nevertheless been raised to life by God and, in light of the cross, enthroned as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, a Savior to all who bend the knee to him in heartfelt faith. And, in light of Jesus' enthronement, which means the golden age is at last breaking in upon us, there are suitable and unsuitable ways to live. Paul tells us to live in suitable ways, ways that match the story of Jesus. Paul tells us our political lives, as much as the rest of us, should be rooted in the cross and the empty tomb. Paul calls us to live as citizens of the Empire of Jesus, the kingdom of God, before any other allegiance; and to let that reshape what it means to tread American soil. Act like citizens, and do it in a way that measures up to the good news that Jesus Christ is on the top throne.

Paul's second word of guidance summons us to march together. As he says it, he hopes to find us “standing firm in one spirit, with one soul striving side-by-side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). That's the language of a march. The image, specifically, is of soldiers standing and moving with their shields locked – soldiers staying united in formation, not breaking ranks even when under assault, especially when under assault. Philippi was a popular destination for retired Roman soldiers to move to, so Paul's language here would have connected dead-on. In this military formation, each soldier's shield offers protection to the guy standing next to him. And as they march in formation like that, as they press against the enemy assault and don't break ranks, they stand firm as if they share a single spirit and a single soul.

Fred Shuttlesworth knew that, and so he tried to recruit as many people to march with him as he could. In the marches where the hose was finally turned on him, the turning point came when so many had marched with him that the jails all filled up with demonstrators. Fred had to work hard to forge unity, but as the people marched, their best successes came when they sang as one, prayed as one, marched as one. Paul wants that for us, wants that for the church! Paul does not want us to break ranks, does not want us to scatter, does not want us to be governed by a thousand different desires. 'Breaking ranks' is what happens when we pretend the Christian life is a choose-your-own-adventure story, a do-it-yourself project. Paul wants us to stand firm in one spirit. Paul wants us to behave like we share a soul. Paul wants us to raise the shield of faith to protect each other, and we can't do that if we live out of touch with each other, if we stop marching and go our own way, if we lose sight of the struggle, if the fire goes out. Stand firm. Strive together. March as one!

Paul's third word of guidance is a shocking one. “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). Paul's third word here is to embrace suffering for the gospel as a cherished gift. When Paul says it was 'granted' to the Philippians, he's using a form of the word we usually translate as 'grace.' That is, the Philippians have been graced, have been favored with the privilege of suffering for their Heavenly King! It's a privilege just to be able to believe in him, just to trust and rely on him as a loyal citizen of the Empire of Jesus; but to suffer for him is a greater privilege still.

That might not be a typical American view of things. We sometimes view suffering as a necessary evil, to be carried if it can't be avoided; but to view suffering as an honor, as a privilege, as desirable? That might catch us a bit off our guard. Yet there are things worth suffering for – things it brings honor to suffer for. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth knew that, as he led and marched in the campaign for civil rights in Jesus' name. For he said, after surviving the bombing of his house, “I know I was preserved for a purpose: to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to implement that gospel, insofar as possible, as it relates to human dignity and human rights.” And the Apostle Paul taught it first. Hundreds of years ago, a great preacher, John Chrysostom, read this passage and realized that suffering for the name of Jesus is “really a more amazing gift than raising the dead and working wonders.” That is, as incredible and special as it would be to have God work miracles at your touch and to even raise the dead when you called out to him, it's an even bigger deal, an even bigger privilege, an even bigger joy to have skin in the game for Jesus, to suffer for the sake of Jesus Christ!

So far, few of us can relate very strongly to the prospect of directly suffering for the gospel, although we may – if we're faithful – get to taste the sting of sacrifice as we live out the implications of the gospel in love and faith and hope. We can share this suffering as we swallow our pride, as we forgive our enemies, as we surrender our comfort to care for others, as we fast and pray, as we embrace what life brings and allow Jesus to tie it to his cross. But as the seams of our culture fray, as our national temperature gets feverish and boils, these verses may come to mean more to us than they do now. The day may come, and is now coming, when to confess Christ will make us shameful in the eyes of our neighbors; when doors of opportunity are locked to Christ-followers who won't burn their pinch of incense to the culture's latest gods; when there will be hard consequences to be found in marching to the beat of the gospel's drum. Things may get rougher than we've imagined. I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet; I only marvel at the writing on the wall. But Paul says that if such things come on us, that suffering is to be received as a privilege, as a badge of honor, as a sign that God means to save us and qualify us for marvelous things. The chance to suffer for Christ is an outpouring of grace. Embrace it.

Finally, Paul's fourth word of guidance is to “not [be] frightened in anything by your opponents” (Philippians 1:28). Paul does not want us to be frightened, does not want us to be intimidated, does not want us to get scared of those who stand against us. Now, fear is different than aversion. Fear is different than caution. Fear is not the same thing as prudence. You can be averse to a negative outcome, and not be giving in to fear. You can be cautious in a dangerous situation, and that doesn't mean you're giving in to fear. You can behave with prudence and wisdom, and that refusal of recklessness doesn't equate with surrendering to fear. Even Fred Shuttlesworth sometimes tried to evade arrest or escape from a mob, if he judged that it was wiser to get away that time.

And yet, when the chips were down, Fred didn't break off his campaign. Neither did Paul break off his mission. Neither should the Philippians back down. Philippi as a city was in love with the ideology of the imperial cult, which was basically an effort to turn Roman politics itself into a religion. And it was largely in the name of this political religion that the Philippian Christians' neighbors, and the local government authorities, were opposing them. These people who turned worldly politics into a religion wanted to intimidate the Philippian Christians into receiving Rome's gospel in place of Christ's. And so they tried, through violence and social pressure and legal action, to intimidate believers into surrendering to that.

And the same thing will happen today. About a year after the Birmingham campaign in which Fred marched, there was another campaign – the presidential one. And 1964 saw the emergence of a new kind of attack ad on the television screen. Maybe some of you actually remember seeing a campaign ad called Daisy. There was a little girl, sweetly and innocently plucking petals off a flower and counting. But as she counted up, her count was interrupted by a voice-over countdown... to a nuclear missile strike wiping the sweet little girl off the face of the earth. In stark and threatening tones, the ad ended by stressing the stakes of voting for the candidate it supported. Without ever mentioning his opponent, it was meant to imply that if you voted for the other guy, you risked condemning your precious baby to atomic annihilation. The campaign aired the ad just once, but it was seen by over fifty million viewers. Some children who were watching got so upset it made them nauseous and they cried all night. The other party filed a formal complaint about “this horror-type commercial.” But it was too late. The election had become all about fear.

Now, that was nothing new in American culture. As far back as 1943, columnist Max Lerner declared that “we live in a fear-drenched society” beset by “the politics of fear.” He warned that “America will find its greatness again” only “when it casts away its fear.” But we haven't. The politics of fear are still in play. As recently as 2016, one campaign ad brought back the Daisy girl, now a grown woman, to apply the fears it stoked to the modern day. Today, there is not a single corner of the political compass from which the 'politics of fear' hasn't been deployed. And often, the church has given in to this fear. Fear of losing social respectability and relevance has led the church to swallow and regurgitate secular culture. Fear of losing power and protection has led the church to sing the praises of unworthy princes. Lately, the church has been divided by its fears – fear of illness or fear of authority, pick which scares you more. Both can be equally motivated by fear. That powerful emotion, fear, can easily get a hold on us, can be used to corrupt us or bully us or manipulate us.

To live Paul's wisdom today, we must choose to consciously resist the politics of fear – to recognize those fear appeals when they come, and to put our foot down and say, “No! No, say what you will: I will walk in wisdom, I will walk in prudence, but I will not be frightened in anything.” We will not allow intimidation tactics or scaremongering to manipulate the beliefs we form, the tone we take, or the behaviors we practice. Though we may be surrounded by forces that would co-opt the church, capture the church, challenge the church, consume the church, yet we cannot afford to be frightened or intimidated, to be made to feel unstable or small. The times are only frightful if we let ourselves be frightened. If we remember that to suffer for Christ is a privilege and a gift of the grace of God, we'll be less vulnerable to that bullying or manipulation – especially that carried out by today's equivalents of the ancient imperial cult, today's politics transformed into rival religions.

Through it all, the gospel remains good news. Our job is to proclaim it and implement it in life and society, thereby bringing good news to those who need it – even to the powers who think they don't. Our job is to march the good news to our homes, to march the good news to work, to march the good news to the store or the doctor's office, to march the good news to town square and town hall. That is our civic duty for the City of God – that is citizenship worthy of the gospel of Christ. So march together in life. Stay in formation. Don't break ranks, but press onward with good news on your lips and in your hands! Scorn the politics of fear, “for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love” (2 Timothy 1:7), and “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Don't be intimidated or manipulated by anything – not the TV, not the paper, not your neighbor, not your culture – into bending faithfulness. Whatever we suffer for Christ's name, it's a privilege. So stand firm, church, and let us fearlessly march together wherever the gospel bids us go!

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Living, Dying, and What They're For: Sermon on Philippians 1:18-26

Waiting for the train. That's where the President of the United States of America was when, from behind, he felt a painful sensation against his shoulder. Throwing up his hands and shouting, “My God, what was that?”, the same burning bored into his back as the second bullet pierced his clothes, nicked his lumbar vertebrae, and came to an abrupt halt behind his pancreas. Amid the frenzy, surrounded by shocked spectators like Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln (who couldn't help but feel something familiar about the scene), the President of the United States collapsed to the floor. It was about 9:30 on a Saturday morning. July 2, 1881.

What sort of a man was James Abram Garfield? An Ohio boy born in a log cabin, whose father died before he was two. Poor and sensitive, he worked on the canals and read all the books he could find. Leaving home in his teen years, he put himself through college, got hired to teach languages, wooed his wife Lucretia over pages of Greek classics, preached on a circuit in local churches, became a lawyer, got elected to state senate, led troops in the Civil War, got elected to Congress. When his toddler son Eddie died in October 1876, Garfield told his pastor how “the hope of the gospel... is so precious in this affliction.”

Nearly four years after Eddie's death, Garfield was nominated as a presidential candidate somewhat against his will and in spite of his protests. He stayed home and off the campaign trail, but won the election – and dreaded it! He wrote in his diary, “I must confront the problem of trying to survive the presidency,” and he'd later complain that being president didn't leave him enough time to study. The Sunday before his inauguration, he received communion in his Ohio church before setting off for Washington. Sworn in on a snowy March Friday, President Garfield could be found in a Washington church two days later. During his presidency, he missed church only when there was sickness in the family, like the month he nursed his wife through a nearly fatal bout with malaria, May 1881. He used to tell his pastor, “When I meet the duties of each day as best I can, I cheerfully await whatever result may come.” ...And then came a madman's bullets that July morning, not quite four months in office.

The shots were not immediately fatal. He had several months to attempt to convalesce under the medical care of the time. In spite of pain and embarrassment, confined to bed, Garfield stayed patient and gentle, and tried to promote good cheer. The president prayed often. Once transferred to a Jersey Shore beach house next to a chapel, he loved to listen to the hymns mingle with the crashing of the waves. When Sundays rolled around, he would remark that the day belonged to the Lord. Informed that his church in Washington was praying for him, 'besieging the mercy seat' for him, he got emotional and declared, “They have been carrying me as a great burden so long, but when I get up, they shall have no cause to regret it.” His pastor, though seldom allowed to visit by the doctors, heard enough of those weeks to be able to say of President Garfield, “His mind dwelt much upon Christ and his work during the terrible trial. … There is not the slightest question of his thorough preparation for death.” Oh yes, the President was fully conscious there was a live possibility of his soon being live no more. To those around him, he repeatedly said, “I know God and trust myself in his hands. I must be prepared for either life or death.” But privately to his wife one night, he added, “I wonder if all this fight against death is worth the little pinch of life I will get anyway.” Still, he fought to live because he knew how his departure would deprive those closest to his heart of his company. That fight did at last close with his departure from the flesh on Monday, September 19, 1881 – two months to the day short of his fiftieth birthday.

The President of the United States had died from his infected wounds nearly eighty days after he was shot. Eulogies, memorial services, and sermons cropped up all over the country. Here in Pennsylvania, one preacher celebrated Garfield's “combination of genuine statesmanship and genuine Christianity,” and said that when “in the prime of life, in the midst of usefulness, with all the materials of activity around him and honors fresh upon him, he was suddenly struck down by an assassin, and he calmly, meekly, almost joyfully submitted to his fate. … 'For me to live is Christ and to die is gain,' and come death how, come death when, come death where it may, this hope remains: 'For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.'” A preacher in Kansas, granting that Garfield was an imperfect man and made mistakes, insisted that “he was far above the average statesman, and that for him to live was Christ, to die was gain. … I would linger over the fact that he lived and died a Christian gentleman.” A preacher in Iowa declared that Garfield “endured as seeing Him who is invisible. … When reminded by his faithful wife that it was his duty to life, he agreed that it was, and said that he would make the best fight for life that he could. Ready to die and even wishing to depart, he did his best to live, as it seemed to him that his work was not yet done. … His mental condition, in this dark hour, was that of Paul when he said..., 'Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life or by death, for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.'”

Three states. Three preachers. All three – and plenty of others – faced with a personal tragedy gone national, and turned for understanding to these same specific words of an ancient apostle of the Lord. Paul wrote those words late in his two years of house arrest, awaiting the resolution of his legal case in Rome. All indications suggest to Paul that the charges will be dropped, as his accusers need to come to Rome to press the case against him and, thus far, have never shown up. But so long as he's chained to the Praetorian Guard, Paul knows he's still a prisoner, and still has the prospect of the death penalty hanging over his head. He has to take seriously the notion that he could soon be killed.

But Paul knows that the gospel is on trial just as much as he is. Paul has been tormented both inside the church and outside – inside, by the ill-willed evangelists trying to discourage him, as we heard last week; outside, by the persecution that was keeping him cooped up. So Paul turns to the words of another man who was tormented outside and inside – outside, by intense experiences of loss and poverty; inside, by so-called 'comforters' whose accusations tore at and bruised him. That man was Job. In one of Job's speeches, he tells his 'comforters' to “keep silent” (Job 13:5), and says that he'll keep hoping in God (Job 13:15). “This will turn out for my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him. … Behold, I have prepared my case; I know that I shall be in the right” (Job 13:16,18). And Paul quotes Job's words word-for-word, saying, “I will rejoice, for I know that – through your prayers and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ – this will turn out for my salvation (Philippians 1:18b-19). Paul expects to be saved, to be delivered, to be vindicated. But it could look two ways.

On the one hand, Paul could be saved, vindicated, by being released. The Romans could set him free. And then Paul would keep living in this world a while longer. One way Paul could be saved is to live. What does Paul think of that option? He announces, “For me, to live is Christ!” (Philippians 1:21a). Jesus Christ is everything that need be said, everything that can be said, about Paul's life. By this point, having matured from his stellar start to this late point in his Christian walk, Paul has been conformed profoundly to the pattern of Jesus Christ. Now, every moment of his day is suffused with Christ's Lordship. Squeeze Paul, and the grace of Jesus leaks out. Hold Paul up to the light, all you'll see is Christ. When Paul wakes up, he'd tell you it's about Jesus. When Paul eats, he'd tell you it's about Jesus. When Paul talks, you can hear for yourself it's about Jesus. The very definition of life itself, in Paul's heart, has been redrawn. Christ equals Life! Life equals Christ! After all, as he writes in another letter, Christ is “the image of the invisible God … All things were created through him and for him, and he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17). Paul takes that thought so seriously that there's nothing you can show Paul, nothing you can tell Paul, and he won't see or hear Christ in it. There's nothing you can put on Paul's tongue that won't make him taste the goodness of Christ. There's nothing you can place within Paul's reach that he won't lift up to Christ as a thank-offering of praise. To Paul, Christ sums up everything that life means, everything that has value about the world.

And so to live, for Paul, just means to keep seeing Christ in every glance, keep hearing Christ in every sound, keep encountering Christ reflected in all things, since all things hold together in Christ. But more than that, if Paul is set free, if Paul is allowed to keep living, then it will mean more months or years of ministry. He will keep proclaiming Christ, will keep ministering Christ to others. Paul explains, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” (Philippians 1:22a). And others will be able to taste that fruit and its sweetness – it will be beneficial for other people if Paul gets to live longer. In particular, it would be helpful for the Philippian church, which could really use his continued help. “To remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account,” he tells them (Philippians 1:24). If the Romans release him from custody, he can run right over and build them up, make them a stronger church – he can “continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus because of my coming to you again” (Philippians 1:25-26). That's what it means to live, when to live is Christ. Nearly fifteen centuries after Paul, Martin Luther remarked, “We have no other reason for living on earth than to be of help to others.” That was true for Paul!

So if Paul is set free, that would be salvation or vindication for Paul. But what if Paul isn't set free? What if the trial goes on? And what if it ends with the judge sentencing him to lose his head? What if these experiences set in motion a chain of events that lead to Paul's heart no longer beating, Paul's lungs no longer drawing breath? Paul sees that, too, as an occasion of vindication or salvation. Because at the same time he'd be standing before Caesar's court on earth, tethered to the gospel, he'd also be standing before God's heavenly court. And an earth ruling against Paul on account of the gospel spells a heavenly ruling for Paul on account of the gospel – which means execution is just the prelude to being welcomed into the fellowship of angels and saints in heaven.

And so, Paul explains, just like for him “to live is Christ,” just the same, for him “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21b). It's not that death is gain because it ends a bad thing, as if this world were an awful place he can't wait to escape. That's not what Paul means. Death is gain, for him, because he expects it to mean getting something better. If Paul is to die, it'll be a martyr's death. But he expects that death to usher him into the personal presence of the Jesus he so wildly yearns for. Now, he sees Christ, hears Christ, touches Christ in things, in the reflections pervasively present throughout the created order. But then, on that day, he'll see Christ himself, not in a reflection but in reality. And he'll be crowned with the reward of Christ's love in a way Paul knows he still can't experience while here in the present world. Paul has been working for years, not for earthly treasures, but storing up treasure in heaven by investing in the gospel. To die means to finally reap the gains, the profits.

When Paul looks toward the ultimate future that he believes will begin at his death, Paul isn't merely guessing what lies beyond that leap into the darkness. No, Paul has certainty, Paul has assurance, Paul has a hope that can never disappoint him. When that train pulls out of the station, Paul knows the tracks continue beyond the rails he can see. Paul knows there's a place to go, and he knows which train he's boarded. Death, in Paul's case, whenever it comes, will mean “to depart” from the realm of flesh and earth “and to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23b). At the moment of his death, Paul is certain that his consciousness, his personally aware inner self, will be ushered and transported into the presence of the Risen Lord, will behold the glory of the Father in the face of the Son, will lay the eyes of his soul on the beatific vision of Beauty itself, will be awash in immortal joy even as he yet awaits the pitching of the tent of a new creation. That is what will happen when Paul dies. And compared to the mixed-bag of experiences we get here, with aches and pains and sorrows mingled alongside pleasures and joys, the destination Paul has in mind “is far better” (Philippians 1:23b).

Now, from different perspectives, both living and dying can be good outcomes! “Which I shall choose, I can't tell! I am hard pressed between the two,” Paul says (Philippians 1:22b-23a). It's a tough choice! Paul is just glad that Christ is magnified, Christ is glorified, Christ is honored and made much of, in either scenario – “now as always, Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20b). It's much like the Iowa preacher said of President Garfield: “Ready to die and even wishing to depart, he did his best to live, as it seemed to him that his work was not yet done.” Just like Garfield had a church praying for him, Paul's got one praying for him, too. “I know that through your prayers and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, this will turn out for my salvation” (Philippians 1:19). Because the Philippians are praying, Paul believes God will give them what they ask for, the version of events that helps them, even if it isn't quite what Paul would like, since Paul's burning “desire is to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:23b). Paul is convinced that, with the gospel vindicated as having a place in Roman society, he'll be released: “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain” (Philippians 1:25a). Paul was right. Set free for a couple more years of fruitful labor, only then would he be again arrested – this time not in house arrest but in Rome's worst prison, and would finally be beheaded for the sake of Christ. A man who knew him recalled the day Paul was “removed from the world and went into the holy place, having proven himself a striking example of endurance” (1 Clement 5.7).

But Paul writes openly these reflections on life and death – what each of them means to him – because Paul's aim is for his mature way of thinking to become contagious. He wants the Philippians to catch it. And the church, in her wisdom, has preserved this letter for nearly two thousand years in hopes that we might catch it too. So what about us? How do we look at life? What does it mean to live? And how do we look at death? What does it mean to die?

During the past year, indeed the past several years, our congregation has known its fair share of friends who've died, who've taken their departure from the flesh. For some of the younger among us, that might be a parent or grandparent or great-grandparent. For some of the elder among us, that might be a spouse or a sibling, a child or a cousin, a nephew or niece or neighbor. Many of those who have departed our company that way have died, hopefully, in Christ. So, to the extent they were like Paul, they can expect the same things he can. If for Paul 'to die is gain,' then for them to die was also gain. And in that we can rejoice, even amidst the sorrow of parting here. The same will be true for us as we face the prospect of death. We may not be standing on trial for our lives in a Roman court, and we may not be bedridden with an assassin's bullet in our guts, but – whether time or virus or ailment or accident – all of us must face the question. For us, will death mean gain? And if death will mean gain, are we willing to look at it as a gain? Not that we should be careless, for our bodies are a stewardship, but what if we learned to look at the prospect of death through Paul's eyes, and see the gain in it?

Likewise, during the past year, our congregation has known its fair share of friends who have not died, who are remaining here in the flesh. Look around you, and you might just spot one! And you'll see yet another one in the mirror! You are still here in the flesh. You are still alive. Your lungs draw breath. Your heart beats. Maybe your body needs a little help to keep rolling on, but roll on it does. For Paul, 'to live is Christ.' What about for you? Does life mean Christ to you? Sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, laughing and loving – are these day-to-day actions made living parables that preach Christ to your heart? Are you awake to how it's in Christ that everything in life holds together? You can be – and then you can shout, “To live is Christ! To live is Christ!” He's got you here for a reason. Like Luther said, there's no other reason to get another day here than to help others in it. To remain in the flesh means an opportunity for fruitful labor. Now, maybe you wonder how that can be – maybe some of you are practically housebound right now. But there's fruitful labor you can do! You can listen to a neighbor's hurts and joys. You can spend an extra ten minutes praying for your world. You can call a friend. You can write a letter. In all these ways, you can minister Christ to at least one small slice of the world – what more does God ask? So what if we learned to look at life through Paul's eyes, and see the Christ of it all – to love and serve others and, as President Garfield put it, to then “cheerfully await whatever results may come”? Perhaps such fruit, served here and there to the hungry, can bring with it healing for nations like ours.

Of course, none of these grand views of life or death can hold up without a real, living, risen Son of God. Paul told the Corinthians, “if Christ be not raised..., your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Without Christ, things don't hold together. Without Christ, to live can't be Christ: the basic stuff of life can't be wrapped up in him. Without Christ, to die can't be gain: there's nothing profitable about the vain, bleak destiny that knows no Jesus. Without Christ, no labor is fruitful, for Jesus is the life in the root. Without Christ, departure has no blessed destination, no glory shining forth at the other end of these darkened halls.

But, thanks be to God, 'without Christ' is never the name of the game! With Christ, living can be wrapped up in him! With Christ, labor can be fruitful in abundance! With Christ, dying can be a profitable venture and a welcome at the end of a journey, be it long or short. With Christ, we have an “eager expectation and hope” of vindication, if we but cling to him. So I urge you, brothers and sisters, this very day, to get deeper into Christ, that life and death might be Christ and gain to you! “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again: that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:7-9). So in life or in death, let Christ be magnified in your body, amen!