T HE IDEA that it’s a privilege to suffer is crazy talk. We do everything we possibly can to avoid suffering. We have lowered the bar on suffering to the point of claiming even the most trite inconveniences as agony.
What are some of your inconveniences over the past few weeks that at the time seemed to be great burdens or suffering? People with whole-house generators — lights on in every room — complaining that the electricity is out, and their natural gas bill is going to be outrageous. All the while people were in the dark or standing in long lines for generators or gasoline. Or the woman suffering injustice because her debris was still on the street while the city parks already had their fallen trees removed. Or my own inconvenience of having to make coffee on the gas grill instead of running water through a coffee maker.
As someone said, “I can handle almost anything as long as I can whine about it.”
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PAUL IS IN PRISON. But Paul isn’t whining. Paul is thanking God. Paul thanks God for the privilege of being in prison — for the privilege, not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for Christ.
For Paul, suffering is the next logical step after belief. That’s because faith in Jesus Christ leads to living that is so out-of-step with everyone else around you, that pretty soon you end up being seen as a threat. And, when you’re a threat, people dependent on maintaining the status quo start making things difficult for you. (see Jesus)
Paul writes this letter from prison. He does not know whether he will be released and able to visit his beloved congregation again, or whether he will die a prisoner. Paul is at the mercy of the empire.
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WHY IS PAUL in prison? Paul’s faith. Paul’s faith, and the faith of Christian women and men in Philippi, violate cultural norms and political policy. For Paul, for the fledgling Christian community, it would be expedient to yield to the empire. Join the empire and their lives will be easier, less stressful, more peaceful. Just join in praising Emperor Nero as Lord. Just compromise their beliefs to ease their suffering. But they cannot imagine doing anything like that just to secure their own safety.
God granted the Children of God in Philippi the privilege of having a faith that is so deep and broad that it threatens the rulers of Philippi.
Christian faith often goes against public policy. It doesn’t matter what level of government — from the Philippi city council to the Emperor’s royal palace. Often what’s good for the empire is bad for the gospel. Policies that benefit, support, strengthen the empire conflict with a deep, broad Christian faith. It might be who receives a business license. Claiming land as “eminent domain.” The tax structure. How taxes are spent. Who benefits and who doesn’t from public policy.
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LIVE YOUR LIFE “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” It has the sense of “live as free citizens,” “conduct your public life.” It addresses the whole community not simply individuals. Together, in their public life, they are to live as free citizens — not of Rome, not of the United States, but of God’s coming rule on earth (3:20).
I have Christian friends who say a person cannot be Christian and support President Trump. I have Christian friends who say all Democrats are “atheists.” Neither is true. We cannot equate being a Republican or Democrat to faithfulness to Christ. Joe Biden will not “save Christianity.” Donald Trump will not “save Christianity.” The U.S. Congress — whether it is red or blue — will not “save Christianity.” What will “save” Christianity is faith in Jesus Christ that is so deep and broad that it threatens the status quo; it brings fear to the empire.
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PAUL’S CHARGE to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” still stands. His appeal calls us to a faith that is public, a witness that “strives side by side” with others for the gospel, and a devotion to Christ as Lord that governs all other loyalties — despite the consequences.
Hold fast to hope in Christ. Do this without reacting in fear or hatred.
These are hard words to hear. They give me pause to wonder about the kind of faith I have. I hope it causes you to pause as well. To think about the kind of faith that we’re living. The kind of faith that we model for others.
Am I — are you — living, and praying, and serving in our community with a kind of faith that challenges the prevailing world order? Am I, we, champions for the faith that Paul preached, that Jesus preached, and which Jesus demonstrated on the cross?