United In Disunity

Good Morning Church,

The Apostle Paul wrote these lines during his imprisonment in Rome, probably some time between 61 and 63 C.E. This specific situation is important to understand our text. Most likely, Paul’s imprisonment was rather a situation of house arrest under military custody that would have allowed him certain privileges, for instance visits of Timothy with whom he penned this letter.

What is clear when looking at this passage is that Paul believes this could be his last or one of his last opportunities to connect with this church. He does not want to leave them without this final lesson. Paul provides an impressive re-evaluation of death, since he believed that was his likely outcome. Our passage begins with these few statements “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far
better” (Philippians 1:21–23, NRSV).

When you hear a statement like this, some may be impressed by Paul’s conviction. Others are no doubt going to feel uncomfortable and may even accuse Paul of boasting too much. I feel compelled to ask, “Are you sure, Paul, you don’t hang on to life more than that?” What kind of principle is “dying is gain” anyway?
The majority of our modern existence is based on making life more comfortable and gratifying for ourselves. We like to eliminate those experiences which make us uncomfortable or do not fit into our, often times, small world views. We tend to admire those who we most agree with, or who succeed in life, or whose lives we wish to emulate. There are not too many people who we would consider role models that we do not share their world view, especially ones who call us to “die again.”

So how could the Apostle Paul make such a statement some 2,000 years ago? We find the answer first in his situation of imprisonment mentioned above. It came with the potential of death, and thus it was only appropriate for Paul to reflect on death instead of adopting a state of denial. We encounter the result of his reflections in verse 23: “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”

Second, it is clear that Paul’s reflections hinge on the presence of Christ. Paul is absolutely certain that death is not a transition into a state of non- existence; hence, he is not afraid of it. Paul does not doubt at all that death can only be the moment when he will be united with Christ. This is a faith perspective the apostle has developed earlier: “ ... we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 NRSV).

The test of such faith comes in a situation of impending death, be it in the first century C.E. or more recently. In the spring of 1945, the last message written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer before his execution in a concentration camp in Nazi-Germany demonstrates a similar kind of confidence: “ ... for me this is the end but also the beginning. With him (sc. the bishop of Chichester to whom this message was addressed) I believe in the principle of our Universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests, and that our victory is certain.”

For the church, we are drawn to the resurrected Christ. We are given opportunity to be transformed by Jesus in ways that we would never expect. Christ takes what is ordinary and makes it extraordinary. Attitudes about “living life to the fullest” suddenly become questionable when considering what the world tells us is the “fullest”. The quest to have more material possession, or power, or influence, seems to be a vain existence. The Christian life is one of self sacrifice. We are called to set aside our own desires, when those would come between the church and others, or between us and the mission that we are called to live out. Paul wrestled with all of this in his own life and he eventually realized that the work God was driving him towards was more important than anything he would have desired, whether his own personal comfort in a physical or community sense. Paul makes some recommendations to the church in Corinth. His words convey expectations of an endearing relationship between the members of the congregation in Philippi, who are to be “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (1:27).

Let me be clear, we will not all feel comfortable with such a statement. Honestly, I bet there would be instances when all of us would rather do the opposite. These are high ideals for communal life and Christianity is inherently a communal faith. We all know how divided our church communities can be. Divisions that are based on worship styles, theological and biblical understandings, dogmatic issues, life style choices, or in recent terms whether or not to be meeting in person. All of these have the potential for pulling and straining our communities of faith, but Paul would urge us to settle into the moment. It may be helpful for us to reflect on the fact that the church universal has gone through these moments of non-congruence. It is the very reason that we have so many denominations and sub-groups of Christianity, because have not always been able to see eye to eye and we have not been able to work through those differences.

If he reminded the congregation in Philippi to be unified, did this not imply that there were divisions? Were not the opening chapters of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians also dealing with the problem that people there followed Christ but declared they belonged to Paul or Apollos or Cephas (1:12)?

As a nation, we wake up every morning in a world of constant divisions. As a denomination, we have come to places in recent years where the feeling is that we simply can no longer walk together. We look at the world that we are a part of in such black and white terms, evil vs good, left vs right, Christian vs the world, but we don’t often consider what good has come of these perspectives. The people of the church in Corinth were clearly divided in some way, otherwise Paul would not have been talking to them about fixing these problems. As humans we tend to forget the things we have done together and only remember the things we fought about.

In the end, the crucial question is whether essential or secondary aspects determine corporate church identities. There can never be enough of a focus on Jesus Christ, that is, on the story of his life, suffering, and death, and on the gospel of salvation through faith in him (see, for example, Philippians 2:6–11). Only when we hear this gospel time and again will we be able to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). Those called “Christians” should always strive to learn more about the person after whom they are named.

In a few short weeks, we will be beginning the Lent season. The first day of this season is Ash Wednesday. We remember the work of Jesus Christ on the cross and the ashes symbolize for Christians that there is both death and repentance. We are only here for a short while. We do not have time to squabble over the things that keep us apart. The challenge presented by Paul is too “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” What a profound calling for all of us to live by! The life of a Christian is only as precious as we allow it to be. If we desire to be a world transforming movement, all we have to do is get out of the way and allow the Spirit to guide us along the path. These next few months and years will be some of the most challenging for the church and especially our denomination. I believe that if we can live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ, we will see a beautiful movement of love coming through the other side. Never give up hope of what Jesus can do through us and live by the example of those leaders who have come before and never gave up the path of love. Amen.