Scripture: Philippians 1:21-30
I am not the biggest football in the world, and honestly it is fairly rare for me to watch a full football game. However, of all the games that I have watched over the years there is one that stands out in my memory more than any other. While I am not a big football fan, my college roommates were, and they especially loved college football. During the weekends in the fall, college football was on non-stop. So on a Saturday afternoon in early November I had some research for a paper I needed to do but did not want to do. So I sat in the main room and halfheartedly did my homework and halfheartedly watched the football game. It was LSU vs. Kentucky. Towards the end of the fourth quarter, the game was tied 27-27. Kentucky managed a long drive down the field and scored a field goal with less than minute to play. LSU received the kickoff deep in their own territory. On the first play, LSU managed to gain some yards but failed to get out of bounds and called time out with just two seconds left on the clock. With only one play, LSU was 70 yards from the end zone and everyone knew that was well outside the range of the quarterback. During the time out the Kentucky players dumped Gatorade on the coach as they celebrated the victory. The players returned to the field and the quarterback hoisted the ball as far downfield as he could. As soon as the clock reached zero before the ball was even thrown, the stadium launched celebration fireworks and Kentucky fans began to run on the field to celebrate their victory. The pass went up and a mass of Kentucky players were around the ball’s target and one of them swatted it away, but an LSU receiver stayed with it, caught the ball before it landed, and because the Kentucky players assumed the game was over no one was able to stop him from scoring a touchdown and winning the game.
Hail Mary passes and last second buzzer beaters are not the standard for sports victories, but they also are not unheard of either. As baseball catcher Yogi Berra once famously said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” I think every person I have ever known who has been a coach for a competitive sports team, has also subscribed to this philosophy. It is common for coaches to drill into their players that it does not matter what the scoreboard says. It does not matter if they are way up, way down, or if there are only two seconds left on the clock. Until that final whistle blows, coaches want their players to give it their all. Coaches want their head completely in the game, and they want players to keep their eyes on the ball. Even though faith is not a contact sport, Paul is advocating for a similar approach in our own lives. Just like athletes should be fully engaged in the game, our faith should be lived out at the forefront our life until the final whistle blows.
This morning’s scripture comes from the beginning of Philippians, which is a letter that Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. His stated reason for writing the letter is to thank the church for a gift they sent him, but he also writes to encourage the church. One of the things that becomes clear immediately in Philippians is that Paul is writing this letter while imprisoned. Now exactly where Paul is in jail at is up to debate, and while the consensus is that Paul wrote this while under arrest in Rome that is not for certain. Our scripture reading picks up right at the end of Paul talking about being in chains. That is why this morning scripture reading begins with Paul talking about living or dying. He is unsure what the outcome of his current imprisonment is, and Paul’s attitude is considerably more joyful than our might be if in a similar circumstance, for he wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” No matter what Paul, saw his situation as a win-win. Either he continues in life, sharing the good news and seeking to live as Christ-like as possible or he goes on to be in the eternal presence of Jesus. Either way Paul was determined to see out the course of his faith until the final whistle and he encourage the Philippians to do the same.
Paul, as a prisoner, encourages the church of Philippi to be faithful and stand firm, not to be frightened away, even in the face of suffering. Verse 30 indicates that this idea of suffering may not be theoretical but may be something they are actively experiencing. Unfortunately, we do not really know what is going on here. There is not a lot else in the epistle that indicates what the Philippians might be going through, nor is there any indication in historical record or might be going through. However, we can piece together what we do know to perhaps make an educated guess. Philippi was a Roman military colony in Macedonia, which is north of Greece. This meant the citizens of Philippi were citizens of Rome, and many of those who settled in Philippi had served in the Roman legions. This meant that many of the residents of Philippi were fiercely loyal to Rome and the veneration of the emperor as religious practice would have been strong. From the description of Paul’s missionary journey to Philippi in Acts we also know that there was a minimal to almost non-existent Jewish population in the city. This means that the makeup of the church in Philippi would have been heavily Gentile, so they would not have had the same background and belief in God that a church with more Jewish believers would have had.
The church of Philippi lived in a place where the Roman Emperor was worshipped as divine, and the new Christians were declaring Jesus is Lord. They would have been under immense social pressure. It is possible that this led to arrests or some other forms of legal harassment, but even if it did not the way they were being treated could have weighed heavily. They would have gone from being part of the town’s community to being an outsider, to being shunned. They could have been treated with contempt and bullied around because they had found the truth of the gospel to be life changing. It would have been a lot to deal with, and no doubt for some the temptation to just be done with it and go back to how things used to be would have been strong. This is why writes about being opposed and suffering. Even if the church of Philippi was not facing violence, it seems that the persecution was no less real.
In some ways it would seem that this scripture and others in the new testament that talk about persecution do not apply to us, because in the United States Christians do not face persecution. The fact that we worship here without restriction, the fact that bibles are readily available, and the fact that Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas still have social impact show that persecution is not something that we experience. Yes, American culture is less Christian than it was even twenty years ago, and our culture is trending in such a way that by 2070 Christians could actually be a minority in this country. However, that is not the same as actual persecution. We do not face the legal pressure that many of our brothers and sisters in Christ face in various places in the world today. We also do not face the intensity of social pressure that the Christians of Philippi would have faced. However, I think we can still find this scripture applicable to us. In this morning’s scripture Paul states that no matter what his circumstance is Christ is the primary focus. He urges the Philippians to have a similar focus in verse 27 when he wrote, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
Even though our situation is different than the church of Philippi, this exhortation is just as important for us. We may not be facing persecution, but we should still seek to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. While we do not face persecution, we still have a different kind of challenge to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel. The Christians in Philippi faced intense pressure and in our culture we face the opposite problem. We face no pressure. In face we are incentivized not to participate in our faith development. History has shown this is far more dangerous to Christianity than persecution is. For the first several centuries of Christianity, the Middle East and North Africa were major hubs for Christianity. At one point the bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch (Modern day Syria), and Alexandria (modern day Egypt) were just as important as the bishop of Rome (today known as the Pope). Yet, today in those areas of the world Christians are a minority possibly facing persecution, and Islam is the dominant faith. This is because Islamic armies conquered these areas. When they took the territories they by and large did not force Christians to convert or die. Quite often, they did not even restrict the freedom to worship all that much. What the Muslim conquerors did was levy a tax that non-Muslims had to pay. They incentivized not being part of a Christian community, and over time this proved incredibly effective.
Today, we do not face pressure not to be involved in a church but we face all kinds of incentives not to be. Two generations ago, there was a cultural understanding that Sunday morning was for church but that cultural understanding is long gone. There are a lot of incentives not to come to church on Sunday morning. It used to be that nothing was open on Sunday, but now just about everything is open, available, and for many a better option than church on Sunday mornings. Sundays are when grandchildren play sports, and Sundays are when the best brunch specials. I am well aware that every single one of you faced a choice this morning about whether you were going to be here or not. We all have a lot of incentives not to be here. So I am very aware that all of you made the choice to be here today, and I am grateful for that.
Choosing to be part of a faith community and choosing to worship God when we not being forced to make that choice is part of how we conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. I realize that church attendance does not equate to someone having a vibrant Christian faith, but I do believe it makes a difference. When we choose to gather together as a community of faith, to pray for one another together, to sings songs of worship together, and to hear the scriptures read together it does inform us, shape us, and make it easier to live a life that is worthy of the gospel of Christ the other six days of the week. When that is not part of our lives, it becomes harder.
In this regard I am reminded of an incident involving my step grandfather Melba Wheatley. Grandpa Wheatley grew up as a good ol’boy in the hills of Kentucky. He grew up exploring the woods, stompin’ the criks, and he learned to swim in the river. However, I remember him telling me in his old age that he had forgotten how to swim. He was faced with the prospect at one point, and he could not make it work. He remembered swimming in his youth, but that memory could not translate into the movement needed. At that point it had been decades since he had been in the water, and his memory and body could not work together in the right way anymore. Due to not using the skill for years, he was saddened and shocked to discover that you can indeed forget how to swim.
Grandpa Wheatley did not purposely give up swimming. It was not a conscious choice. Instead it is something that he did not make the choice to do regularly, and over time the skill just faded away. We may not face persecution or pressure like the church of Philippi but we face the danger of a slow fade. The way we prevent this is we do what coaches tried to instill in us. We choose to follow Jesus until we hear the final whistle. Whatever happens or does not happen, we choose to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. We choose to focus on Jesus and find a joy in him that far outweighs all of the incentives the world can offer.
The challenges we face are far different than the church that this scripture was written to faced, but we still face challenges. Like the church in Philippi we too should “stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel.” We can encourage one another on in growing in faith together. So may you conduct yourself in a manner worthy of the gospel, by choosing daily to follow Jesus above all else. May you choose to let your faith be the guiding light in your life. May you choose to live out our mission of following Jesus by making disciples for the transformation of the world, and may you do this until you hear the final whistle, because it ain’t over, until it’s over.