Did you see the story on the news this week about Australia’s oldest man, Ken Weeks, celebrating his 110th birthday? There was a party in his aged care home in Grafton and he received a letter of congratulations from the king, though that seemed standard fare. “On my 100th birthday,” he said, “I received a letter from the queen.”
Invariably in these stories the centenarian (someone who’s 100 plus) or in this case supercentenarian! (someone who’s 110 plus) is asked, “What is the secret to a long and happy life?”
Ken’s first answer was walking. “I’ve always been active,” he said. Also, clean living. “No drinking or smoking and just fairly plain food.” And, he received, on this special birthday, a special gift of one food item he has eaten avidly for decades – baked beans! Heinz created a personalised pallet of baked bean cans with Ken’s face on the label!
We have started working through a series on Philippians on ‘joy’ and, reading through chapter one, it seems to me that Paul is reflecting on a similar question. Not what is the secret to a long and happy life? But what is the secret to a full, a good Christian life? Because Paul, like Ken Weeks and his family, knows he is nearing the end of his life. (Paul was executed, as far as we know, a few years after this letter was written.)
He gives an explicit answer to the question in verse 27, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” But throughout this chapter he demonstrates for the Philippians what “living your life in a manner that is worthy of the gospel of Christ” looks like! Ken Weeks said walking was the most important thing. St Francis of Assisi, whose beautiful poem of joy Edna introduced for us said, “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” Paul would agree with both. He talks ‘living for the gospel’, and he walks ‘living for the gospel’.
My summary for Paul’s answer to a full and good Christian life is a verse found not in Philippians, I confess, but in Nehemiah 8:10. It is the words of the song we just heard – ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength’, because throughout this chapter in every situation he faces, every deliberation he has, Paul’s ‘go to’ position is, ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength.’
In the verses just before our reading this morning, Paul draws on the joy of the Lord even though he is in prison. According to Wikipedia, prisons in Roman times were filthy, poorly ventilated, and underground.We know sometimes Paul was under house arrest, but he was also in prisons like these. There were no individual cells. Prisoners were chained together in different rooms and provided with very little. Friends and family were expected to supply the prisoners’ needs.
And yet even in such places, Paul finds and focuses on the positive. “What has happened,” he writes, “has actually helped to spread the gospel… it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ.” And he celebrates that rather than intimidating the believers, his imprisonment has given them confidence. They “dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.” This includes Christians who are Paul’s friends and Christians who are Paul’s enemies.
Years ago, I heard Lindsay, a Baptist Mission Australia lecturer from the Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary, speak about lecturing in China, where he made a passing reference to Paul’s death, and one of the young women in the group burst into tears and said, “Oh no! Is Paul dead! When did he die?” And he realised that this group had heard the gospel message, had heard about the early church, but had no concept that all this had happened 2,000 years ago. Ever since I heard that story, I’ve thought we have the opposite problem! Because we know these events took place 2,000 years ago, we forget these were real events and happened in real people’s lives.
Paul was a real person. He had people who loved him and his ministry, and people who loathed him and his ministry. Christians who actively worked against him. “Intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment,” he writes. Most likely this was Jewish Christians who insisted on, what professor Bill Loader calls a, “fundamentalist line …that circumcision is in the Bible and therefore must be imposed on people because obedience to what is written is the foundation of [our] faith.” Paul is generous to them here, but elsewhere (3:2) he calls them dogs and evil workers, and (3:18) “enemies of the cross of Christ”.
Paul was a real person. With enemies. And these verses reveal a real struggle externally and internally for Paul with these enemies and yet, in verse 27 he still urges the Philippian church to “[stand] firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind” and he rejoices, “that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true;… in that I rejoice.” The joy of the Lord, the joy that the gospel is being proclaimed, is his strength.
Secondly, as Paul contemplates the real prospect of his death, he writes these extraordinary words; that, for him, the joy of the Lord is found both in life and in death, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
I have a clear memory of my father discussing this verse with me – aged 11 or 12. (I mentioned this, at his funeral, a year ago now.) He told me that he believed this verse, but what he really wanted to do was live! To live to get married, to have children, to watch them grow up, to serve God in many different ways.
What I took away from that is that Paul here, in no way, denigrates life! Life is meant to be lived. The things of life are meant to be cherished and enjoyed. Living is Christ. Living is fruitful labour for others. “To remain in the flesh is more necessary for you,” Paul writes, “[to] continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith.”
That is what my father believed and what he lived. I concluded my eulogy with these words: “He was a good man. And he believed this was a good world, and with love and hard work, and more love and more hard work, it could be a better one. And I am very very thankful to you for that, dad, and for everything.”
But Paul also says, “dying is gain”! In the terrible circumstances he finds himself in, knowing he is under sentence of death, he rejoices in the knowledge that just as living was in Christ, so dying is in Christ. Dying is being united even more deeply with Christ. Verse 23, “my desire is to depart and be with Christ”. As Paul nears death the joy of the Lord is his strength.
In a few moments we will sing a hymn written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who many of you know was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and vocal opposer of the Nazi regime, who was executed in a German concentration camp at the close of the war. The last message he wrote, in the spring of 1945, demonstrates a similar confidence to that of Paul. “For me this is the end but also the beginning…I believe in the principle of our universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests, and that our victory is certain.”
The joy of the Lord, in life and in death, is our strength.
And, finally, this is why Paul gives these instructions to the Philippians. Because his walking is his preaching! He has lived the reality that the joy of the Lord is his strength, and he passes this on to them.
“Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Live with perseverance, “standing firm”, and a commitment to unity, “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind.” Why? Because it is clear from the rest of the passage that ‘living their lives in ways that are worthy of the gospel’ will result in opposition and in suffering for the Philippian church, just as it has resulted in opposition and suffering for Paul. In fact, as Paul indicates, this is already happening. Verse 30, “since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”
The reality is that the kind of love the gospel calls for – love lived out in our public lives (the Greek word here politeusthe uses the language of public life or civic duty – public service if you like!) – public service done according to the gospel of Christ will result in opposition and suffering. Our challenge to those powers that would devalue some human lives will result in opposition and suffering. Our challenge to those in the church who would put conditions on Christ’s love will result in opposition and suffering.
And yet even this opposition and suffering, Paul says, is an occasion for joy. This suffering means we are identified with Christ. We have become little Christs. And being identified with Christ – Christ who is our reason for living and dying, Christ whose gospel, whose message of love, is being proclaimed even in our suffering – is a privilege. I am reminded of James 1:2-4, “Brothers and sisters, whenever you face various trials, consider it all joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance complete its work, so that you may be complete and whole, lacking in nothing.”
The secret – through it is no secret when Paul is involved – to a full and a good Christian life is that the joy of the Lord is our strength.
Can I ask you to take a moment – perhaps not to imagine its your 110th birthday (unless you are Gladys!) but to imagine its your 90th or 80th or 70th – there are some 70th’s coming up soon – and to think what advice would you give to your Christian brothers and sisters about how to live a full and a good Christian life? What is one piece of advice you would give?
Now I want you to think about – what is one thing you would like that gathered group of people, your brothers and sisters in Christ, on that occasion, to say is the standout thing about your faith? What do you want them to say is the ‘go to’ for your faith?
Having thought about that – what you would want to pass on and what you would like people to say about you – is there some interrelation, interrelatedness, between those two things? Finally, take a moment to think about your life now – how might you want to live now so you can pass those things on, so people will say those things about you?
Psalm 30 – Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.
Sing praise to God,
who has come to our aid!
Who answer when we call,
and leads us to wholeness.
You have turned our mourning into dancing!
You have clothed us with joy,
that we might sing praise to you
and not be silent.
O Lord our God, we will give you thanks forever!
Safina Stewart’s Prayer for the Voice
God of wondrous possibility
Take my story and my life
Give me courage to stand for justice
God of dreaming and mystery
Forgive my blind complaining
Give me vision to walk remembering your history
God of truth and love
Take my bruised hands and feet
Give me strength and grace to stand for truth
God of safety and singing
Take my mouth and my voice
Give me words to inspire and encourage
God of knowledge and creativity
Take my whole being
Help me stretch, broaden and deepen
God of goodness and hope
Take my connections and influence
And help me stand for Voice and Justice
Loving God, as the people of this Canberra Baptist Church
Help us – in our public lives – to both share and to be the message of your love
Help those in our community who are suffering now, to know your love.
Help those who are struggling now, to know your strength.
Help all of us – young and old, whatever age we are – to live in your joy. Amen!
Go and live lives worthy of the gospel of Christ.
Stand firm in one spirit.
Strive with one mind for this faith that we hold – and which holds us
And the presence of God will be always with you.
The Call of Christ will lead you into fruitful labour.
And the Holy Spirit will fill you with joy!
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,
……..In the name of Christ. Amen.