The Triumph of the Gospel

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
May 6, 2018

Philippians 1: 1-18 (CEB)
From Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus.
To all those in Philippi who are God’s people in Christ Jesus, along with your supervisors and servants.
2May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
3I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. 4I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. 5I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. 6I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. 7I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel. 8God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
9This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. 10I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ.11I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.
12Brothers and sisters, I want you to know that the things that have happened to me have actually advanced the gospel. 13The whole Praetorian Guard and everyone else knows that I’m in prison for Christ. 14Most of the brothers and sisters have had more confidence through the Lord to speak the word boldly and bravely because of my jail time. 15Some certainly preach Christ with jealous and competitive motives, but others preach with good motives. 16They are motivated by love, because they know that I’m put here to give a defense of the gospel; 17the others preach Christ because of their selfish ambition. They are insincere, hoping to cause me more pain while I’m in prison.
18What do I think about this? Just this: since Christ is proclaimed in every possible way, whether from dishonest or true motives, I’m glad and I’ll continue to be glad.

For the last several weeks, I’ve been watching this old Discovery Channel series called “Everest: Beyond the Limit.” It was only three short seasons, but it chronicles three climbing seasons on Mount Everest from the perspective of one expedition company and the climbers who are working through that company to summit the highest peak in the world. As you can imagine, it’s all pretty harrowing. Through the three seasons of this show, I learned a lot about Everest, and also what it takes to summit Mount Everest; namely, the resources and people required to get just one person to the summit of the tallest mountain on Earth. Before anyone can even think about starting for the top, teams of Sherpas (usually 3-4 Nepalese climbers) haul thousands of feet of rope and many pounds of anchors up the mountain, all the way to the top. Their job is to lay the safety line that will guide each climber to the summit. Once that work is done, then the climbers can start gradually acclimatizing their bodies to the brutal conditions of high altitude climbing. They ascend and descend the mountain multiple times, each time climbing a little higher than the last. Until finally, they await the perfect “weather window” and their opportunity to go for the summit.

So each climber is focused on getting to the summit, but in order for them to do that, there is extensive work happening in the background. I’ve already told you about the Sherpas who fix the safety rope, but there’s so much more. I looked up the expedition company that was featured in the show, and they advertise a 1:4 climber to support staff ratio. There’s the expedition leader who monitors the weather and creates the climbing plan. There are mountain guides who lead groups of climbers up and down the mountain. There are Sherpas who climb alongside each climber. Yes, you heard me right, every climber has their own Sherpa. There’s a team doctor, there are team cooks. The work going on behind the scenes is really amazing. And as I watched the show, one of the things I realized is that probably less than a quarter, maybe only 10%, of the people who attempt Everest would be able to summit and get down the mountain alive by themselves. They need all of those people who are working in the background to make their summit bid a success.

Certainly, summiting Mt. Everest is a unique life experience, one that less than 500 people achieve in any given year. But for even most of those 500 hundred people, it would be a nearly impossible feat if not for a team working around them and supporting them. And that’s the reality for many ventures in life; whether it’s scaling the highest mountain, or working through an illness, or getting a project done at work. There are so many parts of our lives where we need the support of others, where we need to work together to get things done. It’s a really beautiful truth of our human existence, and also our life together as disciples of Christ.

So it is that we once again encounter Paul in the midst of ministry this morning. We’ve reflected on Paul’s conversion and some of his “ups and downs” as he spread the Gospel around the Roman Empire in the first century. Where we pick up this morning, it seems to be a little later in Paul’s ministry, perhaps even near the end. Paul is in jail, which happened to him more than once, but some scholars speculate that this letter was written while Paul was jailed in Rome, where he was later executed. This may very well be some of Paul’s final reflections as he looks back over his work spreading the Gospel and establishing some of the first churches of the Christian faith. And he begins with words of gratitude for all of his partners in ministry. Paul looks around him and he sees the love of his fellow believers as they live and work together. He sees the way the word of the Lordship of Jesus Christ is spreading everywhere and how all kinds of people are experiencing salvation in Christ, and he knows it’s because of all of his partners in ministry. Paul is celebrating all the people who, like him, are out there living the Gospel life and telling people the Good News!

Paul addresses his letter to the Philippian church in this way: “To all those in Philippi who are God’s people in Christ Jesus, along with your supervisors and servants.” You know, Paul could have started this letter by saying, “To all the supervisors of Christ’s Church in Philippi….” That certainly would have been the normal and expected protocol in the Roman Empire. But Paul doesn’t do that, and the fact that he addresses all of God’s people in Philippi is significant. Even as Paul writes this letter, he is dependent on the community of Christians around him. In Roman jails, inmates were not given any provisions. If they were fed it was because someone on the “outside” was providing for them. And that was the case for Paul and Timothy here in the Roman jail. Their fellow laborers were making sure they were cared for; they were reaching out to their partners beyond the walls. Paul’s whole ministry is one of partnerships. Sometimes, he has fellow missionaries like Timothy and Silas travelling with him; at other points, he appoints local leaders like Lydia and Priscilla to continue ministry in their setting. Paul was a big deal, a big personality, a mighty force of the early church, but he was not a lone ranger! Paul knows that it takes the whole community of believers to share in “a defense of the gospel.”

This is the message we need to hear today! So much of Christian culture is focused on individual salvation, but the claim that we all “share in the gospel” is key to who we are as Christians and how we are to live life. The good news of Jesus Christ, our experience of God’s love and grace, is not some individual possession. It is a communal reality that God is enacting all the time and in which all are invited to participate. Instead of focusing on individuals, instead of pandering to the supposed power-brokers, Paul calls attention to the community, “all the saints,” who together share in the work of the gospel, a gospel that triumphs because of all who readily do the work of spreading the good news.

You know, I often hear folks around here remark about how well, as a church, we care for one another in the midst of challenges and difficulties. People who have fallen ill, or been injured, or undergone surgery, or experienced some loss. So many of you have told me how grateful you were in the midst of that to have your church family surrounding you, caring for you, walking with you, in that difficult time. Sometimes, you even say, “I don’t know what I would have done without my church.” We do this because we love one another. Like most church congregations, we are, in many ways, an odd assortment of individuals, but our love binds us together in all things, and that love is also a sign to the people in the world of God’s love for them. It is a testament of the good news of salvation in Christ.

And it is this love and this bond of God’s people, their shared labor in all things, that Paul is celebrating as he writes back to the Philippians. Paul is writing this letter to the church in Philippi because they are in something of a conflict, and he begins by reminding them that even in the midst of conflict, they are still brothers and sisters in Christ, co-laborers for the gospel of Jesus. And he says to them, this wonderful line that we often repeat, “[God] who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job.” And that will happen because of the amazing power of God that draws us together and unites us in a shared ministry of spreading good news!

I think in our modern world that’s filled with so much “noise,” and so many distractions, and infinite choices, it’s really easy to feel that sharing the gospel is an uphill battle—something akin to climbing Mount Everest. We start up, feel like we’re making some progress, only to be set back by some unreceptive conditions. It’s not a trek we can make alone. We need the safety lines of wisdom and knowledge laid by the saints who have gone before us. We need the guides who point us in the right direction and encourage us when we encounter difficulty. We need those saints who walk with us every step, looking after us, helping us carry our loads, making sure we are always prepared for the journey ahead, and sharing our burdens and our triumphs. And at the same time, we have to be prepared to fill those roles for others. This is what it means to be the hands and feet of Christ. This is how we will spread the good news in a world that so desperately needs good news—not just by the words we say, but by how we live together as one—one in work, one in ministry, one in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

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