Defiant Joy: Life in the (Christian) Colony
Rocherty UMC September 13th, 2020
“The Courage of Christian Conduct” Philippians 1:27-30

 

Introduction

“Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”  In the world we live in, this is relatively easy.  Since the founding of the United States of America as a nation, Christianity has had a great influence on our society.  Many good, solid moral principles are baked into our society, entirely in agreement with the tenets of Judeo-Christian morality.  Until very recently, almost everyone in public life at least paid lip-service to the role of faith in their lives.  That is, family-owned businesses often freely print and post Bible verses on their signs or advertisements; and a politician who says they are Christian can count on receiving positive reactions to such a statement, and can also count on securing the votes of certain constituencies. Being Christian does not bring us persecution, torture, or sword. It is not too hard to live each day in a manner worthy of the gospel.
But religion, as it is practiced in our culture, is more or less a private matter. We talk about matters of faith as if they are just between us and God. Sadly, it seems we either apologize for our beliefs and personal convictions or else end up blasting, judging, and pushing our ideas unwanted to a random cashier, waiter, or bank teller. At best, those in the middle of these two extremes say that religion is a matter best kept in our own faith communities.  This confusion over the publicity or privatization of matters of faith, is a direct result of what is called, Enlightenment thought, that began during the Renaissance.  With thinkers like Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant, religion was pushed from the realm of the communal to the realm of the individual.  In a broader sense, the community as a whole, which once took center stage in things like ethics and morality became secondary to that of the individual.  Instead of asking the question “what should we do, in order to do what is right,” the question became “what should I do, in order to do what is right.”
This is a new thing in the world of human ideas.  Most cultures around the world, particularly those we find in the Bible, place a great deal of emphasis on the life of the community as a whole.  This whole notion of the right of the individual being greater than the rights of the community is totally foreign to Biblical religion, particularly that of God’s people Israel and the Church. Have you ever wondered why so many people in the early church were willing to die for their faith?  Were you perplexed last week when Paul nonchalantly shrugged off the fact of his impending death and was non-committal about whether he wanted to go on living?  Well, the reason for this is that these people valued their community’s life and existence over their own.  They saw the value in perpetuating the family name as if it were of more value than making a name for themselves.
Let me give you a case in point as an example.  Early in the days of the church, persecution arose against Christians.  I’ll explain a bit more about why that was later in this sermon. But throughout the Roman Empire, forces would round up Christians and try and stamp out what was perceived as either a nuisance or a threat.  During one such purge, a young woman by the name of Perpetua was rounded up, among others.
Perpetua was a young woman of noble birth.  She had recently married and given birth to a child.  Yet she had also just recently been baptized as a follower of Jesus Christ.  She was shortly after arrested.  Her father begged, pleaded, and indeed ordered her to renounce her faith.  He pleaded with her to think of her family and young child.  All she needed to do was say “no” to Jesus and she would go back to a life of luxury and privilege as suited someone of her birth.  Yet Perpetua refused.  She thought it more important to honor the Christian faith and the gospel than it was to fight for her individual comfort and wellbeing.
As the story goes, Perpetua was placed into the arena, along with several other martyrs, both men and women.  Gladiators and wild beasts were sent in to do their worst.  The soldier whose job it was to kill Perpetua did not accomplish the job with the first blow.  As he reached back with his sword to try again, amazingly, Perpetua herself took his hand and guided it to her neck to finish the job.  What kind of bravery is this?  What kind of conduct is this?  Was this the work of a religious fanatic or a person of deep and abiding faith?  It’s almost impossible to understand, because there is a great barrier that exists between us and the ancient world, and that barrier is culture.  Let’s walk through our passage, and perhaps we’ll discover some insight into what might make someone willing to aid in their own departure from life.

Exposition

          Today, I will stress that one thing that we often forget when it comes to the Bible.  Culture. Culture is the air we breathe in society.  It is what happens all around us.  It’s the language we use, our family structures, our educational systems, our general way of life.  It is the daily assumptions we have, which we never see, never think about, never question.
We live in a Western-style democracy in what can be termed a bureaucratic culture in which the government makes most of the decisions for us. How did you come to church today? By car? What do you need to be allowed to drive? License, registration, right? There are laws that even tell us where to drive, when to stop, and how fast we are allowed to go, and we trust hired police officers to impose and enforce those laws. That’s what a bureaucratic government is by definition. Why do you receive income? And how much are you allowed to keep? When did you retire?  We have a government that we trust to provide safety net options for those who are earning poverty wages, who are disabled, who are getting too old to work. And for most of us here, that has worked very well in our favor. If someone steals, or kills, or endangers, we trust the elected officials to interpret and apply the laws to determine the right punishments. Bureaucratic government.
But the cultures of the Bible are very different. There are many different cultures around the world now, as there was in the time of Paul and Lydia, and as there was in the time of David and Bathsheba, and as there was waaaay back in the time of Abram and Sarai. They breathed a different air, used different languages, and had different family structures, educational systems, and general ways of life.  They had different daily assumptions than we have, which they didn’t see, didn’t think about, didn’t question.
          Indeed, as we approach Philippians, it gets even harder; we need to keep two distinct ancient cultures in mind.  The first is the culture of the Hebrews, the Old Testament structure, which is tribal, patriarchal, and focused a great deal on identity as found in following the ways of God and viewing the community as part of God’s people.  The second culture we need to keep in mind is that of the Greco-Roman world of the first century.  This was a mixed culture but was dominated by allegiance to a Roman Emperor.  Indeed, at this time the emperors had elevated themselves to a quasi-divine status and temples had been built to their greatness. And in Philippi in particular, these two cultures would come into conflict. Remember the status of the city as a colony of Rome.  In Philippi, devotion to the Roman way of life was expected, and enforced.  But the Philippians were to live as colonists of another Empire, the Kingdom of God. Paul was preaching and teaching and living an example of a different culture. He was asking people to see their daily assumptions, think about them, and question them. And it was precisely because of this conflict that Paul found himself arrested and languishing in a prison held by the elite soldiers of the Imperial Guard.
Also remember from last week, Paul isn’t quite sure about whether he’s going to live or die.  Whether he’s coming back to the Philippians or whether he’ll never see them again in this life.  And that helps us make sense of that opening statement: Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.  Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.
So, while Paul thinks he has a reasonable chance of being released from prison, he’s not taking any chances.  He wants the Philippians to go on living in a manner pleasing to God whatever happens to him.  That way, whether he comes and sees them in person or only hears about what’s going on with them second hand from some of his associates, he can be assured that they are doing well, that they are fighting the good fight for the faith.
Unfortunately, our English translations don’t do a good job of transmitting some of the lexical freight that is carried in the original Greek of this passage.  Paul uses a rare word here to talk about how the Philippians are to live.  This word for “conduct” actually carries the notion of “living as a good citizen.”  But instead of living as a good citizen of the Roman Colony of Philippi, Paul is urging them to live as good citizens of the Kingdom of God.
This is where the real conflict lies for the Philippians.  This is where the rubber meets the road.  This is what was going to cause pain and suffering in their daily lives.  You see, unlike today where religion is, like I said, a matter largely of private devotion and wholly separate from civil government, in the ancient world of the first century, this was all intertwined.  Government officials were involved in religion and religious officials were involved in government.  Moreover, it was virtually impossible to do business in the ancient world without interacting in some way shape or form with the ancient pagan religions.
Let me say this another way. When you go to buy groceries, what do you need? Do you need a secret cult handshake, a solid reputation with the mayor, or to say “hail, Cesar!” when you pay? No. You just need money – paper or plastic. When you want to prove that you are married, or prove that a person is your child what do you look for? Witnesses who were there, family members who acknowledge it, or a priest who will declare it true? No. You look for a piece of paper signed and sealed by the government. When you accidently cross someone in power, or it appears you broke a law, who do you call? The oldest living patriarch of your family, your neighbors, or your boss and co-workers to vouch for you and smooth things over? Probably no. You call a lawyer, who knows the ins and outs of the laws. It’s different in other cultures.
Each industry in the ancient world had their own guilds, their own system of organizing and perpetuating their cause.  And every guild had a patron deity that would be worshipped at their gatherings.  The cloth merchants had their guild and their god, the builders had theirs, the brewers another, and so on.  And in order to do business in town, you had to play the cultural game and go along with their customs.  Want to be a repeat customer? Want to be married, or have your child legally inherit? Want to prove your innocence? This often involved a sacrifice to the gods, ritual meals, certain phrases of blessings to the gods, and other things of that nature.  Moreover, since Philippi was a Roman colony, the worship and veneration of the goddess Roma and the human, but also semi-god-like, Imperial family were also prominent in the town. Deny that, and you could have bare cupboards, be naked, or even homeless.
So what Paul is doing is calling the Philippians to the hard work of going against the grain of the world.  Of living life as citizens of a different culture, a different kingdom.  A kingdom not forged on violence, or honor and shame, on power and prestige.  But one of non-violence, humility, sacrifice, and love for others—even enemies. Because in many of these trappings of what we would call “paganism,” a Christian could not allow themselves to participate.  To acknowledge the holiness of a pagan god with worship and sacrifice would be false; to say “Caesar is the lord of all lords!” like you did for 30 years before is not true anymore, if you believe Jesus is the rightful king and Messiah of the world.  Jesus is Lord— not Zeus, and certainly not Caesar.
And Paul doesn’t just tell them to keep their heads low and fly under the radar.  They are to live their faith “out loud” as it were, in the public sphere.  They were, as Peter would later write, to always be ready to give an explanation of the hope that is in them, with gentleness and respect.  They were to deny themselves an easy life of position and privilege and exchange it for a life of sacrifice—the kind of life that was modeled not only by Jesus, but also by Paul and the other early Christian communities.
So not only are the Philippians to stand firm in the faith, but they are to do so courageously and without fear.  In this, Paul is picking up a long line of Hebrew thought found in the Bible and modeled most in the life of Jesus himself.  Jesus tells us not to be afraid of those who can harm the body, but to be wary of that which can destroy the soul. We are to take our cue from Jesus, who did not resist the powers of Empire, but yielded himself over to them.  And it’s with this that we can make sense of this next confusing passage. 
Paul writes that, This is a sign to them they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God.  For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
To boil it down, Paul is saying that the very fact that the Philippians hold fast to the gospel and continue to live lives pleasing to God is an omen, a sign, a portent. Not only of their salvation, but of the futility and ultimate destruction of all ways of life that exploit, cheat, rob, harm, slander, and even kill in the name of greed, power, position, prestige.  Continuing to live the ways of Christ in the face of the powers that be is to herald the destruction of their power, and to announce the better kingdom of Love.
In this way, more is against Paul and the Philippians than just the civil powers of Rome.  We are locked in combat with the very forces, spiritual and otherwise, that do harm.  We are locked into battle with selfishness, pride, violence, greed, graft, bribery, superstitious religions, a myriad of -isms, like materialism, nationalism, racism, and all else that is anti-God and anti-Christ.  And as much as the Philippians too are engaged in living pious lives in hostile territory, they too share in the struggle with Paul.  Indeed, the very word Paul uses has connotations of struggling together, side by side, in an athletic team contest, like a baton race or tug-of-war.

Conclusion

But unlike a game of tug-of-war where the outcome is often unsure until a sudden, speedy end, Paul knows that victory here is assured.  He knows it because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.  He knows it because the power of the gospel lives in him and in the Philippians, the power of the Holy Spirit that changes us from the inside out to live lives that please Jesus, that model sacrificial love.
You see, too often when we think about the gospel, we reduce it to a transaction.  Jesus offers us a get out of hell free card, right?  We believe in him, we get saved, and then we live our lives confident of where we’re going when we die.  Now, don’t shoot the messenger.  I’m not saying any of you talk like that.  But I have heard many people summarize the gospel in such transactional terms. I’ve done it myself. It’s quick and easy. But please. Call me on it when I do.
Because I want to ask this: If that’s all the gospel is—going to heaven when we die—then why would anyone object?  Why the persecution?  Why the pogroms?  Why the martyrdoms?  If that’s all the gospel is, why did Jesus have to die in the first place?  And surely a get-out-of-hell-free card doesn’t have anything to do with suffering now. No need to suffer in this life if the gospel is merely about where we go in the afterlife.
Exactly. The reason is because the gospel is so much more than a get out of hell free card.  The gospel, as Paul says in Romans, is the very power of God for salvation – revealed against all of the unrighteousness of the world.  The Gospel is freedom to reject everything that is not right. The gospel illuminates the sins of pride, position, power, and prestige and finds them not just lacking, not just harmful, but grievously evil.  In short, the gospel judges all things that set themselves up in place of or against God’s way of community, mutual love, and kindness and respect; and all evil will in the end be vanquished and the world will come under the power of its true Lord, Jesus Christ who, refusing to retaliate with violence, was killed at the hands of Power. I believe he was raised from the dead on the third day and at the end of the age will judge all these things.
At this, the powers that be tremble.  At this they stamp their feet, raise their fist and lash out at the nearest thing they can find to God: God’s people.  That’s why there is persecution for Christ.  It’s because God is King and humans are not.  It’s because no earthly government has God’s favor.  Government can be a good and necessary stop-gap against evil; but humans with power always use that power for their own good. And in the end, all governments will be wiped from the earth.  In the end Jesus is Lord and every version of Caesar, no matter how enlightened or benevolent, will bow the knee to Christ.
But power doesn’t go quickly or quietly.  We see this in the history of ancient Rome.  We saw this throughout the middle ages.  We saw it in Nazi Germany, we even see it today in our world.  When the world comes up against the goodness of Love it resists.  It lashes out.  It tries to woo us to its ways and to compromise, to convince us that we are in danger of being too kind, too trusting, too generous.
But, with Paul, I urge you to stand firm.  Don’t compromise the gospel to get along with the way of the world.  Don’t bow the knee to any government to gain or maintain position, power, or prestige.  In the end, none of that matters.  As Paul says, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  Don’t fear those who can destroy the body but fear the one who holds your very soul.  Not be afraid of God but live in God’s ways of love as most important, above everything else.  Be loyal to Christ and his radical way of peace and love.
This may not end up with us in the arena like Perpetua.  We probably won’t ever be called to guide the sword that signals our death.  But there will be times when we must choose to sacrifice.  It might be social, it might be financial, yes, it might even be physical.  But trust that in sacrifice and suffering we are not alone. 
By hook or by crook, on purpose or by accident, humans do harm to one another. Christians suffer because they refuse to retaliate. We are following the model of Jesus Christ, Paul, the Philippians, Perpetua, and all the martyrs of old.  We follow in the steps of Bonhoeffer and Mehdi Dibaj and Martin Luther King, Jr.  We follow in the steps of Christ.  And as we do so, we proclaim the Gospel by our patient, peaceful witness in the face of a hostile world.  Amen.