Living the Gospel

When Paul writes this letter to the church at Philippi, he is not at all sure what will happen to him. It is entirely possible that he will be executed. What he is sure of is that he does not want his outcome to cause the Philippians to lose faith, “Whatever happens,” he writes to them, “conduct yourself in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.” The Greek word Paul uses for “worthy,” “axios” means balance. It was used when things were being measured on a scale, when the two sides of the scale matched, when they balanced, they were “axios” or “worthy.” So, Paul is saying “Live your life so that when your life is put on one side of the scale and the Gospel of Christ is put on the other side of the scale, they balance.”

Gospel in Greek means “good news” and Paul used the word to mean his mission and message about Christ. The Gospel of Christ is the good news that we are sinners who don’t get what we deserve from God, but instead get mercy. The Gospel of Christ is the good news that God loves us so much that he said, “I’m coming down there” and getting rid of all the garbage that separates us, even though you are still making more garbage. The Gospel of Christ is the good news that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, and now God knows from personal experience what it is to live, to face temptations, to have a mom and a dad and family expectations, to have friends and live in community, to have compassion, to mourn, to suffer, to die. The Gospel of Christ is the good news that Jesus is risen and continues to clear away the garbage that we make that comes between us and God. The Gospel of Christ is the good news that we don’t have to balance or be worthy of the Gospel to receive it.

And yet, the paradox of the Gospel is that as soon as we receive it, as we realize the magnitude of the Gospel, we wonder, “How can I balance that? How can I live so that when our life is put on the scale, it is worthy, it matches, it balances with the Gospel of Christ?”

The short answer is, “You can’t. I can’t.” Paul couldn’t, and Paul knew that on their own, the Philippian believers couldn’t. The key is community.

Trying to translate what Paul’s words meant to the Philippians is difficult. Traditionally, the verse has been translated, “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” The word we translate “conduct” had a much deeper meaning for the church when the letter was delivered to them and read aloud.

Philippi was a colony of Rome and as a colony, was considered an extension of Rome. The citizens enjoyed Roman citizenship and a legal status that allowed self-government and tax-exemption to its citizens. Many of the Romans who came to settle there were retired veterans of the Roman military. So, the culture of Philippi was deeply patriotic and suspicious of any assembly or movement or organization not loyal to Rome. The literal translation of what Paul writes is “Live as citizens in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Your primary allegiance, he is saying is to Christ, not to Rome. The only way to balance and be worthy of the Gospel of Christ is as a community of deeply loyal members.

“I know,” Paul goes on, “that that you will stand firm in the one Holy Spirit, striving together, side-by-side as one, for the faith of the gospel.” It is the work of the Holy Spirit to make us able to live in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.

And so Paul prayed for them. His prayer had 3 petitions:
1. that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight
2. so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ (having neither stumbled nor caused to stumble)
3. that you would be filled to overflowing with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ

I don’t know about you, but I hear Paul’s prayer, and it sounds nice, but it really doesn’t stick with me. What does his prayer reveal to us about how to live a life worthy of the Gospel?

First, he prays that “love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” He is not praying for love that is based in affections, that is sappy or idealistic. He is praying for love that bears all things. He is praying for them to know and completely understand God’s will for life on earth. Not knowledge that comes from a book. Not understanding that is academic. Paul is praying for a life-transforming understanding of God’s vision for creation. There are three parts to that vision: for us to know God’s desire for nature to live in harmony (God designated us the stewards, the caretakers, of sea, sky, and land, to be fruitful and multiply; and for us to live in healthy, respectful, affirming relationships with one another (Jesus commanded us to love one another as he has loved us, right after he assumed the role of the lowest slave and washed the disciples’ feet); and for us to live in relationship with God that is both intimate (we pray to “Our Father”) and reverent {“who art in heaven”}. With that knowledge and full insight into God’s vision for life, Paul prays, your love may overflow more and more.

“So that,” his second prayer petition, “So that, you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless” having neither stumbled nor caused to stumble. As the Gospel spread to the Gentiles, there were multiple questions of what was morally acceptable and what was not. Must Gentiles be circumcised to be part of the community of Christ followers? Did they have to be Jewish first? Could meat offered first to idols be cooked and eaten or was it permanently defiled? What rituals must be kept? What was morally acceptable? Paul was a Pharisee. He knew about the rules. He was an interpreter and an enforcer of the rules. Now, he writes, the more you know of God’s ways the more love is just going to flow through you, and you’ll be able then to see what is best.

Remember trying to write secret messages as a kid? I was always interested in secret codes and invisible ink. I wanted one of those sets where you wrote with the invisible ink pen, and your friend could read the note as she highlighted your words with the secret decoder. Paul is saying love is the secret decoder. When we can’t see what God has authored, highlight the situation with love. Then, you’ll be able to see what is acceptable and will be prevented from stumbling or causing someone else to stumble in their Christian walk.

Finally, Paul prays that they would be filled to overflowing with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ. “Righteousness” is a big word that sounds nice, but isn’t very practical. The word translated “righteousness” means “living as we ought to live”, “living according to what is acceptable to God”, a more practical translation might be “following the example of Jesus.”

In more accessible language, Paul’s prayer is for the Philippians for understand God’s design for interrelationships in creation and for love to flow out of that understanding, for that love to be the decoder of what is morally acceptable, and for us to live overflowing with the fruit, the product or result, of life following the example of Jesus, all to the glory of God.

May this be our prayer for the church today:

Holy God, may we seek to understand your will, and may love flow out of our understanding, decoding what is good and acceptable to you. May we live according to what love reveals to us, so that our lives overflow with the results of living as we ought to live, not for our own glory, but all for yours. Amen.

Wow – that makes me feel hopeful and excited, but the reality is that as soon as I breathe my next breath, I start remembering all the reasons living like this sounds impossible. Paul knew it did. It sounded as impossible to the Philippians as it sounds to us. But, he also knew God’s faithfulness. All we have to do is be open to the Holy Spirit, open to start, to just begin…and God will be faithful to carry it on to completion. Amen.

Next week, we turn to chapter 2, where we find what is known as the Christ hymn. It is probably the oldest Christian composition in the Bible, a very, very early affirmation of who Jesus was and what his life meant for the world and means for us.