14th Sunday after Trinity
Phil 1:12-30; Mt 18:21-35
St Barbara’s 13.9.2020
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Adverts rarely tell us the downside of the product they are trying to sell. “These sweets are delicious… but they may rot your teeth.” “This car can go from 0-60 in 5 seconds… but we won’t mention its fuel economy.” “This hoover is fantastic for sucking up dirt… but we won’t tell you that it should really come with ear plugs.”
However, the apostle Paul was someone who rarely sugar-coated his message or hid the less enticing aspects of the Christian life from his listeners. For all his passion for God and his desire for people to respond to the good news in Christ, he never under-estimated the demands of the gospel. Living godly lives, lives willing to share the gospel, comes at a cost. For him, that cost included imprisonment, the very situation he found himself in as he wrote this letter to the Philippians. And to the Philippians the cost included persecution, opposition, hostility and verbal and physical threats. Paul doesn’t hide this. He acknowledges it head-on: “For it has been granted to you to suffer for Christ, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear I still have.”
Living the Christian life often brings with it opposition and criticism even today. Think of the church in communist Soviet Union in the 20th century, or the church in China or Sudan in this century. Sometimes such opposition occurs in western countries like our own too when the church stands up against unbridled self-interest or stands up alongside the poor and marginalised. Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant still remains a story that resonates with us today. And even if our experience is not one of opposition at the moment, we all experience difficulties and hardships.
Paul’s point to the Philippians in the midst of their persecution and difficulties is simple: “Though hard times come, take heart. Do not be discouraged.” And in today’s reading from Philippians we find three reasons he says to take heart.
Firstly, take heart, Paul says, because God can redeem the situation, he can bring good out of what seems an unremittingly bleak situation. Paul gives a personal example. Here he is languishing in prison, being denied the chance to live out his greatest joy and passion of travelling and preaching the gospel, of helping people come to Christ and setting up new churches. He can’t do any of that anymore. And yet he says: “I want you to know, what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” Quite unexpectedly, because of his imprisonment, Paul is now being able to preach to the imperial guard, the most influential soldiers in the whole Roman army. Not only that, but by doing so, he has brought encouragement to the other Christians in Rome. And something that even Paul wasn’t aware of at the time. The letters he wrote from prison became the bedrock of our New Testament, letters that would inspire faith in millions throughout the world and for 2000 years. Without his enforced confinement, he may never have found the time to write them.
God is able to bring good out of situations we would not choose. I discovered this most forcibly for myself when in my early 30s I was off work and housebound for 12 months with glandular fever and then chronic fatigue. I was left wondering, “Where is God in all this?” And yet God brought good out of it. It was a time when I grew much deeper in my faith, discovering that my relationship with God was not all about doing and achieving, but about being and receiving, and it was during this time that I got to know Sarah, and that led a year later to us getting married.
God bringing good from bad, redeeming situations, is a story repeated time and again in the Bible. Just one such example in the Old Testament is Joseph: sold into slavery in Egypt, and yet through that disastrous situation, God raises him up to save millions from dying from starvation. And above all, its the story of Jesus himself: out of the tragedy of his persecution and death, the world’s darkest day, God brings the greatest good – resurrection and new life.
I know that many of us are going through difficult times at the moment, whether with our health or with caring for the needs of loved ones or with coping with the uncertainties of Covid or with unemployment. How might God be at work, how might he be bringing good out of these difficult situations? Let us be open to seeing his hand at work.
Paul’s message for those in difficulty: Take heart, God can redeem; and take heart, our future is God’s. The Orange mobile phone network had a slogan “The future’s bright, the future’s orange”. Well, for us Christians, we can say with somewhat more confidence: “The future’s bright, the future is God’s.” Paul summed it up simply by saying: “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” Whatever our circumstances, our lives give us the opportunity and privilege of serving Christ, of growing in our love for him and growing in our love for others. For all the difficulties we face, our lives have incredible meaning because to live is to serve Christ and to serve others, to bring God’s joy into the world. Those words that we learnt last week – “Growing in love – for God, each other, our community and the world” give us a tremendous purpose for our lives, no matter our circumstances.
And if we are not to live, Paul goes on, the alternative, death, will mean being in the very presence of God, experiencing a life of wonder, beauty, awe and joy beyond our wildest imaginings. These were not glib words. Paul was awaiting any day the trial that would more than likely lead to his execution. And yet his faith assured him – death was not the end, but the doorway into eternal life. We can take heart, whether struggling with life or fearing death, the future is God’s.
And finally, Paul says, whatever your circumstances, take heart, because you have one another. “Strive together as one” he says. Paul takes an image from the Greek army that had become famous under Alexander the Great who was born and raised in Philippi. That army had a formation called the phalanx, where soldiers carried 16 foot long spears. As individuals they were incredibly vulnerable, but when they acted as a group, they presented an impenetrable hedge of spears to the enemy that proved almost invincible. The key was acting as one. When we are united as Christians, when we show mercy and forgiveness, the very opposite of that ungrateful servant in our gospel reading, when we encourage and build up, when we bear with each other’s faults and delight in one another’s faith – when we do that, when we act as one, when we grow in our love for each other – then we will find heart even in the hardest of times.
Take heart, Paul says. We have one another; take heart: God can bring good out of the most difficult situations; and take heart: the future is God’s.