MAY 3, 2009


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            Years ago the British Ambassador in Beirut, Lebanon was interviewed after the British embassy had been ransacked.  It was chaos everywhere, but the ambassador kept that famous British stiff upper lip.  He was clearly disheveled, but he had done his best to straighten himself out for the interview.  He explained the ordeal they had just been through, how everything of value had been stolen, how his whole family had been confined to the basement, how they were living in fear of another attack, how threats had been made to every member of his family.  They had very little food, all the services had been cut off, and there was no electricity or running water.  He concluded by saying of his current circumstance, “Life is really rather uncomfortable.”

            In a similar way, Paul, understates his suffering to the Philippians.  In verse 12 he refers to “what has happened to me.”  Let me tell you what has happened to Paul since he last saw the Philippians.  He had faced false accusation and mob violence.  He had been needlessly put on trial, during which he was illegally assaulted.  He faced an assassination plot and ended up in the hands of a tyrant.  Then to top it off, he was shipwrecked on his way to Rome and was now confined in prison, facing possible execution.  That is what has happened to him, since they last saw one another.

            Furthermore, not only does Paul understate his suffering, but he also rejoices in it because through it he sees the supreme calling of his life.  His purpose in life is to live a life worthy of Christ, and that is what he recommends to the Philippians and to us.  “Live a life worthy of the gospel.  Let that be the purpose of your life.”  Listen to his exact words ...


            Only, live your life in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that your are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents (Phil 1:27-28).


            Maybe you saw the Oscar-winning movie “Saving Private Ryan.”  The film begins and ends  with an elderly World War II veteran and his family visiting the American graves, the American cemetery,  in Normandy, France.  It begins with the elderly veteran collapsing to his knees in front of a gravestone.  He’s overwhelmed by emotion. 

            The scene then goes back in time and changes to the beginning of the Normandy invasion, with American soldiers landing on Omaha Beach and struggling against dug-in German infantry, machine gun nests and artillery fire.  One of the officers who survives the initial landing, Captain John Miller, commanding officer of C Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion, played by Tom Hanks assembles a group of soldiers and slowly penetrates the German defenses, leading to a breakout from the beach.

            Meanwhile, in the United States, General George C. Marshall discovers that three of the four brothers of the Ryan family have been killed in action within days of each other and that their mother will receive all three death notices on the same day. He learns that the fourth brother, Private First Class James Francis Ryan of Baker Company, played by Matt Damon, is missing in action somewhere in Normandy.  Marshall orders that he be found and sent home immediately.  Captain Miller’s troops receive those orders, and eventually find Private Ryan, and save him, but with heavy, casualties including Captain Miller.  Captain Miller dies in Private Ryan’s arms, his dying words being, “James ... earn this.  Earn it.”

            Then, at the end of the movie, the scene returns back to the present day, to the cemetery in Normandy.  Back in the present, the elderly veteran is revealed to be Private Ryan at Captain Miller's grave.  Ryan asks his wife to confirm that he has led a good life and that he is a "good man", and thus worthy of Miller's and the others' sacrifice.  He then salutes the Miller's grave as the camera pans down the gravestones to the American flag and fades out.

            James Ryan’s purpose in life was to live a life worthy of the soldiers who had exchanged their lives for his.  The purpose of the Apostle Paul’s life was to live a life worthy of Christ’s sacrifice for him, and did he?  If the Apostle Paul had asked us, “Was I a good man?  Did I live a life worthy of Christ?  Did I earn this sacrifice for me?” what would we say?  Most of us would answer, “Of course, Paul, you were not only a good man, but a great man.  If anyone lead a life worthy of gospel, worthy of Christ’s sacrifice it was you,” and we see three examples of that in Paul’s words to the Philippians today.

            First, note how Paul lived his life above his circumstances.  Note his words,


            I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to every one that my imprisonment is for Christ (Philippians 1:12-13).


            Paul is not exaggerating here.   He did turn his dire circumstances, his imprisonment, into a missionary opportunity.  In Rome the soldiers guarding him would change every four hours.  This meant Paul had a new congregation several times everyday.   With every new guard, every new shift, came a new opportunity to preach the gospel.  As a result he was able to say, “It has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to every one that my imprisonment is for Christ.”   Anyone who caught the Apostle Paul and tried to tame him soon discovered he or she had a spiritual tiger by the tail.  He did not let his circumstances derail him in doing what he loved the most, talking to others about Jesus Christ.

            A woman didn’t allow her circumstances get the best of her either.   Drs. Osler ad Walsh stopped in her hospital room.  Dr. Osler wanted Dr. Walsh’s help with her case.  Dr. Osler said,  “Ma’am, I would like you to tell Dr. Walsh something of your life.  When were you first in the hospital?”

            “At age twenty-seven,” she replied.

            “What was the matter?”

            “I had sarcoma of the right knee.”

            “What did they do for you?”

            “They cut off the right leg at the hip.”

            “Did you get well again?”

            “Yes, I made a full recovery.”

            “When were you in the hospital again?” Dr Osler asked.

            “At the age of forty-two, when I had breast cancer.”

            “What did they do for you that time?”

            “They cut off my left breast and left arm.”

            “Was that effective.”

            “Yes.  I’m cancer free.”       

            “Well, what are you hospitalized for this time?”

            “For rheumatism,” she replied.  Then catching Dr. Walsh’s hand, she added tearfully, “I hope you will make me well in a hurry, because I have to go home and take care of my grandchildren.”

            Such is the spirit of the person who lives above his or her circumstances.  They note them, accept them, and move on to things that matter most. In this woman’s case, it was taking care of her grandchildren.

            Second, in addition to his rising above his circumstance, note how Paul did not allow bitterness to get the best of him.  Listen to Paul’s words.


            Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill.  These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.  What does it matter?  Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice (Phil 1:15-18).


            You may be unaware of the dark side of some clergy types.  Paul was not.  Paul’s imprisonment spawned two categories of preachers.  There were those who loved Paul, and when they saw him in prison they redoubled their efforts to spread the gospel.  They knew the best way to put a smile on Paul’s face was to see that the work did not suffer because of Paul’s unavoidable absence from the field.

            Then there was another type of preachers.  They saw Paul’s imprisonment as a way of making a name for themselves, of using Paul’s imprisonment for their own advantage, to advance their own careers, to undermine Paul’s influence when he was confined.

            We know rivalries in all areas of life.  Funeral homes compete.  Groceries stores compete.  Networks compete.  Rivalries and competition are everywhere - business, politics, academics, sports, the arts - but we don’t expect it find it among those who proclaim the gospel.  But it’s there.

            Anyway, we expect Paul to be bitter about what his “rivals” are doing, bad-mouthing him while he’s away and unable to defend himself.  Instead, what he says surprises us.  Paul says, “Sure there are those whose motivation is suspect.  Sure there are those who kick me while I am down, but no matter.  What’s important is the gospel is being preached.  The Kingdom is still being advanced, and for that I rejoice.”

            He’s no Apostle Paul, but I love the way Hall-of-Fame third baseman Wade Boggs handled one of his rivals, not a fellow-ballplayer, but a Yankee fan.

            Boggs was playing for the Boston Red Sox at the time, and the Yankee fan had a box seat close to the field, and whenever the Red Sox came to Yankee stadium he would torment Boggs, shouting obscenities and insults. It got so bad, Boggs hated coming to Yankee stadium.

            One day before a game, as Boggs was warming up, the fan began his typical routine, yelling, "Boggs, you stink" and variations on that theme.  Boggs decided he'd had enough.  He walked directly over to the man, who was sitting in the stands with his friends, and said, "Hey fella, are you the guy who's always yelling at me?"  The man said, "Yeah, it's me. What are you going to do about it?"

            Wade took a new baseball out of his pocket, autographed it, tossed it to the man, and went back to the field to continue his pre-game routine.

             The man never yelled at Boggs again.

            Boggs rose above the criticism.  Paul rose above the bitterness.

            Finally, in living a life worthy of the gospel of Christ, note how Paul faced the prospect of his own death.  I turned sixty last July.  When I did I remember a man telling that after his sixtieth birthday, how for the first time in his life he began to awaken in the middle of the night, toss with anxiety, and ask himself, “What if this is all there is?  What if when I die, I’m nonexistent?”  Prior to age sixty, he had no fear of death, and fully expected to live beyond the grave, but the closer he came to that reality, the less sanguine he became about it.

            There’s no doubt Paul knew he had reached the end of the road.  His Roman prison cell was his waiting room to eternity.  Any day the door would open and a guard would summon him to execution.  Paul had an imminent rendezvous with death and he knew it. 

            And so here’s Paul standing between two doors.  One door leads to life and the other door leads to death.  He honesty doesn’t know which to choose.   In his opinion both doors are good.  Door one is wonderful because it allows him to continue preaching Christ.  Door two, the death door, is wonderful because it’s being with Christ.  So he says, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Phil 1:21).

            A clergyman heard that the man who had directed the camp he had attended as a boy was hospitalized with cancer and near death.  The man had been his childhood hero, so he went to the hospital to visit him.  When he entered the room, he found the man’s children at his bedside.  He was skin and bones and in pain.  The clergyman had intended to minister to him, but suddenly fond himself back at summer camp acting like a  junior high camper.  He simply smiled, and said, “I hope you get better soon.”

            His former camp director said, “I’m not going to get better.  I have cancer and I’m going to die.”  Then he looked at his children and said, “But we are not afraid.  We know that everything will be alright.”

            This man knew what Paul knew.  To live is Christ and to die is gain.

            Rising above circumstances, bitterness and death are huge hurdles to clear.  But Paul did it, and he’d be the first to say we can do it as well.  We can all live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ.