The apostle Paul had a hard life.
It didn’t start that way.
In fact, he was a Roman citizen, and within the Roman Empire, that got you a lot of protections and privileges.
He was educated in the top schools, and he was very smart.
From an early age, he had learned the ways of the Jewish religious leaders of the day — the Pharisees,
and by the time he was a young man, he not only was a Pharisee himself, but he was a leader among them.
Paul was given many responsibilities, such as presiding over cases against Christians, and deciding whether those Christians should be persecuted as well…
…like the stoning death of Stephen that we could read about in Acts 7.
You could say that Paul had it all.
Then Paul met Jesus, and everything changed.
And when I say everything, I mean everything.
Paul was instantly converted to follow Jesus.
And he gave away everything to do so.
Even his life.
His mission field was with the “other” — not the Jews of Israel, but the Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire.
On more than once occasion, and even for several years, Paul spend time in jail.
He was beaten and left for dead on at least one occasion,
and he was eventually killed for proclaiming the Gospel boldly.
Better for Christ?
At the outset, we could say, “Well, Paul’s life got worse when he met Jesus.”
Here’s the thing: It got better.
In our reading today, Paul even tells us: “Do these things and you will complete ‘my joy.’” Verse 2.
“My joy,” he says.
Giving up everything;
Giving up his position in society;
Giving up his friends and family;
Giving up his well-being;
Giving up his home; and
Giving up his life…
All of these things he’s given up, he says, equals his joy.
Doesn’t that sort of flip things over for us, too?
I mean, if that’s not a counter-cultural way to live and think about life, I don’t know what is…
You see, this is what happens when we meet and truly follow Jesus:
Our lives are completely changed.
Now, some of us might be thinking here tonight, “No thanks. I like my job, my family, my home, my well-being and my life…”
But when we think like that, we’re missing what Jesus actually has for us.
Many of us pray each night before we sleep or sometime in the day, or who knows — maybe sometimes just in our lives, and we say:
“I wish I could be okay with my life and be satisfied with what I have and what I don’t have.”
We say things like “I wish I had faith everything would work out all right.”
Am I alone in this? Am I the only one who’s ever prayed this way?
I’m betting not.
Maybe it’s a nuance or variation of this prayer…
But we see Paul, and all the misery in his life, and he’s downright giddy about it.
And that doesn’t make sense to us.
Here’s the thing:
When we say we’ll follow Christ but only until it gets uncomfortable, what we’re really saying is “God, thanks, but no thanks.”
Think about it:
If we were facing some tough road, and our best friend or a family member said they would walk with us the whole way, that’s what we’d expect.
We wouldn’t get down that road somewhere where it started getting dark and stormy and be okay if they bailed out on us.
When we have to go to surgery, and they held our hands right up until the surgeons took us unto the OR, we’d expect them to be with us when we woke up, wouldn’t we?
And when they say they’ll stand in solidarity with us no matter what happens, we expect that means right til the end — when we say we’re done, not when they say they’re done.
When we say yes to Jesus, but then don’t go the distance, we end up focusing on ourselves, not on Jesus.
We’re living inwardly.
Jesus called Paul to so much more.
And he calls us to so much more.
Unfortunately, we’ll never really know the joy Paul talks about because our hearts are already made up that we won’t go the distance.
It’s like living a lie.
Giving it up
Paul knows the answer, because Paul has gone the distance on more than one occasion.
See, today, Jesus isn’t demanding your life from you in the way he demanded it of Paul.
Sometimes, and for some of us maybe…
But Jesus is demanding we give it all over to him.
And when we do, we begin to see what Paul is talking about.
Real, pure joy.
Some of us might know what it means to sacrifice fir others.
Some of us have taken care of a loved one who was sick or was dying.
Some of us are parents, and have given or are giving everything for a child.
Some of us stood with a friend or family member who faced some trial in court or in another way.
Some of us fought beside another in the military or in some other way.
It’s that feeling.
Knowing that we gave or would give for someone else’s happiness, well being and welfare.
You see, this kind of focus, this kind of unity brings joy.
And it’s what Paul is asking of the good people in Philippi church.
Because it’s the same thing Jesus asked Paul, and the apostles, and his early followers, and even us today:
“What you did for the least of these, you did for me” (Matt. 25.40).
When we give to others, we are Jesus.
And those whom we give to, they are Jesus.
“What you did for them, you did for me,” he says.
Questions of Unity
So we see that the way to follow Christ is to continue what Christ had begun.
That to follow Christ means to follow him through whatever happens.
And that to follow Christ means doing for the least.
The least aren’t always the “poor” or the “lost.”
The least might quite simply be those who need our support most.
Clearly, Paul is talking about the community,
and tonight, here in this space, we are also focused on the community.
Paul puts it this way:
“…if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other.” (verses 1-2).
He adds in the following verses:
“Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus…”
It’s interesting here that the context in which Paul is speaking revolves around the word “citizen.”
Paul can use this word speaking to these Gentiles in Philippi — these non-Jews — because Paul, too, is a Roman citizen.
Remember, we said earlier that Roman citizenship meant something.
It’s kind of like having a membership to an exclusive golf resort, or yacht club or society…
In a sense, we could say it’s like being an American, as we enjoy 90 percent of all the wealth in the world when others are relegated to fighting for the other tenth…
The United States is like that empire.
We have many privileges others around the world do not have.
But despite this wonderful country we live in today, we can still walk out of this space tonight and into a very different one.
Some will go home to large houses in our comfortable automobiles, while others will walk to their small apartments.
Some will sleep peacefully knowing their money and their wellbeing is safe, while others might be stressed out about how they’ll pay the next bill or deal with that looming health problem.
Some are secure in their relationships while others’ hearts are hurting.
These are all what Paul is addressing.
And he is exhorting them — and us — to think the same way: that means, think of how Christ wants us to live.
He says to have the same heart with one another.
Share the Spirit.
And any sympathy.
Agree with each other.
Not because we’re citizens of the Roman Empire.
Not because we’re citizens of the United States or even Bellefonte.
Not because we belong to this church or even live in this neighborhood.
But because we’re all citizens in Christ.
And Christ’s love and mercy and grace is given to us freely.
Not because of what we have done or who we are.
Not our affiliation or citizenship in anything worldly.
But only because Christ calls us to love him.
And to follow him.
All the way, not just to when it becomes uncomfortable.
Just As I am
We’re all here tonight for that reason, whether we realize it or not.
We’re all here because we want to believe there’s a place where we when we are called out of those comfort zones, we go willingly, in faith, and without the false masks we put on to act like the pious Christian.
And instead, we are just ourselves, imperfect but willing, just as God created us.
And despite our flaws, our insecurities, our situations and even our lack of faith, we’re still called into this community — this family — of Christ’s love.
All of us, together, as one.
Not just when we gather here.