Here is the sermon I preached for our congregation’s recent Homecoming Sunday. As we gave thanks for the past, and looked ahead to the future, it seemed appropriate to lift up Christ once again as the heart of the church and the very life of the church.
Living Is Christ
A Sermon on Philippians 1
Given everything that Paul had gone through, it’s understandable that he recognized that death would bring welcome relief. No, he wasn’t suicidal. But life was often a struggle, and ministry was often an uphill battle. Paul had been through so much: hunger, cold, illness, opposition, sometimes violent opposition, imprisonment. Something he called a thorn in the flesh caused him pain that was never completely relieved. And here Paul was in prison again, dependent on the goodwill of others even to have something to eat. This might be his last imprisonment. Execution was a very real possibility.
Friends in the church at Philippi had sent Paul support and encouragement, and now he was writing to return the same to them. They weren’t having an easy time of it, either. They were bearing up under opposition from somewhere, perhaps outright persecution like what the church in Iraq is experiencing now. But even the mildest forms of opposition are no fun, as when the community looks down its nose at you, or maybe even worse, just doesn’t care, has no regard for you at all. The church at Philippi was experiencing pain from without, and there was internal stress as well. Later in the letter Paul alludes to the stress that occurs when church members don’t see eye to eye on something.
Paul and his Philippian friends had a history of bearing one another’s burdens. He shares some of his own distress in his letter, but he mostly wants to help them in their distress.
After reassuring his friends of his ongoing love and prayers for them, Paul shares the vision that is keeping him going, hoping it will help them keep going, too. He sums it up succinctly like this: to me, living is Christ, and dying is gain. What did he mean by that? For Paul, dying meant gain because it meant being eternally with and in Christ. Living here is Christ, and dying is also Christ, being together with Christ in eternity.
Paul felt safe in Jesus Christ, no matter how things turned out. In other letters he puts it this way: “In life and in death we belong to Christ,” and “if we die with Christ we will rise with Christ.” Paul could even see how God could redeem the painful things he was experiencing and make them serve the purposes of the gospel. The example he gives here is that the whole imperial guard has now heard of Jesus Christ.
Paul did look forward to being with Christ forever, but he also believed that God still had fruitful labor for him on this side of death. Jesus would use him to bless others, including his friends at Philippi. Paul just wanted Christ Jesus to be lifted up no matter what happened, in his life and even in his death.
Paul really, really hoped to visit his Philippian friends in person again. But meanwhile, whether or not that ever happened, he urged his friends to do what he was doing: keep their eyes on Christ. Live as citizens of Christ’s kingdom now. Let their lives point to Christ. He urged them to stand together and proclaim the good news of Christ. For the Philippians too, living is Christ.
Christ was Paul’s focus and meaning and purpose and strength, and Christ was also their focus and meaning and purpose and strength.
You followers of Christ here today get that. I get it. I am so grateful that very early in life, my family and my church family introduced me to Jesus, to the amazing, outrageous, comprehensive, unconditional love of Christ. I came to consciousness in Jesus’ arms. I knew Jesus loved me. I stood on that foundation before I went into the larger world and was deeply wounded. Through it all, his love, his kindness and compassion and strength have been with me. Living was Christ. And ever since, living for me is Christ. To live is to share Christ. I want others to know his love. I want you to know his love.
Living is Christ. We can testify to that. Living is Christ. In Christ we have found strength from beyond ourselves. He wipes away our tears, and helps us do the same for others. He helps us face and survive pain, struggle, and heartbreak. He is the strength when we have no strength. He lets us glimpse the big picture, that our lives are part of God’s mighty act of love for the world. Christ can use us, yes us, to bless others, and he is doing that. We can dare greatly in his name, we can be bold, because in life and in death, we belong to Christ. We are safe in him.
Jesus Christ is not an add-on to life. He is not just one of other important helpers in our lives—doctor, lawyer, insurance agent, whatever. Jesus Christ is life.
There’s a singer named Fernando Ortega who has made at least two beautiful recordings of a spiritual called “Give Me Jesus.” That song could be Paul’s song:
In the morning when I rise…give me Jesus.
And when I am alone…give me Jesus.
And when I come to die…give me Jesus.
Give me Jesus, give me Jesus. You can have all this world. You can have all this world. You can have all this world, but give me Jesus.
This can be our song.
This week I looked at a number of video meditations on this song, and in one, when it got to the part that says “you can have all this world,” it showed images of smiling people with money piled up in front of them, images of things that seem so important in a world where people dream of bigger houses and bigger cars and more vacation time. But none of that stuff can touch the deepest needs of the soul. None of it can love you back the way Jesus can. None of that stuff can transcend time and hold you into eternity.
Life is Jesus. Living is Christ. Just give us Jesus, so that we might embody his love and his life in ours, and lay our life down for others as he did for us.
Paul’s heart overflows with prayer as he writes to his friends at Philippi, and later in the letter he calls them to prayer. This scripture invites us to prayer. This collection of friends gathered here today can do what Paul and his friends did: recommit ourselves to prayer:
Prayer for children and youth, in the morning of life, needing the assurance of Jesus’ love as they step into the world for the first time. Prayer for young adults, for those just finding their way, just finding their place in what God is doing in this world, and making important decisions about priorities and work and marriage and family, that Jesus might be at the heart of it all. Because living is Christ.
Prayer for all who struggle, that they might find the strength that is Jesus in the midst of it all. Because living is Christ.
Prayer for folks at midlife, many carrying heavy burdens, caring for others in need, often the very old and the very young, that they might know the strength and peace of Christ. Prayer for folks who are seeking to give away as much love as they can in Christ’s name for as long as they can. Because living is Christ.
Prayer for those who are nearing the time when they will step across to the church eternal, to join all the saints there. Living is Christ, and living will be Christ then, too.
Prayer for Christ’s church everywhere, and prayer for Christ’s church here in this neighborhood, where pain and sorrow and all kinds of need are so near at hand, literally down the street from this building. Prayer for Morton Church, that we might dare greatly, with our eyes on Christ, ready to do whatever it takes to share his life and his love with this neighborhood in need, knowing that in life and in death, we are safe with him. To be his church is to be his body and to live his life and to love his love. Because living is Christ.
Friends, like Paul, we thank God every time we remember you, and we pray for you. Thank you for sharing in living out the good news of Jesus, wherever he has placed you. It is so good to see you today. His peace and encouragement be with you.
Because living is Christ: ever, only, always Christ.