“I am in prison, but its good because…..” or “I am on death row, but its good because…..” Could we ever imagine saying that?
It’s effectively what Paul was saying in this passage from Philippians verses 18-26.
Last month, we started our study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians A new start a new heart Philippians 1:1-11. We looked at the New Heart that we receive in Jesus Christ when we become his disciples. We learned:
- How the Holy Spirit opens the hearts of people in our community when we pray for Him to come into their lives
- How our when our leaders preach the gospel, believe in the power of prayer, and trust in the Holy Spirit our church will be full in no time
- How when we choose to invite God into our lives incredible things happen
Some of you will have prayed the prayer we gave out at the door last time and if you did not receive it please see below and please do pray it if you have not done so before…we all need new hearts.
This month we are looking at the New Purpose we have in Jesus Christ.
“I am in prison, but its good because…..” or “I am on death row, but its good because…”
How can anyone understate their suffering in this way? This is beyond stiff upper lip….
St Paul was ecstatic in his imprisonment…because he was fulfilling his purpose…the good news of Jesus Christ was becoming known, even to the Roman Imperial Guard
Do we know what our purpose is? Do we know what our lives are for?
Can we say with St Paul ‘I was born to do this’, even if it may involve my destruction?
Have you ever thought what it must have been like to be a soldier in the First World War?
In the ‘there but not there’ campaign (www.therebutnotthere.org.uk) silhouettes of WW1 soldiers appearing all over the country, we are reminded again of that tragic conflict.
But of six million men were mobilised in that terrible conflict, it is remarkable to me that only 3000 were court-martialled and 300 shot…for desertion, (many of those of course were brave people suffering from what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
That means there were a huge number of men who saw the purpose of their lives as risking everything in fighting for their country. Their upbringing, their education, their families led them inexorably towards performing this service for King and Country. They were playing a part in their nation’s history, even if it lead to their own destruction.
When it came to the moment when the whistles were blown and they had to climb into no-man’s land to almost certain death, only a tiny minority of them ran in the other direction.
As Christians, we might wonder today (and not at all wanting to be critical of a very brave generation who were, after all, men and women of their time), as Christians we might wonder today whether the purpose for which they were living was actually in fact, idolatrous. Was it putting King and Country ahead of everything else? Ahead of God? Were many of them effectively worshipping another god?
But whether they were or not (and I am sure that many were not as there was great Christian work going on in the trenches as well), it seems clear that those 6 million (or 5 and half million who were not driven to desertion) saw the purpose of their lives as fighting on that battle field, and dying if necessary.
It was a purpose beyond themselves….
By contrast, what are we living for today?
What is our purpose?
You see something has happened since the carnage of the First World War which has changed the way we look at the world. Two philosophical movements, in particular, have had a colossal impact on how we see things: post-modernism and existentialism.
‘Oh Yawn’ you may think, what has that got to do with me? What has philosophy to do with how I think? ‘Click as you switch off and turn in your mind to something else….lunch may be…but please stay with me…..
How do you think that our society develops its ideas? Its consensus on what is right? Its consensus on what is good?
It’s the academics, who teach the students who go on to become the playwrights, poets, novelists politicians, journalists, lawyers, judges, teachers, civil servants and voters, who shape our society.
It’s thought that new ideas taught at university take only a generation before they become popularised and are generally accepted as truth. Of course, other ideas survive from previous generations as well as not everyone is persuaded… but even in a democracy like ours the consensus is difficult to fight against.
These two movements of the mid 20th century really had their effect in the 1960s,1970s and 1980s to the extent that their thinking is quite normal now. Its difficult to think that this is not the only way to look at the world. But it’s very different from the way we thought a generation or two ago and it is different from the way that other cultures think.
And this thinking has a huge impact on our daily lives and the decisions that our leaders take on our behalf.
So what did these movements teach (I am of course seriously summarising here)?
Existentialism essentially insists that the only authentic way for a person to live is to create their own identity in a world which has no meaning.
Postmodernism is complementary, in a way, to existentialism. It rejects the idea that there is an overarching meaning or significance in history, it rejects the idea that the world is going somewhere. It rejects what are called ‘meta narratives’.
We can see these meta narratives in the British Empire meta-narrative (that we British make the world a better and safer place by civilising everyone, introducing railways and the rule of law and keeping the peace). I’m rather fond of that meta-narrative.
And in Marxism, where it predicts the inevitable triumph and capture of the means of production, by the proletariat.
And of course in Christianity…
The combined effect of these two movements – existentialism and post modernism is that people are encouraged to make their own identity today (now) and that their lives have no significance beyond the grave either in history or in eternity outside what they make for themselves or their progeny. In fact no significance beyond who they make themselves to be.
So people are encouraged to live for today, to live for themselves, to consume, to reject the guidance of history and age and, in particular, not to see their role in society as one link in the chain of generations.
As in many other ways, weddings and marriage are a touch stone, an insight, into where we are as a society.
I am so struck today by weddings where the only consideration seems to be the requirements of the bride and groom, whereas in the past a wedding has always been a joint venture across the generations, a joining of two families not just two individuals.
By contrast, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor imprisoned by the Nazis during WW2, wrote from his prison cell a sermon to be read out at his niece’s wedding.
It includes these words which I tend to use at weddings:
“In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link
in the chain of the generations which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory and calls into his kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed in a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal – it is a status, an office.”
If we have the new heart in Jesus Christ that we looked at last Valley Worship we also have a new purpose in our lives and we are able to live for that new purpose.
This is not a question of self discipline. This is how we want to live, if we have the new heart in Jesus Christ.
We are… not just in marriage but in everything we do, everything that we are using Bonhoeffer’s words, a link in the chain of generations which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory and calls into his kingdom.
We have a role in that kingdom: a vocation for the kingdom, we are here for a purpose…
We are here as walk on parts in what Bishop Tom Wright describes as the five act play between Creation, described in Genesis, and Christ’s return prophesied in Revelation.
And the play is coming to its conclusion with Jesus’ return at any moment….we are on the stage; we have a role to perform: that is why we are here.
And it’s best to find out what that purpose is before it’s too late; before in some terrible diagnosis we discover, that life is limited. There is no time to be wasted.
When we truly understand this, when we truly understand that we have a purpose, then the good news is that all sorts of problems sort themselves out.
Knowing the purpose of our lives helps us to address temptation: we know what our gifts are for and this helps us to resist temptation, as Jesus did in the desert, as I pointed out at the Family Communion a couple of weeks ago Temptation for All Age Worship
Also we are no longer completely flummoxed by the awful array of choice in front of us in every direction, which doesn’t actually help us to flourish, as we find it so hard to make a decision, because we fear that we may get it wrong.
This is particularly the case for the young: what are they going to do with their lives?
Career choices seem harder for our younger generation than ever before by the array of choices that they have before them.
Instead of thinking ‘what work am I going to enjoy’, we should be thinking ‘what has God made me to do, what are my unique gifts how can I use them for his Kingdom?’
But it also affects those of us who are older: instead of thinking ‘I could retire now
but I don’t know what I would do, so I will just go on making more and more money for my children until I die’, I should be thinking: how can I bless the world and my community with the gifts and experiences that God has given me?
Instead of thinking ‘my marriage is difficult shouldn’t I find someone else?’ I should be thinking how can I make this marriage work? What can I do to fix my behaviour so that I can bless my spouse and my children?
The choices get more limited in the context of our lives having a purpose beyond our own pleasure and that of our children.
And vitally, we see suffering in a different light.
We know that Jesus still loves us that he has not sent this pain to us but that he can bewith us in it and that he will continue to love us that He will accompany us through all of it.
If we know our purpose, we know that we have a role to perform in that suffering,even as we face death…
‘I am on death row, but its good because….’
Nicholas Maude, who was an excellent cricketer and cyclist amongst other things, who lived in Hampshire whom some of you may have known died in 2012 from untreatable kidney cancer. He had only a few short weeks from diagnosis to death. One month he was cycling the Etape in the Alps and the next he was in hospital.
Astonishingly he accepted what was going to happen to him. His reaction, according to his sister, was to say Jesus’ words in Gethsemane ‘Not my will, but yours, be done’. She says he never wavered from that.
From his hospital bed, he invited members of his family to come and see him. He used the opportunity to say exactly how and why he valued each of them and to seek to make peace with anyone, and between relations, where this was necessary.
Nick spoke of his confidence that God would be within him throughout.
He wrote to his family in one of his regular emails during this time: ‘I don’t feel like Usain Bolt about to pound down the finishing straight. I do feel that I’ve quietly slipped amooring on a very beautiful English estuary and am being gently borne out to sea.
‘I am now in God’s tide and progress is gentle, stately, unhurried and, above all, secure.
No doubt, as the wind gets up later, other forces will assail us. But I’m surrounded by an entire flotilla of support craft, many of which you inhabit – so the overwhelming peace that marks the beginning of this new journey will never be far away.’
The vicar at his funeral said ‘Nick has taught me how to die’.
Many said that the way he had died had had a profound impact on their faith
He might well have reflected ‘I am on death row but…..’
There is something which resonates of St Paul in this first chapter of Philippians in thisstory of the last few weeks of Nick’s life.
Nick like Paul had a new heart and a new purpose
Can we all say the same?
A Prayer for a New Heart
Lord Jesus Christ
I am sorry for the things
I have done wrong in my life
(take a few moments
to ask for His forgiveness
for anything that is on your conscience)
Please forgive me.
I now turn from everything
that I know that is wrong.
Thank you that you died on the Cross
for me, so that I could be forgiven
and set free.
Thank you that you offer me forgiveness
and the gift of your Spirit.
I now receive that gift.
Please come into my life
by your Holy Spirit,
to be with me for ever
Thank you Lord Jesus
Philippians 1:12–30 (NRSV)
Paul’s Present Circumstances
12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.
15 Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. 16 These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; 17 the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. 18 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.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. 20 It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
27 Only, live your life in a manner 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 you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29 For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
One parishioner who found the sermon a bit too long…..thank you to the Jessicae..