When in Rome
February 19, 2017
It it easy to lose heart when someone beloved or important goes down. A sports team can fall into despair when their best player suffers a season-ending injury. A worker can feel discouraged over the vanity of her labor and anxious over the uncertainty of her future when her project leader is suddenly gone. An entire army can lose the will to fight when their champion falls. A husband or wife can find it difficult to keep love and cheer going with the home and the kids and everything else when their better half comes down with the flu. When someone you love or someone significant to you goes down, it is easy to lose heart.
It was easy for the church at Philippi to lose heart as well. The Philippians were distressed over the fact that their beloved brother and friend, the Apostle Paul, was in prison. Paul was in chains and under house arrest in Rome. And his death was imminent. You could imagine the worry for Paul and the sorrow felt the church at Philippi. After all, it was Paul who started their church from the first day. It was Paul who shared the gospel with Lydia the seller of purple goods. It was Paul who exorcised the fortune-telling slave girl there. It was Paul who baptized the Philippian jailer and all of his household. So many good memories. So much gospel and grace there for Paul and for the church at Philippi. So much fellowship and love. So yes, it was understandable for them to lose heart over Paul’s circumstances.
But into all the despair and discouragement, into all the fear of vanity and anxiety of the future, and into all the breakdown of love and cheer, Paul writes a letter. A warm, heartfelt, and encouraging letter for the church at Philippi - and for us today.
Paul begins with the big picture. He writes, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.”
Brothers and sisters, these are amazing words. In the midst of suffering and imprisonment, Paul is concerned about God and his gospel. He has the right big picture in mind. He has his head on straight. And he opens with this. He doesn’t pull a Jonah and open with, “OMG, I’m like literally dying in these chains - just kill me God!” He doesn’t open with grumbling or gossiping about his time in Rome. He doesn’t even open with “I love you and I miss you.” He opens with God and with his gospel work and fellowship. And he reminds the Philippian church that there is reason for thanksgiving and prayer and joy.
Brothers and sisters, when things go south for you, whether it’s in school or work or at home or church, what do you lose your heart to? Where does your mind go? Paul was in prison. And he faced death. But his heart and mind was set on the things of Christ. Chains and house arrest were no big deal compared to having God. Suffering and death were worth it for the sake of the work of the gospel. Brothers and sisters, you have the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. You have the love of God. You have the fellowship of the Spirit. You have perfect forgiveness, everlasting life, amazing promises and a new heavens and a new earth waiting for you. And you have work to do. Therefore, be encouraged. And do not lose heart. For these light and momentary afflictions of yours are preparing for you an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as you look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For you know that the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. Brothers and sisters, when things go south for you, think about the big picture. Think about the grace of God and his gospel.
Paul continues by expressing his feelings for the Philippian church. He calls them partners in the gospel. He holds them in his heart. He yearns for them with the affection of Christ Jesus. What amazing words from the Apostle Paul! What tender words from the Lord Jesus Christ!
I had the privilege of going to many overseas mission trips in my time as a pastor. I scaled the heights of Machu Picchu in Peru. I visited orphanages in the Dominican Republic. I saw poverty in Haiti. Every trip and location was different. But whenever we sat in their worship services, I always felt the same thing. I felt a profound connection to the believers of these other lands. It was strange but true. It was a feeling of partnership, of fellowship, and, especially with the younger kids, an affection and a bond that transcended time and space and language and culture. It was a partnership in the gospel.
Brothers and sisters, partnership in the gospel is a wonderful thing. Working together and fellowshipping together for the sake of the gospel of Christ brings so much joy and can often be downright fun. From doing diaconal work together to leading small groups at youth retreats to gathering with other churches in our denomination to serving our session here at Highland - what a fellowship! What a joy divine. Leaning on the everlasting arms… together. Let us continue to do partnership in the gospel here at Highland.
And let us know that such joyful partnership and fellowship comes from God himself.
When Paul says that he yearns for the Philippians with “the affection of Christ Jesus,” he’s not just saying that he loves them because of Jesus. He’s saying that he loves them with the love of Jesus. He loves them with Jesus’ love. One theologian put it like this: “It is not Paul who lives within Paul, but Jesus Christ, which is why Paul is not moved by the bowels of Paul but by the bowels of Christ.” If you’re wondering how bowels have entered into the conversation, you should know that the word “affection” in the English is trying to get at the original Greek word there, which is literally spleen or intestines or bowels or that part of your body that turns upside down with the words “Will you marry me?” or “Luke, I am your FATHER.” What ultimately moved Paul’s inner being? What made him yearn for the church at Philippi? It was not a tearful episode of a Korean drama or a song from Adele or baby pictures from long ago. It was Christ. Jesus Christ moves our affection and fuels our partnership in the gospel with his own affection.
Brothers and sisters, true fellowship begins and ends with the Lord’s affection for us. When Jesus sweat drops of blood and said, “Not as I will, but as you will,” was that not affection? When Jesus emptied himself by taking the form of a servant and humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death on the cross, was that not affection? When Jesus asked Paul on the road, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me,” was that not affection? When Jesus saved you on that day and feeds you with the bread and the cup every first Sunday of the month and assures you of his forgiveness and grace and surrounds you with other wonderful brothers and sisters in him and carries you home, is that not affection?
Brothers and sisters, this is what I’m trying to say: Jesus loves his church. And if Paul’s famous words in Galatians 2:20 are true, and they are, then Jesus loves his church through people. For we all echo Paul’s words: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Our weak bowels have been crucified and then replaced with new strong bowels - the bowels of Christ himself. Therefore, Jesus loves his church through the people that he lives in. Through people like Paul. Through people like Jemimah’s father and Jean’s dad. Through people like the Birthday Team and the Ushering Team and every team in between. Through your dorm mates. Through your husband. Through your wife. When we love one another, it’s ultimately not our love to give. For what credit can we claim in this miracle? We only love because God first loved us. We love because Christ lives in us. And when we are in conflict with one another, it is ultimate not our love that is going to save the day. For what affection can we muster up in our anger? We can only forgive because God first forgave us. We forgive because Christ lives in us. Therefore, brothers and sisters, be amazed at how God loves his church through sinners such as you and me. Watch the power of God’s love turn enemies into friends. And let us abound with the affection of Christ.
Paul goes on to assure the church at Philippi that God will persevere them to the very end. He writes these words, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” God begins a good work in every believer. And God finishes his good work in every believer at the day of Jesus Christ. But what is this good work of God?
God’s good work is something that happens inside of us. And that something is change. Our hearts and minds change. The things that we love and care about change. And that change even comes out in our words and actions and how we relate to other people. This is God’s good work in us. We call it sanctification. It a huge part of the gospel of Christ. And it’s amazing.
The Philippian church needed to hear this part of the gospel. And so also do we. It is easy to say that people don’t change. That may be true of many non-believers. But it is not true of any believer. To say that believers in Christ cannot change is at best a careless or ignorant statement and at worst a stunning denial of the very gospel of Jesus Christ. Let me be very clear here. If you don’t think that people at church can change, then you do not have the gospel in full. A huge part of the amazing good news of Jesus Christ is that people can change and do change - because that change is God’s good work. I therefore strongly encourage you to look at each other in a new light, in the light of God’s good work of sanctification. Your imperfect spouse will become more like Christ. Your slow brother or sister will grow in spiritual maturity. Your flawed pastors will be able to take off the old and put on the new. Your parents will surprise you at the end.
This good work is nothing less than resurrection. You are united with Christ. His crucifixion is your crucifixion. His resurrection is your resurrection. You died in Christ. And you have been raised in Christ. Therefore, this good work of God is nothing less than resurrection life. Therefore, we are “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” Brothers and sisters, may your resurrection life in Christ get you through all the despair and discouragement, all the fear of vanity and anxiety of the future, and all the breakdown of love and cheer.
This good work is a work of God himself. We don’t sanctify ourselves. God does. And when he does, his good work in us results in our good works for God. Therefore, we cannot boast in ourselves when we do good works. We can only give the credit to God and God alone for changing us.
And this good work will one day be finished. It will be completed when Jesus Christ returns. I am sure of all of this. He who began a good work in his people will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
Paul prays for the church in Philippi. He writes, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
When in Rome, it was easy for Paul to lose heart. He was old and near the end of his life. He had seen it all. Paul arrived in Rome in the final chapter of the book of Acts, chapter 28. Paul was converted in chapter 9. In between these two chapters, a lot happened to Paul. Five times he received at the hands of the Jews forty lashes less one. Three times he was beaten with rods. Once he was stoned. Three times he was shipwrecked; a night and a day he was adrift at sea. He experienced danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from his own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers. He went through much toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there was the daily pressure on him of his anxiety for all the churches - including the one in Philippi. Now there he was, in Rome, at the end of his life, at the end of the book of Acts. But he did not lose heart. Because Christ’s promise in Acts chapter 1, Christ’s promise that his gospel would go to Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth… it came true in Rome. For Rome was the end of the earth. And there was Paul. And so Paul wasn’t worried about how the end of his life would play out. He was glad to see the end of Christ’s promises fulfilled. He was in Rome. It was all meant to be. And so he did not lose heart. Instead, according to the final two verses of Acts, “He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hinderance.”
In other words, in Rome, Paul kept heart.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, when in Rome, do as Paul does.