October 1, 2017: Earthly Good

Pastor Steve Mechem

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Philippians 1:21-27 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 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, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. 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.

Does anybody know how old the Apostle Paul was when he died?

Me either. Nobody does, but interestingly, some scholars who make educated guesses think that Paul was probably in his late 50s when his end came. Some assume he was older, but others place him right around my age.

I always assumed he was old, but if he was may age, you know what I am saying, not so old. But then again … after the things Paul had been through, perhaps his body and spirit felt older.

Paul was a craftsmen, tentmaker, by trade. An hard occupation that wore out the body.

And after his conversion, Paul, adopted a lifestyle as a Christian that was filled with experiences that might age one beyond his years.

How many times was Paul in prison? Hard to say, but numerous, and prison cells in first century Roman empire didn’t include Serta iComfort Blue Max Touch 3000 series mattresses. Prison cells included shackles and stone floors and beatings.

Paul, along the way, had been beaten with hand and with rods, caned on three different occasions, hit with a nine strapped whip embedded with glass and rock that was intentionally designed to tear skin 195 times, and stoned and left for dead.

Paul had been in three shipwrecks, at least one of which left him floating in the Mediterranean Sea until rescue.

He was arrested, roughed up, and run out of numerous towns. Death squads were dispatched to assassinate him.

Paul was continually plagued by a physical illness that he described as a thorn in his flesh, from Satan himself. Something that was hard to live with and something God would not remove.

Posionous snake bites, earthquakes, and rotten fruit and accusations thrown at him were the way his life worked out.

An itinerate preacher, he had no home and spent most nights sleeping on the ground and most days walking.

And we won’t even get into the psychological wear and tear on him as he established churches, debated cynics, corrected detractors, battled the Judaizers, all the while being on guard for those who might physically hurt him or kill him.

So, suffice it to say, Paul’s 59 year old body may have felt much worse for wear and his 59 year old spirit was continually weary of the personal and community burdens he carried.

I mention this because the passage read by Fred and Cary this morning leads me to think that Paul was thinking about his mortality as he was writing a love letter to his friends in Philippi.

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. What shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”

Paul is in Prison, perhaps under house arrest, as he writing to his friends.

I think, and it is just conjecture on my part, as Paul is dictating the letter he was reminiscing about the past and thinking about the future.

It seemed like just yesterday that He had come to the riverbank in Phillipi where Lydia and a few women were worshipping the God of Israel. Paul preached and they responded.

Paul’s preaching and healing ministry so inflamed some merchants of Philippi that they had him (and his traveling companion Silas) arrested, stripped naked, beaten and thrown into an underground prison complete with shackled feet.

During the night in prison, as Paul and Silas prayed and sang, a violent earthquake brought freedom, and fear, to all the prisoners in the earthen Jail.

In response to all these events Paul confronted the Jailer and the authorities in the name of Jesus.

All these memories flooded Paul’s mind as he wrote. The memories also reminded Paul from where the stiffness in his back and the pain in his legs and the numbness in his feet and the perpetual limp and the soreness in his shoulders and stiffness in his neck and the crookedness in his fingers and the scars on his back came. An adult lifetime of mistreatment by authorities, religious people, and the elements had taken their toll. A life spent sacrificing his body for the cause had left him weary and constantly in pain.

And as he thought about where he had been and where he was now, he couldn't help but think of where he might be when this life was over.

Paul believed that if he were done here, he would be in the presence of God there, and that a broken body would be healed and whole in that new reality. No more pain, no more suffering, complete wholeness. All in the presence of his beloved Jesus.

And when Paul thought about that, he naturally had a desire to go home, to be done, to experience the presence of Jesus. But yet, he knew he had a role to play in the inbreaking Kingdom of God. Back and forth he went with himself and that personal conversation found its way into his writing. I think Paul’s words in Philippians 1 are the result of the philosophical debate he had with himself.

It almost appears as if Paul gets to decide if he lives or dies. I think it is simply the philosophical ruminations playing out.

Paul admitted that being done with the struggles of this life meant a new reality in the presence of God. But, he decided that living for others is better than the glory of the hereafter.

Being alive meant a difference can be made.

Being alive meant that lives could be touch, heart could be mended, men and women and boys and girls could experience God’s love through him.

Unfortunately, some Christians have become so obsessed with the life to come, so focused on heaven, that they lose focus on the here and now. They forget that their assignment is to make a difference in the lives of others.

Example, as a teenager and a new Christian in the 1970’s, I was in the car of one of my Christian friends and mentors. As we were driving along the street in Frankfort, Indiana, he rolled down the window and threw out an empty soda can.

“What are doing doing?” I fussed at him. “Don’t litter.”

His response as I remember it was, “Why do I care. Jesus is returning soon and I’m going to heaven. I don’t care about litter here.”

Seems ridiculous. But some Christians, citing Christ’s return as rationale, reject the need to care for our environment, or work to alleviate poverty, or to stand for justice. They say this temporal world doesn’t matter. Some Christians ignore social issues and human rights issues and human compassion issues in the name of waiting for heaven to solve those problems.

They are, as is said, “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.”

They have somehow missed the line from Jesus’ prayer, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Paul teaches that while the other side is wonderful and beautiful and amazing and the ultimate goal, we are in a position to make a difference here and we best be doing it.

So, let’s let heaven take care of itself as we strive to introduce the reality of heaven on earth.
By following Jesus’ example
By choosing unconditional love
By practicing radical kindness
By expressing ourselves graciously
By caring about other people’s P.q
By rejecting old platitudes and striving to understand
By being who we are called to be.
By standing in the Grace of God and following the voice we hear.

You see, whether we kneel, or stand tall, or stoop low, or march in silence, or chant, or sing, or dance, is not as important as the voice we strive to be for justice, for peace, for brotherhood and sisterhood, for God’s kingdom.

The life we live is lived to the glory of God and the betterment of others.

So, we keep moving, loving, caring, giving,
looking forward to what is to come on the other side,
but focused on who we are in Christ together as we touch others with God’s amazing grace.