During last year's brutal Southern California brush fires, twelve firefighters were trapped atop a ridge after flames jumped the road sending the fire up the hillside, and prompting them to deploy their fire shelters. "We just remained calm, everyone did," one firefighter said after he was checked out by paramedics. You just have to admire a bunch of guys who can go out into an inferno for an overnight campout...and remain calm! They could have easily died on that hill, risking their lives to save others.
What hill are you willing to die on? What principles and ideals, what traditions, what causes or people would you be willing to lay down your life for? It’s my feeling that we spend a lot of time fighting over second rate hills. I read an online chat about the things couples fight over…who’s going to lock the doors at night, what music to listen to, who controls the remote control, whether to run the dishwasher when its half full, when to meet the parents. One couple had a fight over a scrabble game in which the disputed word was mielie (mee-lee), which the wife said her husband couldn’t use, because it was the Afrikaans word for sweet corn. He stormed out of the house for a week! He did come back, but they never say “mielie” now, just “corn on the cob.”
For Paul, who was sitting in a Roman prison… the stakes were a bit higher. He had no interest in devoting time or energy to second rate priorities or irrelevant disputes. He was facing the possible end of his life and he was absolutely sure of what was important and what was not…and his words and example of fearless living inspire us to live boldly for Christ as well. For Paul…
Boldness is the intention to magnify Christ; not one's self. (Phil. 1: 19-20). In the me-centered culture in which we live, it takes courage to live for a purpose other than one's own glory and fame. Listen again to Paul: “For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Holy Spirit this will turn out for my deliverance. 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.” For Paul there was indeed one thing worth living for and dying for…and that was Jesus Christ. His goal was to “magnify,” to enlarge Christ in his body whether by life or by death.
And while the boldness with which Paul speaks of bearing witness to Christ is awe-inspiring, Paul is careful not to magnify himself or minimize his falibilities. For he emphasizes that it is through the “prayers” of his friends and the “help” of the Holy Spirit that he will succeed (19). Paul was bold but he was also very human (see 2 Cor. 1: 8-11 as an example). He had feelings…sometimes feelings of unswerving confidence and at other times crushing despair. He was not afraid to let others know that he needed help even as he carried out his mission.
I'm meeting with a group of pastors for an annual study retreat at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena this week...and one of the most encouraging aspects of this time is not only the reading that we do together or the papers we present...but simply sharing our struggles and our joys with one another, to be human, to pray and to be prayed for, to admit our weaknesses and our need before God and one another. John the Baptist said of Jesus, "He must increase, I must decrease." As we are decreasing into his purpose, we will receive the power to boldly serve him and to follow him wherever he may lead.
Boldness means living life and approaching death in the company of the Risen Christ (Phil. 1: 21-26). “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” “I’m hard pressed between the two,” Paul says, “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.” The Greek word translated “depart” here is also used for breaking camp or unmooring a ship. Paul implies that this life is like a campsite, a way station, a brief stop on the trail. If you’ve ever driven up a mountain road or hiked along a Sierra trail you know the stops along the way are breathtaking…but around every corner there is always more awe-inspiring beauty and yet greater vistas. So Paul is eager to get going…to continue the journey into God’s full world, “for that is far better.” Here is the final answer to the question, “What will the life beyond this life be like in Christ?” The answer is: “It is far better” (The actual Greek syntax is even more emphatic: “It is much more better”). In other words, if you think this life is good…wait ‘til you see what God has in store for those who love him. But that doesn’t mean Paul had a death wish. No, he wanted to live his life here and live it well which is why he says, “to remain in the flesh is more necessary” (important, useful, an opportunity to serve God). Living is Christ, Dying is gain…
Film producer Dan Woolley knew both of these truths when he was trapped in the basement of a hotel last week during the 7.0 quake in Haiti amidst tons of debris. Fortunately, because of a medical app on his iphone he was able to correctly diagnose a broken foot and use strips of clothing to bandage severe gashes he had suffered on his legs and the back of his head. Then he used the camera on the phone to get a map of his surroundings and plan a route to an elevator shaft that was protected from falling debris (I’ve got to get one of those!) 65 hours later, he was rescued. But it wasn't Woolley's quick thinking or handy gadgets that made his story remarkable, it was how he faced the possibility of his death. Dan Woolley is a Jesus follower, and he told reporters after his rescue that he genuinely thought he was going to die in the hotel basement. So he wrote a note to his wife and children reminding them to trust God even in the middle of horrible situations. "I was in a big accident," the note said. "Don't be upset at God. He always provides for his children, even in hard times. I'm still praying that God will get me out …. He may not, but He will always take care of you." That was one courageous and faith-filled man who knew that to live is Christ and to die is gain. God bless the many others who didn’t survive to share their stories as they boldly trusted in him…and are with Christ today.
Finally, boldness means living as courageous citizens of God’s kingdom regardless of opposition or obstacles (Phil. 1: 27-30). “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…. Standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and…in no way intimidated by your opponents.” Paul has been talking about his life…and how he wants to live it boldly for Christ whether in life or in death. Now he speaks to the Philippians about their own lives; and his prayer that theirs will reflect that same holy boldness.
“Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” Paul says. The Greek phrase that is translated, “Live your life” (politeuesthe) more precisely means “Exercise your citizenship” or “Be a good citizen….” It brings to mind the fact that Philippi was a Roman "colonia." It was the historic field of battle where the legions of Mark Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassias, the assassins of Julius Caesar. Following this battle, Philippi was made an official Roman colony and "a retirement community" for the victors. Soon after, Octavian was named Augustus Caesar, announcing to the world that his reign was “good news,” his power was that of “a savior” and his birthday was that of a god. It's no surprise that the Philippians were brought up to feel pride in their Roman citizenship and their historic role as the birthplace of the good news of Caesar Augustus’ reign.
Keep all that in mind as you hear Paul say to the Philippians, “Exercise your citizenship in a manner worthy of the “good news” of Jesus the Christ. In other words, you are Roman citizens…but more importantly you are God's Kingdom citizens. You have an emperor who would be worshiped as a god…but there is One who rules over him and to whom he is accountable, and that is Christ, the world’s true Savior who is the real "good news of great joy for all the people" (Luke 2: 10). With that new identity made clear, Paul calls the Philippians to holy boldness as they stand firm in one spirit, "striving side by side" with one mind for the faith in no way intimidated by their opponents. "Striving side by side," working together as a team, would be essential if they were to not only "believe in" him but endure hardships for him (29).
It takes courage to stand up for Christ today and the things that matter to him…. Whether it is the spiritually lost who need to hear the good news, the victims of slavery who God wants to set free (from addiction, human trafficking, or other forms of exploitation), the hundreds of thousands of children dying of poverty-related diseases, the courage to stand up for the husband/wife relationship which is so dishonored today or simply to pray on behalf of one who is in need. Fighting these fires without Christ and his people will surely be overwhelming; but with him we can know the joy of living and praying boldly for him.
George Bernard Shaw said it well: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.” But Paul might have said it this way: “There is no greater joy in life than to be used by the Mighty One for his mighty purpose.” Because joy comes from the bold conviction that Christ really is the Mighty Savior this world needs, the Mighty One through whom “dying is gain” because he has defeated it. The Mighty One through whom “life is sacred” because he has lived it. This is the hill that’s not only worth dying for, it’s the hill worth living for.
Mighty Savior, be exalted in our bodies, knowing that in life and in death, we belong to you who trust in your name. We thank you for blessing the poor in spirit, drawing near to the timid and fearful. Transform our fears into faith, that we might stand firm in the face of that which opposes or seeks to silence the good news about you. Help us now to live courageous lives of holy boldness, faithfully bearing witness to the gospel through our words and deeds. Make us brave citizens of your kingdom, unafraid to be publicly associated with you; standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith, and steadfast in the face of opposition and hardship. Amen!