"Rejoicing in Jail" - Sermon on Philippians 1:12-18a by Joe Ellis — September 19, 2021
I often take for granted that Paul had a difficult life. I sometimes find myself reading a passage like this one in Philippians and thinking, “Of course Paul should be happy when he’s in prison — he’s Paul! Everything is about the Gospel for him. He probably tied his sandals for the Gospel. It’s no wonder he was rejoicing in prison!”
Whereas for me, it’s understandable that I would get annoyed when someone doesn’t give me the right of way on the Telkwa bridge — this isn’t about the Gospel, it’s just some inconsiderate guy in a truck who’s not on the lookout for us tiny cars on the other side of the bridge. Paul in prison is different? Of course, he would talk about rejoicing in prison — all of his difficulties are a battle for the Gospel. My difficulties are meaningless by comparison. Maybe having a “ living in the victory of the cross” bumper sticker could transform my troubles on the Telkwa Bridge into a Gospel situation — that guy in the truck would realize that the reason I’m not honking is because I’m a Christian. It’s more likely the bumper sticker would backfire — people would think, “He’s a Christian and driving like that?” My difficulties seem meaningless compared to Paul’s. And of course, meaningless suffering is more difficult to bear up under than suffering for justice and the Gospel — Maybe Paul had it easy in prison. He didn’t need to struggle with getting annoyed over meaningless stuff, like when someone cut him off on his horse. (“Hey! Can’t you see I’m riding here!”) Instead he could be in prison and suffer nobly.
But if you were in Paul’s sandals, would you rejoice that you are in prison because it’s advancing the Gospel? Would you rejoice that some people are preaching the Gospel out of the hopes that they were making life difficult for you? Paul’s response certainly isn’t the only possible response. There are a lot of alternative responses. If I were Paul, I could imagine myself feeling mighty grumpy towards God. I could imagine Paul praying, “Ever since I started following you, I’ve worked tirelessly for You, God, and I’ve been repaid with beatings, floggings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, bandits, danger from my own people, and danger from the Gentiles. I’ve been hungry, thirsty, without food, cold and naked!” That’s a lot! When do you think enough would be enough for Paul? When would enough be enough for you? Would this be the final straw?
As if being in jail weren’t bad enough, Paul heard that some people on the outside are preaching the Gospel because they are hoping to make life more difficult and increase his sufferings! Likely these were followers of Jesus! Probably rivals who disagreed with Paul about stuff like circumcision and food. How would you respond to this news? Like this? “I’d expect the government would treat me this way but not fellow believers! God, how do you expect to advance the Gospel if your people are trying to undercut each other like this. Jesus himself said, 'A house divided cannot stand!'" But we do not see Paul praying that sort of prayer.
Writing in chains, Paul has no less faith than he does when he is free. Paul encourages the church in Philippi not to worry. It says in Philippians 1:12-13, “What has happened to me has actually helped spread the Gospel! Caesar’s imperial guard and everyone else that comes through the prison know that I am in chains for King Jesus.”
With no small irony, Paul notes that his imprisonment has advanced the Gospel to some of the highest echelons of Roman society! The imperial guard, Caesar’s most elite troops are hearing something of the Gospel because of this strange prisoner named Paul. For Paul, this is a huge victory for the Gospel! Not only that, but his imprisonment is also emboldening fellow believers to preach the Gospel — even though there are some who might be preaching with hopes of increasing Paul’s sufferings in prison. Paul says, “None of that matters! What matters is that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true: and in that I rejoice!” Besides, Paul also recognizes that he still has plenty of allies and his imprisonment has emboldened his allies to preach the Gospel. While many of us would look at Paul’s situation as a huge dark cloud — Paul only sees a huge silver lining. Almost as though he couldn’t have planned a mission better himself.
From the cold depths of a Roman prison, Paul reveals remarkable trust in God. Paul knows the way his God works. Paul knows this not only through his own life, but through the life of Jesus. Reflecting on the life of Jesus, Paul knows he is in the right place. Paul knows he’s in good hands. Think back on Jesus’ story. Like Paul, Jesus was arrested. Jesus was falsely accused by his own people. Jesus went through a mock trial, suffered extreme brutality at the hand of wicked people and a wicked government. He was abandoned by his closest followers. He died condemned as a Roman criminal, died under a curse. Yet, as we know, that’s not the end of the story — resurrection happened!
Resurrection is shorthand for God’s startling, strange ability to bring good out of evil. God has a startling, strange ability to bring good from evil. The resurrection will forever change the way that we see how God can transform evil. Not only did God raise Jesus back to life; the resurrection is not simply good news for Jesus — the resurrection is Good News for the world. All us who believe in Jesus are invited to share in the resurrection life of Jesus. We are washed clean of our sins, forgiven, and invited to share in new life. The resurrection is not only good news for believers, but good new for the world. The resurrection anticipates that the whole world will be renewed and all things will be made new. This is the Gospel — the way the Gospel works. The Gospel and resurrection are shorthand for the way that God can take evil, suffering, malice, pain, garbage, abuse, injustice and through some alchemy bring beauty, truth, hope, love, peace, kindness, and hospitality into this world.
Paul has deep faith that this is no less true in his situation. If God is able to bring good through such heinous evil, through such horrendous suffering, through such a vile crucifixion — how much more can God work the good through such a seemingly small thing such as his imprisonment in Rome and the betrayal by a few of his Christian brothers or sisters. Paul trusts that even in prison, God will work the resurrection power of the Gospel.
This is easier said than done. As I said, when reading Paul I often think, “Of course ,you’re responding that way, you’re Paul! — Of course, you aren’t complaining and gloomy about being thrown in prison, you’re Paul! Of course, you would look on the bright side and rejoice that there are people who are preaching the Gospel to somehow actually increase your sufferings — you’re Paul! Of course, you will have a positive attitude in the worst circumstances, just as for me it is understandable that I would get annoyed with someone who didn’t give me the right of way on the Telkwa bridge.
But how did Paul get to be like that? One way of making sense of the way Paul rejoices in his sufferings is by imagining that he had some supernatural over-filling of the Holy Spirit — so much so that it was actually effortless for him to say things like, “I want you to know, beloved, that being imprisoned has actually helped to spread the Gospel…”
I wonder if a lot of people assume that any Christian, who was living within thirty years of Pentecost, walked around like someone slightly high on Valium. I’ve noticed this to be be a tendency of some actors when they are in Bible films — they smile a bit longer than normal and seem just a little out of touch. If someone has a valium-spirit understanding of Paul, then they probably won’t be surprised by what Paul says in this passage. They might think, “Of course, Paul is so positive about being in jail, he must have the valium-spirit.” Someone on Valium would be positive about being pretty much anywhere.
But what if it wasn’t the valium-spirit that Paul had? Undoubtedly Paul was a man who had profoundly deep experiences of the Holy Spirit — deeper than I can ever imagine. But my experience of the Holy Spirit is that He never reveals himself to the point where faith is not necessary, where faith is effortless. The Holy Spirit never removes the need for us to actively exercise trust. In other words, even with the Holy Spirit, it can still be a big leap of faith to trust God in difficult circumstances. Trusting God in difficult circumstances always takes work.
How much work do you think it took Paul to get to the place where he was able to say, “Others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition…What does it matter?” How much work do you think it took for Paul to rejoice that other Christians are preaching the gospel in a way that they hope will increase Paul’s sufferings. If it was the valium-spirit at work, maybe Paul was just sort of numbed to any sense of betrayal. Maybe the valium-spirit instantly brought him to the right conclusion and Paul experienced no confusion in his circumstances. Maybe it was all terribly easy for Paul to say what he did. Or, maybe it took work. Maybe Paul and the Holy Spirit had to do some hard work to get him to the place we find him in this passage. Maybe this was work that took place over a lifetime. Maybe Paul’s disposition towards suffering was something he learned after many years of walking with the Holy Spirit.
Why do I say that? Near the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he is thanking them for their gift — the church in Philippi gave Paul the gift of money so that he could buy food to eat. Romans didn’t feed their prisoners. When Paul is thanking the church he says in Philippians 4:11-13, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Notice, in this passage Paul says “learned” multiple times. The Greek word implies learning something over time through experience and practice. In other words, Paul had to learn the secret of being content even while being betrayed. Paul learned the secret of being content even while in prison. Paul had to learn how to be content even while having no freedom, even while being stuck, even when fearful, even when you don’t know what God is up to, even while wondering if you have strength to endure what’s ahead, even while wondering if your life is in danger, perhaps coming to an end. How did Paul learn this lesson of contentment, of trust, of hope in the worst situations? Through a life time of learning how to attend to the Holy Spirit.
This learning is not easy, especially in difficult times. In those times where I feel that my options are limited, when my nerves are raw, when I don’t know where God is, when I’m angry with people, circumstances, or life — that’s when I want the valium-spirit to come, numb my feelings and give me a quick answer. Each of us has our own valium-spirit that we are particularly drawn to when we are scared, depressed, confused, angry, or painted into a corner — booze, other substances, blindly following advice, porn, giving anger full course, retail therapy, smoking, despair, overeating, isolating from friends, binging on Netflix, I could go on but it’s not necessary — we all know the ways the valium-spirit comes and numb us from reality in all sorts of ways.
But the valium-spirit never leads us into the type of insight and contentment that Paul describes. So, what’s the secret? How do we get to the point where we can say with Paul: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me”? Listen for some of the practices, the things Paul invites us to do to arrive at the contentment we’ve been talking about. Paul writes in Philippians 4:4-9, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Notice how practical, how action oriented his advice is. Pray your concerns to God. Keep up your spiritual practices. Pay attention to your thoughts, do not let them run wild. When we are in very difficult situations, spiritual practices and good mental hygiene are often the last thing we want to do. When we are worried, anxious, fearful, angry, or depressed, spiritual practices and self care are often the first to go, yet they are the very things needed! Paul councils us to resist the impulse of letting them go — because those small actions have incredible power towards bringing us closer to understanding what God is up to, they help us find strength in our God, they help us find hope and contentment in all of our circumstances. The more difficult a situation is, the more vital it is to practice soul care. When options are limited, when nerves are raw, when God seems absent, when anger is just below the surface, when depression lies heavy, when painted into a corner — those are the times when it is so important to attend to soul care, to do things like pray the Examen, to meditate on scripture, to exercise, to eat well, to write in thought journals, to process your experience with someone wise, and especially to pray your requests to God. Throughout Philippians chapter 4, Paul has a lot of instruction on specific practices that someone can practice to find fight for peace in the worst situations. Finding the practices that will work with you most often happens through conversation with another person — if I can help please let me know.
These practices do take effort, they take work, they take discipline. That is the difference between the practices of the valium-spirit and of the Holy Spirit. The valium-spirit gives us immediate, temporary gratification — sometimes we just need to sit down and eat a pint of ice cream. But that can’t be our long haul strategy — the valium-spirit cannot shape us to be a person like Paul.
In all this, it’s important not to lose track of grace. We do what we can — perhaps you don’t feel up for fasting 40 days in the wilderness — but maybe you can say the Lord’s prayer in the morning. Or maybe you can read a psalm at lunch. Or maybe you can find five minutes in the evening to journal and tell God what’s on your heart — don’t go for gold. Slice the practices smaller and smaller until they actually begin to happen. If it's too much to handle, make it even smaller until you can manage it.
I can’t be sure, but I imagine it took work for Paul to get to the place we find him in this letter. Even for Paul, I imagine it took some work to rejoice despite fellow believers working so his suffering would increase. I wonder if Paul took his hurt, his betrayal, his fears, his concerns and worries and offered them to Jesus again, and again, and again. By this stage in his life, Paul was probably an old pro at this stuff. I wonder which Scripture passages Paul prayed through (he had most of them memorized). I wonder which songs he sang. I wonder if his friends carried him with prayer and encouragement, gave him a huge hug, said we love you, said hang in there, said Jesus is with you and loves you so much. I wonder if slowly, through small and big practices, Paul began to see his imprisonment and all the attendant circumstances not as thwarting God’s plan, but as part of God’s plan. Perhaps, slowly, his eyes began to open to God’s strange ability to bring good out of evil. And perhaps He became awake to the abundant life of God permeating his jail cell, and he found his heart full of trust in God, and it was good.