Friday, July 10, 2009

Citizenly Partnership (Philippians 1:12-30)

Mrs. Yellow-naped Bulbul
Last week, a visitor arrived unannounced and proceeded to make herself very comfortable indeed in a rubbish tree in the garden. Her tenaciousness has been amazing. She's outlasted the frightened frog and mystified migrating moth, both of whom arrived that same week and departed soon after. Several days of blazing hot sun that dried up the birdbath we put out for her did not wilt a feather on Mrs. Yellow-vented Bulbul.

Rained-on Mrs. Yellow-naped Bulbul
And the morning after a particularly thundery stormy night, I went to check on her, heart in mouth, wondering what carnage might have occurred. But there she was still in her nest, still giving me the beady eye. And now, hopefully, the fencing we've put up will keep the neighbourhood cats away until the eggs hatch!

What mileage might be wrung out of such bird-brained single-minded determination might in the hands of a cheesy preacher. But perhaps Paul speaks of an even greater devotion.

Now just waitaminute...
Now just waitaminute...

Philippians 1:12-26 might tempt one to laugh long and hard at the next person who calls Christianity a "psychological crutch". The fashionable rallying cries that "unite" the world around their causes are more likely candidates for objets d' baseless fiction.

Where some might talk of healing the world to make it a better place for you and me and the entire human race, or of making a pact to bring salvation back (because it rhymes), they don't usually include in the definition of "human race" nor in the offer of salvation, people to whom it does matter if you're black or white. But Paul's devotion to God's cause is more passionate and hot-blooded and far less wimpily thin-skinned:
Brothers who are emboldened to preach the gospel because Paul has been imprisoned? (Philippians 1:12-18) Ah, praise the Lord for raising up like-minded brethren to continue the good work!

Bitchy preachers who diss Paul in public but to whom thousands flock to listen to the gospel? (Philippians 1:15, 17-18) Well, praise the Lord too because regardless of their false motives, they too preach the gospel!

The choice between resting at last from earthly labour and enjoying eternal rest with Christ and remaining here to continue to suffer, be persecuted, ridiculed, spat on? (Philippians 1:22-26) Ooh. Tough choice. But Option B please, because there is still much more gospel work to be done.
Paul is totally focused on the advance of the gospel - not for the egoistic thrill of seeing the Christian meme conquer the world like an unstoppable borderless virus, nor for the education and good of the masses per se (though this will indeed save many), but ultimately that in the proclamation of what God had done in Christ and in the salvation of many, God would be glorified.

And the Philippians are to have the same goal as Paul, all of them having been saved into this common partnership when they first believed.

Paul then contextualises the concept in a completely non-cheesy way. Philippi is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony (Acts 16), having been granted this privilege for helping to defeat Antony and Cleopatra. The benefits of Roman citizenship are many: free passage throughout the Roman Empire (almost the whole known world), access to global markets, high credit ratings in international business, the protection of a first-world legal system etc. Their Roman citizenship is such a source of civic pride and identity that the Philippians will do anything to defend it. Hence, the extremely hostile reaction of the crowd to Paul and Silas who were accused of advocating customs that are not lawful for "us as Romans to accept or practice" (Acts 16:21-23).

Philippians 1:27 apparently reads, in the Greek, "only let your citizenly conduct" be worthy of the gospel of Christ. Their pride and identity should be wrapped up in their citizenship of heaven. With the more than the fervour with which pagan Philippian mob jealously guards its precious Roman citizenship, Christians are to stand firm in one spirit, with one mind and strive side by side for the faith of the gospel, even as they face opposition.

Ultimately, there should not be and cannot be any dichotomy between the gospel goal that should be their singleminded obsessive partnership and the gospel goal that is an integral part of their current corporate citizenship.

North Indian Food in Nepalese Resto
Unfortunately, this last week has shown that even a tiny glimpse of this single-mindedness is scarely alien to this world. At a Sunday lunch chat with church-goers about lives revolving around work, bad bosses, poor pay and career opportunites, the suggestion that perhaps there might be more to life than work and that God's mission might be a worthy goal was met with scornful cries of "Come on, then we might as well all be pastors right?" and "Do you think I'm a nun?!"

A church-going colleague, handing back Christopher Ash's Married For God, just about screamed that marriage for the purpose of serving God was so offensive to the romantic nature of the relationship that she would be put off the institution if she had to adhere to the tenents set out in the book.

Maybe it boils down to whom we think God is and where we think this world is heading. Paul reminds us that one day, we will stand before the judgement throne to be judged for everything we have done in this life. Can we expect and hope that we will not be put to shame then for having lived a life devoid of any eternal value (cf Philippians 1:20-21)?

Gospel priorities are not brownie badge opps for the superspiritual or the professionally religious. God expects this from anyone whom he has been granted to believe in Christ (Philippians 1:29). Because not only are all Christians brought into partnership with each other in the cause of the gospel, they are also brought into partnership with Christ.

See Philippians 2 and 3.



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