Engaged in the Conflict

To be a Christian should not be something taken lightly. It is not something that effects just one part of your life. It is not like you can just punch the clock and say, “Today, for this hour and a half, within the walls of the church, I am going to be a Christian.” But then you punch-out and go on with life as if this were not an essential part of who you are. That is not the way this works. Your faith is not like joining a club, where everything is defined by voluntary desire. To be part of the Body of Christ, to be a Christian, is an adoption, a new birth. It touches every part of who you are. This makes the call of discipleship quite profound. An old friend of mine once said that our Lord’s words in the upper room after His resurrection are some of the most terrifying in all of Scripture. It is when Jesus says to His disciples, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).

As Jesus was sent by His Father, so Jesus now sends you. Think about that for a moment. How was Jesus sent? Was it a path of glory, power, and prestige? Was it all sunshine, rainbows and living your best life now? No, His life was one of opposition, rejection and ultimately His sacrificial death. His life is marked by a cross. The Son of God came to a world that was in active rebellion. The hope and salvation He came to deliver was fought against every step of the way and did not end with His death and resurrection. His disciples would step out into the same opposition. So would Saint Paul and so do you. Now, when Paul speaks about his faith, he speaks about hope and confidence, assurance in the promises of God, but he does not speak about ease and comfort. He has been beaten, imprisoned, and shipwrecked more than once. He knew all about being hungry and thirsty, exposed to the elements and threatened by traitors and robbers. And along the way, something strange is happening to Paul, something we would do well to pay attention to. Through the harsh realities of the Christian life, he is growing more confident, surer, and bolder.

Paul’s confidence is a certainty rooted in the power and efficacy of the Word of God. He seems acutely aware of his role. He is one who has been sent as the Father sent the Son. So, he goes. He goes into the storm and tempest of this age. He goes into the unpredictable. He goes and one thing becomes clear, that through it all, through the ups and downs, though the trials and tribulations, the Word of God continues to do its work. Lives are changed. The guilty are brought to repentance. The brokenhearted and grieving are comforted and given hope. Though his words be imperfect, his actions faltering, God still does His work. This emboldens him. It wakes him up. It gives him courage to get up and get to the fight, to step up to the front lines, for he sees that the outcome is not determined by his ability or his cleverness but by God alone.

This ought to change how you see things, how you take up your mantel as a disciple of Jesus Christ. For God’s Kingdom has come to you. It has called you by the Gospel and enlightened you with the gifts of Christ. Without your schemes and desires, it has come. Outside of your work and effort you found yourself loved and forgiven by God. This otherness of the Gospel of Christ is the source of strength, comfort, and courage for you as it was for Paul and all the apostles of our Lord. For you are now entrusted with this message, this gift to hand over to others, but it is not of you. The Gospel is neither your doing, nor your creating. This can be both good news and a bit troubling as well. It is good news to know the Kingdom does not rest on your works. What is troubling about that is perhaps this removes the last excuse you had to share the gifts you have been given.

When Paul sits down to write his letter to the church in Philippi, he references his struggles, his imprisonment, and trials. He does not do this as a deterrent to their faith or a warning to their discipleship, but in this strange way we have been talking about, it works as a word of encouragement. He says to them, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or death” (Philippians 1:20). His prayer is that Christ is honored through his work. He hopes Jesus is honored by it if he dies from it or if he continues to live. His death or life are not the deciding factor and he seeks the courage to act upon that conviction.

I think this is a very honest and raw moment for Paul. He is speaking about something any pastor that has been a pastor for very long can attest to. For that matter, any disciple of our Lord has probably experienced this to some degree or another. If his growing confidence comes from the fact that the Word of God is doing its work, whether or not you are successful or struggling, happy or sad, victorious or defeated, this can lead to a place of indifference. You can find yourself simply seeking the easiest path forward. For preachers, this can look like coasting, just mailing-it-in until the day of retirement. No need to do anything new or challenging or creative, merely give them a little Jesus and everyone will be fine. For those sitting in the pews it can look like punching-the-clock as you come in and out of church. Just do not worry too much about anyone else and God will sort it all out.

See, Paul is honest. He says, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Christ marks his life, his discipleship. But if he were to die, that is still marked by Christ. In fact, even more so. For then there is no struggle, no worry, no hardship, so to die is gain. This is a story that saints of the Lord have taught me over and again on their deathbeds. This joyous confidence as the last moments approach. Paul goes on and says, “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 on your account” (1:23-24). This, I think, is the beautiful point he is driving towards. There is a necessity in his work. Not a necessity for his own salvation, not a necessity for the validity of the Gospel, but a necessity for the love of his neighbor.

So, from it all comes a resolve that is uncommon in our day. There is a fearlessness that accompanies the words of Paul. His life, like your life, is not aimless or random but it is full of meaning and purpose. Your life is used by your Lord. It is an instrument in his hands for the care and love of others. Now, that does not mean it is easy or simple or will be marked with good times at every point. But it is a courageous life, a life that can act with freedom rather than fear, with love rather than pride. This is a radical departure from the spirit of our day. Our day is marked by fear, saturated in the desire to be justified and declared right by the clamoring crowds of the age. Instead, you find yourselves loved and forgiven and free in Christ, with the assurance that He will see it through, He will win the day. Whether you die or live, He remains victorious.

So, this text takes us to a place where we see ourselves standing before the world, standing before opposition to the gifts of God. Paul encourages you to charge into the battle. What can you lose? What can they really take from you? He says your lack of fear is their destruction, your trust in Christ is their undoing. After all, if God is for you who can be against you? This is not the time to cower or pull back. It is time to stand side by side. It is time to take up the Word of God and proclaim it to a world bound in fear and darkness. It is time to engage in the conflict.