Let me start by asking you to imagine something. Imagine that next week the Government passed a new law against extremism. And it said the Bible was now classified as extreme, and anyone promoting it publically would be breaking the law. So during the week, the police find that this sermon has gone up on our website. And by the end of the week, I've been arrested; I'm in custody and I'm facing a possible prison sentence. Well, put yourself in my shoes. And ask yourself: how would you feel? And if you were writing to your closest friends, what would you write? Perhaps you'd say…
- 'This is a nightmare and I just want to get out of here.'
- 'I can't see any purpose in this, and want to get back to doing something useful for the Lord.'
- 'I'm worried about the harm this could do our church.'
Well, on Sunday mornings we're learning from the Bible book of Philippians. It's a letter that the apostle Paul wrote – to a church he started in the Greek city of Philippi. And the people who were in that church are always referred to as 'the Philippians'. But since starting it, Paul had been arrested for spreading the gospel – in other words, the Christian message about Jesus – and he was in custody in Rome, awaiting trial before the Emperor. And the Philippians' natural reaction to that would have been the same as your natural reaction to me being arrested. They'd have been thinking, 'This is dreadful – for Paul, and for the spread of the gospel.' But that's not how Paul saw it. And this morning we're going to learn from his attitude in the next part of his letter to the Philippians. So if you look at Philippians 1.12-13, Paul says:
"I want you to know, brothers [which in their culture meant a fellowship of men and women – so he's saying, 'I want you to know, brothers and sisters,] that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ."
That is an amazing attitude, isn't it? Because there he is in custody – which might just have been house arrest, but could have been prison – and he's saying, 'Look, don't feel bad for me. What matters most is more people hearing the gospel.' And that's the first of two lessons from this part of the Bible this morning:
1. What Matters Most Is More People Hearing The Gospel (vv12-14)
So Paul was saying, 'What matters most is not that I'm in prison, or when I might get out – but that more people are hearing the gospel.' Just look at verses 12-13 again:
"I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ."
So you can picture the scene. Each new guard looking after Paul arrives, and after a few minutes says, 'So what are you in for?' And Paul says, 'Talking about Jesus.' And the guard says, 'Who's he?' And Paul's off, telling him the gospel. And it's a four hour shift, so the guard basically gets Christianity Explored crammed into one session (minus the DVDs and drinks and nibbles). And then at change-over time, the new guard comes in and has exactly the same conversation, while the first one goes off to the canteen and says to his mates, 'I've just had the weirdest conversation of my life – wait till you hear this…' Until many more people have heard the gospel. For Paul, that's what mattered most. And if you'd asked him 'Why?', he'd have said, 'Because the gospel is true for everyone and needed by everyone.'
Paul, remember, was one of the eye-witnesses who actually saw Jesus risen from the dead. And if you were here on Easter Sunday, I went through the evidence for the resurrection – and mentioned this new film about it, called Risen. David later told me he'd dashed to see the last showing of it – but had forgotten the title on the way. But he knew it was about the resurrection, so he went down the listings looking for 'Re…' And there it was: The Revenant. So he bought his ticket –and found himself rather unexpectedly watching Leonardo di Caprio trying to survive in the American wilderness!
Well, even more unexpectedly, Paul found himself confronted by the risen Jesus, alive again from the dead – which convinced him that Jesus really was and is the Son of God – and that that's true for everyone. But then he had to ask himself, 'If Jesus is the Son of God, why did he end up dying on a cross?' And he came to see that Jesus died to take on himself the judgement for everything we've done wrong, so that we could be forgiven without God compromising his justice. And Paul was convinced that everyone – for example, everyone here – needs that forgiveness if they're going to be put right with God, and avoid his judgement at the end of their lives. But now he also knew that Jesus was risen and alive again, and could come into a person's life, to start changing what's wrong and get them ready for heaven. Paul was convinced that that's needed by all of us, too, if we're ever to be part of God's kingdom beyond this life, rather than shut out of it. So, that's what Paul would have said if you'd asked him, 'Why does it matter most that more people hear the gospel?' – 'Because it's true for everyone and needed by everyone.'
That means that if you've not yet put your faith in Jesus, what matters most in your life is whether or not you do. You may have other big needs and decisions on your mind right now. But your need for Jesus and the decision you make about him is actually the biggest by far. And if that's you, why not pick up a free copy of one of these 'Why Jesus?' booklets, which is about what it means to put your faith in Jesus.
So, what matters most is more people hearing the gospel. And that's why we've gone to all the cost of opening St Joseph's – our new site in the west of the city. There's been the financial cost of the serious giving that's gone on. For example, I know one couple who scrapped improvement plans for their own house, in order to give to St Joseph's. And that's because what matters most is more people hearing the gospel. The financial cost is going to stay high throughout this year – because before new people coming in and coming to faith start giving, the same number of us are going to have to cover the higher ministry costs of having two sites. So as we said in the Giving Review in January, we do need the regular giving this year to rise. And we'll be communicating again about that in the next few weeks.
So there's the financial cost. But there's also the cost of sending the team of 170 who've moved over to St Joseph's. There's the cost in terms of relationships – for example, Christian friends we're not going to see so much of; people leaving our Home Groups; and so on. And there's the cost in terms of ministry – as people who've served in all sorts of ways here are now over at St Joseph's. That means more of us have had to step up into ministry – and we're feeling more stretched. And at least sometimes we'll be tempted to wish we were still just one church. But we're doing it because what matters most is more people hearing the gospel.
I thank God that there is so much of that attitude in this church. For example, in those of you who'll be leading the Explore and Remix weekends coming up – which means two working weeks without a break. Or in those of you for whom serving in Holiday Club means giving up a week's annual leave to get absolutely no rest. But you do it because what matters most is more young people hearing the gospel.
So Paul's example here is that he looks at his circumstances – even if they're hard and he wishes they were different – and he says to himself, 'God has put me in these circumstances. Now how can I use them so that more people hear the gospel?' So just think of the Roman Emperor's imperial guard. I guess it was almost impossible for your average Christian in Rome to reach any of them with the gospel. So what does God do? He plants Paul right in the middle of them as a prisoner. What a great way in for the gospel!
Likewise, God has planted the new St Joseph's church in the middle of that community, which isn't the only way in for the gospel on that side of the city, but it's a great, new way in. And I know The Rise, the new housing estate nextdoor to it, is only one part of the community. But what a great way in for the gospel there that God should start a new church at just the time that new people are moving in.
Meanwhile, God has planted us here as a church with a great way in to the universities in town – which is why taking the gospel to students and internationals will always be part of our unique mission. But he also has each Christian here individually planted where no-one's hearing the gospel and no-one else is a Christian. And he's saying to each of us this morning, 'I want to use you as my way in.' So you might be thinking, 'I wish I wasn't the only Christian in my family or workplace.' But God's thinking, 'You're my way in to that family or workplace.' Or you might be thinking, 'I wish I didn't have to go back to my home country after I've studied here, where I may be on my own as a Christian.' But God's thinking, 'You're my way in there, so that there will be more Christians.'
But Paul didn't just say that more people were hearing about Jesus because of him being in prison. He said his example meant more Christians were talking about Jesus – look down again to Philippians 1.14:
"And… most of the brothers [i.e. the Christians in Rome], having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear."
Before Easter, I did a bit of Christianity Explored group leading. And a couple of new-ish Christians in the group said they'd already been really discouraged by how friends and workmates had reacted to their new faith. And we talked about how, on the one hand, you want to tell people about Jesus, but on the other hand, you're tempted not to because you're worried about what they'll think or say, or how it'll affect things for you. That's when we need the example of Paul here, or of the many other suffering Christians – in the world today, or that you can read about in Christian biographies – because you think 'If they were willing to suffer that much to make Jesus known, shouldn't I be willing to suffer something, or something more, myself?'
So that's lesson one: What matters most is more people hearing the gospel. And lesson two is almost the same. It's that:
2. What Matters Most Is More Christians Spreading The Gospel (vv15-18)
So Paul has just said that his example was making the Christians in Rome bolder in talking about Jesus. But now look down at what he says about some of those Christians, in verses 15-17:
"Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry [which sounds bizarre], but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me [i.e. give me grief] in my imprisonment."
That leaves you thinking, 'What is going on here?' I mean, aren't Christians supposed to be on the same side – all playing for Jesus? But Paul says: some of them are treating him like a rival and trying to do him down while he's in prison, which is like Shelvey tackling Mitrovic just as he's about to score the winner for Newcastle. Or like Coloccini putting the ball in his own net. Or like that crazy fight on the pitch between Kieran Dyer and Lee Bowyer, if you're old enough to remember that piece of Newcastle United history. So what is going on here?
Well, these people were really Christians. And they were preaching the Jesus of the Bible – Paul doesn't say their message was dodgy; they weren't like Jehovah's Witnesses. But probably they didn't like the way Paul went about spreading the gospel, and were criticising him publically for it – saying things like, 'If Paul had been wiser, he wouldn't have been arrested and damaged the reputation of the church.' 'If he knew people would take exception to his message, he should have toned it down a bit.' 'And if he especially caused offence by talking to Jewish people about Jesus, maybe he should have backed off and just talked to non-Jewish people.'
So this group of Christians probably had the attitude that, 'We know better. Our way of doing things is better.' And in their worst moments they might even have been secretly glad that Paul was out of the way. (Because Christians can be as sinful as that, can't they? Or rather, can't we? That's why your experience of church – including this church – will always have its disappointments and disillusionments with people and their attitudes.) So what does Paul think about these people? Well, once again, his attitude is amazing – look down to verse 18:
That is, 'What do I think of them?' And at this point, I guess you or I would have let rip and said something like, 'I don't think they really even are Christians, given their behaviour.' Or, 'I think the church would be better off without them.' But look at what Paul says:
"What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth [i.e. with bad motivation or good motivation], Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice."
That is, 'If people are talking about the Jesus of the Bible, I rejoice – even if they're bad-mouthing me at the same time.' Because what matters most is more Christians spreading the gospel.
If you've been a Christian any length of time, you'll know it's so easy for different groups of Christians, who are all preaching the Jesus of the Bible, to criticise each other and think they're better than each other and behave as if they were on different sides. And we need to guard against that attitude, and have Paul's attitude instead. So, for example, there may be other Christians who feel that the starting of the new St Joseph's is an indirect criticism of other churches in that area. But we need to say that's not true. We did it because God put the opportunity in our path, and we corporately came to the conclusion that he wanted us to take it. So St Joseph's hasn't re-started as a rival to churches that were already here. And whether it's over there or around here, we're to rejoice that Christ is proclaimed in other churches. We're to be glad that they're there, and glad they're doing what they're doing – not least because different kinds of churches often reach and help different kinds of people.
Christians who are preaching the Jesus of the Bible need to look at one another's churches and say, 'I might not do it that way, or I might not think that way about something secondary, or I might not choose to belong to that church myself. But I rejoice that your church is there and is making Jesus known.'
Here's one test of whether we really have that attitude. I guess we've all got neighbours and friends and colleagues where we'd love to invite them and see them come along to something here. But then another Christian invites them along to another Bible-church. And here's the test: will you rejoice that someone is telling them the gospel – even if that someone isn't you? Because that's what Paul would do isn't it? End of verse 18 – he'd say:
"Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice."
So those are the two lessons from this week's helping of Philippians.
- What matters most is more people hearing the gospel
- What matters most is more Christians spreading the gospel
In other words, what matters most is the gospel – the message about Jesus and how he puts us right with God. And if we have that attitude, it'll make this a united church which is both a blessing to the community around, and an encouragement to other churches as well.