This sermon is part of the sermon series "Free to Sacrifice". See series.
I have to say on a Sunday when I get to kick off a new study, it does feel a little bit like Christmas morning and I finally get to open that gift I’ve been waiting to open up. That’s how I feel about the Book of Philippians; it’s an incredible gift. I have this anticipation of what the Lord is going to teach us about him, about the church, about life in God. So we’re going to unwrap Philippians together over the next several weeks. Often if you’ve been around Christian circles—and I don’t assume that all of you have—this is the book you often start studying. It is a great starter book, but don’t be deceived. It’s a very complex book as well. There is the theme of joy, but there is also deeply and richly in this book the theme of sacrifice and that’s what we’re going to work on together.
As a matter of fact, this is going to be the first series and we’re going to do four-part series that speaks to what we call the five S’s. We developed these 5 S’s out of Acts 2. These five S’s make up the life of the church, the people of God, and the life of those who follow Jesus. These S’s are very simple: fully scriptural, fully sacramental, full of the Spirit, free to sacrifice our lives for others, focus on the salvation of others.
The American collective memory has in it a wide diversity of men and women who would be profiles of courage. And it’s good as an American to be aware of our story, be aware of our history, be aware of some of these often known heroes of courage. If I was to pick one that might come to mind, if you have familiarity with American history, it would be the president Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt was known as a man of bravado. He was known as a man of high drama. He himself loved heroism and kind of embraced that sort of personage, as part of his personality. He was known, for example, as a non-military person. He manipulated his way into the American military during the Spanish-American War because he so wanted to experience valor in battle, and he literally led a battalion of what they call Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in this moment that would later actually make him famous across America, and that’s where Theodore Roosevelt became the household name for many Americans.
But there’s a hero behind this hero. A hero that actually gets us closer to the heart of biblical courage. It’s not President Roosevelt, the one we know as Junior actually; it’s Theodore Roosevelt, Senior. It’s Roosevelt’s dad. Except for a few biographies, he is unknown generally to the American populous. But it was Theodore Roosevelt Sr. who gave his life, his energy, his strength. He was a follower of Jesus, as best as can be gathered from the records. He gave his life and his energy for Theodore Roosevelt Jr.
Roosevelt Jr. was a very sickly child. He was plagued by profound asthma that threatened constantly his breathing. It was a life-threatening ailment, and Roosevelt Sr. would carry the three-year-old, then the four-year-old, even the five-year-old Roosevelt Jr. through the hallways of the Roosevelt house all night long so that Roosevelt would be kept upright and comforted by the warmth and the closeness to his father, his windpipe would stay open, the fluid that would collect in his lungs would at least be able to somehow have some kind of passage and Roosevelt Jr. could breathe. It was Roosevelt Sr. and his night after night’s nurturing and care of Roosevelt Jr. that gave Roosevelt Jr. the opportunity to live such a life of purpose. You know what they called Roosevelt Sr.? They called him Great Heart. That name comes from a book, Pilgrim’s Progress. But they said that Roosevelt Sr. was a Great Heart. He also sacrificed for the unseen, the marginalized of New York City at the turn of the century as well. The courage to sacrifice, which is a courage that is a lot more like Roosevelt Sr. often than Roosevelt Jr. It’s the courage of sacrifice in hidden, never-to-be-known-to-history ways. It’s the courage when you would love a night of sleep night after night to no longer sleep for the sake, in case of this story, of his son. It’s the courage that gives one a great heart.
That story just makes me want to be a Great Heart. I hope it instills that in you already. I hope you’re getting a picture of what it would mean to be a Great Heart in this life. One who has the courage to sacrifice energy, strength, reputation, finances for the case of something greater. In the case of the Book of Philippians, for the sake of knowing Jesus, for the sake of serving the church, for the sake of loving deeply and profoundly. But to be a Great Heart, what Paul teaches, who was a Great Heart as well, is we must be in deep relationship, deep knowledge, deep understanding of the Greatest Heart. That to be a Great Heart in this life—and any human being can achieve great heartedness in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit if they will be bonded to the Greatest Heart of all, the heart of Jesus. Courage. And our theologian reminded me that courage connects in terms of its etymology to the word heart. Courage comes from living a life that is Jesus always. Courage comes from living a life that is Jesus close.
And that breaks the two parts of our passage in Philippians out. First, verses 18 to 26, courage comes from Jesus always. Verses 27 to 30, Jesus close. This section of Philippians 1 is written by the apostle Paul, who wrote several letters. It was a letter, so it was actually penned and written for a community; it’s a community that he knew and loved.
Courage comes from Jesus always
Paul says at the very beginning, and we are catching him mid-thought, “Yes, and I will rejoice.” He is referring to a previous situation that he has described whereby he is suffering. He is suffering at the hands of fellow Christians. Often when we think of Paul, we think of him suffering at the hands of those who did not believe that Jesus was Savior or Messiah and that they would persecute him because they did not believe it. In this case, there are people who believe Jesus is Lord and they’re causing his suffering. In the midst of that complexity, where other followers of Jesus are creating tension and sacrifice, he says even in this complexity, “Yes, and I will rejoice.” He has a broader complexity than just this is happening, as if that wasn’t enough. He’s imprisoned. He’s imprisoned because of his teaching of Jesus that has brought political complications, spiritual complications. So he is now in prison.
“I will rejoice,” he says, “for I know”—because no one understands why he would ever rejoice in the light of fellow believers betraying him and living a life shackled. But “I will rejoice,” he says, “for I know that through your prayers”—the Philippians’ prayers. Who are the Philippians? Think of it as an early ancient European city in greater Macedonia, and Paul help to start a church there. We often call that church planting. He planted or started this church with several leaders including a woman named Lydia who had a leadership gift and a hospitality gift. We read about that in the Book of Acts.
“For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, this will turn out”—this imprisonment, this being hurt by fellow believers, being betrayed—“for my deliverance, as is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed.” The English just got complicated, didn’t it? So what’s happening? They won’t be at all ashamed. Ashamed of what? Paul is saying, “I so trust in my gospel siblings, your prayers, and I still believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. I think that even in prison, even in the midst of betrayal, I won’t be ashamed, which is to say, I won’t stop believing that Jesus is great. I won’t stop believing that Jesus is powerful. I won’t stop believing amidst the suffering and the sacrifice that Jesus’ cross is true and his resurrection will validate and vindicate my life. I won’t be ashamed by unbelief. I won’t be ashamed by losing the grasp on hope that the Lord has given me. I trust. I won’t be ashamed. But that with full courage, with a full heart, with a great heart now as always, Christ will be honored in my body whether by life or by death.” Courage comes from Jesus always and the first thing that Paul goes to is the security of Jesus always. Your ability to sacrifice, your ability to live a life of multiple micro sacrifices is connected to your stability in Jesus always. So how stable are you emotionally, how stable are you spiritually in the reality of Jesus always?
Paul teaches, verse 21, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” If you are newer to the Christian faith maybe you’ve never heard that sentence before. It’s one that is necessary to memorize; it’s poetic. In the original language, it’s a beautiful piece of poetry. The original language reads something like this, translating it primarily into English: “To live, Christos, to die, kerdos.” To live, Christos, to die, kerdos.
What is Paul doing? Paul is taking the broadest spectrum that as a teacher you could imagine, which is life and death. There is nothing broader; there is nothing more epic. Paul always goes epic. There’s nothing more epic than life and death. He’s saying: Here’s life, here’s death, all the joys, beauties, terrors of life. Primarily the terrors of death. Let me grab this spectrum—life and death—and let me tell you that Jesus is Jesus always. To live, Christos, to die, gain. Gain is Jesus, more of Jesus. I gain more of his presence, more of his communion, more of his love, more of his personality. To live Christos, to die kerdos. Do you see what he’s saying? It’s Jesus always. You can’t find a place without Jesus where he has not gone before. How can Paul say this? Paul can say this because the centrality of the power of the cross, which Christians make central in our life together, central in our worship, so central we wear it on our bodies. We tattoo it on our skin. The Cross is central because Jesus has already died. That thing which carries more terror than anything else for us. Anthropologists write about this; sociologists write about this; philosophers write about this. They don’t need a Christian biblical worldview to understand that death carries terror, death carries peril, death carries question. He has done it. He has died. He’s already there.
I mean, don’t you ever think about your death? How will it happen, right? When will it happen? If you’re a parent, do you ever think about your kid’s death? Of course we do. Paul knows that. He knows that so he’s speaking to the heart. He’d say, “Take courage, take heart.” Jesus is there in life; Jesus is there in death. He has died. He knows death. I’m 50; I could ask 70-year-olds, “What’s it like to be 70?” and you could tell me what it’s like for you to be 70, but you really have no idea what it’s going to be like for me to be 70. You don’t know. No one knows. We don’t know if I’m going to make it to 70. Except Jesus. He knows. He has already been to death. He conquered death. He overcame it. To live, Christos, to die, kerdos. Stability, security. Jesus always.
Here is an exercise that I developed for my prayer life to help me live Jesus always, help me live Galatians 1:21. It’s this: I think a lot about the future. I plan for the future; I teach for the future; I think about the future a lot. And I’m a dad so I’ve got kids and their futures I’m thinking about. And I could really get caught up in serious anxiety and unbelief. So what I do more and more is when I start thinking about the future and I begin to imagine, What’s our church like in three years, what’s my family like in five, what’s my life like in 10 years? What I’ve been learning to do as the Lord has led me is rather than try to picture that, I just see Jesus. I just imagine Jesus. I imagine his face filling in what I think it might look like, X, Y, Z in two or three years or two months. You know it’s good to imagine the face of Jesus? His incarnation biblically gives us freedom to imagine his face. For he has a face, a human, beautiful face. And we can imagine it, and we can see Jesus in our future. Yes, at our death, and yes, next week, and yes, tonight. As you think about the future and all that it may contain, think Jesus first and then he can lead you to what he may want you to think about for your future. Generally he doesn’t, I think, want to think about our future as much as we do. He would like us to live Christos, to die kerdos.
There is a security in Jesus always, but there is also a sacrifice that comes from Jesus always. If we’re going to live Jesus always, that means there are things that we’re not going to live for, that means there are things that we’re not going to do. That means there’s other feelings that we’re not going to indulge or engage. There’s other things that we’re not going to say. There are things that we’re going to say that will have profound ramifications on our social network, on our life together. It means that as we live Jesus always, we’re going to live very differently in many different ways. And from that will come a kind of sacrifice.
Paul recognizes that. Indeed, he is actually so convinced of Jesus always, he has lost the fear of death. It’s fascinating to study Paul. He is not afraid of death. I think human beings can achieve this in Jesus, but it’s rare so it’s amazing to be with him and to read him because he’s not afraid of death. “As a matter of fact,” he says, “if I live in the flesh”— that means fruitful labor for me—“what shall I choose, I cannot tell”; “I’m hard-pressed between the two.” Hard-pressed to me, like, who is hard-pressed? I don’t know, do I want to live or do I want to die? We all want to live. Unless it’s Jesus always, then actually Paul is kind of impassive. It’s Jesus that my passion is about. My life and my death, important but secondary.
“I’m hard-pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Jesus, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh”—in the body, he means there—“is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain.” “I will remain,” is a very important phrase to the courage to sacrifice and the freedom to sacrifice. He uses the word twice. He’s saying that I am going to remain in my prison. I am going to remain in this life. I am going to remain in a place of sacrifice. I am going to remain in a place of suffering. I won’t be ashamed. I’ll still believe in Jesus’ power, I’ll believe that he is Lord of all, but I am choosing to accept the sacrifice that God has given me.
Do you realize that often we don’t choose our sacrifice? I mean, sometimes we do but it’s rare. No, often the sacrifice somehow comes to us. The call to remain is the call to recognize our external sacrifices in many of our lives that are not going to change. Now, this is not to say that we stay in circumstances whereby we can change by the power of the Holy Spirit; this is not to say that we don’t continue to grow in our identity in Jesus. I’m not saying that. What I am saying, though, and what Paul is saying is that there come times we find ourselves in a prison and not of our own making, or perhaps even a prison of our own making that now we cannot change. Paul can’t get out of prison; he can’t spring himself from this place. He’s there and he says, “I will remain in prison. I will remain in this life.” Why? “Because my remaining gives you reason to rejoice. My remaining gives you reason to live in Jesus. My remaining is living out the story of the cross and resurrection.” Do you see that? He is living out Jesus’ story. He understands that, yes, I will preach but I actually will live the life of the cross, suffering sacrifice. The life of the resurrection, vindication, and God.
Sometimes in an overcoming victory in the moment, often in an endurance, this speaks of the power of God. Vindication by endurance, vindication by overcoming. Either way—cross, resurrection—I’m living that, he says. So I will remain. That’s so important for you. That’s so important for so many of you because you’re finding yourself in some kind of prison. Don’t over-dramatize it; rightly appraise it. You’ve been called to remain. Some of you are celibate singles and you can’t change that. You’d love to be married; you’re open to marriage; you’re praying for marriage. But right now you can’t change that. Some of you are in marriages and they are brutal to live in right now and you seem unable to change your marriage. It’s like a prison cell. Financially tight life and you can’t find a way to change the financial restrictions. It’s an illness that has not yet been healed. Paul says, “I will remain.”
Paul is not saying that we necessarily always choose our sacrifices, but he is saying—and this is where the importance of freedom comes in Paul’s thinking—we can choose the Lord in our sacrifice or not. We can choose the Lord in our suffering or not. Others must pray for us; we must have the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s how he prefaces this is in the early verses. This is a poetry. Remaining is a kind of poetry. Poetry often requires fixed verse; not every kind of poetry, but often poetry has a fixed verse or fixed meter. You work within a certain system that feels restrictive, that feels like you have to remain within this body of understanding. But in that restriction actually comes often incredible poetic beauty. Do you see the call to poetic Christian life? The call to live within a certain meter, a certain verse structure that you are in right now with the challenge of health or the challenge of money or the challenge of relationship. There is a remaining that God is calling you to, and there can be in that beautiful verse written—the verse of the cross, the verse of the resurrection, the beautiful meter and song of a life that is free to sacrifice for the sake of others. Great hearts come from Jesus always.
Courage comes from Jesus close
And then as Paul continues, great hearts come from Jesus close, Jesus near. Look at verse 29, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christos [Messiah, Savior] you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” So when we choose the Lord in our sacrifice—we often haven’t chosen the sacrifices, but we choose the Lord in our sacrifice—we then can suffer for the sake of the gospel. Paul is talking about suffering for the sake of the gospel. So if you’re thinking, The only way I can suffer for the sake of the gospel is I’m out preaching in the open square, which you guys do all the time, right? This is highly applicable if you’re thinking that way. No. You think, Well, I’m preaching out in the open square and then I get arrested and they put me in jail, that’s suffering for the sake of the gospel. Then you’re going to have no imagination for this teaching; it just won’t help any of us. I don’t preach in the open square and I preach all the time.
He’s saying: You’re preaching for the sake of the gospel because you’re believing that the gospel is the good news of God in Christ, that the cross is a suffering and a sacrifice, but the resurrection is a vindication and you’re living that way, you’re believing that way, so your sacrifice becomes a suffering for the sake of the gospel because you refuse to act on that sexual impulse that you know takes you contrary to the gift of the Word of God. You refuse to act on that stingy moment where you don’t want to give freely of what you have. You refuse to speak against that person when everyone else is. You refuse to remain quiet when you’re in a conversation and you know you should speak of the goodness of Jesus. You refuse. And when that happens and a suffering follows, what are you doing? You’re suffering for the sake of the gospel.
Do you see the micro sufferings that make up the sacrificial life? I use micro simply rhetorically to try and get you connected with the fact that your life can include this. Yes, it is very important to be aware of macro sufferings. Yes, we at this church talk all the time about the actual persecuted church, where they are literally afraid for their lives, to get in their car and go to church, because it will very likely, possibly, maybe this time be bombed. No, we’re aware of that and we cannot ignore that. But we can’t also then overshadow the fact that we ourselves, in this life, in this place, are called to suffer for the sake of the gospel. It will often be how we handle the prison, how we handle the sacrifice that God has called us into.
I remember, we had four kids under the age of six, and nobody told me how hard that was going to be. I didn’t think kids were going to be hard. I remember being in this utterly desperate place, no sleep. And I remember saying to the Lord, This is like a prison. I mean, I can’t get out. And it’s every day, day in, day out. And they kept needing so much. Babies need so much. They think you’re there for them all the time. “Feed me, carry me,” it’s hard. And I was at the end. The six-year-old needing me, the four-year-old needing me, the two-year-old needed me, the baby needed me. And I was playing second string to Katherine. She was needed even more and I couldn’t handle it. But I realized in that, I could remain. I could choose the Lord. I could actually be free to sacrifice. Not in a compulsory way or a bitter way, but in a joyful way, I could actually give my life away for people. God always gave me a very concrete everyday opportunity, full of details and specificity. That was freedom, such freedom.
Final piece: You can’t do this alone. See, the peril of preaching a sermon like this in our beloved home country of America is that we’re all sinners, every American is a sinner, as the Bible teaches. So is everybody else in the world. Which means we alienate and we isolate, that’s our default. We separate. That’s one of the sinful nature defaults. So I teach this, and we’re already isolated, alienated people, but then I teach it to our culture, which for lots of myriad of reasons lives an incredibly isolated life. And now I’m taking it into a suburban culture—I’m with you. I’m a suburbanite too. I teach it to suburban culture, where everything structurally and systematically has been designed so that we’re more and more on our own and isolated. So we’ve got the sinful nature thing and we’ve got the suburban American thing, and I’m teaching you about suffering, I’m teaching you about the freedom of sacrifice. But the absolute critical teaching that Paul gives is you can’t do this alone.
He’s saying, “You’re praying for me.” They weren’t just praying for him; they were giving everything they had for him in that prison in Philippi. They were giving from Philippi where he was in prison, likely in Rome. They were sitting there. It wasn’t just prayer, although it was just prayer. They were deeply connected and they said, “Stand side-by-side” in verse 28. Stand side-by-side, one mind, one spirit.
You’ve got to have a profound Jesus sibling. You’ve got to have siblings in Jesus. You’ve got to be near to Jesus, you’ve got to be near to your siblings, and you’ve got to be really close to people, other Christians. You cannot live the freedom to sacrifice, to be great hearts, without other great hearts in your life, really close in your life, in your home a lot, knowing your situation, knowing the details, utterly and completely transparent with them, or you won’t be able to do this. You might believe in the Lord Jesus, as Paul says, but you may not be able to suffer for his sake because it’s too hard alone. It’s brutal and it doesn’t have to be brutal.
So we have small groups, not because we’re a church, because you’ve got to have people you’re close to, really close to. For Americans, I say imagine being super close to somebody in a really healthy way and then you realize you’re about maybe halfway there of what it could be. It’s just part of our wiring. There’s a freedom to sacrifice, a courage to give our hearts to Jesus always, to be Jesus close, to live Christos, to die kerdos. Great hearts, utterly bonded to the greatest heart.
Stewart Ruch III is the rector of the Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois and the bishop of the Midwest Diocese for the Anglican Church in North America.