Christian fellowship is important in the work of the Church. When I say Christian fellowship, I don’t mean sitting around eating cookies and drinking coffee, though that is nice. When I speak of Christian fellowship, I mean the times when the Church is centered around what makes the Church the Church – namely the Word and the Sacraments.
As Paul writes to the Church at Philippi, he is ready, if necessary, to face death, for he knows that because he has been faithful in the declaration of the Gospel, that should this be the end of his life, that Christ would be magnified. It was his concern and his desire that the brothers and sisters at Philippi would also remain faithful to the fellowship that they have in Jesus Christ.
One has to ask themself why Paul would be writing to the Philippians to remain in the fellowship of Jesus Christ. The reason is simple: there were those within the Church who were withdrawing or who had left that fellowship. For some, they left the fellowship of Christ because of suffering they were enduring. If there was anyone who knew suffering, it was Paul. Paul suffered from being imprisoned three different times in his life. Paul suffered from being shipwrecked on the island of Malta for three months on his way from Caesarea to Rome. Needless to say, Paul suffered during his life; this was just the suffering that he faced once he became a Christian following his Damascus Road conversion.
Suffering for the Christian is nothing new. It’s not something that the Christian looks forward to, yet it is something that the Christian will face during their life. Not only is it something that we face, it is nothing short of a gift from God. We know that faith is a gift from God, for Paul says that faith is a gift, “granted” to us “for the sake of Christ.” As hard as it may be to understand, suffering for the sake of Christ is indeed a gift.
Like faith, we see that suffering is a gift, though not a gift like you and I would think of. Faith is something given to us for our benefit; no one would deny that fact. But can we say the same about suffering? Is suffering given to us for our benefit? The answer is yes. It is granted to us, as Paul says.
Most would not consider suffering a gift. When one thinks of a gift, they think of money, jewelry, a new car, but not suffering. If you had the choice between a gift of one-million dollars or suffering, your choice would be a no-brainer: you would take the money.
Following his conversion, Paul suffered many a thing. However, he did not count it as a curse, but rather as a blessing. This conversion left Paul with one simple message: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Paul’s suffering, while it was difficult at times, furthered the work of the Gospel. Early in our text, Paul makes mention of his imprisonment. It was not punishment for disobeying God, but a result of faithfully speaking the Word of God. That suffering for speaking the Gospel was bearing fruit. The imperial guard and all the rest had heard of Christ as a result of Paul’s suffering. Because of the message of Christ which Paul was preaching, others were becoming confident in speaking of Christ because of Paul’s suffering. Suffering like Paul talks about here is echoed throughout his epistles. We see Paul’s suffering instrumental in the founding, the upbringing, the doctrine, and the chastisement of congregations in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae.
Our text today is Paul’s encouragement to them all of the importance and blessing of remaining in that fellowship. Staying faithful to that fellowship of Jesus Christ may mean good times and it may mean bad times. It may mean a life that is worry free and it may mean a life of suffering. Regardless, more than anything in this life is to be faithful to fellowship that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
We are called to “preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season.” We are called to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” We are called to live out our lives as “little Christs,” that is, a reflection of the love that has been shown to us by God our heavenly Father. Listen again to the words of St. Paul: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel…” Whether Paul lives or dies, he wants the Philippians to stand fast in the Gospel. His concern also is the fellowship as it stands before the adversary. The adversary, Satan himself, desires to sift the fellowship as wheat. And God has promised that not even the gates of hell can prevail against the fellowship that is in Christ Jesus. That being said, the fellowship of Christ, that is, the Church on earth, the Church Militant, will indeed suffer for the sake of Christ.
Suffering for the sake of the Gospel leads us to one thing and one thing only: trust in Christ and Christ alone. Christ has suffered our same sufferings, as well as sufferings that we can never suffer. He became man and suffered what you and I were meant to suffer. Because of your sins and mine, He was harassed, humiliated, abandoned by friends, and excluded by Jewish leadership. He was arrested, imprisoned, beaten and killed, all for the sins of the world. He was damned, rejected by His Father, and suffered the torments of hell; not for His behalf, but on behalf of you, the people whom God was making His own by the work of His Son. It is by His life, suffering, death, and resurrection that you and I have received a prize: that prize is everlasting life. That is exactly what we hear from the Gospel of John: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Christ has laid down His life so that we would have fellowship in Him and the blessings that He gives – forgiveness, life, and salvation. We do as Paul says, lead a life worthy of the Gospel of Christ, for it is Christ and Christ alone who gives us the greatest gift – the gift of Himself. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.