Philippians 1:21-30

Over the next few weeks we’re going to be looking at the letter to the Philippians, under the theme of “Growing towards the light”. That series is going to be mixed up a bit by some special services – reflecting on the Voice referendum and the issues of faith that raises, a special service and morning tea to celebrate our community and the many ways in which we care for and connect with one another as a community of faith, and then our All Saints service, remembering those we have lost, with Soul Food back in the evening.

But I really wanted to show you this slide because that spiral on the right really got me thinking. It’s not exactly an optical illusion, but when I look at that spiral I can’t decide whether my eyes and mind travel anti-clockwise, inwards and, I think, into the distance – as if faith was moving us towards something in the future, something drawing us together and onwards, or whether the mind moves clockwise, and outwards, as if taking the faith out into ever wider circles.

I emailed Sonia, who made the graphic, and she shared her sense of it as a plant spiral, either a tendril, flexibly tethering the plant to a support (think of a passionfruit vine) or a spiral stem (like wonga wonga vine) – in each case, the spiral enables the whole plant to grow towards sunlight.

So perhaps as we reflect on growing towards the light, we might have any of those images in our minds – growing up towards the sun, or in towards a future, or out into the world.

I’ve never preached on the book of Philippians, so this has certainly been a bit of a journey of discovery for me. It’s widely accepted that it was written by Paul, and that it was probably originally three letters that have been combined by a later editor, most likely written by Paul from prison in Rome, in around 62AD, near the end of his life.

And that is surely something important for us to understand as we read the words I’ve drawn out for our title – “To live is Christ and to die is gain”.

Because while the first few words – “to live is Christ” might reflect something I might at least aspire to, the second half, “to die is gain” – that’s not just something I can’t say, it’s something I don’t want to be able to say. In fact, it’s not something that I think I even ought to want to be able to say.

Indeed, having been doing the youth mental health first aid training in the past couple weeks, I think if I heard a young person say “to die is gain” it would raise warning flags for their wellbeing.

But if we hear the words as those spoken by a man “full of years”, as the Bible often puts it, then they sound more like those spoken by believers who know that they are close to the end of their life here on earth – words you often hear in my line of work – “I’m ready to go” or “I’m waiting for Jesus to take me”. Words of faith spoken by those who have run the race, finished the task set before them.

Paul, it seems, found himself somewhere between these two. Confident of what lay ahead of him, and, I imagine, not having a particularly pleasant life (imprisoned, flogged, generally persecuted – the reign of Nero as emperor, was not a good time to be a prominent Christian in Rome), he was ready to go, sure that the life beyond would be better by far; but at the same time deeply committed to the calling that God had placed on his life here on earth.

“I wish to go, for it will be better by far – but you still need me. So I am sure I will stay”.

Here, it seems, is the way that faith looks at one of those two great certainties in life. The promise held before us is greater by far; but the decision of when to move on is not ours to make. For only God knows, truly, when we have done all God has called us to do.

To die will, ultimately, be gain – but before that time comes, we have each a life to live.

And so it’s the first half of the phrase that I feel more challenged by. I can set aside “to die is gain” – maybe true, but not really relevant. But the first half – “to live is Christ”?

This remarkable, seemingly unattainable, degree of commitment – challenges us by the utter absoluteness of Paul’s declared service of Jesus.

One objection might be that we each have other commitments that are genuinely important – we have people we care for, friends, relatives, responsibilities, and we cannot sacrifice them all to our religious service.

But this, of course, is the point of the rest of the passage – Paul’s recognition that his responsibility to others who need him is precisely the reason that he needs to stay. Those responsibilities, God given responsibilities, are exactly what he declares living for Christ means.

Indeed, in one argument Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day because they allowed people to dedicate to God the resources that they ought to have used to care for those dependent upon them. Neither Jesus nor Paul every saw service to God as taking us away from the service of others – quite the contrary.

So we can’t get out that way. The absolute nature of Paul’s declaration isn’t contrary to those other callings on our life, our time, our resources.

We still face the challenge – a degree of commitment that makes all sorts of logical sense – if Jesus is God, and God is love, and wants the best for us and for all, how could there possibly be any better way to live than to live in his service? – but that emotionally seems crazily beyond reach – or even beyond where we would desire to reach. To make our service of Jesus so absolute that nothing else matters to us?

And yet… and yet… as I write I am reminded of words that I have often spoken for others to repeat after me. Words from the marriage service: “all that I am I give to you, all that I have I share with you”. The second half is relatively easy – it’s just stuff, and I’m just sharing. But the first half? “All that I am I give to you”? Ridiculous words, unattainable promises.

And yet I don’t think I’ve ever married a couple who didn’t mean those words when they said them. None of them, I’m sure, would have claimed that they could honestly, totally, continually, keep true to the promise.

But they meant the words in the sense that they are written – as a declaration of intent, a statement of an ideal to which they aspired, and towards which they intended to strive.

Which is why I’m really glad that the phrase suggested for this series – not my words – “growing towards the light” are as they are. Growing. Paul’s language is often, as here, quite radically absolute, but of course he was not perfect, and would have been the last to claim that he was.

So perhaps we might have the freedom to repeat his words not as a claim of attainment, but as a declaration of direction, as the light towards which we want, at least in our better moments, to grow.

For I cannot say that my life is so wholly committed to the service of God that nothing else matters. But I can say that’s the direction I would like to grow in.