The Church in Biblical Images: Kingdom Colony (Phil. 1:27-30)

(This sermon was preached on 9/13/20. It may be viewed on YouTube. Sermon starts at 21:06. Listening time: 24:31.)

I am sitting in the TV lounge in the dorm during my freshman or sophomore year. There is a cluster of couches in there, all facing the television, with a dozen or more guys scattered around the room. The couch I’m on is full and my friend George Ashok Kumar Das is sitting next to me.

At some point during the movie we are watching, Taupu (that was his nickname) takes my left hand in his right. I recoil. I have no idea that in his culture, as in much of Africa and the Middle East, men hold hands as a sign of friendship and trust.

Every culture has its own customs. In Thailand, if you drop a coin and, to stop it from rolling under your car, you step on it, you might cause great offense. The image of the king’s head is on that coin, and to step on his face is a dreadful insult.

In Vietnam, if you signal to a restaurant server to come to your table, she may pour the soup in your lap because you’ve just treated her as if she were a dog. If you are caught selling chewing gum in Singapore, you could do up to two years in prison and be fined $100,000.[1] Kingdoms and countries have their own codes regarding what it means to be a good citizen.

Those codes are sometimes exported. For example, if you were in the Bangladeshi embassy in Washington D.C. and saw two men holding hands, it might mean something quite different from what it would mean if you stepped outside onto International Drive and saw the same thing. The culture inside the embassy has been imported.

The letter we are looking at today was written to people who lived, worked, and played in an exported culture. They lived in Philippi, a Grecian city named for Alexander the Great’s father but made a Roman colony by Octavian and Marc Antony 90 years earlier. By the commonest land/sea route, Philippi was about 800 miles from Rome, yet Philippi operated according to Roman law, followed Roman customs, and was home to Roman people.

America once knew all about colonial life. If you had come to Manhattan in 1640, you would have found people living by Dutch laws, following Dutch customs, and eating Dutch foods, even though Amsterdam was almost 4,000 miles away. Had you traveled east to the St. Lawrence, you would have found people speaking French, following French customs, and flying the French flag. Twenty years later, the English defeated the Dutch, New Amsterdam was renamed New York, and the Union Jack floated over the city. Dutch culture faded and was gradually replaced by English culture.

What does any of this have to do with the church? The image of the church we are looking at today is that of a colony, a pocket within mainstream society where a different culture flourishes. The church is a kingdom of God colony that operates by different rules (the commands of Jesus), speaks a different language (the language of love), and honors different things (faith, hope, and love).

To enter the church from the majority culture is like walking into the Bangladeshi Embassy from International Drive in D.C. Here people speak differently, have different customs, hold different values, and engage in different practices. The church may feel strange to people coming in from the outside, but it is (or should be) an exciting and inviting strangeness.

It is strange because people show respect to each other. It is strange because people are interested in others, not just in what others can do for them. Strange because people go out of their way to help each other and expect nothing in return. Strange because the usual markers of status – clothing, cars, education, income – are less important than faith, hope, and love.

It is also (and chiefly) strange because people love their leader and are fiercely loyal to him. They talk about him, talk to him, and regularly praise him. Their leader is Jesus. He is at the center of everything these people do and care about. That is bound to feel strange to outsiders but, when they see the quality of lives and relationships in the church, they might conclude that preoccupation with Jesus is a good thing.

Nevertheless, being different can be awkward. It can produce anxiety. It can also bring conflict. That is clear in our text, Philippians 1:27-30. Let’s read it: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”

Usually, when Paul instructs people to live a certain way (as he does here), he employs a particular metaphor. He tells people, for example, to “walk” – by which he means “go about daily life” – in “love” or to “walk in the Spirit,” or to “walk in wisdom,” and so on. Walking is his go-to metaphor for Christian conduct, which makes his choice not to use it in this passage striking.

Here he uses a word that appears nowhere else in his letters (though once in a recorded conversation), a word he chose (I believe) because Philippi was a Roman colony and people born there were Roman citizens. He uses a word that means “to conduct oneself as a citizen.” Paul expected the church to be to heaven what Philippi was to Rome: a colony.

He emphasizes two aspects of colonial living. The first is the responsibility of the colonists to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel they proclaim. So, what would it mean for the Philippians – or, for that matter, for us – to act in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ?

Well, think about the gospel. In it, we learn that Christ died for our sins. How do we live in a way that is worthy of that? For one thing, we to refuse to take sin lightly, which is something the prevailing culture is always doing. People magazine once published a Sindex – a decidedly lighthearted index of sins. At the time, people ranked child abuse, murder and spying against one’s country as the worst sins. Parking in a handicap spot also ranked way up there, but many others (sexual sins are an example) were ranked as trivial.[2]

But when sin is taken lightly, it comes back to haunt us. Consider sexual sin. Hollywood sexualizes everyone, even children. Now, sexual sin is Hollywood’s open wound. Or racism, which was in many circles a matter of jest, but now threatens to divide our nation. Greed is a sin we easily overlook, as long as it doesn’t hurt our bottom line. But we will not overlook it when it ruins our economy, which it threatens to do. Citizens of the kingdom take sin seriously. They don’t make excuses. They make changes.

But Christ not only died for sins, he died for people. So, another way we live consistently with the gospel of Christ is by treating people as important. No one in the colony is disposable. I recall reading what a Colombian paramilitary squad member once said about the street kids in Bogota: “Killing these kids is like killing lice. We call them ‘the disposables.’” In the colony, there are no disposables.

Living in a way that is consistent with the gospel means we treat people with respect. We listen to them. In the predominant culture, people may treat the poor, the intellectually disabled, the incarcerated, and the “other” like lice, but we treat others like Jesus treats us: as people made and loved by God.

When it comes to living the gospel, there is much more to unpack, but because of time I’ll mention just one thing. The gospel, according to Paul’s summary in 1 Corinthians 15, reports that Christ died for our sins, was buried and was, on the third day raised from the dead. Raised from the dead. How do we balance our lives with the truth of resurrection?

Negatively stated, we absolutely refuse to give death the last word. We won’t let the fear of death control us. When the doctor says, “Cancer” (or something equally frightening), we know that dying is not the worst thing that can happen to us. We won’t hand death, nor those who wield it, that kind of power.

Positively stated, we dare to trust God because we believe Jesus rose on the third day. We believe in the resurrection. Since every wrong will be righted and every right will be rewarded, we can do the hard thing. As Carlo Carretto put it: We forgive our enemy, feed the hungry, and defend the weak because we believe in the resurrection. We have the courage to marry, to have children, and to build a home because we believe in the resurrection.[3] We let go of revenge because we believe in the resurrection. We spend money for the ages, not just for the moment, because we believe in the resurrection.

If we conduct ourselves in a way worthy of the gospel, we will find ourselves out of step with the predominate culture, where power, not love, is thought to be supreme; where pleasure, not purpose, is the thing to seek; where personal safety, not the salvation of others, is the received wisdom. We live differently.

But people who are different are disparaged. When we renounce the selfish, sexualized, pleasure-seeking lifestyle that is contrary to the gospel; when we insist that God’s kingdom is more important than the economy; when we announce that King Jesus is more powerful than any president or prime minister, we call down on ourselves the contempt of the society around us.

There is a reason the Bible warns that following Jesus, like going off to war, is dangerous. St. Paul echoes Jesus here and elsewhere when he tells Christians to expect antagonism. St. Peter does the same. These warnings make sense when we grasp the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that Jesus is the Lord and king who is reclaiming his kingdom from the powers of evil – some human but others that predate humanity and transcend it. There is a war going on. We enlisted when we joined King Jesus, so we need to be brave. The second aspect of colony life Paul emphasizes is the responsibility to fight for king and kingdom.

A few years ago we had a man from the community, a man I like and appreciate, join us for a Sunday service. During the worship time, we sang a song with the lyrics: “It is time for battle, it’s time for war, as we sing Hosanna, as we praise the Lord. He will still the accuser, crush the enemy, as we celebrate God’s victory,” and he was offended. It sounded to him like we were espousing violence. He has never come back.

I’m sad about that. But this is war. The stakes are incredibly high. But my friend misunderstood. We do not espouse violence. “Though we live in the world” – as a kingdom of heaven colony on earth (this is St. Paul from 2 Corinthians 10) – “we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.”

The world uses violence. We use love. The world is armed with lies. We are armed with truth. The world issues threats. We offer God’s promises. The world wields scorn. We present praise. The world sacrifices others. We sacrifice ourselves. We don’t wage war as the world does.

Now don’t miss the fact that it is “for the faith of the gospel” that we strive together (verse 27). This is not waging war with non-Christians over political issues or with Christians over church practices. The real fight is always for the lordship of Jesus.

Politics is not a hill I’m willing to die on. But Calvary is. The real fight is always for the lordship of Jesus. Forget that and we will be outflanked and overrun. We fight and, if necessary, we die for the faith of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who died for us.

We will not, however (and this is something my offended friend did not comprehend), kill for the faith of the gospel. That is not how this war is waged. Jesus won the war not by killing his enemies but by sacrificing himself. He died to save them, not to destroy them.

Paul’s words in verse 28, (“stand firm in one spirit, striving together as one man for the faith of the gospel”) picture a Roman phalanx, a battle formation in which the outside rows of soldiers locked shields and every soldier protected those around him. They were invulnerable as long as they remained in formation. The danger was that they would lose their nerve and go “every man for himself.” That is our danger too.

That’s why Paul (verse 29) writes, “without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.” This passage teaches that Christians not only rely on God but on each other. Christians who break formation – who are not rightly related to the church – are not only vulnerable, they have placed their brothers and sisters at risk.

We mustn’t let ourselves be intimidated. When people who don’t love Jesus call us bigots, we mustn’t worry. We just prove them wrong. When they say we are naïve and unscientific, we mustn’t let them intimidate us. We just earn advanced degrees. When they tell us our faith is a fantasy, we mustn’t fear. Attacks like these will come, and many more beside. And, when they do, we must stand close and protect each other.

We can afford to be gentle. We can afford to be kind. We can afford to love our enemies. We are people of the gospel: we know that God will not forsake us. But we must be brave.

I like the story of the Christian who was taken captive by the forces of Julian the Apostate. It was during the middle years of the fourth century. Christians were being hounded, captured, and tormented. This man was caught by Julian’s troops and tortured. When the soldiers got tired of beating and brutalizing him, they tried to humiliate him. One of them, dripping with malice, asked him: “Where now is your carpenter God?”

To which the man, dripping with blood, replied: “Where now is my carpenter God? He is building a coffin for your emperor.”[4]

We must be brave. Our bravery does two things. First, it helps our comrades. When we stand steady, it helps them stand with us. So, Paul says that our fearlessness is a sign – a sign other Christians can read, a banner unfurled before them – that God will not abandon us but will come to our rescue.

But that banner is also unfurled before those who stand against us. When we remain undaunted before threats, before insults, and accusations, we send a clear signal to those who hate Jesus that their side is going to lose and they would be wise to come over to Jesus.  

Now all this talk of war, of being insulted and mocked, may be a little much for you. I understand that. Perhaps when you signed up, someone gave you the impression that it is all smooth sailing until you dock in that heavenly port. Maybe you are not sure you are willing to suffer for Jesus’s sake.

Look at verse 29: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him…” I was on a prayer retreat a few years ago and had gone off into the woods with my Greek New Testament, where I was reading Philippians 1. When I came to this verse, the fact that the word the NIV translates “granted” carries the idea of a gift really struck me. Suffering for Jesus is a gift.

It may not seem like a gift at the time. I have a friend whose high school basketball team played Larry Bird’s high school team. They got killed. But now he can say, “I played against Larry Bird,” and he feels honored by the opportunity.

But think of the honor afforded to the men, women, and children who suffer humiliation, pain, unbelievable loss, and death for Jesus. They got killed. But in heaven they will say, “Suffering for Jesus has been the greatest gift of my life.” And when they say that, Jesus, their hero, their savior, their friend, will be standing with them.

We are heaven’s colony. We are the people of Jesus. We are different. Don’t be afraid to let the world know it.


[1] Illustrations from https://www.adventureinyou.com/travel-tips/cultural-differences/

[2] Adapted from Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (Eerdmans, 2016), pages 193-194; original source: People (2-10-86)

[3] Carlo Carretto in “Blessed Are You Who Believed.” Christianity Today, Vol. 40, no. 4.

[4] R. Geoffrey Brown, “Look! A Great White Horse!” Preaching Today, Tape No. 111.

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