As a Christian in Rome around 61 A.D. Paul is not very popular, and Paul knows that while in prison he may die.
In spite of this, Paul is bold, brave, and upbeat in his letter from prison to the Christians in Philippi. He thanks God for their sharing in the gospel and prays for them with joy.
Imprisonment has had some unexpected benefits, and Paul reports in verses 12-13—it “has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ.”
He goes on to say, “I will continue to rejoice,” which fuels his hope and expectation that, “Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
Not what you might expect to hear, is it? Living is Christ, and dying is gain.
Paul is saying that as long as he lives he’ll experience Christ, and when he dies he’ll gain eternal life with Christ. It is no doubt a bold and brave statement.
The bottom line is that Paul knows, full well, that he may die. And he’s okay with it.
And while it may seem like a death wish, it’s actually a life wish.
Doing a dance with death is becoming increasingly popular in our culture today.
Endurance sports are growing, with an increasing number of people training for marathons and triathlons, and of late, the wildly popular “Warrior Dash.”
But then there are people like Bruce Allentuck of North Potomac, Maryland, who like Paul, seems to have a death wish, but in reality it’s a life wish.
Allentuck is neither a Navy SEAL nor a physical trainer. Rather, he is a 40-something guy who owns a small landscaping business and goes home to his wife and three children.
But in his free time, he’ll crunch through six miles of snow with a 50-pound piece of oak, or sprint a third of a mile with two buckets of gravel, or run five miles in a creek with a 60-pound truck tire. All, just for a bit of fun.
In 2011, he traveled to Vermont to compete in what is called “Death Race” a competition that is so brutal entrants must sign a three-word waiver that simply says, “You may die.”
For many of us, such a waiver would make us laugh and walk away, but for Death Race entrants it makes them bold and brave. Although some health care professionals might call it possible senility.
When asked why he would do something like the Death Race, Allentuck says, “I just want to see if I can push through and do it. I want to see how far I can go, what I’m capable of doing.”
Allentuck’s response, in light of our text for today, sounds like what I image the Apostle Paul was thinking and doing. He was willing to push through the trials of prison and ridicule, to see what God was capable of doing through him.
Paul pushes himself to the edge of death because he wants to see what he is capable of doing with Christ Jesus—because he knows, whatever it is, it will be incredible.
This is his invitation to the Philippians, and to us. To see what we are capable of doing with Christ Jesus, even to the point where we may die.
This is, no doubt, a risky invitation.
But Paul knows the benefit of risk, so to help them he gives the Philippians a series of training program exercises that are as rigorous as a sprint through a creek with two buckets of gravel. It’s to be attempted only by Christians— both then and now— who are willing to push themselves to the limit.
Exercise One: Live in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.
Paul knows that our most powerful evangelistic tool is the life of our community of faith.
This first exercise challenges us to live in a manner that matches the Good News of Jesus Christ and to perform this exercise as a community—not just as individuals.
After all, our actions speak so much louder than our words.
This sort of exercise was modeled when a few years ago Mark Gornik and Allan Tibbles moved into the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore— a desolate area filled with abandoned houses. They had neither plan nor program, only the conviction to live in a manner worthy of the Gospel by “pursuing justice at the point of greatest suffering in the world.”
To do this they started a church called New Song Community. Their mission was to improve housing, education, employability, and healthcare in the neighborhood.
Over time, a hopeless city block became a street teeming with life— all because of the efforts of Christians determined to live their life in a manner worthy of the Gospel.
An outside observer of the project said, “Every one of their successful steps required a miracle of courage and persistence.”
The message in this for us is that every church can do this.
The church can stretch its muscles of faith, courage, and persistence in the inner city, in the outer suburbs, on rural crossroads—wherever it is.
If we offer the courage and persistence to live in a manner of the Gospel, God will always offer the miracle.
Exercise Two: Know that it’s a privilege to suffer with Christ.
Most Christians see the value of believing in Christ, but few consider it a privilege to suffer along with him.
Endurance athletes such as Bruce Allentuck know the value of pain, however.
They understand that they cannot complete the Death Race without training with oak logs, tire trucks and buckets of gravel. As they say, “No pain, no gain.”
This is true in the church too.
Mark Gornik believes that the success of New Song Community came not from the few people who moved to Baltimore to start it, but from the many who didn’t abandon it during hard times.
Christians who consider it a privilege to suffer along with Christ are the ones who cross the finish line.
Those who drop out when the race gets tough are long gone before God brings a dead community back to life.
Exercise Three: Stand firm in one spirit.
When it came to establishing New Song Community, neither Gornik nor Tibbles could have done his work alone.
Allan Tibbles, offered his courage and persistence as a quadriplegic with a wife and two daughters.
They knew that the church community could be a powerful force, especially if it was a church for others and with others—especially the neediest.
At New Song Community, the strategy for helping people is based not on the blueprints of secular urban renewal experts. Instead, it comes from walking in the path of Christ’s self-giving love and moving the whole community toward the peace of God’s new creation.
The success of New Song Community has come from the exercise of standing firm in one spirit and doing “thousands of little things faithfully over a period of many years.”
This exercise shows that every church can accomplish greatness when it stands firm in one spirit.
In every church, opportunities exist for members to: Live in a manner worthy of the Gospel, know that it’s a privilege to suffer with Christ, and stand firm in one spirit
These three exercises are not going to be attractive to every person or every church.
They are tough, demanding, painful and rigorous.
But this training program is completely consistent with the teachings of Jesus, who said that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35).
The question becomes though, does this drive still exist in the church today?
Do we have this drive in our church today?
So often the church turns away from risk and focus on what is comfortable to us and to the people we want to attract.
Those who compete in the Death Race know that it involves incredible commitment and preparation. But here’s the thing about the race of the Christian faith—it does too—it involves incredible commitment and preparation—but do we know this? Do we know just how much it involves?
What if new members signed a three-word waiver when they joined the church? The same as the Death Race: “You may die.”
Would this repel people, or attract them?
The promise of our faith is that when we die to self, we truly live.
Maybe there’s a better approach to consider this.
In my office, above my computer, I have a note that reads, “It’s better to look back on life and say: ‘I can’t believe I did that.’ than to look back and say, ‘I wish I did that.’”
Do we want to get to the end of our life and be filled with regret? Of course not.
No one wants to face death while thinking, “I wish I had done more when I was able.”
Not every Christian trains for a marathon, but every follower of Christ has opportunities to live in a manner worthy of the gospel, to suffer with Christ, and to stand firm in one spirit.
Paul embraced these opportunities and commended those who were willing to imitate him.
He admired the Philippians for having “the same struggle” that he had, knowing that it made them bold and brave.
The great tragedy of life is not that people die for their beliefs—It’s that people come to the end of life without ever finding anything to live or to die for.
So when you think about it, when it comes to being a follower of Christ, having a Death Race like waiver that says, “You may die” is really too soft a statement.
The truth is: You will die.
The real question that we must consider is: What will you do before then? Amen.