For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live you life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well — since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning in early fall. Families made their way from the parking lot to the church, children wore matching outfits, and the sanctuary windows were open to let in the cool air.
The preacher paced in his office, looking over his notes for the sermon entitled, “A Love That Forgives.” He was momentarily grateful that the children’s choir would be singing that morning and, no matter how his preaching landed, most people would be pleased to hear the little ones’ voices.
The Sunday school hour arrived and the adults went to their side of the building while the children went to their own. All in attendance that morning examined their Bibles, gleaned from God’s Holy Word, all while also sharing the local community gossip.
Shortly before the worship service was scheduled to start, a group of girls were giggling in the basement restroom as they changed into their choir robes.
And that’s when the bomb exploded.
It shook the entire building and it propelled the little girls’ bodies through the air like rag dolls. A passing motorist was blown out of his car, and every single stained glass window in the building was destroyed save for one which displayed Jesus leading a group of young children.
It was Sunday September 15th, 1963. 57 years ago this week.
4 little girls from were declared dead on the scene. Another 20 people were injured by the explosion. The 16th Street Baptist Church would never be the same.
Martin Luther King Jr. would later describe the event as one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.
For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. So wrote Paul to the Philippians from his jail cell. This is one of the greatest declarations in all of Paul’s letters, and perhaps in the entirety of scripture. It cuts right to the heart of this thing we call faith – life and death are both centered wholly in Christ.
Whether we live or die we are with Christ.
In baptism we are deadened like Christ that we might be raised with Christ.
This, for Paul, is the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price, and he has laid it all on the line in order to obtain it. He writes with such conviction, while a convict, because he knows Christ and him crucified. His life was turned upside down by the Lord on the road to Damascus, and he now knows, deep in his bones while resting behind bars, that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him.
Paul, to put a finer point on it, has been assaulted by grace of God. A violent and merciful grace that knows no bounds.
When Paul writes of joy to the Philippian church, a community struggling under the weight of the world and opposition from the wider community, he does so because he has been confronted with a hope he didn’t deserve. He persecuted the early church, derided those who believed in a risen Messiah, and then was offered a position in the evangelism department!
He went from town to town and city to city sharing the Good News with people who had nothing but bad news. Which is why Paul writes of being comfortable with his fate whatever it may be. He knows he belongs to God whether he lives or dies.
And, knowing he doesn’t know what will happen next, he encourages the Philippians to rest in the knowledge that he cares for them deeply, just as God does. That regardless of outcome, God has already overcome the world.
Which is what leads him to the line that, if we’re heard this part of Philippians before, we might know the best: Live your lives in a manner worthy of the gospel.
This solitary sentence, taken out of context, has been used on a great number of occasions to malign Christians for not being good enough. Pastors like me have stood in places like this telling people like you that you’re not living in a manner worthy of the gospel so its about time you started turning things around.
All that stuff.
And yet, Paul’s proclamation about living in a manner worthy of the Gospel is so much more subtle than all of that.
What we read in English as “manner of life” comes from the Greek word POLITEUESTHE (from which we get polis and politics) and it carries political overtones. While, on the surface, it might seem like Paul just wants the Christians in Philippi to behave themselves, he’s actually contrasting one form of citizenship with another.
Throughout the rest of the letter he will continue to hold these two different identities against one another and remind the church that the citizenship of the Christian community is of a higher order than that of Roman citizenship.
Faith and politics have never been easy to sort out and there’s always been disagreement about how they relate to one another.
For the Philippians, it was of crucial importance because everywhere they turned they were bombarded by the power of Rome whether it was through festivals, statues, calendars, coins, temples, and all sorts of other cultural phenomena.
Its as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know the empire seems powerful and that there’s no way you can get away from it. And, perhaps there’s some truth to that. But as disciples of Jesus, if there is a conflict between your politics and your faith, your loyalty is to Christ and your heavenly citizenship its what’s most important.”
The faithful in Philippi, though they live on earth, are citizens of heaven. As inhabitants of a Roman military colony on the outskirts of the empire, they would inevitably come to find themselves at odds with the powers and principalities of the surrounding politics.
For us today, any talk of politics from the pulpit is enough to make us squirm with discomfort. We have been told, even from infancy, that the US was founded upon a separation of church and state which means, on a practical level, that some of us don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit.
Some of us get enough politics Monday thru Saturday that we want a little reprieve here on Sunday morning.
And yet, Paul implores the community of faith in Philippi, and therefore us today, to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. To, as the Greek hints, live as if we believe our truest citizenship is with God and not country.
Do this, Paul says, so that whether I’m able to join you or not, I will hear that you remain firm in one spirit striving side by side for the sake of the Good News.
While the members of 16th Street Baptist church were preparing for worship 57 years ago, four white men drove over to the church and planted sticks of dynamite under the steps of the church in order to rain down murder and destruction.
All four of the men were members of the United Klans of America, an offshoot of the KKK, an organization that swears to uphold Christian morality!
It was according to their Christian convictions that they felt compelled to bomb and murder other Christians because of the color of their skin.
3 days after the bombing, Martin Luther King Jr. preached at the funeral for the 4 girls who were murdered. In it he said their deaths have something to say to all of us. “They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politicians who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism… They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
Paul says, “Live you life in a manner worthy of the gospel.”
Hearing about the bombing of a church nearly 60 years ago can feel like the distant past. It can feel like we’ve moved on from that stained part of our history.
But things have largely stayed the same.
The last few months of protests have been a ringing reminder that things haven’t changed. And its not just the matters that dominate the news cycle, the unjust murders of black individuals at the hands of the police.
It’s so much more.
It’s in every fabric of our lives from the way pregnant black women die in childbirth at a far higher rate than white women, to black students being punished with higher severity than white students for making the same mistakes, to the disproportionate number of black men in prison.
And yet, even with all of that, a study was published this week by the Barna Group which found that 30% of Christians, that is people who have attended some form of worship in the last month and claim to strongly prioritize their faith, say they are NOT motivated to engage in matters of racial injustice.
Someone, that’s an increase from 2019 when 17% said they were unmotivated.
One might imagine that the last few months of racially motivated moments in this country might change Christians’ perspectives on racial injustice, but when you look at white Christians, the old patterns hold true.
And all of that is further problematized by the fact that more than a third of practicing Christians in the study cited religious leaders, clergy, as the most influential among a list of the type of leaders they are listening to about racial justice.
Contrary to how we, that is those of us who are white, might want things to go, the black church has never had the luxury of keeping politics out of the pulpit. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke politically and faithfully when he implored those in attendance at the funeral for the four young girls to see that there would be work to do.
There is still work to do.
Live you life in a manner worthy of the Gospel. For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.
Suffering for Christ will always raise questions about where our ultimate allegiances reside. As the Lord says, we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve Jesus and racism at the same time. We cannot serve God and white supremacy at the same time.
The life of faith is complicated.
It’s not just about receiving a list of to-do items and then heading out into the world – It’s about catching glimpses of how God has already overcome the world and living accordingly.
It’s not about feeling guilty for all the things we could’ve done – it’s about seeing that living in the light of grace means we cannot remain as we were.
It’s not about keeping our politics and our beliefs separate – it’s about recognizing how what we believe shapes how we behave.
Part of the complication is that we can’t live in a manner worthy of the Gospel – we will always do things we know we shouldn’t and we will all avoid doing things we know we should do.
But we can at least begin by admitting the sin we’re stuck in, and then asking God to help us out. Amen.