Life Lessons Learned
It’s not Christmas or his birthday. Yet, Paul receives a gift from his church at Philippi. Scripture does not tell what the apostle receives. It’s a mystery, but Paul is touched and grateful. His gift comes at the right time. This gift reminds Paul of another gift he had received from his church at Philippi. When he was growing the church in Thessalonica, they were the only church to respond to his plea for help and that more than once. As Paul remembers how seldom precious gifts come along, he does not feel neglected or abandoned. Rather, faith that keeps getting him through tough times emerges in Philippians 4:11-13. “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little, I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.” “Don’t worry about me; I thank God for life lessons learned.”
In Philippians 3, Paul talked about his family and religious heritage. His Jewish parents brought him up the right way. Like a handful of Hebrews, his Dad possessed Roman citizenship. Nobody had a finer resume. “I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of Hebrews. As to the law, I am a Pharisee. As to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law, I am blameless.” “These things were my assets”, said Paul, “but I wrote them off as loss for the sake of Christ.” Why had Saul turned on his own heritage? Answer; because a chink in his family armor turned Paul into a hater. And God challenged him.
When the first century church began growing and Jewish members of synagogues started joining Christ and his church, some of the high priests vowed to put a stop to it. Saul of Tarsus took up the battle cry. When Stephen, the first Christian martyr, lost his life to stoning Saul gave his death “thumbs up.” Then, the vigilante spirit really possessed him. Uninvited, Saul broke into the houses of Christians and dragged them off to prison. Why? They believed in Jesus the Christ as the Messiah. For Jews, Jesus was a good man but not the long awaited Messiah. Still upset, Saul secured letters from the high priest to check out the synagogues in Damascus. If any Christians were found, he had the authority to imprison them in Jerusalem. God stopped that. On the Damascus Road, a bolt of lightning knocked Saul off his horse blinding him. A voice asked “Why are you persecuting me? Who are you?” Saul asked. I am Jesus who you are persecuting. Jesus ordered Saul to go to Jerusalem and wait there. The Rose of Sharon had something for Saul to do.
Just like that Saul forgot about the orders from the high priest and began taking orders from Jesus Christ. Why? Everything had changed. Saul was blind. To go anywhere or do most things, someone had to lead him Blindness made him completely dependent on others. So his friends or acquaintances led him by the hand to Damascus. For three long days, Saul had nothing to eat or drink and was blind. For three long days, he prayed, cried and sat alone with his thoughts. For three long days, Saul of Tarsus wrestled with himself, with what to do next, with decisions regarding how to survive and cope with a lightning bolt that had left him stone blind. There, he sat in Damascus waiting on the Lord. Paul’s waiting reminded me of a famous saying of Isaiah, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles run and not be weary, walk and not faint.” (Isaiah)
Long story short, God sent Ananias to Saul. But Ananias was reluctant. He knew that Saul had been persecuting Christians. Why put himself in danger? But God sent him to Saul anyway with this rationale. “Go, for he is an instrument I have chosen to bring my name before gentiles, Kings and the people of Israel.” Encouraged, Ananias found Saul in Damascus. Paul regained his sight, was baptized, fed himself and in a few short days began proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as the son of God. Look at God; he turned a hater into a lover of his people. Saul was blind, now he could see. Now, he was a given a ministry of liberation versus one of incarceration. A hater had been turned into a lover.
By the time we fast forward the time clock to the book of Philippians, Saul now using his gentile name Paul has or will become the dominant force in the New Testament Asia Minor. Churches are springing up everywhere in the wake of his missionary journeys. Given the radical changes God made in his life, I rejoice and resonate with Paul’s joy filled testimony “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little, I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.” Don’t worry about me. I thank God for life lessons learned.
When I preached at Big Muddy last year, I figured it would be my last time coming through these doors. The choir was great. I preached. We served communion. The chaplain was kind and I left. End of story, I thought. How wrong I was. The Chaplain invited me to return. And I said, “Lord have mercy.” What came to mind was an obligation Christ laid on everyone In Matthew 25: 36c, “I was in prison and you visited me.” One and done won’t get it Bishop. You’re supposed to visit me in prison more than one time. Called back here by God via your chaplain, I’m here.
This shift in mentality calls to mind another life lesson learned that the apostle Paul wants us to model in our daily lives. Love your neighbor. Friday night, my wife and I saw the movie Selma. Concerned about King’s health and time spent away from his family, one friend advised Martin Luther King Jr. to spend more time taking care of himself - doing things that would keep him safe, live a long life and avoid death by assassination, Dr. King rejected the advice. According to King, the Selma movement is not about my will; it’s about God’s will. The apostle Paul says the same thing in Philippians. Paul asks the Philippians to imitate Christ. Here’s the quote in Philippians 2: 4-5, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Love God and love neighbor.
I just came back from a pilgrimage to the country of India. With more than a billion people, India is the motherland of numerous religions e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. India has made room for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Hindu is the dominant faith. Yet, 35 Christian Pilgrims from America saw a ministry in New Delhi under the flag of Jainism that reflected the mind of Christ. Every day, adherents of Jainism feed 30,000 people. On the weekend, they often feed 60,000 people. I’m not talking about what somebody told me. We saw the kitchen, hundreds of volunteers and thousands hungry families streaming through the temple to get a crust of bread for the day, free of charge. If your neighbor needs help, ask yourself what would Jesus do? Paul offers us a powerful example of what it means to have the mentality of Christ. Christ does not ask us to do what he was unwilling to do himself. If one believes Christ’s story, it goes something like this.
God the Father asked Jesus the Son to give up the power, prestige, privileges and status of heaven for thirty-three years - asked him to live with all the joys and sorrows of living on earth like you and I asked him to journey to Jerusalem for the celebrative parade of Palm Sunday asked him to undergo absolute degradation, death and depression of Good Friday and the triumphant resurrection on Easter. And Christ, who could not be compelled to make such sacrifice emptied himself and took on the form of a servant in order to make our world a better place. Any time the body of Christ has walked that sacrificial walk individually or collectively, the world has become a better place. But the cost has been high.
Paul’s successful church growth movement exemplified the mind and love for neighbor. I told you that God had restored his sight - that Paul had been converted - that Paul had accepted a new mission in life. Now hear this, Paul spent the rest of his life evangelizing and leading more people who neither looked like him nor shared his religious history. As the founding pastor of churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae and Thessalonica, he learned what it meant to take up the cross and follow Christ. Paul was a Jew, his church family was primarily gentile. To get the job done, Paul crossed forbidden racial, social and religious lines. And he paid for it with incarcerations and death threats. From his own people, he received 39 lashes five times. Three times, he was beaten with rods and shipwrecked for three nights and days. He was adrift at sea, endangered by rivers, bandits, gentiles, the wilderness, lies, and lack of sleep, food, clothes or water. Daily he was under great pressure, wracked by thorns in his flesh. And yet, Paul kept his eye on the prize and an abiding faith in this testimony “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content, whether I am full or hungry whether I have too much or too little. I have the strength to face all conditions by the power Christ gives me.” Don’t worry about me. Thank God for life lessons learned.
When one reads the opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, two facts are crystal clear. First, things are going well. Paul is in a good mood. He is thankful to God for his many blessings. People care about him. The church cares about him. And God cares about him. Praying for others brings him a lot of joy. Second, Paul is in prison. His former Jewish colleagues have done to him what he used to do to other Christians before his conversion; incarcerate him for believing in Jesus Christ and starting churches that are attracting folk who attend the synagogue. Other writers argued that Paul was jailed on trumped up charges such as personal jealousy or religious sedition. Whatever the case, Paul finds himself in prison with no release date in sight. So he decides to engage in prison ministry. First, he gets permission from Praetorian Guard to tell folk about Jesus. Never ever did Paul think about doing ministry behind bars until he ends of up behind bars. Behind bars lies one of the greatest mission fields. Second, Paul gets permission to write letters to his congregations to help them grow, solve church problems and connect with the community. Not only does Paul write a letter to the church in Philippi from prison; he writes Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians. Known as prison epistles, Dr. King’s famous letter from the Birmingham Jail imitated Paul’s prison epistles.
Most importantly, Paul finds a way remain positive, joyful, hope filled and forward looking in prison. A litany of his sayings come to mind. “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Paul’s healthiest response to his imprisonment may have been the mantra that has dominated his sermon, “I have learned with whatever state I am to be content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little. I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.” Don’t worry about me. I thank God for life lessons learned.
A song by Andrae Crouch sums up much of what the sermon is all about.
I’ve had many tears and sorrows, I’ve had questions for tomorrow, there’s been times I did not know right from wrong.
But in every situation, God gave me blessed consolation, That my trials come only to make me strong.
Refrain: Through it all, through it all. I learned to trust in Jesus. I learned to trust in God. Through it all, through it all. I learned to depend upon God’s word.
I thank God for the mountains. I thank God for the valleys. I thank him for the storms he’s brought me through. Cause if I never had a problem, I wouldn’t know if God could solve. I wouldn’t know what faith in God can do. (Refrain)