THE GRACE BASED CHURCH — STILL STRUGGLES
by Pastor Mike Fortune
October 16, 2010
Introduction Video: YouTube: Major Adjustment Ahead for Freed Chilean Miners
- With life before death [Philippians 1:20-26; Psalm 13:1-6; Psalm 39:12-13]
- Gospel unity [Philippians 1:27-28; Philippians 3:2-3]
- And suffering [Philippians 1:29-30; 1 Thessalonians 2:2]
Research inside and outside the Adventist church has revealed that meaningful Bible study and worship, active ordinary outreach, and a grace based church are three of the most influential factors that help our young people and the increasing number of unchurched Americans all around us develop a positive outlook about God and lasting interest in the church [see research from the monumental Adventist study Value Genesis, research from Thom Rainer’s book Surprising Insights to the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, and Dave Olsen’s website www.theamericanchruch.org for more info]. During our fall sermon series, we’re focusing our attention on the third factor as we try to better understand from the book of Philippians what authors like Sandra Wilson in her book Hurt People Hurt People really mean by the term “grace based church.”
So far from Philippians 1, we’ve noticed that the grace based church is a praying and joyful church [Philippians 1:4]. They aren’t overwhelmed with fear and negativity. Even of the end times [Philippians 1:19]. Instead, like the miners described in our video, they are joyful for faithful friends [Philippians 1:5] and God’s salvation. They are relieved that our God who began the good work in us will be faithful to continue this work in us until the day Jesus returns [Phippians 1:6].
We’ve also seen that the grace based church is unapologetically Christocentric in their witnessing and motives and doctrines making sure that Christ gets the credit for building up His church [cf. Matthew 16:18] instead of the other way around. This unapologetic focus on Christ instead of the church is easy to get mixed up though and was perfectly illustrated just this week after the miners were rescued. Perhaps you too read the article entitled, “Rival Churches Claim Credit for Miracle” [www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/11]. The subtitle said, “Evangelical, Adventist and Catholic clerics are vying to stamp their own faith on the expected rescue of the trapped men.” The article went on to quote an Adventist pastor at the scene who claimed to be the first cleric at the mine and said it was no coincidence an exploration probe reached the trapped men—17 days after the August 5 collapse—while he was praying above.
It’s so easy to shift the focus from God to the church. And the grace based church struggles in this life before death not to do so. And though we will continue to struggle with life before death, Gospel unity, and yes even suffering, perhaps our doing so will reveal to an astonished world in pursuit of stuff—even good stuff—for the sake of Christ and the Gospel gives more glory to God and brings us more joy in a broken world than anyone could possibly imagine! Hopefully, we’ll see that clearly today in Philippians 1:20-30.
God’s word says, “20For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. 21For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. 22But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don't know which is better. 23I'm torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. 24But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live. 25Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith. 26And when I come to you again, you will have even more reason to take pride in Christ Jesus because of what he is doing through me. 27Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. Then, whether I come and see you again or only hear about you, I will know that you are standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News. 28Don't be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself. 29For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. 30We are in this struggle together. You have seen my struggle in the past, and you know that I am still in the midst of it.”
Man there’s a ton of stuff to talk about in this passage. Especially these first six verses concluding in verse 26. Paul’s continued boldness in Christ. Even though he’s under house arrest in Rome. His continued trust in Christ for what Christ is doing through him. But perhaps the most well known passage of Paul lies in verse 21. “For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better.” Or as the NIV I memorized says, “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” Verses 24-26 clearly reveals why Paul chooses life. So the people in the church will grow and experience the joy of faith. So they can rejoice with Paul about the good work Christ is doing in them.
But how is death gain? “I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me.” Paul could say this because he had a clear understanding what death really meant. He recognized that if he were to soon die, the next waking thought he had would be with Jesus. He knew that death meant to slap the snooze button and wait for his wake up call. Perhaps the oldest book of the Bible Job states in chapter 14:12, “So man lies down and does not rise; till the heavens are no more, men will not awake or be roused from their sleep.” Paul knew that when he fell asleep, he would be resting peacefully in the ground. Ecclesiastes 3:20 adds, “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” For Paul, death was is merely a restful sleep.
Psalm 146:4 confirms this sleep. “When their breathing stops, they return to the earth, and in a moment all their plans come to an end.” And as any child on a long car ride knows, in sleep time is unmeasured. Mental activity is suspended. So it is with those who sleep in Christ. Ecclesiastes 9:5 says it this way. “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.” They close their eyes to this world. And though many years may pass, they will one day open them in the glorious morning of Jesus Second Coming.
The Old Testament prophet Daniel knew this too. Daniel 12:2 states, “Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up to everlasting life.” Which is still amazing to us, but shouldn’t come as a surprise. Because Jesus said the same thing in John 5:28-29, “Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming in which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth.” And if Jesus said it, you know it is true.
That’s why Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage each other with these words."
Death to Paul was almost as appealing to him as life. That’s why he said in Philippians 1:22 that he was torn between the two. But if we’re honest, when our world is collapsing all around us, when our families are falling apart and the economy is tanking, don’t we all struggle even more with this life before death thing? On more than one occasion, Jackie and I have prayed, “Please let us raise our kids in heaven God. Because this world is too messed up.” Sometimes, even for the grace based church, we are torn between the two as well.
And this is point number one: The grace based church still struggles with life before death. In fact, most everyone does since everyone whether you’re Christian or not believe in some form of eternal life after death. Whether that reincarnation or hell or whatever. But what my cynical generation wants to know from the church is if there is life before death? Is there an abundant life worth living—even when your world is collapsing all around you and death is at your door? That’s what we’re really interested in. Because if your church can live a fulfilled and content life even in the midst of death, well, that’s just not something you see every day.
David understood this struggle and about whether there’s life before death. I want you to see that I’m not just making this up from Philippians 1. So go with me to Psalms. We’re going to briefly compare two Psalms. One in chapter 13 and the other in chapter 39. Psalm 13:1-6 [1996 NLT] reads, “1 O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? 2How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? 3Turn and answer me, O LORD my God! Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die. 4Don't let my enemies gloat, saying, "We have defeated him!" Don't let them rejoice at my downfall. 5But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. 6I will sing to the LORD because he is good to me.”
Samir says this is the “God is my boyfriend” kind of Psalm that Paul’s language in Philippians 1 sort of sounds like. “To be or not to be? That is the question.” Sorry, that’s Hamlet. “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” Beautifully poetic words right? And there are many Psalms that follow the same basic pattern of crying out for help with God delivering them. In fact, one of the Psalms that this Adventist pastor sent down the rescue tube to the miners was from Psalm 40 which begins with these words, “I waited patiently for the LORD to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. 2He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along. 3He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what he has done and be amazed. They will put their trust in the LORD.”
And in fact, there has been a spike of interest in God and the church in Chile following this global and unifying rescue event. You’re aware the drill for this thing came from a guy in Pennsylvania right? But what would’ve happened if they hadn’t rescued the men? What would’ve happened if only some of them were alive? How quickly we forget during this same period of time while the lives of these Chilean miners were being preserved, how quickly we forget that two other mines, one in China and another in France each collapsed during the last 69 days killing over 1k people in each one. And it was just months ago this same year in West Virginia that a mine collapsed killing everyone inside here in America.
It’s not just the church that struggles with life before death. The world does too. And this other side to the equation is also clearly revealed in Scritpure. “Psalm 39:12-13, “12 Hear my prayer, O LORD! Listen to my cries for help! Don't ignore my tears. For I am your guest—a traveler passing through, as my ancestors were before me.” But instead of concluding the way the Psalm 13 does with all the warm fuzzies and confidence of holy men praying, listen to the way David leaves us hanging torn between the two. “13Leave me alone so I can smile again before I am gone and exist no more.”
Whoa! You won’t find that verse on a Christian bumper sticker or Hallmark card! But listen, that is exactly the point! The grace based church still struggles with life before death. We too have collective amnesia about the evil and brokeness in this world. And only rarely are we honest enough like David to write about both. You think the 27 million women and children in slavery today, more than at any time in the history of our world, relate more to Psalm 13 or Psalm 39? You think the 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys who will be victims of sexual abuse before the age of eighteen are more likely to compose Psalm 13 or Psalm 39? You think the families of the miners who weren’t rescued in China or France are more likely to sing Psalm 13 or Psalm 39?
Yes, there is a life before death worth living—even if there was no heaven or eternal life! It’s living even when your world is collapsing all around you and death is at your door. But contrary to the way even Christians portray it sometimes, it is a struggle! It can be simultaneously full of rejoicing and heartache. Full of confidence and doubt. And what the world needs to see from the grace based church, to take it seriously, is that God is present in both. That every day there are good things. And that every day there are evil things. But that whatever that day brings, these crazy nut jobs don’t abandon God. Instead, as Larry Crabb says, they abandon themselves to God. It’s a struggle in the world. And it’s a struggle in the church. The end. Sometimes, there is no upbeat chorus or happier ending. But God is present in both. And that makes life worth living.
Moving on, look at something else we struggle with. And that’s preserving Gospel unity. Which is point number two. Philippians 1:27-28 says, “Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. Then, whether I come and see you again or only hear about you, I will know that you are standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News. Don't be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself.”
Why is living grace and showing love as citizens of heaven such a challenge? Paul suggests in these verses its because we forget who to pledge allegiance to. The phrase citizens of heaven was one in which the church in Philippi would resonate because they were basically a Roman outpost full of Roman soldiers and citizens. Some of you may remember that we learned that in 356 BC Philip of Macedon—the father of Alexander the Great—conquerored the region and named it Phillipi in his honor. He did so because the northern most shores of the Aegean Sea were rich in deposits of gold and silver. So the objective of founding the town was to take control of the neighboring gold mines and to establish a Roman garrison at a strategic passage and thoroughfare [for more info, see: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/greece/philippi]. And ever since, citizens of Rome lived there. And Paul himself is one.
So now, he’s writing to the church he planted there and is reminding them that they are actually citizens of heaven not Philippi. They belong to God first and Rome second. Rightly understood, we should be pledging allegiance first to God and His kingdom. And if and when the politics of our country conflict with the movements of God’s kingdom, then we must choose what honors God instead. Even if that means breaking party lines. It always comes as a surprise to Christians that Ezekiel 16:49-50 says she was destroyed not because of sexual promiscuity but because “Sodom's sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door. 50She was proud and committed detestable sins, so I wiped her out, as you have seen.”
Point number two is the grace based church struggles for Gospel unity. We tend to pledge allegiance to our country before God's kingdom. But if want to avoid what happened to Sodom, we must live like citizens of heaven on earth. Some people say, “Well, if we had any Samaritans around here or prostitutes or tax collectors, well, then we wouldn’t have to struggle for Gospel unity and it would easier to live it. All we’ve got is a bunch of Muslims and gays and Socialists.” Well, maybe there are more Samaritans around here than we think!
Rightly understood, even though it’s a struggle, there are people groups and situations and needs all around us. Living the Gospel and placing people before politics is what people who are circumcised by the Holy Spirit do. Not to save us. But because we already are saved. And are already living as citizens of heaven on earth. Skip ahead to Philippians 3:2-3 to see what I mean where Paul warns the grace based church to: “2Watch out for those dogs, those people who do evil, those mutilators who say you must be circumcised to be saved.3For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort.”
And finally, and least popularly of all, point number three is: The grace based church still struggles with suffering. Philippians 1:29-30 says, “29For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. 30We are in this struggle together. You have seen my struggle in the past, and you know that I am still in the midst of it.”
Everybody knows it is a privilege to trust in Christ. Especially when things are going well. “God is good” we say. How often? “All the time” we reply. And though its often a struggle, many of us are learning that it is a privilege to trust in Christ when things are not going well. I’m reminded of the hand written words to his pastor from one of the trapped miners which said, “From down here, my greetings to you and your family. Thank you for praying for us, the 33 miners. I want to tell you that here we are all calm and I know God, the Mighty God, has protected us since the first day that this happened. Here we pray at 12:00 noon every day since the collapse took place. Here I can see all beliefs and religions, but we are all brothers in Christ. It is hard for me to write...I feel something here inside of me and it is difficult to think...If God has preserved our lives it is just because He has prepared something special for us when we leave this place. Here, there is a lot of time to think and pray. For you and your family: ‘Only Jesus gives us rest and our heavy load becomes something light and easy to carry. A scene full of hope opens in front of us where our sorrows become a consoling future.’ Good bye to you and to everyone in your family, Jose Ricardo Ojeda” [taken from http://www.pmchurch.tv/blog/ October 14, 2010].
Whether that guy is an Adventist or not, reports differ right now, he clearly understands point number three. The grace based church struggles with suffering. But it’s how we respond to that suffering that determines whether God will be glorified and the Gospel lived. Recently, I read a great article in Christianity Today entitled “To Serve Is to Suffer” by Ajith Fernando [Christianity Today August 2010]. In it, he said “In a world where physical health, appearance, and convenience have gained almost idolatrous prominence, God may be calling Christians to demonstrate the glory of the gospel by being joyful and content while enduring pain and hardship. People who are unfulfilled after pursuing things that do not satisfy may be astonished to see Christians who are joyful and content after depriving themselves for the gospel. This may be a new way to demonstrate the glory of the gospel to this hedonistic culture.”
When you understand that enduring pain and hardship and suffering with the peace that passes understanding helps other people going through stuff abandon themselves to God as well, that’s when you begin to see point number three: That suffering can be a privilege. At the time of Paul’s first visit to Philippi, Acts 16:22-23 says he was badly beaten and imprisoned. His suffering was so great that Paul actually refers to it again in 1 Thesalonians 2:2 which reads, “You know how badly we had been treated at Philippi just before we came to you and how much we suffered there. Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition.”
Verse 29 implies that His faithful friends in Phillipi were already being persecuted for their faith in Christ. And even if they weren’t, they would definitely remember that Paul had suffered there. In addition, after this letter arrived as chapter two explains, they would soon know more. But what he endured, he would one day be able to boast about, because Jesus was with Him and sustained Him and worked through him in spite of all the evil and brokenness and loss the world could throw at him.
And perhaps, one day, we will be able to say the thing. All because we too struggled with life before death, Gospel unity, and even the privilege of suffering. Which astonishes the watching world. But brings glory to God. And surprisingly, even joy to our sometimes doubting hearts. May God give us the courage we lack to live this week as citizens of heaven on earth. Amen.