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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon


18th September 2005

Fr David Shepherd

Trinity XVII

'For me living is Christ & dying is gain.' Phil. 1.21

We don't believe like St. Paul. That is unsurprising. After all he was an apostle and one of the greatest Christian figures of all time as the evangeliser of the gentiles. In contrast we are ordinary C21st Christians living in different times, lacking his passion and zeal. Not everyone is comfortable with St. Paul. Some of his views seem extreme and sit uncomfortably with modern beliefs and views. That should not surprise us either. Paul was a man of his times and that coloured his thinking on say the role of women.

All that said St. Paul's epistles remain a rich source of faith and inspiration. They remain in the canon of sacred scripture that we believe to be inspired by God. Paul's epistle to the Philippians expresses his deeply held Christian convictions. Believed to have been written in a prison cell, it has been dubbed the 'epistle of joy'.

That Paul was writing from prison helps us to understand the verse with which I began: - 'For me living is Christ & dying is gain.' Paul knew that he could well die or be put to death in prison. But his life was so wrapped up in Christ that he saw such a probability as gain rather than loss. His life had changed, begun on the Damascus Road when he met the Risen Lord. It would continue with his death in the nearer presence of Christ when he would be with him forever.

It wasn't that Paul had given up on this life, devaluing it. For he realised that if he was to live he would have continuing fruitful ministry with his listeners. Paul found himself in a dilemma. He wanted to be with Christ but he felt his fellow Christians still needed him. He used a word that suggested being hard pressed by the steep rock walls of a ravine. Impossible to turn back or go to the right or to the left the only way was to go forward, to press on.

Wanting to depart, Paul's conviction was that he would remain and continue. Paul's word for depart has to do with striking camp and pulling up the tent pegs, with setting sail and slipping the moorings, with finding solutions to problems. He reminds us that the Christian life always has impermanence about it. We are on a journey. Life's many problems only find their solution beyond the grave. To accept that is strangely liberating.

As for remaining and continuing, Paul wanted to stay with the Philippians ready to help. He was not the kind of guest who does nothing. Rather he wanted to help. He wanted to live, not for himself but for others, thereby following the example of Christ. The Christian life is one of being with Christ and of serving him in others. If Paul was released the Philippians could boast of their knowledge of such a man, they could boast in Christ.

Paul then went on to urge the Philippians to conduct their lives in 'a manner worthy of the gospel Christ... standing firm...striving...not being intimidated by your opponents.' If they lived like that Paul knew that it would be God's doing. As well as believing in Christ they would be granted the grace to suffer with him.

We live in an age when it can seem difficult to be a Christian. We face apathy, indifference and apparent decline. As an institutional church we don't always help ourselves with our endless negativity expressed in many an official report. Paul's direct approach can give us the strength to move forward, knowing that to live is Christ and that dying is gain. In life we are to let go and move forward, forgetting our own problems by serving others, knowing that in the fullness of time all will be resolved in Christ.

Paul's message is deceptively simple. It is blunt and direct, easy to understand. It is also hard to accept for ourselves because we lack faith. But then as Paul's reminds us our acceptance of the gospel is God's doing. It is God who grants us the grace to believe and to bear our sufferings.

Amen

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