Sunday, September 18, 2011

Bound in Chains, Adorned in Glory

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 18, 2011

About the year 33 a.d. Jesus was bound to a cross by nails through His wrists and feet. About thirty years later, around 60 a.d., the apostle Paul was bound in chains and wrote from his prison cell to the Christians in Philippi. This is what he said, as we heard in our Epistle reading: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” About fifty to eighty years after that, around 110 a.d. to 140 a.d., the church father Polycarp, who was taught under the apostle John, also wrote a letter to the Philippian Christians. He begins his letter to them by sharing with them his joy in them that they “have accompanied… those who were bound in chains, the fitting ornaments of saints, and which are indeed the diadems of the true elect of God and our Lord.”

About 2000 years later, in the year 2011, the letter that Paul wrote to the saints of God in Philippi is heard by us as a letter written to the saints of God in San Diego. The chains that bound Paul as he wrote to them were the very same chains that bound him as the Holy Spirit inspired him to write those words also for Christians of every age. So less than a hundred years later a Christian wrote to those very same Christians to continue to encourage them in the very same thing that Paul had. We are in need of that very same encouragement as well.

If we were bound in chains, we wouldn’t be sitting here. We’d be holed up in a cell. Paul was blessed by God to be given the opportunity to write to the Philippian saints. Some Christians across the centuries have not been so blessed. Some have not been given opportunity to write or to read. Some Christians who have been imprisoned had only Bible passages or hymns memorized to keep them in the comfort of God’s grace. You and I may never know the experience of being shackled by metal chains and placed behind steel bars for refusing to publicly renounce our belief in and allegiance to Jesus Christ.

But I wonder if we are more like Paul and those Polycarp described than unlike them. Though we live in a land where we have freedom to publicly speak of and live out our belief in and allegiance to Jesus Christ, I wonder if we don’t even realize just how much we live as people who are bound in chains. Perhaps it’s because we’ve gotten used to expecting that being a Christian will be easy. Could it be that we’re hesitant to seize our walk with Christ as one in which we are unjustly dealt with or looked down upon or simply being humble in our words and actions?

It will be difficult but it would be worth your while to take stock of who you are as a Christian, as child of God, and note that if there are not times that you are not being treated shamefully because you’re a Christian, or if you find yourself not being dealt with unfairly because you put Jesus Christ in front of your personal desires and even needs, or if you find yourself longing for an easier life in which you don’t have to think about the far reaching demands of God’s Law on your life, then perhaps you are bound by something more insidious than the chains of persecution and suffering our Lord and St. Paul and our forefather in the faith Polycarp directed our attention to.

For that matter, how willing are you to admit and lay bear the fact of your utter corruption, your unworthiness of obtaining anything good in this life, let alone the one to come? Do you find yourself seeing in the Ten Commandments a mirror that shows you an attractive picture of just how good and decent and likeable of a person that you are? Perhaps you see the Ten commandments as a spotlight that you can use to shine on the lives of others and how it exposes how much they really fall short, especially in comparison with you.

When you suffer unjustly on account of Christ, do you complain? Do you wish you didn’t have to go through trials due to being a servant of God? If you could change your walk with Christ from the way of the cross to an easy way, or even a way of prosperity, would you? Would you choose the way of Christ, the way of humility, over not having to endure any hardship because you are beholden to Christ and not the world?

These questions are no-brainers for the world. More pointedly, they are no-brainers for the sinful flesh. We would choose the easy way, the way of glory, the way of no suffering, any day over a life in which we often seem to be weak or beaten down or even enduring more hardship than what seems we can handle. The Ten Commandments are indeed a mirror. But it’s only as we fool ourselves that they show us what we want to see. It’s as they really are that they show us who we really are. People who are utterly corrupt, who place themselves before God and even others.

Unfortunately, the chains in which we bind ourselves are the chains of sin and death. We are prisoners of our own making. We are bound in chains. We cannot free ourselves from our miserable notions of wanting to be free of any sort of trial or suffering at the hands of others that makes things worse for us. We are wrapped up in our own wretchedness of sin, death, and evil. You cannot always see this from the outside but in the deepest part of our hearts there is darkness. The Ten Commandments not only act as a mirror but as the brightest spotlight which exposes the darkness of our hearts and the utter corruption that hides there.

There is something else that shines brightly. Its brightness is that of glory and cannot be dimmed by anything we can do or fail to do. It is the suffering of the saints. It is the fitting ornaments in which they are adorned. It shines like a royal diadem and though it is rarely noticed by anyone it is the glory of every Christian. This is what makes it possible for Paul, even while being in a situation that if he were to choose of his own accord, would skip out on it in a heartbeat—being imprisoned simply for being a Christian—nevertheless speaks with a reckless abandon that this is the very best situation he could be in. “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel.” This isn’t a positive attitude. It’s not mere wishful thinking. He isn’t delusional. Paul is speaking as one who is clothed in new garments. As one who is Baptized into Christ and therefore clothed with Christ. His suffering is actually his new clothing. Even as he is bound in chains, he is adorned in glory.

Paul was writing to the Philippians not to complain or even to ask them to pray that he might be delivered from his chains. No, he actually was confident that he would be delivered. He didn’t know when it would be but it was a confidence that with certainty it would happen. It might be at some time in his life on earth. It might be through his death and therefore entrance into the glory of being in the presence of Christ. But it would happen. This Paul knew. And even more it’s what he desired. He longed for leaving this life but knew that his Lord was the one who would call him home when it was in his Lord’s time. If it were sooner, all the better for Paul. If it were later, all the better for the Christians he had been called to serve. It would have been easy for Paul to lament how little he could do for them being bound in chains. Instead he saw it exactly the opposite way—what had happened to him was serving to advance the Gospel! His suffering on account of Christ was the glory in which he was clothed.

There is only one way this can be. It is so because of Christ Himself, who clothed Himself with our flesh and blood. Who adorned Himself with our sin, our guilt, our corruption, our pride, our evil, the deepest darkest part that’s hidden in our hearts. It was His glory and His joy to wrap Himself up in all of it. To be bound on the cross and be on the receiving end of judgment, wrath, and punishment against all sin and evil.

When you’re suffering you mostly ask why. You question God and even rail against Him. You wonder why the way it is has to be that way. Why can’t God do things the way you want? The Old Testament reading shows us that God glories in the fact that His ways are not ours, His thoughts not ours. We should not only glory in that, we should give humble thanks for it. That His way is the way of the cross, the way of suffering, the way of adorning Himself with a diadem. Not of kingly apparel but a crown of thorns. Not with purple robes, but the filthy rags of our unrighteousness. Not being free from trial and unjust treatment but of submitting to being wrapped up in our sin and guilt so that we may be free from them.

And if we are tempted to grumble as those hired first in the Gospel reading and who got the same wage as those hired last, may we instead rejoice that we have been invited into the field of this world to serve others. There will be a day in which each of us will be called home to eternal glory. That day may happen today or sometime from now or the distant future. If it is not soon you have the glory and the joy to serve others, whether you’re struggling under wrong treatment by others or simply humbly serving in the most ordinary of ways your family, your brother and sister Christians, and yes, even those treating you unjustly. No one may be able to see it, or even care, the glory by which you are adorned, but nevertheless, you go forward in this way, that “for to you to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Amen.


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