Five times in the first chapter of Philippians Paul uses the word “gospel.” Now, if you have been around the church for a while you know that this word is used in abundance. People use it all the time but what does it actually mean?
Gospel (euangelion in Greek) simply means “good news.” What is interesting is that the gospel was not mutually exclusive to Jesus. Sometimes in the church we think the gospel was only a Jesus thing but all you have to do is open a history book to see that empires, including the Roman Emperor Caesar had his own gospel. In Philippi, which was a Roman colony, the gospel was that there was salvation in no other than Caesar. Then Paul comes along and completely subverts the word and applies it to Jesus and his kingdom.
The gospel is not a list of things you need to do to get into heaven when you die. It’s not a promise that you will prosper or that your life will necessarily flourish. The gospel is not even an invitation to come to a church service nor is it a call for the church to do really good stuff. None of these are negative things in and of themselves but people often view these things as the gospel.
The gospel is simply the earthshaking news that Jesus is Lord! As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, “The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.”
With this in mind Paul calls the church to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel. What Paul is saying is that the church should live like they have received this news. If the gospel is this fantastic news then its implications are huge. Paul says that the Philippians’ public behavior must match up to the gospel. If Jesus is king of the universe then it is time to live out its implications in the here and now.
Paul also invites the church to stand firm and strive together. Stand firm means, “to set.” Get in your mind the picture of an oak tree that is planted and grows over time. We are called to stand firm as the winds blow from season to season. In Philippi there was opposition against Paul and his message. It is believed that some may have even been embarrassed that he was in prison.
When we think of striving we often think in negative terms as Christians. We are thankful for the reformers in the sixteenth century that reminded us that we are saved by grace through faith. And though that it true there is nothing in the scripture that hinders us from striving. To Paul striving is not a negative thing. He actually encourages it. The gospel is opposed to earning, not striving.
To strive here can be translated, “to strive at the same time with one another.” We are not instructed to strive as individuals but as a community of people. Do you see it? We desperately need the church. To Paul the church is not an afterthought. The church is the very way in which we conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel.
In Spike Jonze 2013 film Her, the protagonist played by Joaquin Phoenix is a man whose life in many ways falling apart. He is disengaged from the world, his marriage is broken down and he cannot emotionally deal with it. The crazy thing is that over time he actually falls in love with his operating system on his phone and computer.
In this futuristic film there is a scene where Phoenix’s character is on a blind date with a woman at a restaurant. She is beautiful and she digs him to the point where she can barely keep her hands off of him. As they walk to their cars after dinner the woman says to him, “Are you going to treat me like those other girls? Are you going to have sex with me and never call again.”
Throughout history this would have been a scene where people would say, “This is a no brainer! Take the beautiful woman. Take the lifelong relationship. What more would you want?” Yet as the protagonist hears this woman say these things he backs off. He is confronted with something very frightening to him. He is confronted with commitment and limiting himself if he were to step into this relationship. The erotic temptation of this woman could not overpower his fear that his individual autonomy would be limited.
The story evolves to the point where Phoenix’s character chooses his operating system over a human being. Fear moved him away from what was actually real.
Now, this is often how our attitude can be towards the church. The church, like a beautiful human being, is messy and complex and offers wonderful things, yet at the same time it is limiting. Sacrifices need to be made in human relationships.
We are inviting all of us to take the risk. We are inviting you to marry the complex, messy, beautiful woman that the church is.
Because to Paul, the only place where we live out the implications of the gospel is with God’s new humanity. It is where we stand firm and strive together.