Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 18, 2011
“Standing Firm in One Spirit” (Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30)
Today we are observing what we call “St. Matthew’s Sunday.” Our congregation is named in honor of St. Matthew, the great apostle and evangelist, and his festival comes up on the church year calendar this week. So we’ve taken to using one of the Sundays closest to St. Matthew’s Day, September 21, as a time to call special attention to the life and ministry of our congregation. We thank God for this little church we have here in Bonne Terre. It is an outpost of the gospel where can come and be refreshed and strengthened in our faith, an oasis where we can drink deeply of the waters of life. Thank God for our St. Matthew’s!
The text I have chosen for our sermon this morning is a portion of today’s Epistle. Reading from Philippians 1, where St. Paul writes: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.”
“Standing Firm in One Spirit”: That was Paul’s desire for the church in Philippi. And it is my desire for this church here in Bonne Terre. The goal is that you, St. Matthew’s, “that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.” “Standing Firm in One Spirit”: This is God’s purpose for you, for us as a congregation, and God will bring it to pass.
“Standing firm in one spirit.” Notice, by saying this, St. Paul is addressing the Philippians collectively, that is, as a congregation. He’s not speaking to them as just a bunch of random individuals, solitary Christians who just happen to show up at the same place now and then, but who then go their separate ways. No, he is addressing them as a congregation. The church has a life of its own, and you are a part of it, each one a part of the greater whole. Do you think of yourself in those terms? Do you identify as “St. Matthew’s,” that your life is bound up in the life of this congregation? Is your heart with this church?
So often we are tempted to think just in terms of “me and Jesus.” I show up here every now and then, when I feel like it, if I’ve got nothing better to do, to get a little spiritual recharge or to do my religious duty. And then I go my merry way, ’cause I got what I need, and that’s all that counts. Do you see what an individualistic, non-congregational, non-churchly attitude that would be? So out of tune with what Jesus and the apostles taught!
No, our Lord would have us be a congregation, together “standing firm in one spirit.” We have a life together as Christ’s church. We need one another as the body of Christ. This is all according to God’s plan. There is no such thing, from God’s perspective, as individual Christians who are not intimately involved in, and connected to, the life of a local congregation.
And so we come back to what it means to be “standing firm in one spirit.” How does that happen? It happens for us the same way it did for the Philippians, through the same means, which is the gospel of Christ. Paul has already implied this when he said, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” For to lead a life worthy of the gospel means that you first must have received it, that is, the gospel of Christ. And you have! Just like the Philippians did. We here in Bonne Terre are no different from the Christians back in Philippi. We have received the same gospel by which we live. And so this is the basis for Paul exhorting them–and us–to walk worthy of the gospel and to stand firm in one spirit. It’s because we have first received, and we continue to receive, the precious gospel of Christ. Without that, we have no life at all, let alone life together.
But you have received the gospel of Christ, haven’t you? And you will continue to receive that same beautiful, life-giving gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ, our Savior, tells us of the Son of God who came down to earth to rescue us sinners from our despair and misery. He came to give us life and salvation, instead of death and damnation, which would have been our lot otherwise. What has Christ done to make it so? He gave himself into death, bearing our sins upon him, taking them to the cross, to suffer the punishment that you and I deserved, in our place. There is no salvation apart from the blood of Jesus Christ. But by his holy blood, through faith in him, we have forgiveness of sins, righteousness before God, life and resurrection, eternal life, hope and joy, and all the blessings of being God’s children forever.
And one of those blessings is that God has brought us into his family, the church. You and I are part of the church of all ages, along with St. Matthew and St. Paul, the Christians in Philippi and the Christians all around the world, in all times and in all places. And within the larger church, we have a home here in our local congregation. God means to do something in and through St. Matthew’s. You and I have a purpose in being part of this congregation in this place, at this time in history. God has a special work that he’s doing here.
And so, “standing firm in one spirit”: What will that lead to? It will lead us into ministry. We have work to do together. The first and most obvious work is to continue and to support the preaching and teaching of God’s word and the administration of the sacraments here in this place. That takes time and effort and money, particularly so for a little church like ours. It’s not like a big megachurch where you can blend into the background and rely on the well-oiled machine to keep chugging along with or without you. In a little church we need every single member to be involved, and all the more. You notice when someone is not here. The absence is noticed, and felt. Do you realize this? When you stay away from church, when you absent yourself, your face is missed, your voice is missed, and this has a demoralizing effect on the rest of us. We need for all of us, as we’re physically able, to be here standing together with us, every Lord’s Day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
So standing firm in one spirit then means that “with one mind” we will be “striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” We will be contending for the faith. That means we need to know the Christian faith and grow in our knowledge of it–being fully convinced, working together, striving side by side, for the defense of the faith and the advance of the gospel.
Again, how does this happen? It happens as we continue to learn, and be built up in, the content of the Christian faith. And today I want to give you a couple of ways for that to happen. Today, this week, we are kicking off two new emphases in our congregation that we all can be a part of.
One is our “Read Through the New Testament” project. I can’t think of anything better to get us all together in one spirit and one mind than for all of us to read through the New Testament at one time. We can all be on the same page, both literally and figuratively. You each have received a reading plan do this, as we work our way through the entire New Testament over the next thirty weeks. But the amount of reading will be manageable, each day’s reading usually being only a chapter or two. These readings can serve as the basis for your daily devotions. And you each have received a little insert with a useful format for doing those devotions: Invocation, Creed, Psalm or Hymn, Reading, and Prayers. You can do this in your home, either on your own or with your family. It’s a good routine to get into. I guarantee you that you will grow in your knowledge of God’s word, and you will have a better grasp of the content of the Christian faith. Reading through the New Testament will do that. This is something we all can do. And in addition, for those of us who can make it, we will also have a weekly class where we come together to discuss what we’ve read over the previous week. That starts this Wednesday, and I hope many of you can make it.
So that’s one way, reading through the New Testament, by which we can grow stronger in the faith, standing firm in one spirit and striving together with one mind. The other way I want to mention is our regular Sunday morning Bible class. Today we start up a new topic, the Book of Revelation, which many of you have been asking for. Well, today we begin our journey into that sometimes mystifying and mysterious book. But when we look at Revelation through the right lens, which is to see Christ in it–Christ the Lamb who was slain for our salvation, Christ the exalted Lord who is worthy to oversee the course of this world’s history for the good of his church–when we see Christ, the Lamb and the Lord, who holds the future of the world in his nail-scarred hands, then we will have much to gain from our study of Revelation. Today then, right after this service–this is a great time to get into the Sunday Bible class habit, as we launch into this culminating book of the entire Bible.
“Standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.” Yes, Christ has conquered our opponents for us. Sin, death, the devil, hell, the grave, a hostile world–all of these opponents our Lord has vanquished. And he has given us the victory. So there is nothing more to fear. The victory of Christ, for us, gives us the courage to stand and to strive, unafraid.
“Standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.” This was Paul’s desire for the church at Philippi. And it is God’s purpose for us here at St. Matthew’s in Bonne Terre. Standing firm, striving side by side, unafraid. How will God do this for us? Through his word, the gospel of our Savior Jesus Christ–this is how he will bring it to pass.
How firm a foundation, O saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He has said
Who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?
“Fear not! I am with you, O be not dismayed,
For I am your God and will still give you aid;
I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.”