April 23rd, 2018

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the best remedy for envy. 

Philippians 1:12-18a


A very old problem

Envy is a very old problem. Envy enters the Bible’s story with Eve’s first sin in the Garden of Eden. Cain killed his brother out of envy. Proverbs 14:30 says “Envy rots the bones.” Aristotle (384-322 BC) wrote about it, defining envy as “the pain caused by the good fortune of others.” The early church listed envy among the seven deadly sins.

If envy is an old problem, it’s compounded in our modern age. Envy is based on comparison. From radio and TV to the internet and social media, we now can see the resorts and glamor homes of the rich and famous. You know when your college classmate got that promotion. You have pictures of the dream vacation your brother just took with his family. Your cousin’s kid who was accepted to her dream college makes you, and more importantly, your child, feel like a failure.

Envy is not the same as jealousy. “Jealous” in Greek is the same word as “zealous,” and we know that whether zeal is good or bad depends on what you’re zealous about. There are things to be properly jealous over, but there’s also insecure and inappropriate jealousy. Envy is almost always a vice. It’s not just that you want what someone else has; you don’t want him to have it. You would delight if he lost it.

Envy’s hiddenness makes it virtually impossible to exterminate. It’s like those sugar ants that reappear about this time every year. You know they’ve been somewhere all winter long, but they show up in full force when conditions are right. (We did learn last year they won’t cross a chalk line.) You can ever fully eradicate envy.

Fortunately for me, pastors never envy. No pastor is ever envious of another pastor’s crowds or books or fame. We would never want another pastor to fail. Ha!

This illustrates another problem with envy. It’s so universal that it feels justifiable. The more common the sin the more respectable it is. Everybody does it.

Here’s one of my theories about envy:  I don’t think it’s usually another’s money or things that we envy. We envy the result. We envy what seems to be comfort, fewer problems, opportunity, influence, a lack of obstacles and stress. If only we knew!

One final thought about envy before we dig into Philippians 1:12-18. It’s just as hard to be envied as it is to battle my own envy. When I feel like I’ve done the right thing and am where I am by hard work and perseverance, but someone else accuses me of sinister motives or, worse, evil deeds, that’s hard, really hard. I’ve been there.

What do you do if a friend is filled with envy? Not necessarily toward you, but maybe toward someone else? It’s one thing if an enemy is acting out a deadly sin – you either let ‘em have it with both barrels or you just ignore them and allow your assumptions about their wickedness to grow. But what if it’s someone close to you who is bordering on self-destruction because envy is eating them alive? What then?

This is the situation in which Paul finds himself in Philippians. He’s writing to people who are his friends. Philippians is his warmest letter, filled with personal greetings and affirmations. Paul loves these people, but he’s received word that there is conflict in the church – conflict based on pride, on self-interest, on envy. He’s going to confront the problem like you would confront it with a friend.

He’s going to start subtly, telling the Philippians how he deals with envy – both when he’s tempted to envy and when others envy him. Paul’s going to show us that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is his chalk line for envy. He’s going to model how to see situations and people through Gospel lenses.

Bold to preach

I’ve written many letters in my lifetime, and even more emails. Linda has a whole box of my love letters from our dating years. I’ve written business letters, thank you letters, formal letters. Philippians is a friendship letter.

Paul’s friends in Philippi have heard he is in prison. Imagine what you would write to a friend if your friend heard you are battling cancer, or lost your job, or… you’re in prison. Your friend would be worried about you. Paul’s friends were worried about him. When he first went to Philippi he had been thrown in jail, but that wasn’t the whole story. He was first flogged, which means at minimum a severe beating and could indicate a bloody lashing almost to the point of death.

Last week we read his introduction – his salutation, thanks, and prayer – drenched with peace, joy, and love. Now Paul begins the main body of his letter by reassuring his friends that he’s in prison but OK…. at least that seems like his motive on the surface. I think he’s setting them up for addressing their envy problem, but we’ll come to that. Writing the letter shows he has some freedom. He writes, “I want you to know, brothers and sisters,” he says, “that what has happened to me…” (12).

What has happened to him? He’s in prison, but why and where? The most likely answer is that he’s in Rome in about AD 62. The increasingly insane Nero is emperor, but there’s more. In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul catalogues what has happened to him throughout his journeys:  multiple imprisonments, five lashings from the Jews, three shipwrecks, constant danger from rivers, bandits, Jew, Gentiles, false believers, sleep deprivation, hunger and thirst and nakedness.

Paul continues, “…what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.” Here is where Paul puts on his gospel lenses. “I’m OK,” he’s telling his friends, “but the reason I’m OK whether I’m OK or not is because what I value the most, the gospel, is advancing.” That’s an interesting word, used of progress in a military campaign but also progress in career or society. It’s a word that might make you envious of others if they are advancing and you’re not. Paul says, “The Gospel is advancing,” so I’m OK.

How is the Gospel advancing, Paul? You, the greatest missionary the church has ever known, the one who takes advantage of Rome’s peace and infrastructure to move quickly through Asia and Greece and Syria and Judea – anywhere there’s an open door – and proclaim Christ, you are confined to a prison. How does that advance the gospel?

“As a result,” he continues in verse 13, “it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.” The word translated “palace guard” can either refer to a place or people. The Latin word praetorium is used in the gospels of the place where Pilate tried Jesus in Jerusalem and also where Herod later kept Paul under guard (Acts 23:35). Here Paul refers to “all the praetorium and all the rest,” meaning he may be talking about the 9,000 elite Roman soldiers who protected the emperor and the senate in Rome. Chained to him, they rotated shifts every four hours, and Paul was certainly an unusual prisoner as he shared his story fearlessly with each one. Word spread, and they all heard the gospel.

“And because of my chains,” he finishes his run-on sentence in verse 14, “most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel (there’s our word again) without fear.” The situation in Rome had led to increasing fear as Christianity detached from Judaism. Christians were increasingly suspect and endangered. Paul modeled for other believers in Rome that the threat of harm or even death should only make them bolder. Not everyone, but most of them, were evangelizing more boldly.

Paul is modeling an important principle for the Philippians and for us. He has every reason to envy those who are moving about freely. Almost everyone who reads Paul’s letter or hears about him is in a better situation with a better likely future, than Paul. He could complain and compare. He could scream at God.

Instead, he looks at the bright side, but this is not just “the power of positive thinking.” This is what I mean by Gospel lenses. He is more concerned about what’s happening to me or what’s happening to the Gospel?

Perhaps you’re thinking, “But I’m not in prison for proclaiming Christ. My circumstance has nothing to do with the Gospel.” Doesn’t it? How I respond to whatever situation I’m in – choosing against envy, bitterness, unhealthy behavior – has everything to do with my grasp of the Gospel.

If the Gospel is true – if Jesus died and rose again and there is no condemnation for those who are justified by faith in him – then believers can hold on to what Paul says in Romans 8. All things do work together for good. If God is for us, no one can be against us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Jesus, the most innocent man who ever lived, suffered the cross, the most unjust and horrific suffering one can imagine. Through that path of suffering, he accomplished the greatest good possible – the salvation of eternal souls. Envy is unbelief. Envy holds on to the lie that this suffering, this loneliness, this struggle, is the whole story.

Faith in the goodness and sovereignty of God is the believer’s response to envy. Life isn’t fair. Sometimes we roam freely, doing exactly what we love doing. Sometimes we’re shut up and shut down, isolated and immobilized. The same God who raised Jesus from the dead walks with us through those times. Paul believed that because he believed the Gospel, and so his imprisonment did not result in envy.

What does it matter?

Beginning in verse 15, Paul shifts from reasons he has to envy others to those who are envying him. He’s not talking about those who have a good reason to envy him, but those who are acting out their desire to hurt him. Worse yet, they are fellow believers in the Gospel. He’s already called them family:  “brothers and sisters” (14). He’s apparently talking about these Roman Christians who have become “confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear” (13).

There are two categories of these proclaimers, and the difference between the two groups is not what they’re saying, but why. One group is motivated by “goodwill” (15) and “love,” knowing that Paul is imprisoned “for the defense of the gospel” (16).

Their perspective is this:  Paul is in prison. He can’t preach. He’s not able to do the one thing he loves the most – get around and share the Gospel. If he can’t, I will. I’ll be his surrogate. I’ve been a bit too passive in spreading the Good News, but I love Paul so much that I’ll delight his heart and do it for him. 

That’s a good result, right? You would say so; Paul would say so.

But there’s another group, and Paul doesn’t quantify how many people are in each group. In this second category are those who “preach Christ out of envy and rivalry” (15), “out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains” (17). Seriously? How much lower can you stoop than preaching the gospel of forgiveness and grace, sharing the Good News that was born out of love, on the assumption that by doing so, you can hurt the prisoner Paul?

Their perspective is this:  Paul is in prison. He can’t preach. If he can’t, I will. He’s been getting too much credit for this anyway. Paul, Paul, Paul, all people talk about is Paul. What am I? Chopped liver? I’ll tell you something, I’m a good Christian too. I can preach. You just watch. I’ll do it better than he does, and people will be talking about me instead of Paul.

That’s the report that gets back to Paul in prison. People envy you, Paul, and some of your brothers in Christ are taking advantage of your imprisonment to promote themselves when they preach Christ. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, Paul!

Paul’s stunning response is in verse 18:  “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (18). Those are Gospel lenses. People are trying to hurt me out of envy and I’m going to find a Gospel reason to love them.

I know what you’re thinking, right? The people who are trying to hurt you are probably not people about whom you can say, “Well, at least they’re preaching the Gospel.” They may be doing no such thing.

Don’t miss the point. What Paul is modeling here is not the specific situation in which you are to put on Gospel lenses. What’s he’s modeling is that when people are trying to hurt you, the Gospel transforms how you respond. The words Paul uses are “envy and rivalry” to describe their motives, and these are words he uses in Romans 1:29 and Galatians 5:21 to describe those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. They are messed up, broken, sinful, devil-inspired, whatever description you want to put on them. They are hypocrites. They are the kind of people who claim to be Christian and don’t act like it. Do you know any people like that?

Some “people like that” were in the Philippian church, and we’re going to run into them later in the letter. When they read the line, “Some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry,” I’m sure some of the Philippians thought about that guy who sits down the row from me, or that woman that’s always demanding her own way. I know the kind of person you’re talking about, Paul! Let ‘em have it!

Paul doesn’t let ‘em have it. Paul answers envy with grace. His Gospel lenses allow him to rejoice – that’s the word he uses. It’s a thoroughly stunning statement. These people are trying to harm him and he chooses to see them as partners, as brothers and sisters, and those who believe and proclaim Christ.

The importance of the Gospel

What is the Gospel? Paul does not say of these other believers or preachers, “It doesn’t matter what they’re preaching.” He says, “It doesn’t matter why they’re preaching as long as they’re preaching Christ.” What does it mean to preach Christ? He’ll get to that later in the book.

Right now, he wants his Philippians readers to see a model of how he deals with envy – his own or that directed toward him. The Gospel is his pair of lenses.

Next Sunday the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, will be with us in the worship service. It will be our usual fifth Sunday combined service, and Pastor Paul and I will preach in both services. Dr. Dorhauer will bring greetings during the service, then speak to us over lunch.

Some of you know little about our denomination, while others are deeply troubled from time to time about policies and pronouncements of the UCC. Shortly after he was elected to his position, I asked Dr. Dorhauer, “Would you like churches like ours to leave the denomination?” He answered immediately, “No.” I asked him why. He said, “You remind us of the importance of the Gospel.”

That’s my calling in the UCC. That’s our calling. I hope next Sunday John Dorhauer will experience a vibrant, growing, Gospel-saturated church. We can never forget the centrality of the Gospel. It’s really simple, you know. Paul summarizes it in 1 Timothy 1:17:  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.”

Only that Gospel changes lives. It’s astounding to me that God can use flawed preachers, messed up people, the worst of sinners, like me, to spread his good news. When I grasp that I am so undeserving yet he died for me, those Gospel lenses help me see my situation differently, and they help me see every other sinner as one whom God loves and longs to draw to himself. That’s true whether I am tempted to envy them or whether they are acting out their envy toward me.

Every person I encounter is broken, wounded, needy, hypocritical, full of blind spots. Jesus Christ died for every one of them, and he longs to draw them all to the Father. He wants my life and words to model his unconditional love that will suffer on their behalf in the hope of the resurrection, which will make it worth the wait. That’s the Gospel. Amen.

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