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Read Text Philippians 1:12-26.

Imagine what it would have been like: The Praetorian Guard, the elite soldiers who serve the Roman emperor have seen it all – or so they think. They have served Caesar on campaigns to the furthest reaches of the empire. They have been involved in the highest matters of Imperial Government. They have risked their lives for Rome and the emperor, they have seen their fellows die nobly for Rome. Since they alone among military troops have the privilege to enter the imperial city, they have dealt with all classes of people. They have dealt with all cultures. They have dealt with people at all ranks. You would think that nothing would astonish a member of the Praetorian Guard.

But in one of the imperial cities, among a detachment of the Guard, all the talk is about an unusual prisoner. He’s under house arrest while awaiting an audience with the Emperor. He’s been a prisoner for some time now. His name is Paul and he appears to be a Jew but he is also a Roman Citizen. What fascinates the soldiers who keep watch over him is his lack of anxiety. He is cooperative with the Guards and has won the respect of many of them. Some have even begun to apologize when they have to cuff him or put him in an ankle chain. But this man doesn’t seem bothered. How is it?

Some of the guards have actually spoken to him at length about his reason for being under arrest and the details of his trial. They are used to prisoners protesting and claiming their innocence, but this fellow will tell you exactly why he’s here and he tells it with joy. He is under arrest for what he believes. He believes that an instigator who was crucified outside Jerusalem a few decades ago was in fact the Son of God. Furthermore, this fellow claims to have met this God-man, who was risen from the dead, on a trip to Damascus. And he is telling others that this Son of God lives and has been exalted by God to rule over all creation.

Some of the guards scoff. This is nonsense. But they admit that the man doesn’t have the manner of a lunatic or fanatic. He receives visitors who have traveled all the way from the Roman Colony in Philippi. These people are his disciples and they share his belief in the Son of God. This man Paul is a scholar who receives correspondence and writes as if he were a philosopher or statesman. Some of the guards have read his mail – and the prisoner doesn’t seem to mind. In fact he will tell anyone his story and answer their questions with gladness. It is this man’s attitude about life that lends credence to his claims about God and God’s Son.

But it is also his attitude about death. He isn’t afraid of death. He isn’t worried about his impending judgment. This isn’t the first time he’s been imprisoned or attacked for what he believes. And yet he remains committed to it. The guards respect that nobility; yet they see in this man and his guests from Philippi and other places a commitment that goes beyond their dedication to Rome and the Emperor. This man has a confidence that in life or death, his God-Man Lord named Jesus will save him. Some of the guards have been very interested in this. And some have spent many hours and days listening to the teaching of this man. But all of them know that he is there because of this Son of God that he calls the Christ.

Can you imagine it? These Scriptures inspire us to imagine what it would have been like for Paul. But it also inspires us to develop a Christian imagination about the way our lives can be if we are bound to Christ.

Imagination gets a bad rap in an age of enlightenment. I wish it weren’t the case. Imagination is not always fanciful flights of reality. Many of the realities that we enjoy have come about because someone imagined what could be. Our lives can become better because we have the capacity to first imagine that it can be better. Without imagination we might just accept the world as it is and accept other people as they are and not believe how different it really is because of God.

These Scriptures inspire us to imagine that what seems like a setback or failure might actually be progress. Who could have imagined that the crucifixion of Jesus would result in new life? Jesus imagined it. God made it reality. The eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection urged other to imagine that the cross of the Romans was not the end of the story. And their lives embodied that imagination. When we start there, it isn’t hard to imagine that the circumstances that appear to be setbacks or failures are actually opportunities for God to work. If we lack a Christian imagination then we won’t see it. We may even lose hope and give up. Because there are setbacks in this world that can make us so anxious we’ll trust in our own anxious notions of security. Paul was able to view his imprisonment and impending judgment as progress, not failure. He shared Christ’s good news with the Imperial Guards. There is no way that could have happened unless he was arrested. Can we have that same optimism? We can if we have a Christ-centered imagination rather than self-protective pragmatism.

These Scriptures inspire us to imagine that we really can let go of bitterness and worry about any who would take advantage of our misfortune. There were some people, maybe Paul’s disciples even, who saw his imprisonment as an opportunity to advance their own agenda. Paul’s imprisonment left open a “position of leadership” in the churches. These people, fellow Christians, had the nerve to take advantage of Paul’s misfortune for self-promotion. They are envious and competitive – they think that the only way they can be assured of control, influence, and benefit is to deny others. Some are even stirring up trouble against Paul to make his imprisonment even harder. Maybe they hope to keep him there forever.

We wouldn’t have a problem if Paul decided to put these ambitious agitators in their place would we? We might even welcome it. We might cheer him on. But Paul has a Christ-like imagination. He can see what isn’t apparent at first glance. Even if their motives are wrong, they are preaching Christ. “So what does it matter?” says Paul. Can he really be so content? Yes he can, because his Christian imagination allows him to see the bigger picture ...

These Scriptures inspire us to see the bigger picture. We see how life in Christ reverses the world as we know it. What may seem shameful by worldly standards, can be honor by Christian values. What may seem like loss is actually gain. What may seem like death is actually life. And Paul can even see his own Christian expectations in reverse. It seems like a reverse for a man with a Christian imagination to say “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain!” That would be enough, but he can even reverse that and say, “Although it would be better for me personally to die and be with Christ, it is better for you if I remain. I may suffer and struggle but I will serve you in the name of Christ even though I may seem powerless.”

A Christian imagination comes about through having a changed mind – the mind of Christ. When we see the world as Christ does we think of others and not just ourselves.

I want us to really incorporate this teaching. I want us to really imagine how our lives and our life together can be different and then live it out – even when that is difficult – just as Paul did. So I want to close with a story about another Paul, also a missionary. He’s a friend, a student, and his mission field is in San Francisco. The story he recently told me convicted me that these Scriptures and the capacity to imagine the world as Christ sees it is for real.

Story of mission in San Francisco ...

The Paul I know can really truly say like “the Paul” -- what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. Do you imagine that we can say that? Do you imagine that you could say that?

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 13 January 2008

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