Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons… (Philippians 1:1 NRSV)
The apostle, Paul, writes to the congregation at Philippi from prison. The place of his imprisonment is debated. I agree with those who say he is in Rome awaiting trial before the Emperor – likely, Nero. As we know, Nero was, well, nuts. A pathological narcissist who sought only to aggrandize himself. Paul is in real trouble here. Instead of writing a “woe is me” tale from his cell, Paul is filled with joy and concerned about everyone but himself. What is up with that? Seems his serving has landed him in jail.
In many of his letters, he began by reminding the people of his calling — an apostle, one called by God. There is a certain authority that goes with that claim. With the Philippians, however, he says his title, his calling, is simply “servant.” The Greek word is doulous. It is usually translated “servant” or “slave.” In either case, the word implies ownership, being subject to a master, working at another’s direction.
I don’t know about you, but when I was trying to decide on a career, a path in life, being a servant or slave was not what I had in mind. I wanted to be in charge. I wanted to be served. That is one reason I hate buffets – I like the food brought to me. The real world however, taught me that I was always going to be serving somebody. Bob Dylan even wrote a song about it” You Gotta Serve Somebody, in which he sings “it may be the Devil, it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” We do get a choice in whom we will serve.
That’s what Paul knows. As a servant of Christ, and in turn, a servant of the Philippians, he is serves in complete freedom. It is as Luther taught in The Freedom of a Christian:
“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”
See, Christ has set Paul free. As Christ’s servant, Nero had no hold over him; death would have no hold over him. In fact, later he will say that he prefers death – except that he is better off serving the Philippians because they need him. (Philippians 1:21 ff) Christ’s mercy and grace allow Paul to seemingly risk everything to serve Christ, serve the Philippians, serve the world. Yet, it is no risk to him at all, for Christ is a gracious master.
If you could be free of worrying about what others think; what passes for conventional wisdom; what you might lose – because you have gained everything with Lord Jesus, would it make a difference? Would it bring joy like Paul has as he sits in prison?
copyright © Timothy V Olson, 2018