I think there’s a real theme of courage running through these two readings. Paul encouraging the Philippians to stand firm in their faith despite opposition, and Jesus refusing to take the hint and run away from Jerusalem in order to avoid the threat to his life from Herod.
How do we define courage?
According to my dictionary it is ‘The power or quality of dealing with or facing danger, fear, pain etc.’ or ‘The confidence to act in accordance with one’s beliefs’
Nelson Mandela's life could certainly be described as courageous; firstly as an activist, then during 23 years of imprisonment dreaming of a better and more equal South Africa. He has remained that one vision of shinning light that uplifted a nation from the strong hold of subjugation.
"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” He said. “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."
Violette Bushell was born on June 26th 1921. Her father was English, her mother French. She spent her early years living in Paris where her father worked as a taxi driver before returning to Brixton, South London to start school. Recruited by the Special Operations Executive, (SOE.) which was formed in July 1940, Violette quickly gained a reputation for bravery amongst her colleagues.
At last she received the go ahead to undertake her first mission behind enemy lines. Boarding a Lysander, she was flown to Rouen, France on the morning of April 6th 1944. Her objective was to assess the effectiveness of the local resistance movement following large-scale arrests. Even though she was arrested twice by suspicious French police, Violette completed her mission successfully and was flown home to safety.
Her second incursion behind enemy lines took place almost immediately after the Allied troops landed at Normandy. Violette parachuted into France. Her mission, to reach Limoges by road with Anastasie, a member of the French Resistance. An advance party of German soldiers spotted them. Grabbing a Sten gun and as much ammunition as she could carry, Violette swapped shot for shot with the Germans as Anastasie made his escape to complete the mission. The Germans captured her when her ammunition ran out.
Held in solitary confinement, as a civilian Violette did not have the protection of the rules of engagement. She was subjected to atrocious episodes of torture. At no time did she utter the names of her acquaintances or give the enemy any information of value.
The London Gazette reported her death on December 17th 1946. She was executed by means of a bullet through the back of the head as she knelt holding the hands of two other resistance workers. She was just 23 years old.
Posthumously awarded the George Cross on 28.1.47, Violette was the 2nd woman to receive the new award, which is the civilian counterpart of the Victoria Cross. She was an ordinary woman who undertook an extraordinary role, displaying dedication, heroism and extraordinary courage.
Mandella remained steadfast and courageous when faced with opposition, Violette when faced with death. There’s a reflection of our Bible readings in these stories – Jesus who showed such courage when faced with the almost certainty of death, and the Philippian Church being called to stand firm for what they knew was right in the face of opposition.
How courageous are we, on a scale of one to ten?
Let’s go back to our readings and start with Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This was a church that Paul dearly loved. We know that because he describes them like this:
"You whom I love and long for, my joy and crown"
The word he uses for ‘crown’ means the equivalent of the Olympic gold medal. Then it was a crown of wild olive leaves intertwined with green parsley and bay leaves, and was the pinnacle of an athlete’s ambition. And this congregation, who Paul loved dearly were in trouble. We’re not entirely sure of the scale of the problem, but we can make an educated guess. Certainly there were some who were living what we might call immoral lives and trying to justify their behaviour as Christian. These might be Gnostics, heretics who taught that gluttony and immorality, sexual perversion and drunkenness were perfectly acceptable because they were things that only affected the body, and as they taught that the body was essentially evil it didn’t matter what you did to it! There were others who taught that you couldn’t be called complete if you hadn’t experienced everything that life has to offer, whether good or bad, so it was more or less a duty to seek and try all these things out!
There were also some who simply took the whole idea of Christian freedom to mean that they were free to act as they liked, and yet others who distorted the idea of God’s Grace to mean that grace could forgive any sin – so there was again no restriction on how their life could be lived, or how often you sinned.
How on earth could the church survive in this atmosphere? Can you put yourself in their situation and just imagine what the Christians within that congregation were facing. Not just the temptation to get sucked into the mire but also the pressure of having to constantly face false teaching and justify their own belief – to stand up for what they knew to be true in the face of such heresy.
Paul tells them to remember first of all that they are citizens of heaven! This would resonate with the Philippians because Philippi was a Roman colony, and like all such colonies, small and large, which stretched across the known world, its citizens knew that they belonged to Rome wherever they were. So the poor Christians of Philippi, whatever problems they were facing must always remember that their behaviour must reflect the fact that they were citizens of heaven, to look above and beyond their temporary problems and live in the hope of what that means.
"But our citizenship is in heaven.’ says Paul. ‘And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body."
"Isn’t that worth standing firm for?" Paul argues. "Isn’t that worth all the hassle, the opposition and the heartache, knowing that in the end you will be vindicated and receive your glorious reward?"
There are very few churches, I guess, where the congregation have problems like the poor old Philippians, but there may be times when you feel that what someone says or does is just plainly wrong based upon your understanding of Scripture, and at that point you just have to do what Paul says which is to hold fast to what you know is right. It’s probably not a case of a relationship breaking down, just agreeing to disagree!
And what about outside of the church with the folk you live next to or socialize with – how do their lives and the way they talk and act affect your own lifestyle? Is there a temptation sometimes to compromise your faith in order to fit in with others, to not seem different? If that’s the case then you need to remind yourself of a certain disciple called Judas who decided that who Jesus was, and what he said and did were no longer so important in his life as he thought they were – that it was worth compromising his faith for thirty pieces of silver!
So courage, says Paul, is not being afraid to stand firm in your faith for what you know is true in your heart and in Scripture, despite all that might be going on around you, despite the temptation to conform and despite the fact that it’s often easier to give in and accept what others might believe. Stand firm, have courage and remember where your citizenship really belongs.
So how do Paul’s words resonate with our other reading from Luke’s Gospel, that story of Jesus grieving over Jerusalem after being told to run for it because Herod wanted to kill him?
The interesting thing about this reading is that we sort of expect that all the Pharisees were against Jesus, but now we find that at least some of them were concerned enough to give Jesus a warning – a bit of a head start if he wanted to do a runner.
I wonder what they thought about him, bearing in mind that they were the guardian of the Law, and Jesus seemed to just want to overturn and simplify everything. They had over 600 Laws, and Jesus told them that you could sum them all up in two – Love God, love others. They probably felt a bit threatened, and yet some of them obviously thought there was something about Jesus that was a little bit special, worth saving, finding out more about him. Do you remember the story of Nicodemus who came to Jesus and wanted to know more about eternal life, and in fact was there at the end of Jesus’ life - he was a Pharisee as well.
Put yourself in Jesus’ position if you can. If you had been told, by people in the know, that someone no less than the king wanted you out of the way - dead - how easy would you find it to make a sensible decision? Would you stay or would you go?
I mean, surely staying alive and continuing the work that he’d begun would have been the correct choice for Jesus looking at it from the human angle. What good would dying do? Surely that would be the end, and after all he’d done and said?
But then of course we remind ourselves of that oft used phrase ‘God’s ways are not our ways’ and rather than take the easy option and running away, Jesus shows us what real courage is by not only continuing his journey to the Cross but sending a message to Herod – well, in fact he calls him "that fox!"
"He replied, 'Go tell that fox, "I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.'"
Not exactly complimentary, not designed to curry favour with the king. To the Jew the fox was thought to be sly and destructive. It was also the symbol of a worthless individual. I guess that we could call Jesus brave, courageous or foolhardy to use that term.
Bishop Latimer once preached in Westminster Abbey when Henry the king was in the congregation. He famously said from the pulpit “Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say. The king of England is here!” Then added “Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say. The King of Kings is here!”
Jesus wasn’t going to be swayed off course by what the Pharisees or any other humans might say to him. His way was God’s way and nothing would prevent him from travelling it, certainly not to please King Herod!
That’s the message from the Gospel and that’s the message from Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. The Christian journey is not necessarily an easy one. There are plenty of things that might divert us, plenty of tempting sights that dazzle (as the hymn says) and plenty of people who might encourage us to compromise what we know in our hearts and in the Scripture to be true. But to compromise is to belittle Jesus and all that he was prepared to do for us. To compromise is to deny our faith and deny our hope – which Paul sums up as
"Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!"