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Brothers in Arms

30 years ago, a U.N. Peacekeeping initiative called Operation Restore Hope was established to secure trade routes so that starving Africans in wartorn Somalia could obtain life-saving food and water deliveries. Estimates are that no fewer than 250,000 civilian lives were preserved through the effort. The operation is best known, however, because of a spectacularly failed military operation immortalized in the movie “Black Hawk Down.”

Almost as soon as the operation began, Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid declared war on the U.N. forces. On October 4th, 1993, U.S. special forces planned a snatch-and-grab mission to apprehend two of Aidid’s top lieutenants. The plan fell apart when an American Black Hawk helicopter carrying Rangers and Delta Force operators was shot out of the sky. Michael Durant, pilot of one of the downed Blackhawks, survived the crash with a broken leg and several crushed vertebrae. His life was spared due to the heroic efforts of two Special Forces snipers who requested to be dropped off at the crash site in spite of a large mass of approaching adversaries. Both died. Durant will never forget them. These are the sacrifices of “brothers in arms.”

That term refers to the kind of comradery that is forged on the front lines of combat and which often results in lifelong connection and friendship. A similar relationship unfolds in the opening lines of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Philippians 1:3–7 (ESV)

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.

If I were to distill those affectionate words down into one simple lesson, it would be that “eternal bonds of love are created and strengthened when believers both suffer and serve together.”

This is seen in Paul’s frequent joyful prayers of gratitude for his brothers and sisters in Christ. It is clear that the bond created between the believers at Philippi and the apostle have and surely will endure the test of time. They were forged from “the first day” by their “fellowship in the gospel.” The phrase implies that they themselves heard the glorious truth of Christ, God’s son, who died and rose again to atone for their sins and believed it. It also implies that they immediately gave themselves to the effort of sharing it and obeying all of its various implications. A history of that time period is carefully recorded in Acts 16 and confirms these assumptions. Lydia, the entrepreneurial prayer leader by the river opened her heart to listen to the gospel and became a cornerstone of the burgeoning Christian community. A less-likely convert: the very jailer who was tasked with guarding Paul and Silas, immediately set out to reach his own family, many of whom responded and were baptized into Christ. Both upon being born again immediately entered into one of the most joyful spiritual experiences: that of being a spiritual parent to others.

Having faithful growing spiritual children is one of the greatest sources of joy a Christian can experience.

The whole trajectory of their lives has changed as will the rest of their earthly existence according to the promise of God. For, “He who began a good work” in them would surely be working it out to its intended conclusion “until the day of Christ Jesus” (v.6). The full expectation is that they will continue in the faith that the gospel has produced in their hearts and come to experience the fullness of joy that comes from knowing God and progressing toward Him.

How excited the apostle is to know his spiritual children are alive and well. How full of hope and love he is at the prospect of their ongoing relationship with the God of Heaven. The gospel has produced these eternal bonds of love. Those bonds are then further strengthened by suffering and serving together. Note how, in verse 7, he holds them in his heart. Why is that? Is it not because they have shared with him in experiencing God’s grace? Lest we think he’s talking about grace as if it were some blessed ease or abundant prosperity he goes on to define the circumstances of that grace. First, he says, they had a shared experience of grace due to his imprisonment.

Do you remember what it was like during that first visit to Philippi? Do you remember the demon-possessed girl who found relief in the name of Jesus as her tormenters were cast out? Do you recall the anger of her masters and the unjust beatings that accompanied their accusations? How could anyone forget that night in jail, the excruciatingly painful stocks that bound them, or the hymns that they sang to God for the privilege? We rejoice in the angelic deliverer who showed up and changed the outcome from its expected ending, but can read about how, the following day, the apostolic company was forced to leave town and their newly born brothers and sisters in Christ. Do we imagine that those who stayed found acceptance, praise and glory amongst their fellow citizens in light of their conversion experience? We have to assume that it cost them dearly and that they truly shared in suffering and imprisonment as Paul says here. Even if not, we know from chapter 2 that they literally shared with him during his own imprisonment by collecting an offering to meet his needs. If that’s what he has in mind then it’s not their own suffering but their ministry to him during his that unites them in love together. The eternal bonds of love that are created by the gospel in the hearts of believers are strengthened when those same believers suffer and serve together. This is what, according to Philippians 1, fuels constant joyful prayer for one another.

We, as members of First Baptist Church, are called to be “brothers in arms.” We are called to serve and suffer alongside one another for the sake of the gospel. As we do, may the Lord increase our love for one another and may we ever grow closer together and to Christ.

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