Because of your sharing
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It seems even to me I say this about a lot of what we find in the Bible but Philippians has to be one of my favourite letters of Paul. Philippi was where the Gospel had first come to Europe. It was a town located on the Egnation Way, which linked East and West. Phillipi had been established as Roman colony in the second half of the first century BC. We read in Acts 16 about Paul’s first visit to Philippi. How Paul, Silas and Timothy had intended to go to Bithynia in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) but Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia pleading “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And so they did and it was here that they met Lydia at a place of prayer outside the city gate by the river and she and her household were baptized. Paul and Silas are thrown into prison and many of you will remember the famous story where they are singing hymns and praising God and the ground shakes and the doors open and when the jailer arrives and sees what has happened he is about to kill himself and Paul tells him “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” They return home with the jailer and his entire household is baptized and rejoices.
Rejoicing is a recurrent theme in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It may seem unlikely, considering Paul is in chains when he writes it. It’s generally thought that he wrote the letter while in Rome awaiting trial before Caesar. This is the thing that I really like about this letter. Paul didn’t write the letter because he felt he needed to defend himself, as we see him doing in the letters to Corinth. He didn’t write the letter because there were theological issues that he had to correct as when he wrote to the church in Galatia. Paul had a long standing and close relationship with the church in Philippi. Apart from his visit in Acts 16, he mentions two visits to Macedonia in 2 Corinthians during which he may have visited his friends in Philippi. In Acts 20:6 Luke write of how they sailed from Philippi after celebrating the Passover there. The Philippian church was the only church that financially supported Paul in the early days of his ministry. Paul feels no need to prove his apostolic credentials. They knew each other really well, and Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a letter to say, “I’m thinking about you. I want to know how you are. I want to tell you how Epaphroditus is because I know you’re worried about him. I want you to know I’m doing ok. I want to encourage you in your faith. I know you’re facing opposition just as I am. I want you to know how much I’d like to come see you. I want to thank you for your gift to my ministry. I want you to be united, to be of the same mind in the Lord.”
Philippians is known as Paul’s charter of unity for the church. Not just the church at Philippi of course, but for any church. At a prayer retreat last year this was what we prayed for our church. That we may be united. That we may be of the same mind in the Lord. Let us look at these verses from the first chapter of this beautiful heartfelt letter and see what God may have to say to us here this morning.
Thanksgiving and Remembrance
Before the verses we’re looking at this morning, Paul has already introduced the concept of grace – “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” For the follower of Christ, grace is where we must always begin. The unmerited favour and love of God. Grace. My preaching prof at Mac used to say (and probably still does) that when it comes to sermons we must always ask the question – “Where’s the grace?” Paul wastes no time in bringing in the concept of grace, and wastes no more time in bringing in the concept of giving thanks, of gratitude. What is the fitting and proper response when we are confronted with God’s grace through the person of his son Jesus? Thanksgiving! Someone has said “In the New Testament, religion is grace and ethics is gratitude.” Listen to the words – “I thank my God every time I remember you…” What a wonderful thing to tell someone! Do we do this? “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” Paul’s doing this a lot! Note “every time”, “constantly”, “in every one of my prayers for all of you…” Why? “Because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” Because of your “koinonia” – your sharing, your partnership, your fellowship in the gospel. This is the word that we’re looking at over these four times I’m before you up here this summer. I’ll keep saying this koinonia, this sharing that is ours is not based on mutual interests or mutual background, or even mutual ethics. This sharing is based on the eternal love and communion that exists among God the Father, the Son, mediated by the Holy Spirit. When we take up the invitation to follow Christ, we’re caught up in this sharing, in this fellowship, this partnership, and we’re caught up in it together!
Paul has known these people in the Philippian church for a long time. He has known what God has done in and through them. He’s in a situation now in which you’d think there would be not much cause to rejoice. But “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Calling his friends to mind, remembering them, gives him cause to rejoice. Let’s dwell a bit on the significance of remembering when it comes to our faith.
What role does memory play in following Christ? Paul knew the importance of memory to our faith. One writer puts it this way – “It was his (Paul’s) legacy as a Jew to survive and even to flourish in painful difficulties by remembering Abraham, the exodus, the temple, the promises. Paul already knew before conversion that being a believer is to a large extent an act of memory.” Paul would have been keenly aware of this – an arch Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee, trained by a famous rabbi. Jewish festivals such as the Passover or Festival of Booths marked God’s great redemptive and sustaining acts. They were cause for rejoicing! I mentioned earlier that Paul spent the Passover at Philippi on his way back to Jerusalem. Paul understood the role memory plays in faith very well. The Christian church has kept this going of course. Each year we mark God’s redemptive acts at Christmas, on Good Friday, on Easter Sunday. I’ve come to like how we mark events on the traditional church calendar like the Christ’s ascension, like the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – we need time and space to be intentional about remembering what God has done and rejoice!
For our children we want to create these memories don’t we? Memories of what God has done for us. It’s why we are told in Deuteronomy 6:6-7 “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Remember these things! Talk about them. Keep them in front of you all the time. We need to do this. When it comes to our children, we need to create these memories. Teach the stories that are found in God’s word and talk about what they show in terms of who God is, what God has done, what God will do. Recount them at home, recount them at church, recount them at summer camp. Being a believer is to a large extent an act of memory. One of the great stories that came out of our two weeks in Lawrence Heights came from Lane Taylor, who was the leader of the team that came from Trinity Baptist Yukon OK for the second week. When asked about where he saw God at work, he said that he was amazed at having Bible study time with some of the middle school youth and their knowledge of concepts like the Trinity and the work of the Holy Spirit. He said “I don’t know a lot about these kids’ backgrounds but I’m sure that part of that is the four years that many of these kids have had at this camp.” Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away. Creating memories.
Maybe you’re asking “What do we do when memory is gone?” I would say we represent the memory of God’s saving acts. It’s why we go to nursing homes, recite the psalms, sing hymns, gather around the communion table. I think we’re called to represent memory for those need help remembering. It’s not about whether or not people will remember you. It’s about the memories that you will represent. If I’m ever in a situation where I’ve lost cognition, I hope you’ll come see me, sing a hymn, read a psalm, pray. Help me remember. Being a believer is to a large extent an act of memory.
I thank my God every time I remember you. How many of us can remember individuals we have known, individuals we have served with – in Toronto, all over the world? How many of us can call them to mind and be thankful to God for what God did in and through them?
In verses 7 and 8, Paul turns his attention toward the present – “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense of the gospel.” This verse speaks to the mutuality in ministry – the mutuality in our relationships with one another. The phrase “you hold me in your heart” has an ambiguous subject and object – it could just as easily be translated “I hold you in my heart”. I mentioned last week that we should always consider ministry, service, as a mutual thing. The group that were here from Oklahoma and Illinois two weeks ago were struck by what they learned from the children at camp. Often we go somewhere expecting to be blessing and we’re unexpectedly blessed. It shouldn’t be so unexpected though. I hold you in my heart. You hold me in your heart. This is the model for relationships among followers of Christ. Why? For we all share in God’s grace. We’re literally co-sharers in God’s grace. What does that mean in terms of our relationships with one another? What did it mean in terms of Christ’s relationship with his followers? We have his Spirit in us. What did God’s grace look like in the person of Christ? What should it look like in us? Paul answers this question in the next chapter in the famous “Christ Hymn” as he exhorts his friend to let the same mind be in them that was in Christ Jesus:
…who, though he was in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
and being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross.
So let each of us look not to our own interests but to the interests of others. How countercultural would that be? The word translated as “think” here means to be of a certain disposition – to have one’s mind set a certain way. It’s like that hymn we sing “May the mind of Christ my Saviour.” As I often say, it is God through his Spirit that will make this change in us, but we’re called to be open to it. We’re called to practices that will leave us open to hearing God’s voice, however and wherever we are best able to do that.
Paul continues in v 8 “For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Jesus Christ.” This is one of the places where if you’re familiar with the King James Version you’ll remember this verse being rendered as “For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus.” The Greek word is splanchna and it means feeling something in your gut, feeling something viscerally, something deep within us. It’s the same word that’s used in the Gospel of Mark when Christ sees a crowd like sheep without a shepherd and he has compassion on them. This is the same kind of feeling that God inspires in Paul for this church he has known from the beginning of his ministry in Europe. We need to be asking God to inspire the same kind of feeling within us. A gut/visceral compassion and care for one another to the point where people notice and say “What exactly is going on there?” Shouldn’t that be our goal?
And this is Paul’s prayer for the Philippians as he looks forward to the future. His own present includes being in chains for the gospel, but he looks forward and when he does so with great joy and trust. He had said back in v6 “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Isn’t that a wonderful promise? Are we confident of this too? What a wonderful thing to be confident of. The one who began a good work among you will bring it completion by the day of Jesus Christ. The day we see him face to face. The day we will know even as we are known.
In the meantime we wait expectantly. We wait joyfully. As we wait we pray for one another with Paul – “That your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help you determine what is best.” As one writer puts it, we hear “love is blind” – but the kind of love Paul is talking about here is not blind at all. The knowledge that Paul is talking about is not merely head knowledge – it’s not a prayer that the Philippian church might merely come to know more about God, but that we would come to know God’s love in every aspect of our being, head, heart, intellect, emotions. That the mutual love they have for one another would come ever more to reflect the love that God has for them. Paul’s prayer has a very practical corollary in v 10 – “… to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless…” We need a lot of help determining what is best don’t we? What’s the best course of action to take, the best attitude to have, what love calls for in any given situation? Paul’s prayer is that God’s love flowing in and through the Philippian church would help them determine what is best. May this be our prayer for one another. May this be our prayer for all the communities of faith with whom our little church has a sharing. We use a lot of words don’t we? I’m saying a lot of words right now. If our words are belied by our actions then they’re just words. I’m not talking about a works righteousness here – I’m talking about Jesus' command that people will know we are his followers by the way that we love one another. If we’re not getting that right here we’re not going to get it right going out of here. People are bombarded with messages every single day. Our message of God’s love for people will fall on deaf ears unless people have the unmistakable impression that we love them. Paul’s prayer is that the church may produce a harvest of righteousness – a righteousness that’s not based on ourselves but one that is founded on the righteousness of Christ – a harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. A harvest that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. May this be our prayer too.