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When is the last time you received an actual letter in the mail from someone who cares about you? They’re meaningful aren’t they? I received a note from Pastor Bill not long ago, telling me that he was praying for us here at Blythwood and was there anything in particular that he could pray about for me. Incredibly meaningful. We should reclaim that whole letter writing thing somehow I think. We talk about books of the Bible and it’s really a misnomer. The Bible is not a collection of books as much as it’s a collection of writings that includes categories like law, poetry, history, apocalyptic (visions), gospels (which are akin to biographies though much more than that) and letters.
This summer we’re looking at a letter of Paul to the Philippians. Letters were incredibly meaningful to Paul. He didn’t stay in any one place for much longer than two years. He did a lot of travelling – some voluntary and some involuntary. He wanted to make sure to keep up relationships with the churches that God had established through him. Luke tells of how Paul came to Philippi (which was in Macedonia) in Acts 16. Of how he met Lydia there at a place of prayer. Of how he and Silas were jailed. Of the miraculous jail-break. Of the conversion of the Philippian jailer and his household. Of how Paul told city officials that he wanted an explanation as to how a Roman citizen like himself could be unjustly jailed.
This was a big deal because Philippi was a Roman colony. Latin was everywhere instead of or alongside the usual Greek. It had been the site of a battle in which the forces of Octavian and Marc Antony defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius – establishing Octavian as Caesar Augustus and beginning the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. It was settled by ex-soldiers who were given land. The city was stratified from Roman elite to ex-soldier farmers and tradesmen to slaves. A city of people proud to be identified with Rome. This is all part of the story.
While we’re talking about a letter, what we’re really talking about is a story. This is good because we find meaning in our lives through stories. You might ask “Is it harder to preach on a letter than a story?” They’re kind of the same, and every letter tells us something of a story. This letter reveals something about Paul’s story. It reveals something about the story of those in Phillipi who are in Christ. They are a minority in a pre-Christian society whose ethos was largely at odds with the society that surrounded it. Paul focusses on Christ’s story, his own role in it, and what this means for the people of Philippi. This letter was not so much written to correct (like Galatians) or admonish (like parts of Corinthians). It was written by Paul during a time he was under arrest awaiting trial – generally thought to be when Paul was in Rome at the end of his life. Paul makes himself incredibly vulnerable in this letter, as we would say today. Telling the people of the Phillipian church how he feels about them, about details of his early life, of the joy that is his despite his imprisonment. Things are very real for Paul here. He’s in prison after all. It’s a very deep discourse. He’s dealing with questions of ultimate meaning and what these mean for the life of the church.
What might this Holy Spirit inspired letter of Paul have to say to us in Blythwood – a minority in a post-Christian society in a city in which the surrounding culture often seems at odds with who and what we are called to be? Let us turn to this morning’s text and get started. Let us pray.
One thing we might miss when we consider Philippians as a letter is that it was composed to be read aloud in front of a congregation. I think at the end of the summer we’ll do that on Sunday morning – read the whole thing aloud. On my recent holiday we went to Knox Presbyterian downtown. I started going to Knox during my undergrad days at U of T and continued through the 90’s. The pastor was talking about listening for God, and how much time in our worship together is given to the Word. Reading the Word and preaching the Word. Listening for God. I thought that was good. Sometimes we might joke about sermon length around here, but we’ll move through these verses and see how we do.
It’s amazing though how much information can be packed into a salutation. Paul wastes no words and we can learn much about the ethos of the church and what Paul will be discussing even here. “Paul and Timothy.” Paul often included others in his salutations. The Philippians knew Timothy, and Paul will be talking about him again later on. Beyond that though we get the idea that following Christ – being in Christ – is something we do together. It’s all very well to worship God on the golf course or the dock (and I’m not decrying either of those things), but we’re called to worship God together. There’s no such thing as Lone Ranger Christianity. This is something we need to be reminded of I think, particularly in a culture as highly individualistic as ours. Timothy was a trusted partner for Paul in the Gospel. Even for someone like Paul it was never just about himself.
It was always about the one whom he served as a slave. This is the word that our NRSV bibles have tempered somewhat with servant. When we think “slave” these days we might think of human trafficking or US colonialism. It had a different connotation in Paul’s day where slaves were sometimes trusted members of households and the status of a slave was very much dependent on the status of the slave’s owner. It doesn’t mean that the Bible condones any of this. It will be the way in which Paul describes what Christ did for us in chapter 2, taking on the form of a slave, which we’ll look at in a couple of weeks. It’s how Paul describes his relationship with Christ – slave of Christ. It’s this seeming paradox which Paul and Timothy are holding in tension – that we find freedom in being a slave or servant of Christ. One writer puts it like this: “the key to human freedom is in serving the right master – in this case Christ rather than any of the gods of this world. The Book of Common Prayer puts it right: ‘in his service is perfect freedom.’”
So much for the sender – now for the addressees. “To all the saints in Christ Jesus, who are in Philippi.” To all the holy ones, in other words. You are all holy ones. Called to be set apart. We might think of saints in terms of individuals and their heroic and or pious action. Before the words ever took on that meaning, it meant a people made holy by God. In Christ Jesus. This is a favourite designation of Paul for followers of Christ. Those who are “in Christ.” This makes up our primary identifier. Note how “in Christ” comes before “who are in Philippi.” We in the church are not to find our primary identity or significance in where we come from or where we live or what we do for a living. We are to find our primary identity as being in Christ Jesus. Sure they are in Philippi, just as we are in Toronto. We are set apart by God, called by God to serve God in a particular time, in a particular place. This is not something to forget. Paul’s message in this letter is for the entire church. This is something that the entire church needs to hear, even the bishops and the deacons, or the overseers and helpers. None of us has arrived on any of this stuff, trust me. This message is for everyone.
Paul starts the message with a blessing. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” We do well to pause here. To think of what it meant to Paul. What grace meant to Paul. God’s unmerited favour and how it came to him on that road to Damascus as he was breathing threats and violence against the very one who appeared to him that day. What has grace meant to us? What has peace meant to us? These are things to which Paul will return in the letter. Paul blesses them. Someone has said that it’s a miracle that we’re able to bless each other at all. That this could only come from God and be of God.
Paul next turns to his own relationship with the Philippian church. Look at the first thing he says about this relationship. He gives thanks for them. “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” Paul looks back. He remembers. He knew that being a follower of Christ is in large part an act of remembrance. That faith is fed through remembering. He remembers how these people who are so dear to him have shared in God’s grace, have shared in the work, have supported him and encouraged him. It’s an important thing. We often talk about living in a posture of gratitude to God and living in a constant movement of grateful response to God’s gifts. We talk often about gratitude toward God, which is good! We should also think in terms of thinking about one another in the same way, and by “think” Paul means direct our minds, to hold such an attitude, to orient ourselves, to regard one another in a thankful way. To remember.
Pastor Abby and I are around church a lot. Which is good right? Nature of the job and all that. J The amazing thing is we get to see how you share in the gospel. We’ve seen how you make meals for Bible study. I’ve seen how you sat beside a child at summer camp who was crying and literally came alongside them. I’ve seen how you practice so that our worship songs will be as good as they can be. I’ve seen how you’ve picked people up, taken them home, showed up Saturday night after Saturday night in the winter at OOTC, etc. etc. etc. I am thankful for these things.
I know you know of these same things. This leads me to something practical I want us to do this morning and through the coming days. We’ve inserted “Thank-you” notes into the bulletin this week, and we’ll do so for the next few weeks I think. I encourage you to fill these out. Give them to someone or leave them in the person’s hanging file. Tell them why you are thankful to God for them. Write them and thank God for them in your prayers. I know everything wasn’t roses in the Philippian church. It’s not all roses in any church – not even ours. We annoy each other. Nerves can get frayed, tempers can flare. How vital is it that we remember and remind ourselves and each other what we are thankful for. We had such a moment at the end of our afternoon Bible study on Wednesday at the end of the season back in May – sharing around the table how thankful we were for one another. It was lovely really.
It is right for us to think this way because we hold each other in each other’s hearts. Verse 7. It might mean “I hold you in my heart” or “You hold me in your hearts”. We all share in God’s grace. God’s unmerited favour. It is right for us to think this way, to hold such an attitude toward one another in mutuality. To be in Christ is to know God’s initiating love – the compassion of Christ. “I long for you all with the compassion of Christ,” Paul tells them. This is that Greek word I keep coming back to – splagchnizomai. The guts, “the bowels of Christ” as the KJV puts it. This visceral feeling. This is the compassion which God has shown us and it’s the compassion that God calls and enables us to show one another and have it spread out from here. This is our ethos. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it like this – “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another through and in Jesus Christ.” The compassion of Christ Jesus. May it overflow from this place.
Which is Paul’s final prayer. He moves from thanksgiving to petition for the Philippian church. From thanksgiving to request. “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless…” It’s interesting that love does not flow from knowledge. It’s not simply about knowledge. The accuser, the deceiver, had knowledge of the word after all. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that if he had all knowledge and did not have love he was nothing. They do go together though. Our love is not to be blind. Paul’s prayer is that God’s love is being worked in and through us is to help us to know what is best. We face a lot of uncertainty in life. Uncertainty about the future – sometimes even the immediate future. Uncertainty as to what love calls for in situations. Paul is facing uncertainty as he writes. Through it all he trusts that God will bring what he started on the first day in the Philippian church to completion on the day of Christ. This is God’s work in and through us. There are things for us to do of course, which we’ll see as we work through this letter – hold fast, stand firm, knowing that it is God who is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure. All this being founded on our being found in Christ Jesus, who loves us and gave himself for us.
May these truths become more evident to us these summer weeks friends.