Grace To You and Peace
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If we hadn’t seen each other in a while, maybe even a long while, what would we want to say to one another? What would we want to let one another know? If we were facing a lot of questions and a lot of unknowns, if we were worried about things like health and even in some cases if we were ever going to see one another again, what message would we want to send?
And how could we talk about joy in such a situation?
To begin to answer these questions we read the opening of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I have to tell you I love Paul’s letter to the Philippians maybe more than any other letter of Paul (you know I’m never hesitant to play favourites when it comes to things like having a favourite Gospel or what have you). This was the first town that Paul, Silas, and Timothy went to in what is now Europe. Philippi. It’s still there and you can visit the river and think back to Paul and Silas meeting Lydia there and the group that would pray by the river each Sabbath. You can visit the ruins of Roman cells and think of Paul and Silas praying and singing hymns while all the other prisoners listened in until there was a great earthquake. We can think of the Philippian jailer who accepted the hospitality of God (along with his household) and then showed Paul and Silas some Philippian hospitality of his own (along with his household). You can read all these stories in Acts 16.
Unlike other letters of Paul, this one was not written to address a schism that was going on in the church to whom he was writing. It was not written to correct anything. Sure Paul mentions some things to watch out for. He drops a passing reference to murmuring and arguing and writes of the dispute between Euodia and Syntyche and urges them to be of the same mind. Overall though we can think of this letter as a letter of fellowship. I don’t mean fellowship in a get-together for a bbq way (though I am by no means opposed and in fact very much in favour of that kind of thing). I mean fellowship in a “Fellowship of the Ring” kind of way. A group of people who are united in purpose, who are united by love and care for one another. A group of people who had known one another for a long time. Ten years most likely.
Paul is in prison. Most likely he’s reached Rome, though we can’t know for sure. He faces an uncertain future. He writes to his dear sisters and brothers at Philippi to thank them for the gift they sent with Epaphroditus. Paul writes to let them know that he’s doing ok. Paul writes to let them know that Epaphroditus is doing ok, though he was quite ill there for a while and the people in Philippi had heard this – not only was Epaphroditus ill but he was distressed that the people in Philippi had heard he was ill in an “Oh man they’re going to be so worried” kind of way I’m sure.
If we hadn’t seen each other in a while and weren’t sure we were going to see each other again, what would we say? I have to tell you I’m feeling a bit of Paul’s situation here. I mentioned that you know that I’m not hesitant to name a favourite Gospel or disciple or what have you (and knowing me they probably change too) and if you know that it’s because we know each other. These people knew Paul and Paul knew them. I’m no Apostle Paul, Lord knows, and you’re not the Philippian church, but you are the saints in Christ Jesus in Toronto along with the overseers and the helpers. We’ve known each other for a long time. It was 19 years ago that Nicole and I first walked through the doors. That’s just a fraction of the time some of you have been part of this faith family, my beloved brothers, and sisters.
We’re scattered and it’s been a while since we’ve been able to breathe the same air, as a friend of mine describes being together. Let’s ask for God’s help as we spend a little time looking at the opening of Paul’s letter.
Remember who we are. We are a people of fellowship. This walk with Christ is not something we’re called to do on our own, and Paul reminds us of this in the opening line. Paul and Timothy. Remember him? You know him too. That young guy who came along with me when I first arrived. Timothy was like a son to Paul. Timothy would go on to become the head of the church in Ephesus and at this point, he was still at Paul’s side. Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus. Who came to us in the form of a servant. The one in whom we are called and enabled to look not to our own interests but to the interests of others. All of us. Who are saints?
Of course, the church in the coming centuries would begin to recognize individuals (particularly those who were killed for their faith) as saints, and then start to recognize people as saints based on piety or ability to perform miraculous acts. Paul uses the term to describe all of us. Those who are set apart. Made holy. Not through anything we have done or could do but in the holiness of Christ. In the grace of Christ, you might say.
Grace and Peace
In the unmerited love and mercy of Christ, which is what we need. Last week England lost in the finals of the 2020 European Football Championship to Italy. England lost in a penalty shoot-out and the last act was the shot taken by a young man named Bukayo Saka which was saved by the Italian keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. Utter dejection on Saka’s part. Here’s a picture of him along with England manager Gareth Southgate. Here is how one person described the picture:
If there is any image more beautiful
Than the embrace of the one
Who trains, equips, releases
And when you fail
Still embraces you
And reminds you that your value Comes from you who are
Not what you did
Remember who we are beloved brothers and sisters. We are a people who are called to receive and extend grace.
In a time of uncertainty, in a time of scarce resources for the church, we might talk a lot about what the church needs. What does the church need? The church needs the two things that Paul prays for them at the start of this letter. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Lord I Need You” indeed. The only thing the church is needs is the grace and peace of God. Resting confidently in the grace and peace of God no matter what is going on around us or no matter how much is known or not known about a post-pandemic world or any other kind of world for that matter.
In whom there is joy. Often we connect joy to an event, like a celebration. For the follower of Christ joy is a gift from God. It transcends circumstances. Someone has described it as an attitude of the heart determined by confidence in God. It is how our sails are set as followers of Christ. One poet described two ships in the midst of a gale – “One ship drives east and the other drives west/With the self-same winds that blow/’Tis the set of the sails and not the gales/That tells them the way to go.” Paul wants his beloved sisters and brothers in Philippi to know he’s ok. He’s in prison facing a capital sentence potentially. No matter Paul’s circumstance joy is ingrained. “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.” Do we give thanks to God for one another in our prayers? “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” Paul looks back – “because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day…” Think of the sharing of the good news of the love and grace and mercy and justice of Christ that has gone in since your first sharing of it with this family of faith or whichever family of faith to whom you might belong…
Think about it. Give thanks for it now and give thanks for the ways we are able to share in it now and will be able to share it in the future, no matter our circumstances. In one of our Bible studies not long ago we talked about looking for rainbows – looking for reminders of the promises and how and where we are seeing them fulfilled and in whom we are seeing them fulfilled. And give thanks with joy. Confident that the one who began a good work among us will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. That day to which we look forward. That day for which we yearn. That day for which we actively wait, holding on fiercely to hope. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates verse 6 like this – “There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.” Wouldn’t we want to let each other know such a thing? Looking at the past, the present, the future. The day of Jesus Christ.
In Jesus Christ. What does it mean for us to be in Jesus Christ? It means to hold one another in our hearts. Our NRSV bibles note the double meaning of the phrase Paul uses here for “because you hold me in your heart.” It can also be translated as “because I hold you in my heart.” We are all of us sharers in God’s grace. This is the truth of which Paul wants his dear brothers and sisters in Philippi to be reminded. For all of you share in God’s grace with me. This is the truth. Deitrich Bonhoeffer, who literally wrote the book on Life Together, described this truth like this – “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ… Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”
Of course, the challenge for us to for our actions to match this truth. The people of Philippi showed their sharing in God’s grace with Paul by sending people like Epaphroditus to see him. They showed it by helping Paul financially. Presence and presents if you like. The challenge that is ever before us as followers of Christ is to narrow the gap between what we believe and how those beliefs are manifested in our words and in our actions. Worshipping together, coming around tables together, is a sign of our sharing in Christ. Sharing money is a sign of our sharing in Christ – it is tangible evidence of a deep truth, not simply an income-tax deduction.
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.
I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ. Compassion here is that Greek word you’ve heard me speak of, Splanchnon – the guts, the inmost parts, a visceral longing.
And always prayer. Paul begins and ends with prayer here. The prayer of thanks in verse 3. The prayer of asking (we call it intercession – it means asking of God). What is it that Paul prays? I pray that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight. Love is the message. There’s a new documentary out about the life of Anthony Bourdain, a chef who achieved a very high level of fame – travel, money, food all part of his life, which he took three years ago at the age of 61. In the movie, he’s talking to Iggy Pop, a punk icon (and Bourdain was a bit of a punk rock chef in many ways). They’re sitting in a restaurant and Bourdain asks Iggy Pop about sustained contentment, happiness. “What thrills you?” Bourdain asks. Iggy Pop tells him it’s embarrassing for him to give the answer. This is what he says, “Being loved and actually appreciating the people who are giving that to me.” I watched that and Iggy Pop had absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. He is hitting on a fundamental truth about who God created us to be and what God created us to do. May our love overflow more and more, spill out of us, with knowledge and full insight – not simply sentiment or feeling but a heart knowledge of how God loves us and what God wills for us in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit so that God’s love pours out of us in everything we say and everything we do. So that in all the unknowns and all the questions and all the tragedies and all the darkness, the love of God and our love for God and all God has created remains unquestionably our light.
If we hadn’t seen one another for a while, what would we want to say to one another? May the words of Paul to his dearly loved sisters and brothers in Philippi guide us this day and in the days to come.