St Michael’s and St Barnabas 31st October 2010
Reading – Philippians 1:1-11
I wonder if anybody has noticed what Sunday it is today? That’s right – it’s the fourth Sunday before Advent. In other words – whisper it very quietly – Christmas is coming. It’s time to go up in the loft and find last year’s decorations, go to the Post Office and check the dates for overseas posting, and start all those difficult negotiations over the in-laws and the great-aunts who might be staying this year.
And it’s time too – at least in the church’s calendar – to start preparing spiritually for Advent and Christmas, to look back to the time when Jesus came to earth as a tiny, new-born baby, and look forward to the time when He shall come again as Lord of all. So how shall we do this? Well, traditionally Christians have done this in a number of ways. They have, for example, looked at the great Old Testament prophecies foretelling the coming of the King, or wrestled with the mysteries of Revelation which culminate in that wonderful vision of a new heaven and a new earth. And over the years we too at these churches have mined these books and found much to sustain and enrich our faith in Jesus Christ as our King, our Lord, our Saviour.
But this year we are going to break with tradition and look at the book of Philippians.
Now before you run off to the bishop and complain about my disregard for the lectionary, I should explain the reason for my choice. Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter. He talks in our passage this morning about his chains, and it’s almost certain that Paul was actually chained to a Roman soldier at the time of writing. Now Paul had not yet been found guilty of any crime, but he knew that at any day there could be a verdict, and he had no idea what that might be. As we shall see next week, he did not know whether he would live or die. He faced the real possibility that one door the cell door would open, the soldiers would lead him out and – to use the image Paul himself uses in 2:17 – he would be poured out like a drink offering.
So it’s not surprising that Paul’s focus in this letter is, if you like, an Advent one. His greatest longing is for that time when as he writes in 2:10-11 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. His greatest hope is that somehow he might attain to the resurrection from the dead – 3:11. His greatest concern for the church at Philippi is that they might live as citizens of heaven as we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ – 3:20.
But this doesn’t mean that Paul’s letter to the Philippians is all doom or gloom. Indeed this letter contains some of the most positive statements in any of Paul’s writings. For example, in 4:4 he says to the church: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! A few verses further on he tells them not to be anxious about anything, but to pray. We’ll look in more detail at that verse when we’re at the height of the Christmas rush some time in December. And in verse 12 – a most remarkable verse given the circumstances – he testifies: I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.
So what accounts for Paul’s positive attitude? Has he lost touch with reality in his Roman prison? Is he somehow pretending everything is going to be all right? Well, no. You see, Paul’s focus was not on himself and his present situation. His focus was on Jesus and all that Jesus had done for Him. Now we often skip over the first few verses of Paul’s letters as if really they aren’t that important. But the truth is, they give us the key to understanding everything that follows. When Paul writes in verse 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ he is doing far more than simply saying, “Hello” or “Bless you”. He is summing up what the Christian faith is all about. That, no matter what we go through, no matter how desperate our situation appears, the grace and mercy of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ never fail.
This doesn’t mean that Paul found life easy, of course he didn’t. But as he sat in prison, chained to a Roman soldier, and as he looked back over his life, he could see that ever since Jesus so dramatically appeared to him on the Damascus Road, God had taken hold of his life and used him in ways he could never have possibly imagined. And even though tomorrow the guard might lead him out to his death, Paul knew God’s grip on him was as firm as ever, and that God’s grace and mercy were stronger than even death itself.
And Paul also knew he was not alone. For a start, he was allowed to have friends with him in prison. We can see from the opening verse they included Timothy his young apprentice who so often stood by Paul in times of trouble. Later on in chapter 2 we will come across a chap with the splendid name of Epaphroditus – the bane of spell-checkers and of nervous readers – who had first brought news of the church in Philippi to Paul and whom Paul was preparing to send back with his reply. And the end of the letter indicates there were a whole host of other brothers alongside Paul providing him with encouragement and comfort in his hour of need. Paul might have been facing the most critical moment of his life, but he could count on real support and fellowship when it mattered most.
But Paul’s support and fellowship didn’t end at the gates of the prison, or within the city of Rome. Paul was deeply, deeply aware of being held in prayer by so many of the churches he had planted across the Roman Empire, and that even though the believers themselves might be hundreds of miles away there was a real bond and union in Christ. And nowhere was that the case more than with the church in Philippi. For whatever reason Paul had a very special relationship with the believers there, and indeed the reason why Epaphroditus had turned up in Rome in the first place was to assure Paul of the Philippians’ aid and support just at the time he needed it.
And all this goes to explain the extraordinary prayer we find in verses 3-11 of our reading this morning. At least I think it’s an extraordinary prayer. After all, if it had been me, and I was possibly about to face execution in a Roman jail, I don’t believe my first words would be I thank my God every time I remember you. They would probably be more along the lines of “Help!” or “Please do whatever you can to get me out of here”. But such is Paul’s confidence in God’s grace and mercy that he focuses not on himself but on the church that has gone to such great lengths (at least 800 miles) to show their solidarity with him.
So with all this in mind, let’s take a closer look at this prayer and look at how Paul prays for the Philippian church (verses 3-6), why he prays as he does (verses 7-8) and what he prays for them (verses 9-11). And then we will consider how all this relates to us today.
First of all, how does Paul pray for the church? The short answer in verse 4 is with joy. Now we’ve already mentioned that word “joy” this morning so it’s important to understand what the Bible means by this word. Joy isn’t about having a fixed grin on your face in each and every situation, or having lots of bright yellow stickers that say, “Smile, Jesus loves you”. Joy is a sense of inner peace and confidence that comes from Christ no matter what is happening on the outside. And that is what Paul felt when he thought about the Philippians.
Now we have to be honest and say the church there wasn’t perfect. As we shall see in chapter 4 there were two battle-axes in the congregation who were having a right barney and unsettling everyone else. But even though there were some little local difficulties, Paul knew that at the heart of the church was a strong and solid faith in Jesus Christ. And nothing thrilled his heart more than seeing a church walking in the way of Christ. It wasn’t simply that this group of Christians said all the right things, or worshipped in a particular way. It was the fact they were involved as Paul says in verse 5 in a partnership in the gospel from the first day until now standing up for Jesus and living out their faith courageously even in the face of severe opposition and false teaching.
Paul could see God was building His kingdom through and in the life of the church at Philippi. And so as he prayed, his joy was not simply a thanksgiving for all that had happened so far. It was a joy that God had started something of eternal value, which would continue to grow and develop even after his and the Philippians’ life time. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. Paul, you see, realised that no matter how weak or how frail the local church might appear, God’s plans and purposes always prevail. God isn’t in the business of shutting up shop once the current generation dies out, or when the church can no longer pay its way. The good news of Jesus Christ is everlasting and there is nothing and no-one which can stop its progress until that day when Jesus comes to claim His own. And if that is not a cause for joy when we pray, then I am not sure what is.
So Paul prays for the Philippian church with joy. And why does he pray for them in this way? Well, we’ve already noticed the special relationship Paul had with them, and this is something that comes out again in verse 7: It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. Because as we have already seen, it was God’s grace that was the most important thing for Paul, and – note this carefully – it was the fact that the Philippians shared in that grace which gave him most encouragement. Not the fact that they agreed with every word he said, or that they looked up to him as their minister, or that they thought he was a great evangelist. But the fact they shared in God’s grace.
Now of course to some extent the church at Philippi was shaped and moulded by Paul’s teaching. But Paul never fell into the trap that so many make today of talking about the church as his church, or referring to his ministry or his leadership style. After all, as verse 1 makes clear, he saw himself only as a servant of Jesus Christ, and his greatest concern was not to promote himself but Christ crucified, risen and ascended to the Father’s right hand. So when he prayed for the Philippians with joy, it was not because he himself felt affirmed or even flattered by their faithful Christian living, but because they too were living to promote Christ and proving themselves worthy partners of the gospel.
And if we understand this, then we begin to understand what Paul prays for the Philippians church. Now there was no doubt that the church in Philippi loved the Lord. Their willingness to give generously of themselves, their steadfast support of Paul, their refusal to give in to persecution all spoke of their great desire to serve Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. But love for God just like love in any other relationship needs to grow and develop. There are too many examples from Scripture and from the pages of history where a church’s love has grown cold or even died, where a church once known for its faith and spiritual vigour has declined into a shadow of its former self. And so Paul’s prayer for the Philippian church is – verse 9 – that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, that they might keep growing in their appreciation and sheer thankfulness for all that Christ has done.
But Paul’s prayer doesn’t stop there. Because he doesn’t want the Philippians simply to have an ever more wonderful experience when they worship, or even a deeper life of prayer. He wants their love to abound in knowledge and depth of insight – that is, he wants their growing love of Jesus to have a direct and practical impact on their daily lives. After all, knowing how to live for Christ in the stress and busyness of each day is not easy, is it? We are faced with all kinds of snap decisions, and encounter new situations where it’s not clear what we should do. Paul’s prayer for the Philippians is that the love of Christ is so strong and so immediate – verses 10-11 – that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.
This is, as I said, an extraordinary prayer for the Philippian church. But what can we learn from it for our own lives? Well, first of all, think about your own circumstances this morning. None of us, of course, are literally in chains, although we may well be feeling trapped by our own situation, an illness, maybe, or something at work, or a heartache in the family. Paul, I think, would challenge us to ask where our focus really lies, on ourselves or Jesus, the source of all grace and mercy. And I believe he would also challenge us to look at our depth of fellowship not just amongst ourselves, but with other churches and other Christians across the world. Are we conscious of their love and support and prayers? And when we pray, do we think first of all of our own needs, or do we look outwards and pray for them with as much love and affection as Paul prays for the Philippian church? As Advent approaches, let us rejoice that through the whole body of Christ here on earth God is building something of eternal value, namely His kingdom, and let us be confident that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.