01 June 2015

Sermon – “Servants and Saints” (Philippians 1:1-11)

Paul was several months into his second missionary journey. It was an expedition that had begun rather roughly. Initially Paul had intended to travel with his friend and supporter Barnabas. However, Barnabas wanted to bring along his nephew Mark and this became a point of contention between the two. Mark had not done well on the previous journey and had left midway through. As a result Paul regarded him as more of a liability than an asset. Barnabas, always true to his name, which means “son of encouragement”, was of the opposite opinion, which eventually led to the two splitting up. It was not a happy parting of ways.
Off they went in their separate directions, with Paul reaching as far as Lystra in southern Turkey. His original plan had been to go into what is now western Turkey. We don’t know exactly how it happened, but we are told that the Holy Spirit somehow forbade them to travel in that direction. So Paul decided that they would go to northern Turkey instead. Yet again the Holy Spirit directed them not to. So they journeyed around to the seaport of Troas on the extreme western tip of Turkey to wait there for further guidance. It seemed that nothing was going right.
However, that night Paul was awakened by a vision. There in front of him stood a man from Macedonia (now northeastern Greece on the north coast of the Aegean Sea). He was standing on the shore and pleading across the sea, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” That was all Paul needed. They boarded the next ship west and with a brief stop along the way landed at Neapolis on the coast, and then journeyed the ten miles inland to Philippi.
In his account in Acts Luke describes Philippi as a leading city of the district. Philippi was located on a remarkably fertile plain and had been a center for the mining of gold and silver as far back as the Phoenicians. By New Testament times these mineral resources had been largely depleted. But Philippi still enjoyed great importance because of its strategic location, situated in a valley on the main road that connected Europe with Asia. In the previous century its already mixed population had been swelled by a settlement of Italian colonists. And so living side by side were three distinct cultural groups: Romans, Greeks and Asians. Such was the city in which Paul arrived in the year 52 ad, for his first evangelistic venture on European soil.
In spite of its ethnic diversity, there were not enough Jews in Philippi to form a synagogue. And so Paul had to abandon his usual strategy of going first to the synagogue to share the message of Christ. He did hear word, however, of a group of Jews who would gather outside the city gate by the river for prayer on the Sabbath. There he encountered a woman named Lydia who was a dealer in purple cloth. She had been a convert to Judaism and listened with eagerness to everything that Paul had to share. She quickly put her faith in Christ and soon she and her whole household were baptized.
Lydia’s positive response was followed by a negative experience, this time with a slave girl from whom Paul had cast out an evil spirit. Her owners, who had been making a healthy profit from her fortune-telling powers, dragged Paul and Silas before the magistrates, who had them flogged and thrown into jail. That night, as the two of them were singing hymn and praying to God, there was an earthquake so violent that it shook the foundations of the prison, threw open its doors and unfastened the inmates’ chains. When the jailer arrived at the scene he assumed the prisoners had escaped. Just as he was about to commit suicide, he heard Paul shout, “Don’t harm yourself—we’re all here and accounted for.” When jailer had regained his composure, he brought them out from the rubble and then he asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Without knowing it, he had given Paul just the opportunity he had been waiting for. Ever the evangelist, Paul jumped on it and replied, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your whole household.” And so that very night he and his family became a part of the fledgling colony of believers in Philippi.
The next morning, to their embarrassment, the magistrates discovered that they had acted entirely out of line in their treatment of Paul and Silas, since the two were Roman citizens. They apologized to them and asked them to leave town. And this they did after taking a final opportunity to share some words of encouragement with the newly founded church that had begun to meet in Lydia’s home.
It was not until five years later that Paul had another opportunity to visit Philippi. Throughout those years and the years that followed, there continued a warm relationship between the apostle and the church, not least in their ongoing support of Paul and the mission of the church through their prayers and generous gifts. This, then, was the community of believers whom Paul addressed as we open his letter to the Philippians this morning.

Paul’s Gratitude

Paul’s letter begins—and it is suffused throughout—with the theme of gratitude. From the very outset we hear Paul expressing it. “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” Paul couldn’t be more emphatic, could he? “Every time I remember you.” “Constantly praying with joy.” “In every one of my prayers for all of you.” What was Paul so grateful for? The word in our NRSV Bibles is “sharing”. In other contemporary English versions it is translated “partnership”; and in older translations you will find it is “fellowship”. In actual fact, the term Paul uses is that wonderful word koinonía. It is a multi-faceted word and each of those English translations—sharing, partnership, fellowship—gives us an insight into what it means.
Each Sunday you are accustomed to hearing me invite you out for a few minutes of fellowship in the Gathering Space. This morning we will have an opportunity for some slightly more extended fellowship in the congregational brunch. But neither of those things, important as they may be to the life of our church, even begins to compare what is wrapped up inside the word koinonía. At its heart, it has to do with holding something in common. Yet it is far more than that. Koinonía has been an essential part of the dna of the church since its first beginnings on the day of Pentecost. Most of us are familiar with the way Luke describes it in the opening chapters of Acts:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44-47)
The depth of fellowship that Luke portrays is something that we rarely see in the church today. Indeed it was so intense that it could appear almost frightening to us individualistic, low-key, independent-minded twenty-first century westerners.
Paul is quite specific about what he means when he uses the word. It is not just a matter of having a good time together or enjoying one another’s company (although I want to emphasize that both of those things are a part of it). It is a fellowship in the gospel. Our fellowship has its roots in the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. But what Paul was writing about was more than just an acknowledgement of certain truths. It was a fellowship of living under the gospel and living out the gospel in daily life, of seeking to live together for Jesus in the everyday world—worshiping together, praying together, laughing together, suffering together, weeping together.

Paul’s Confidence

Aside from his gratitude, the second thing we hear Paul expressing is confidence. This is encouraging to hear in this day and age when there is a great deal of pessimism about the church, at least in this part of the world. Each successive poll informs us how our numbers are declining. In our own denomination there is not only a reduction in numbers, but also a reduction in faith. Our leadership by and large seem more eager to throw in their lot with the latest trends of the day than to adhere to the faith once delivered to the saints.
Some years ago I remember hearing this parody of the old hymn “Onward, Christian soldiers”—and I fear it may be truer now than it was then.
Backward, Christian soldiers, fleeing from the fight,
With the cross of Jesus, nearly out of sight!
Christ our royal Master, stands against the foe,
But forward into battle, we are loath to go.
Like a mighty tortoise, moves the Church of God;
Brothers, we are treading, where we’ve often trod.
We are much divided, many bodies we,
Having different doctrines, not much charity.
Yet in spite of the dark clouds that hang over western Christendom, I believe that we can and ought to share Paul’s optimism. For his confidence was not in numbers or budgets or programs. Nor was it in the accuracy of their doctrine or the power of their witness. No, it was in none of that, but in God’s faithfulness and the Holy Spirit’s work in their hearts and lives.
Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance once told this little story, which illustrates well what I believe Paul was saying. He wrote,
Many years ago … I was teaching my little girl to walk. I can still feel her tiny fingers gripping my hand as tightly as she could. She did not rely upon her feeble grasp of my hand but upon my strong grasp of her hand which enfolded her grasp of mine within it. That is surely how God’s faithfulness actualized in Jesus Christ laid hold of our weak and faltering faith and holds it securely in his hand.[1]
Paul’s confidence in the church derived from his confidence in the God of the church—and so should ours, and in Jesus’ promise that even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

Paul’s Prayer

Paul’s gratitude for these Christian folk and his confidence in God’s good purposes for them naturally led him to do a third thing: to pray for the young church. What does he pray for? First on the list is love—agapé, that biblical brand of love, which we find supremely exemplified for us in the cross of Christ. And again, if you weren’t here four weeks ago, let me repeat (perhaps for the final time) what I believe is the best definition of it, from Bishop Stephen Neill: “the steady direction of the will towards another’s lasting good”.
The second thing Paul prays for among the Philippians is insight—and it seems to me that these two qualities are complementary, right-brained and left-brained if you will, affective and cognitive. If the Christian community is to thrive, it needs both. It needs the warmth of Christian love, of mutual affection in Christ, of hearts that are tender and caring towards others. At the same time it needs wisdom, that clear understanding of the gospel that enables us to navigate the complexities and contradictions of everyday life in the world.
Then we must add what Paul calls “the harvest of righteousness”. And here I believe what he is getting at is lives that are qualitatively different from what is generally experienced in the rest of the world—men and women and children who truly are the salt and light that Jesus calls us to be, making a positive difference, bringing God’s goodness, Christ’s kingdom, to bear in our relationships with the people and the world around us.
As we leave the church in Philippi this morning, let us take a moment to look around at our own church with a spirit of gratitude for the fellowship that is ours in Christ and a desire to deepen and enrich it. Let us look to the future with confidence that God is far from finished with us. And let us look to God the Holy Spirit inspire in us those essential qualities of love, wisdom and righteousness.

[1]     The Mediation of Christ, page 83

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