Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
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 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. 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 gracewith me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.
Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill.These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defence of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice...
Love Overflowing- Philippians 1:1-18a
Philippians is known as a letter of friendship. Paul's love of his friends in Philippi is evident from the very beginning. "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." He was writing from prison, though we don't know if the prison is in Rome or Caesarea or Ephesus. We modern readers don't know why Paul is in jail. That is not recorded in this letter. But, we can remember from last week's sermon that, at this point in history, early Christian preachers were gaining a reputation for disturbing the peace. The book of Acts describes one of Paul's arrests as a mob scene. Local people who disagreed with him whipped up dissent and accosted him. Roman soldiers and centurions had to intervene to stop the mob. Paul was taken away, at least in part, to calm everyone down. Maybe something like that happened here. We're not sure. We just know that his imprisonment is connected to his preaching. And, prison was not a comfortable place to be.
According to at least once scholar I read this week, you really don't want to find yourself in a Roman prison. I mean, no prison sounds great. Some prisons sound particularly bad. Did you hear about that mentally ill prisoner, Terrill Thomas, who died of dehydration last year in Milwaukee County Jail? His water was turned off for seven days while he was in solitary confinement and he wasn't given anything else to drink with his meals during that time. That's the kind of bad Paul might have been facing. Dr. Michael Joseph Brown, in a commentary on this passage, said that Roman prison cells were often barely more than pits in the ground. The state did not often provide even the most basic needs for those who were imprisoned. Many people relied on friends and family outside of prison to provide for their food while they were in prison. If they had no one to bring them food, they could starve.
There is a good chance that part of the reason Paul is thanking this congregation, beyond just being thankful for their relationship, is because they were helping him survive while he was imprisoned. In a portion of chapter 4 that we didn't read today, he thanks them for supporting him financially when no one else would. And, for a reason that is not clear in the letter, the church in Philippi has sent a member of the church, a man named Epaphroditus, to spend time with him. Maybe Epaphroditus was helping to care for him while he was imprisoned. Or, maybe Epaphroditus was just delivering a letter and decided to stick around for moral support. Regardless, Paul wanted to thank his friends afar for their support. It may literally be what is keeping him alive. No wonder he thanks God for them.
As I studied in preparation for this sermon, I repeatedly read that if you want to figure out what Paul is going to say later in the letter, you pay attention to what he writes in the beginning of the letter. Paul wrote many kinds of letters. Sometimes he mediates arguments (he even does a little of that in Philippians). Sometimes he offers correction when a congregation has forgotten how to love one another. Sometimes he even castigates teachers who he believes are corrupting the Gospel (he does a little of that here in chapter 3). But, those things aren't the true point of this letter. This letter is written to encourage his friends. They've been concerned for him and for Epaphroditus, who they had heard was ill. They've also been concerned about the stresses in their local church. Paul realizes that they could use a little reminder of just how beloved they are.
Paul was as someone who lived with chronic pain. I think this helped him understand that with any new movement in the body comes a stretch or a hitch as a body becomes accustomed to the change. He connected this deep understanding of struggle to his understanding of what it means to learn to live in new ways with Christ. He told his friends that they should expect tension. With change, there is always tension. Struggle and strain shouldn't be viewed as signs that they are definitely doing something wrong. They can be understood as a natural part of doing a new thing and of trying to change their lives, aligning them with God's purposes. Paul realizes that he needs to remind them that they have tools at hand to help them with the tension. So, Paul said he was praying for them, even as he himself was living in a pit-like prison. Paul knew that prayer is a strong foundation for doing the Gospel. He reminded them that he was praying for them and said he felt fortunate that they were praying for him.
What exactly was he praying for? It turns out, he wasn't praying for life to magically get easier for them. Instead, he was praying for them to be even more inspired to change. Paul told them, in the most beautiful turn of phrase, that he hopes they have love overflowing with knowledge and insight. Isn't that a wonderful way to think about our faith? Our heart and our brain working together, deeply interconnected, allowing us to serve the Gospel and our neighbors with our fullest selves. It reminds me of that song from the musical "The Wiz," where Dorothy, as played by Diana Ross, sings of home as a place with love overflowing, as a place that would benefit from the lessons she learned about love in Oz. Paul thinks of the church as a place with love overflowing: love from God, through Christ... love from one another to our siblings in Christ and to our neighbors. Paul stated his hope that Christian community be a place where we practice loving as Christ loved and living our whole lives proclaiming that love.
Paul knew Christ's overflowing love and knew that this love was what inspired him to proclaim the Gospel in every way that he could imagine. He was able to preach in and through his hardships. He hoped that the church in Philippi could continue preaching through theirs. He said do not let suffering lead you to giving up hope. Do not allow the tension to turn you away from your calling. God's over-flowing love can reach out well beyond what we can imagine, splashing into corners and cracks and crevices that seem beyond our reach, but only if we can work through our strain and stress of our growing and changing time, and press towards the kindom of justice and mercy that Christ has been calling us towards. Paul said God's presence is marked by abundance, a cup overflowing. We can rely on this abundance to carry us forward and to inspire us to continue on, even when things are at their hardest. Paul said that we can be certain that there is always more love. There is always more knowledge. There is always more insight and opportunity to live out the Gospel. We just have to pay attention to when the opportunity presents itself.
While our context is certainly different that the context of the ancient church, I think Paul's words to the Philippians hold no small amount of wisdom for us as well. Because, right now, in our country and in our towns and churches, we have found ourselves once again at a transition point... a time of stress and strain and struggle. While most of us aren't risking arrest for public disturbances, we have noticed that the place of the church in our culture has changed. On Sunday mornings, our church services compete for attention with baseball games, soccer practice, brunch, and intractable work schedules. Many of our once large churches struggle to fill our sanctuaries even on the holiest of holidays. People regularly question the relevance of an institutionalized faith. As we worship and serve together in increasingly small numbers, it can be tempting to be discouraged as we worry about how to steward this wonderful institution with which we have been entrusted.
If Paul was writing us a letter of friendship to comfort and inspire us today, what might he say? First, I think he'd offer to pray for us. That's always a good start. Then, I think Paul would remind us of our call to do the Gospel at all times, and encourage us to figure out how to do it in our new context. For example, he could figure out how to preach in jail, maybe we can figure out how to offer worship at times more amenable to modern schedules or how to identify the most pressing needs in our towns and help meet them. I think Paul would also remind us to cling to what is at the root of our faith, God's love and mercy, and learn to live it out in a new way, like he did. He would invite us to look at our current climate, and discern where the would could use a little more love and mercy and take it there. And, mostly, I think Paul would remind us that reinvention is always possible with God, if we're open to it. His own life is an example of the ways a person can change with God's help. I pray that we can hear Paul's exhortation to continue our worship and service, especially in times of great tension. There is still hope. May we find it, just like Paul did, and may we, too, pass it along.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Michael Joseph Brown: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1933
I love To Tell the Story Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=511
Bart. D. Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Terrill Thomas: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/25/us/milwaukee-inmate-died-after-being-deprived-of-water-for-7-days.html?_r=0
And, just for fun, Diana Ross sings "Home": https://youtu.be/dslpHxTuA-w
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.