Friends, grace to you and peace in Jesus name. AMEN.
Today we’re reading someone else’s mail — Paul writes a letter to his friends back in Philippi. And Paul, as he said in the letter, is in prison! Imagine being thrown into prison back then: Probably the end for you, right? All hope is lost? The journey is done?
But with Paul here, it’s almost easy to miss that he’s in prison...because he’s writing like he’s sitting on a beach in San Diego! This letter is so gushing with joy and thanksgiving!
Philippians has been called Paul’s “most attractive letter,”
it’s so ripe with affectionate language for the church in Philippi. And I’ll remind you that Paul isn’t always so gushing: he calls the Galatians idiots, and the Corinthians frustrate him to no end, with all their cliques and bitter rivalries and corruption! But the Philippians: he is clearly fond of and misses them from a great distance.
A little background: Philippi is like the San Diego of the ancient world. It’s the place where members of the armed forces of Rome go to retire. Famous for a medical school. Philippi was this exciting, coastal city. Right in the center of the Via Egnatia, a major highway connecting Europe to Asia Minor, like the busiest border crossing in the world, but also amid the beautiful landscapes along the northern coast of the Aegean Sea. Idilic. Relatively peaceful. I imagine an ancient version of the Hotel Del Coronado along the beach there too. People enjoying life. Great weather, great fishing, a little on the dry side. A quick google search of modern-day pictures of Philippi — if it wasn’t for the ruins, you’d think it was Cowell’s Mountain out there in the background!
This is where the congregation that Paul loves resides...
How he misses them, how he remembers them fondly, and how he sees the work that they are doing still — even though he’s gone — as
FIRST, always shared even as his adventures continue
and SECOND, a holy calling from God.
I didn’t preselect this text ; )
But it won’t be long now couple more weeks, that I’ll be gone from here. May 27. After 10 years at SVLC! And yet, like Paul reminds us here, we will always share in the Gospel.
I really related to Paul here, as he talked about knowing that he is held by this wonderful congregation in Philippi. I was just saying to a friend the other day, we move from this place knowing that we are held in love and in prayer and in partnership in the Gospel.
It’s not just affection for one another, like friends who always want to be together. It’s the partnership we share in the Gospel, in serving this hurting world — wherever we are — with the love and affection and welcome of Jesus Christ. That’s what brought us all together in the first place, and that’s what we all carry on knowing and being called to do. Christ began something here long before any of us were here, we walked together for a time in this Gospel-centered ministry, and now even as our physical paths diverge, our spiritual, our vocational, our missional paths do not.
Like Paul, who was far away from the Philippians whom he loved, we and all Christians for whom we share affection, continue on in our partnership even as distance separates us.
Maybe I’ll write you from prison in DC someday, if I ever get locked up for protesting the next un-Christlike thing our President or our government does! (The religious community in DC’s pretty active...) You’d think that would be the end...
And yet, Paul in prison — whose entire ministry was a protest and a resistance to the Roman Empire’s cruel, merciless, self-centered, anti-Jesus rule — Paul in prison was a joyful man. He was filled with thanksgiving and deep joy and fondness for all those with whom he shared in the Gospel. And most fully, it appears, those in Philippi. He wasn’t alone!
Ponder that irony this week: Sitting in prison...in a state of gushing joy and thanksgiving, and continued ministry! I mean, the ministry continued there in jail, the surroundings just changed. It didn’t stop him from preaching God’s love.
This is the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! It is so good that prison bars and an iron spear can’t hold it back! That hunger and famine and drought, can’t hold it back! That pain and separation and grief and good-byes and distance can’t hold it back! That weather and sickness and human imperfections and egos and stubbornness can’t hold it back! This is that power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is so good that not even death itself can hold it back.
(Kind of makes jail look like child’s play, when you put it like that.)
Sisters and brothers in Christ, this is a holy calling from God that we all have. AMEN? You are here, we are here, not just because we like each other. In fact, some of us can’t stand each other ; )
We are in this place...because God needs us to share this Gospel with the world.
You know, people start coming to a church, often not always, because it feels nice and good to them. They like it. They get a lot out of it. There’s some kind of take-away for them. It feeds them. They like the pastor for themselves, the friends they make are good for them. (See what’s at the center here?) But as time passes, if they stick it out, church ends up being a place of pain too. A place of sorrow and controversy. People get sick, they even die. Others move away, others get angry and start bad mouthing others. They discover that the church that made them feel good for a while, is also full of human beings. And they stay anyway. I’m encouraged, and how we are blessed, when Christ’s church carries on...in spite of ourselves! The the Gospel ekes out from behind bars, and locked doors, and big, stuffy egos and petty squabbles, when the Holy Spirit can’t be stopped.
Because ultimately, it’s not about us, after all! We might come into it thinking it’s about us, like any other market, we might come into it thinking what will this give me?...what can I take away from this place? But God works on us, through the Holy Spirit and through prophets like Paul, to snap us out of our self-centeredness and self-righteousness! Jesus had to say it three times to Peter: “Feed yourself.” ; ) No, “Feed my sheep, feed my lambs, feed my sheep!” It’s not about you! It’s about sharing in the ministry of the Gospel. “It’s about partnering, and I need you!” God says, “I need your help in this!” None of us can do it alone. That’s why Wesley said, “Christianity is essentially a social religion; and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, partnership in the Gospel is how this works, and no distance, not even prison can sever those bonds because they are ultimately, in Christ. Who fills us with joy and thanksgiving even now...and forever more. AMEN.