Today is a day of beginnings. We start a series going through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We also baptise Joshua, and baptism marks a beginning to follow Jesus.
As you read the letter, certain words will crop up again and again. Servant, saint, joy, partnership, affection, love. Which, in your opinion, is the most important? Paul wrote his letter in Greek: as we look at the different translations into English, we see the ways that the translators have tried to help us understand what he was saying. In some cases we can see that they have struggled. In verse one, for instance, Paul describes himself and Timothy as being douloi of Christ Jesus; the word means a slave, someone with no rights at all. Most of our translations use the word servant, although the NASB tries bond-servant to try to get the sense across. Doulos – the very word sounds sad. We will come back to it in chapter two.
So is bond-servant the most important word? I think not. Should I go for love? This is mentioned in verse nine, and it seems a no brainer. Of course we should love each other. But note some important things. First, this is more than a polite saying of the words “I love you”. Paul says that he longs for his friends in Philippi with the affection of Christ. When he says he “longs” for them, he literally says “in the bowels of Jesus Christ”. In the same way that we might talk about someone being a pain in the neck, Paul uses this vivid idiom about a passion, a longing, that churns you up. It really matters to him, and to Christ, that the people in Philippi should thrive and be blessed. His highest prayer for them is that their love should abound, that it should grow and keep growing. How will this be noticed? First, they will grow in knowledge and discernment. Surprised? To love is more than a feeling; it is to think well and clearly, in ways that bless others. It is more than theory and book learning; it is practical, sensible, hard-headed caring for those around us. Second, as we grow in love, it will help us make better choices. We come back to this in chapter four. We learn to focus on the positive and make decisions that are right. If we love well we will also live well. Third, we will be filled with the “fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ”. As we grow in the love of Jesus, so we will also come more and more to be open to the guidance of his Spirit to become more like him.
So, is love the most important word here? I think not. I am going to suggest that the key concept is the slippery word that is translated variously as partnership, fellowship, participation, communion or contribution. It is the word koinonia. This is also a word that pops up again and again in this letter, and more widely in scripture. Love is, of course, supremely important, but koinonia is “love in community”. It is the word that we use for Holy Communion – where we share bread and wine to symbolise that we are “one body”. I do not think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that koinonia is symbolised by baptism. We are immersed in the water – we are also immersed in Jesus. Although we have filled the baptistery with water from the tap especially for this occasion, we take seriously the words of Paul that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”. As Joshua goes down into the water, it is as if he is joining every single Christian everywhere who has ever been baptised. It is as if there is one river flowing, which Jesus went down into, followed by the 3,000 who were saved on the day of Pentecost, and the Philippian jailer, and you and me, and every one of us.
This is the same faith that Aidan preached and lived out when he based his mission in Lindisfarne in the seventh century, and brought Angles and Saxons out of pagan lives to Christ. He lived out koinonia as he shared the gospel in words and deeds. The king gave him a horse so he could travel further and faster. Very soon Aidan met a starving beggar. he gave him the horse to sell and feed himself. When the king was furious, Aidan replied that he did not want to look down on people from a horse like a lord; he wanted to speak to them face to face and share their lives. He needed to be in fellowship, partnership with them.
Paul actually says that when we are baptised, we are dying with Christ and rising with him. As Joshua is laid back into the water, it is like being laid in the grave. Goodbye to the old life, lived in independence from God, and in rebellion against him. “I reject the devil and all rebellion against God. I renounce the deceit and corruption of evil. I repent of the sins that separate me from God and neighbour.” As Joshua is lifted up out of the water, it is a celebration of new birth, of a sharing in the Easter promise, of being united with Jesus. “I turn to Christ as Saviour, I submit to Christ as Lord, I come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life!”
This is what gives Paul joy. The Philippians are not merely his friends or his spiritual charges. They are partakers, sharers, partners; they are bonded together in a way that seems right and natural. They are united in the gospel – the active work of hearing, believing and living out the good news. It began on a riverbank with Lydia and in an earthquake struck jail, and it continues now as Paul languishes in jail and the Philippians send him money for his support.
How can we live up to the high ideal of the love that we talked about earlier, to be filled with the “fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ”? You might have thought that a tall order, and perhaps a bit idealistic. But the message is that as you hear and believe the good news that Jesus has died and risen for you, and as you respond and open your life to him, so he comes and lives within you by his Spirit. There is a sharing, a mixing, a communion that takes place at the deepest level. This is what we celebrate in shared bread and wine and in a common immersion in water. This is what we express when we share the Peace. This is what we live out when we meet during the week. This is what we live out as we care for each other when we hit problems and difficulties.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the koinonia of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Questions to ponder (now and in the coming weeks)
1. How significant is it that Paul and Timothy are slaves and not merely servants?
2. In what ways would you consider love to be more than just an emotion?
3. If the heart of our Christian faith is partnership or sharing, in what ways does this impinge on daily life, actions and attitudes?
4. We each have our own individual take on what it means to belong to Christ. Some attitudes have been described as Survival, Supermarket, Support, Subscription, submission and Sacrifice. Where do you think that “Sharer” fits in to this pattern?