On these Sunday mornings through September and October we have been preaching a series of nine sermons on Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Today we reach the end of the letter – and hence the end of the series.
To put this into context, we need briefly to remind ourselves of the context of the passage we read this morning from Chapter 4. Paul is in prison and the church he founded in the city of Philippi has sent him a substantial gift of money and, no doubt, the equivalent of what we would call a big food parcel. In those days, and no doubt throughout most of history, people in prison could not rely on the prison to provide food for ordinary people. Prisoners were reliant on family and friends.
This is Paul’s ‘thank you’ letter, and in this passage today he gets around to saying a grateful ‘thank you’ – right at the end of the letter. But the letter is so much more than the standard ‘thank you letter’ that we are accustomed to write. Four substantial chapters just glow with thanksgiving and praise, firstly of course to God, but no less for the fact that this church is alive and still seems to be thriving inspite of some disruption and persecution from outside, and some division inside. And thanksgiving perhaps especially for the affection and concern that flows to him personally and which the gift expresses.
The words that flow through this letter are thankfulness and joy. Considering he is in prison in far from pleasant conditions, and – as he tells us – possibly facing death, this seems to us surprising. But thankfulness and joy are deep characteristics of the Christian faith and life, and this letter shows us how they should be present in our lives whatever our outward circumstances.
Paul knows what it is to be content – and indeed joyful – whatever the circumstances. “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether being in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who strengthens me.” (vv. 12,13).
I sometimes think of an organ, and the sustaining note on the pedal which undergirds everything and is rock solid, no matter what is going on the manuals above, where there may be all kinds of complications. When Paul was in prison in the stocks in Philippi, having been flogged, we read in Acts 16 that he and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God!
As he has been explaining in Chapter 3 of this letter, now that Paul knows Christ and the power of his resurrection, he is filled with such inner love and strength that he can cope with anything. There is a verse here which sometimes gets misinterpreted. In verse 13 he says that ‘I can do everything through him who strengthens me’. That doesn’t mean that he can overcome every problem and danger, like donning a batman suit. He still had to face flogging and imprisonment at Philippi. He still has to face weakness, and anxiety, sickness and everything that mortal flesh in heir to. He is quite open and honest about all that in his letters. But he can cope because deep down there is the presence of God and the peace and joy which comes through a personal relationship with Christ. It has been said that peace and joy are two sides of the same coin. Peace is joy resting – and joy is peace dancing! We are not excused all the troubles that life can bring, but with Christ nothing can ultimately defeat us – not even death.
In this passage, Paul has set out to say ‘ thank you’ for their generous gift, and to this he now returns in verses 14 and following. It may well strike you that his ‘thank you’ sounds a bit convoluted – why can’t he just say ‘Your gift was generous and wonderful and I am very grateful’!
Well, part of the answer to that is that he enjoys word-play and he uses a lot of it here, and word play in Greek doesn’t translate very well into English. It’s very difficult not to make it sound clumsy. But there is a much more important reason.
He is determined to get behind the gift to the relationship that prompted it. We have a saying in English ‘It’s the thought that counts’. But there’s something much more important than the ‘thought’. If you give someone a thoughtful and precious gift then what you are expressing is love and friendship. And Paul wants to get behind the money and the food parcel, and acknowledge that relationship of love and friendship and affection which prompted their generosity, and which seems not to have been so evident in some other churches.
Running right through this letter is the theme that I like to call ‘partnership’. In chapter 1 verses 3-5 – right at the start of the letter – he sounds the note which is going to pervade everything he writes. “I thank my God every time I think of you. 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.”
The word translated ‘partnership’ there is the Greek word ‘Koinonia’. This has become a favourite word in Christian circles over my lifetime, often translated as ‘fellowship’. What we experience in church – especially since churches everywhere have begun to speak more and more about the Holy Spirit, and the experience and the change the Spirit can bring to a church – is ‘fellowship’ – a real love for one another. It finds its expression in this service especially in the Peace which we share. And it is indeed a wonderful thing. I don’t mean to caricature, but there was a time when people would come to church and hardly speak to each other. You were lucky to get a polite ‘Good Morning’. And indeed people would take care not to sit too close to one another, as you wanted your own personal space (often quite a large space!) to concentrate on what was going on at the altar, and directing your gaze forwards and upwards to God, never casting sideways glances at others. Times have changed – and certainly for the better. We have become more conscious of the Risen Christ in the midst of us as we gather round, rather than a distant God somewhere at the east end. We express that with our seating, our body language, our interchange of conversation, our home groups, prayer groups and much else.
But it’s important to get clear in our minds that ‘koinonia’ (fellowship) is more than just a warm glow, a hand-shake and perhaps a hug, although it should never be less than a deep sense of being in the presence of people with whom we have in common a deep bond through our faith.
To be genuine Christian fellowship, this Christian bonding has to be followed through and put into practice in at least two ways which Paul draws attention to in this letter. First, it is a partnership in the Gospel. It has to show itself in action. We engage together in mission. We act together as a team, whether it’s in the 24/7 prayer coming up this week, or as we look forward to taking part in the major mission to Camberley next year. The handshake at the Peace has to translate into teamwork in mission.
Second, Paul goes out of his way to express his thanks – not so much for the gift – but for the ‘koinonia’ – the partnership in love which he feels deeply, which results in the gift as its tangible expression. The handshake at the Peace has to result in practical generosity. As need arises, we have to be ready both to give practically, and to receive. As the church finds that needs arise, we need to join hands metaphorically in partnership to meet those needs, and to do so with the generosity which expresses our joy and love in Christ. The person who loves much will be generous in giving, because our love is rooted in the love of God who has so generously loved us in Christ.
It is these themes of partnership, joy and unity which permeate this letter from its beginning, and are now so evident as Paul draws to a close. He has such a deep affection for the members of this church, as he receives and benefits from their gift, that his heart overflows with thanksgiving to God who has bonded them together. And it is on this note of loving and practical fellowship that, for the time being, he bids them farewell.
It has been a good exercise to look in more depth at one of Paul’s most joyful letters. But our former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, makes a very important comment about Bible study. He points out that, as the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, for us it has always needed to be translated. And as we study it in translation, there is a further step. He says that the most significant translation is the ‘translation of our lives. We have to let the Bible captivate our hearts, our minds and our imaginations.’ We must now put the key messages of this wonderful letter into practice in our lives, and in our church. Partnership in the Gospel, unity, joy and generous giving that express our bond of love.
1. Suggest ways in which we can put into practice in St Michael’s our partnership in the Gospel.
2. Discuss the main points you have learned from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
3. Consider and discuss the following passage from Henri J. M. Noumen’s book “Circles of Love” : “Many people hardly believe anymore in the possibility of a truly joy-filled life. They have more or less accepted life as a prison and are grateful for every occasion that creates the illusion of the opposite: a cruise, a suspense novel, a sexual experience...This is happiness in the house of fear, a happiness which is ‘made in the world’ and thus is neither lasting nor deeply satisfying. The joy that Jesus offers...is his own joy which flows from his intimate communion with the One who sent him. It is a joy that does not separate happy days from sad days, successful moments from moments of failure....This joy is a divine gift that does not leave us during times of illness, poverty, oppression or persecution...It is truly ecstatic, always moving us away from the house of fear into the house of love, and thus proclaiming that death no longer has the final say, though its noise remains loud and its devastation visible. The joy of Jesus lifts up life to be celebrated.”