Philippians 1:3-11 Common English Bible (CEB)
3 I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. 4 I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. 5 I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. 6 I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. 7 I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel. 8 God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
9 This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. 10 I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. 11 I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.
Every time I read this passage this week I thought - how true. I thank my God every time I mention you - this congregation - in my prayers. You are all my partners in God’s grace. I feel affection for you all with the compassion of Christ. I have been welcomed and encouraged and fed with such love and hospitality. I am grateful for the stories you are telling me and for your guidance as I learn my way around this new situation. Thank you, so very much.
Paul was also grateful. He wrote this portion of this letter to the churches in Philippi because throughout the entire time he was in prison they sent messages to him, encouraging him by letting them know that they were still going strong, they were still making converts and teaching the Good News of Jesus Christ, as he had taught it to them. They probably also sent food and money so he could survive in prison. Prisons at the time weren’t places where you got three meals and a bed. You got whatever corner of the floor you could claim for yourself and ate very little indeed unless you had money or friends and family who would send you food, maybe a mattress, warm clothing as necessary, or money to give the guards so they would go get you whatever you might need. So they probably helped with those things. But most importantly, they sent messengers and letters to keep him up to date on what was going on with them.
And Paul was grateful. So very grateful. Knowing that in Philippi the church was thriving was great comfort to him. His arrests were intended, in large part, to keep that from happening. The rulers of the land didn’t want to hear that the riffraff were being told not to worship the Emperor. It was one things when Jews didn’t - they had special dispensation, since they were the only people in the known world who worshipped only one God and that one not a part of any pantheon the rest of the world knew. They didn’t have to add Emperor worship into their rituals. But Paul was preaching to Gentiles, non-Jews, and teaching them not to worship the Emperor. That was intolerable. He was preaching to Gentiles, and converting them and teaching them not to worship the Greek gods or the Roman ones or the Egyptian ones. The artisans who made religious images were losing money. The temples in the cities were losing followers, and income. That was perhaps even more intolerable than teaching them not to worship the Emperor. After all, Rome wasn’t exactly next door, but it was never a good thing when the merchants and the local priesthood were upset. So Paul and other church planters found themselves imprisoned with some regularity, in hopes that without the preachers the congregations would fail. As we know, that didn’t happen. But Paul wouldn’t know that, of course. The letters he received and the support of his converts, his beloved congregations, kept him hopeful even in confinement. He knew, he said, that they would continue the good work that had been started there. And so they did.
The second paragraph in this passage is Paul’s expression of hope for the church as it moves into the future. Hope - prayer - that they would be given insight and knowledge as they grow in faith. Hope - prayer - that they would be able to make the right life decisions, to decide what was truly important and what wasn’t. Hope - prayer - that they would become righteous, that is to say, that they would do the things that are right in the eyes of God.
Hope is one of those words that seems to mean different things at different times. There’s that phrase, “Hope springs eternal.” We use that in situations like, when Bullwinkle the Moose announces that he is going to pull a rabbit out of a hat, saying, “This time for sure!” and once again, it’s not a rabbit. His gazillion previous failures don’t faze him. He just keeps reaching into that top hat over and over again. It’s what my cat, Doofenschmirtz, feels when he is sitting at the sliding glass door crying to go outside. He’s never been allowed outside, but he is certain that if he just cries enough I will relent.
There’s the kind of hope that I had on Wednesday when the news came of the shooting in San Bernardino. I have a lot of friends in San Bernardino. I have clergy friends and teacher friends and friends who work with the developmentally challenged there. My initial reaction was Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God. Oh God, please, let Samantha and Pam and Petra and all my other friends and all their people be ok. I was hoping and praying and knowing there was nothing I could do but pray and wait to hear. I gave thanks for Facebook later, when all my friends had checked in and were ok, although some were locked down and some were worrying about their kids in schools on lockdown.
And there’s another kind of hope, one that is a powerful impetus to make changes. In 1993 I had been sober a few years. I had learned that the angry, judgmental God that I had been taught about wasn’t entirely true and I had come to believe in a loving, caring, forgiving God who would guide me to lead a better life. I did all the things that I had learned how to do to improve my life and my relationship with God. But something was missing - I wasn’t really happy. Mind you now, I always thought of myself as Christian. I always believed in Jesus as the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world. I just didn’t do church.
After a number of other things happened - and I’ll tell you that story some day - I found a Disciples pastor who gave me hope. Listening to Pastor Betsy talking about what it means to be part of a Christian congregation, I started to hope. I started to hope that, if I became part of a congregation, if I did more than just show up for worship but helped with their mission and ministry, and if I taught others what I was learning about living a Christian life, then I would feel better inside. I would become closer to God and I would feel better inside. I started to hope that if I showed up on Sundays and listened carefully to her message, and learned something from it, and then went out and used that something to change myself, then I could also change the world just by being in it in this new Christian way of being. That hope is being realized. It’s a life-long process.
I learned from Pastor Betsy that being Christian is more than belief. It is more than following a list of rules. It is a way of living and being that enlivens and encourages others. It requires being part of a community, a Christian community. Not part of an audience on Sunday morning, but part of a community of believers who work at making the world better in some small way. I needed to become part of a community like this one, that works to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and find homes for unwanted dogs and cats, that springs into action when a member or even a stranger is injured or there’s a house fire or some other local situation comes up where they can be of help. I needed to become part of a congregation like this one, that makes so many opportunities to help others available, whose members walk through the town living their Christianity.
The Advent Candles were lit this morning by two others who know that kind of hope, who chose this as the place to become part of a Christian community, who turned their lives over to God in a very real way when they entered the waters of baptism earlier this year. I believe that their hope will be realized as mine was, and that this community will nurture their growth as the community at Treasure Coast Christian Church nurtured mine.
The community in Philippi that Paul was writing to was this kind of community. It was one of many communities that grew out of the realized hope that is the Christ. It was one of many that survived and thrived despite the attempts of Empire and competing religious leaders to squash it in its infancy.
Strange thing, hope. As most of us have learned on many Christmas mornings, we don’t always get exactly what we hoped for. We hope for a pony and get a book. We hope for a new bicycle and get underwear. The Jewish people, too, hoped for one thing and got something totally different.
They were a people despised by their rulers, taxed unmercifully, regulated rigidly, whose men and women could be taken and forced into labor, raped, beaten or even killed for no good reason except that they were Jews. They wanted to be liberated from that life, and looked with great hope for a Messiah who would be that liberator. When the majority of the Jewish people prayed for the Messiah to come, what they hoped for was another like those whom God had sent before - another Samson, or another Deborah and Siserah, or another David, a great judge or warrior, who would lead them forward into victory against Rome and end the oppression they had known for so long. What they got was something entirely different - a Messiah whose rule is over the hearts and souls of humanity. What they got was a Messiah who was sent, not just to them, but to all the world. What they got, what we got, was a Messiah who would act in a certain way and then say to us, “Go and do likewise.” What they got, what we got, was a Messiah who cannot be defeated in battle, who cannot be defeated by imprisoning his followers, who cannot even be defeated by death.
The Good News is that . . . .
At this point, frankly, I got stuck. A sermon is supposed to swell to a finish. It’s supposed to make a grand statement of what the good news is. I don’t have a grand statement. What I have is . . .
We had an Elders meeting in my office this morning. And everyone shared about things going on in their lives. Every single story I heard today had a hope filled ending. Every single story I heard attested to the power of prayer and community. And what we decided, or determined or agreed upon is that being part of a congregation, being part of this community, being part of the body of Christ, part of his family on earth, really does make a difference in our lives, and in the lives of all those whose lives we touch.