As you may have heard, we are beginning a sermon series on the book of Philippians today. I’m really excited about this. As you know, I’m a big fan of the lectionary, but there’s a certain lack of continuity in the lectionary. Sometimes it bounces around from book to book, or even within a book it might not go chronologically. For example, the book of Acts was very prominent during Easter, but large sections were left out, and it didn’t go in order. On the Sixth Sunday of Easter we read from Acts 17, but then on the Seventh Sunday of Easter we read from Acts 1. I’m not saying any of that is bad, but I was wanting, and maybe some of you were wanting, a little more continuity.
So today we’re going to start a study on Philippians that will go from the beginning of the book to the end, and will be an 8 week study. We won’t skip any verses. That being said, we obviously won’t be able to say everything there is to say about the book in only 8 weeks.
Philippians is a wonderful book. It was written by the apostle Paul to the church in Philippi. Compared to many of Paul’s other letters, this book is extremely positive. As you just heard Anita read, Paul begins his letter (after the salutation) with the line “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
So, really positive. Lots of good feels coming from Paul.
This letter is also extremely personal. It’s clear that Paul really knows the Philippians and they know him. None of Paul’s other letters, except his letter to Philemon, are as personal as this letter. The Philippians are a church Paul has great affection for. They are a constant source of joy and encouragement for him, especially at the time this letter was written.
Paul writes the letter from prison. It’s unclear what the exact charges against Paul are or where he’s imprisoned, but he says that he is imprisoned for Christ and that it is the Gospel that is on trial, so his imprisonment is, in some form or fashion, a result of his discipleship to Christ.
Paul founded the church in Philippi on his second missionary journey. Acts 16 tells the story, which, unfortunately, is too long to read right now, but I would encourage you to read it in your spare time. It’s quite a story. So now you have some homework for this week: read Acts 16.
Since its founding, the Philippian church has become Paul’s model church.
That’s not to say that this letter is just an exuberant pat on the back from Paul. Paul is full of joy at the Philippians’ “partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now,” but he immediately follows this expression of joy with “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” He’s thankful for their faithfulness to the Gospel and their friendship to him, but Paul reminds them that they haven’t “made it” yet. They’re still in process.
A few weeks ago I equated church life to my new found love of climbing. I said that it’s fine to celebrate where you are as a new climber, climbing routes that are just ranked 1’s or 2’s, and yet you’re always wanting to get better, looking at 6’s and 7’s and 8’s. That’s what Paul is saying here: “Y’all are doing great, but keep striving.”
In addition to what I just read from v. 6 (about Christ completing the work he began in them), Paul will make more references to the idea that salvation is not a one-time event, but a journey with God and one another, something we talked about a little bit just last week on Trinity Sunday. In 2:12 he will tell them to continue to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling.” And, speaking of himself, he will say in 3:12, “Not that I have…already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own.” So Paul will continually talk about salvation as a goal that lies ahead of us, or a working that is being done, but it not completed yet.
This idea that our salvation has begun but hasn’t been completed shouldn’t freak us out, though. Some of us may have grown up (like I did) hearing that salvation is a one-time thing, and either you’re saved or you’re not. And some churches believe “once saved always saved” and some don’t. So hearing that we haven’t reached the goal yet, or that our salvation needs to be worked out with fear and trembling might make us nervous. Does that mean I’m not saved?!
But I think that’s just a little too simple an idea of salvation. To use the metaphor of a boat, we have already left the shores of our old life, we’re out to sea (in other words, we’ve embarked on the journey of salvation, we’re on our way), but there’s still farther to sail. Salvation is about transformation and transformation takes time. That’s what Paul’s talking about when he says that salvation is something we continue to work out, it’s a good work that has definitely begun but hasn’t been completed yet.
In Paul’s understanding, the Philippian church, Paul himself, and we today, live between two different days – despite the 2,000 years that separate us, we all live between two days: the “first day” and “the day of Christ.” The first day is when they/he/we first entered into this life with God and with the church (life with the Trinity if you remember last week’s sermon). Paul speaks of this in v. 3, which I read earlier: he thanks God “because of [their] sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” And the “day of Christ” refers to the day when Christ will return. This is the day when “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.” It’s the day when they/he/we will “reach the goal.”
So the “first day” when we all began this journey with God, and the “day of Christ” when it all comes to completion.
So Paul’s writing to the Philippians (and to all churches) in the present is always situated squarely between the past experience and the future hope: the “first day” and “the day of Christ.” He cannot speak to them in the present without referencing where they have been, and he cannot speak to them in the present without referencing where they are headed – like a ship that has left a familiar shore for a distant one, but is, in the moment, out to sea, between start and destination.
This is important, because, at the time Paul writes this letter, the Philippians are presently having a hard time. It’s not exactly clear what internal and external factors are threatening the Philippians, but we have some hints. It seems that one internal threat is division within the church. One of the most prominent themes in Philippians is Paul’s appeal to unity, which implies that there are threats of division. Paul will mention one specific example in 4:2-3 when he urges Euodia and Syntyche to be reconciled, although we don’t know what their dispute is over.
There also seems to be an external threat. In 3:2 he warns the church to “Beware the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!”
Lastly, the church seems to be threatened by the discouragement that comes from Paul’s imprisonment. In the passage we will hear next week, and Mitch will be preaching on, Paul goes to great lengths to assure them that his imprisonment shouldn’t discourage them.
So, we know some specifics, but not all the details. Either way, the Philippians are facing struggles in the present, so Paul reminds them of their past and of their future, so that they might have the right perspective in the moment.
This is, of course, important for us as well. We also can be overwhelmed by our present circumstances, whatever they may be: uncertainty about where our life is headed, concern for a family member or loved one, personal health complications, the justice system, political unrest. Paul’s words to the Philippians ring true for us as well. We also must remember that we live between “the first day” and “the day of Christ.”
We also can and should look back to remember how God has begun a good work in us. Many of us, all of us I hope, can look back and see God’s hand in one way or another. We all have blessings in our life. Hindsight is 20/20 they say. Often, in the moment, we don’t see God, but when we look back, we see that God was, indeed, with us, guiding us.
And we also can and should look forward to “the day of Christ.” This is may be harder for some of us, because, let’s be honest, it’s been 2,000 years since Jesus walked the earth. It’s getting harder and harder to believe that “the day of Christ” will ever really come. But, according to Paul, it surely is coming. In the words of Jesus, no one knows the day or hour (Matt. 24:36), but all of the New Testament points to “the day of Christ” when all of creation – not just people, and not just souls, but all of creation – will be redeemed and restored.
This future is as important as the past because, while we see the hand of God working in our past, we also see the presence of sin and brokenness as we look back through our own lives, and through all of history.
The future “day of Christ” provided Paul with hope and encouragement when his present was also bleak, while he sat in prison. “The day of Christ” was the goal he spent his whole life, ever since the road to Damascus, striving for.
So Paul was encouraged by his future hope in the “day of Christ,” but he was also really encouraged by something else: the church in Philippi. Let’s take a look at what Paul actually says to the church in this section Anita read for us. We’ll see what a source of joy and encouragement the Philippian church was to Paul.
Paul begins his letter by identifying himself and Timothy (“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,”). It’s pretty clear that the letter is primarily from Paul, but he wants the Philippians to know that he doesn’t work alone, but he is a coworker, a co-laborer, with Timothy, as well as the other apostles and leaders in the Early Church. This may seem like a small detail, but in light of Paul’s repeated appeals for unity in the Philippian church, it’s significant that he portrays himself as not working alone but in unity with Timothy.
Next he says, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” Oooooh, we Baptists don’t like that! We don’t have bishops. But the church structure back then was not what it is now. It’s impossible to know exactly what these terms meant at the time of Paul. It probably just referred to certain leaders in the church. Anyway, the most important word is not “deacon” or “bishop” but “all.” Paul’s letter is to “all the saints,” not just the elite. Paul says that the letter is for all those who have confessed Jesus as Lord and been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In short, everyone in the Church!
Once again, this is an appeal to unity. Paul’s letter is not for some over others, but to all the saints. No one should be left out. His kind words, the love he feels for them, the joy he experiences when he prays for them, they are for everyone in the church. Rich and poor, men and women, Jew and Gentile.
So, when he says next, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” he’s applying that to everyone in the church. He prays for grace and peace on the whole congregation. This may actually be what he’s in trouble for. Paul says grace and peace are for everyone without distinguishing between Jews and Gentiles. This certainly gets him (and Jesus) in trouble in other places.
Right now many of our brothers and sisters are celebrating in the Pride Parade downtown. Today, especially, Paul’s blessing on “all the saints” seems especially fitting. We are a church that celebrates and thanks God for all the saints, in all their difference, including our LGBTQ siblings.
Within our individualistic culture, it’s easy to read Scripture as if it’s to be applied to us personally, but in most of Scripture, and definitely in the case of Philippians, the target audience is not an individual, but a community. For example, the good work Christ is doing in them certainly has an individual component, but it’s primarily something that is being done in the community as a whole. Going back to our picture of a ship that has left the familiar shore but has not yet made it to its destination, we should see ourselves not on a single-person catamaran, but in a ship that’s big enough to hold all of us.
Next, Paul says, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” We already talked quite a bit about this part, but, in addition to what’s already been said, I want to point something else out, and that is how Paul’s love and affection for the Philippians is always grounded in God. When he remembers them, he thanks God. Their partnership is in the Gospel. And the good work being done in them is done by Jesus. The Philippians aren’t just friends because they like the same movies Paul does and they share similar hobbies. This is a deeper friendship, one rooted in Jesus Christ.
So, next Paul says, “ It is right for me to feel thus about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” So let’s start at the end in the passage and recognize again how Paul’s feelings for the Philippians are grounded or rooted in Christ. He yearns for them “with the affection of Christ Jesus.” This will keep coming up. And it’s something we’ve talked about before, how life with God and life with others is always interwoven. Love of God and love of others always go hand-in-hand.
But Paul says he holds them in his heart because they’ve stuck with him even in his imprisonment. Then, as now, imprisonment was shameful. Our country does all kinds of things to shame inmates during and after their prison time. Even after they’ve gotten out they have a record that makes it harder for them to get jobs and sometimes keeps them from being able to vote. But the Philippians aren’t ashamed to befriend Paul who’s a prisoner. We also should not be ashamed to be associated with those who society stigmatizes and treats unfairly. Those are the people we should be associating with.
Lastly, Paul tells the Philippians what his prayer is for them. He says, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” This is the part of our passage when Paul references “the day of Christ” that we talked about earlier. Once again, he’s calling them to keep striving. They already love, but he wants their love to “abound more and more,” or in the NRSV, “to overflow more and more.” But it’s not just a sentimental love, but a deep love that’s characterized by “knowledge and discernment,” so that they “may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ.” In other words, he prays that this ship they’re on would take the right course. That they would not be blown about by the seas of division, faithlessness, and sin, but would continue on the right path, the path of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.
He ends by saying that it is all “to the praise and glory of God,” which reminds the Philippians and us what the ultimate goal is: the praise and glory of the God who created us and called us into this new life. That is the foundation of the Church from its inception until now.
God, through Jesus Christ, was the foundation of the Philippian Church, and may God, through Jesus Christ, be our foundation as well.