This morning we begin a series of messages through St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The Apostle arrived in Philippi around 50 A.D. on his second missionary journey. Philippi was the first city in Greece to be visited by Paul in response to a vision in which a Macedonian man appeared to him saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” (Acts 16:9) Among the first converts in Philippi, you may recall, were Lydia and her household and the Philippian Jailer and his household. Some years later, during one of his imprisonments, the Apostle had occasion to write the letter that has come down to us. There is no clear indication in the letter of where Paul was at the time of writing the letter. We know that he was in prison in Caesarea for several years as he waited for his appeal to Caesar to go forward; likewise we know that he eventually was brought as a prisoner to Rome where he awaited trial before the emperor. To muddy the waters even further, the Apostle refers in his second letter to the Corinthians to multiple imprisonments prior to either of these that are recorded by Luke at the end of his third missionary journey. Asserting his authority over against rival apostles, he asks in 2 Cor. 11:23, “Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.” The preponderance of church tradition holds that Paul wrote to the Philippians from Rome.
What is important for our understanding is that the Philippian church sent financial assistance and one of their leaders to encourage and sustain Paul in prison. The letter, then, is a thank you letter. To our ears, there are ways in which it falls short as a thank you letter. After all, he finishes thanking them for their help by assuring them that he really didn’t need it. He told them that he had learned how to get along without as well as how to enjoy resources when he had them. In fact, he says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (4:13) That, by the way, is just one of many “refrigerator” verses that issue from this particular letter. How often do people not take this verse as the basis for a sort of positive-thinking approach to the Christian life. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Of course, what Paul actually said was more like, “I can handle all adversity through Christ...” and he does so in the context of trying to say “thank you” but at the same time making it clear that, as much as he appreciated their help, he was not dependent on their help.
Whenever I read passages like these in Philippians, I’m reminded of the philosopher Heinz Cassirer’s assessment of Paul’s personality in a little book he wrote called Grace and Law: St. Paul, Kant and the Hebrew Prophets. Cassirer, by the way, was teaching Philosophy in Germany when the Third Reich came to power in 1933. He immediately moved to Switzerland and in January of 1934 arrived in Britain. He was 30 years old at the time. Ronald Weitzman, his editor, reported that when Cassirer arrived in Britain he could speak no English. Yet, within six months he was lecturing in philosophy at the greatest of the ancient Scottish Universities (that would be Glasgow, of course) and from there moved shortly to Oxford, where he stayed until the end of WWII. Cassirer returned to Glasgow in 1946 where he taught until his death in 1979.
At age 50, he became a Christian. Though I do not have time to tell his full story, it came about through his wrestling with the thought of St. Paul as it is expressed in the Epistle to the Romans. When we get to Philippians 3, and Paul’s comments on righteousness based on law, I’ll go back and share some of his comments on that theme with you. This morning, though, I want to introduce Philippians by quoting Cassirer’s assessment of St. Paul’s personality. I don’t fully agree with his assessment, but his remarks provide an excellent starting point, all the same.
“There are many features of St. Paul’s mental make-up which at first sight appear most objectionable, and indeed wholly inexcusable—features incidentally which have been strenuously overlooked or else whittled down by Christians throughout the ages—for example, his emotionalism, his habit of making personal remarks about others, his perpetually talking about himself, about the sacrifices he has made and the sufferings he has endured, his self-assertiveness and aggressiveness, leading him many a time to adopt an attitude towards others which bears every appearance of sheer browbeating.” (Grace and Law p. 5)
Now, I suspect that Cassirer’s negative assessment of aspects of St. Paul’s personality arises in some measure from social and cultural expectations valued in particular strata of German or perhaps British society in the early to mid-20th century. I could be mistaken. That is just my suspicion. What I do want to suggest, though, is that if we eliminated Paul’s emotionalism, his personal remarks about himself and others, and so on, the letter to the Philippians would probably have vanished into obscurity, forgotten forever. Or, to put it differently, if all of those objectionable elements were removed, there would be virtually nothing left, certainly very little to captivate our hearts and fire our imaginations. Who would want to read Philippians without, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.?” Without, “Rejoice in the Lord always; I will say it again, “Rejoice!” I’m only getting started. (The reality of the matter is that Cassirer himself had a very biting wit and, I suspect, was probably a lot like St. Paul.)
This morning, as we look forward to sharing communion, I want to zero in for a few moments on what Paul says in his opening words of thanks about sharing. We could also speak of this as participation. Twice in 1:3-7 he expresses thanks that they have been sharing something with him. The first instance is 1:5 where he gives thanks for their “sharing with him in the Gospel from the first day until now.” This he reiterates in verse 7, affirming his affection for them because “all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel.” In verse 5, they share in the Gospel; in verse 7, they share in God’s grace; however that grace is shared specifically in the arena of the defense and establishing of the Gospel.
Note, in the first place, that what they share is the Gospel. Note, moreover, that the word “Gospel” has a very particular nuance in the opening of Philippians. It is a synonym for the whole missionary enterprise. Note how Paul uses this shorthand throughout the letter: 2:22 “But Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.” 4:3 “Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.” Most striking of all is 4:15 “You Philippians indeed know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.” The phrase “the beginning (early days NRSV) of the Gospel” cannot possibly refer to the confessional content of the Gospel. Now Paul and the Philippians do share that, make no mistake. But here, sharing in the Gospel is sharing in all the labors—sharing in the commission that the Gospel entails: It is news. It is news about what God has done in Christ. News has to be told; it has to be carried to the ends of the earth. The Gospel can never become some church’s confession that it stores up for its own comfort and reassurance. It is the word that has to go forth.
The “early days of the Gospel” in 4:15 is anticipated in 1:5. “your sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now.” The Philippians were brought to Christ by a missionary team; to put it in contemporary language, they were brought to Christ by a team of church planters. Note that Christians who come to Christ in that way stay engaged in the missionary movement; they don’t have to be sold on the importance of planting other Gospel-based communities. It is in their DNA. They miss St. Paul and he misses them. But they prize his mission and they make it a point to share in it. They send support to keep him alive in prison. They send one of their best leaders to assist him in prison. What is the news he will send back: My imprisonment has actually turned out for the advancement of the Gospel! That is the best news. This is what they share in.
It may be that the Church in Philippi supported missionaries other than Paul and his team. Yet I am pretty confident that they did not support a list of missionaries as long as my arm. I once served a church that boasted—there is no other word—about their mission budget and how many missionaries they supported. 20% of the budget went to missions and missionaries. Now if they had withdrawn their support from almost any of those missionaries it would have had no impact on the capacity of those missionaries to stay in the field. On the other hand, I have served churches that support only a few missionaries. For a number of years, I was the pastor of a congregation in the Reformed Church in America. At that time, if a congregation wanted to become a mission partner they had to commit to providing 1/4 of a missionary’s annual support. That was the entry level! My church provided quarter shares for missionaries. It was a sacrificial commitment. The mission budget was the one line item that was never cut. When they came to visit us on furlough it was a time of tremendous mutual blessing. For one thing, the missionaries only had to visit, at most, four supporting congregations during their furlough. This kind of bond between a congregation and its missionaries is something to behold. On this of course, there is no commandment from the Lord. But, there is a unique koinonia between Paul and the Philippians that, I believe is in the DNA of the missionary enterprise.
Note in the second place that this sharing in the Gospel—the gathering and building of communities who come together and live life together around the Good News—is a sharing in nothing less than the grace of God. It is though participation in the life and mission of the church that we share God’s grace. Grace is not a commodity that we can dispense. We are not the local hatch-match-and dispatch shop for people who desire to mark significant moments on life’s pathway. To be sure, we are to serve our communities, but not as providers of religious services for our consumer society. Grace is something that God gives to those who come together to serve him. Peter says, 1P 4:10, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift you have received...so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.” This should remind us that as we gather here in worship centered around pulpit and table, word and sacrament, means of grace, that this not some individual transaction. It is not merely to strengthen our personal faith and assurance. It is grace to strengthen our love for each other; it is grace to draw us more deeply into our commitment to serve side by side, like Timothy, like Euodia and Syntyche, in the Gospel. Amen. May it be so!