Reading through Paul’s letter to the Philippians reminds us of the importance of what may be called “relational capital.” This is more than just the simple notion that someone owes someone else a favor. Instead, it points to the level of trust in a relationship upon which one may “draw,” as it were, in the ups and downs of life.
This is clearly illustrated in a tale of two pastors that I heard at a church leadership conference. A church had a long-tenured pastor who, very unfortunately, forgot about a wedding he was to officiate. Instead, he spent the afternoon of the wedding playing golf. The frustrated wedding party managed to find a last minute substitute; the bride’s family, however, left the church, a sore point in the life of the congregation. The church elders rebuked the pastor for such an egregious blunder and urged him to take measures to see that it didn’t happen again. The pastor, though, retained his position.
A few years later the pastor retired and the church hired a new, young pastor to succeed him. A few weeks into his ministry, the new pastor decided that the church’s pulpit was a bit stodgy, so he sold it to an antique dealer and replaced it with something a little more modern—all without consulting the church board. When the congregation showed up for worship the next Sunday, not a few were bewildered and dismayed to discover that the venerable pulpit was missing. The church board began the process of removing the new pastor that same week.
The long-tenured pastor had substantial relational capital. He had built up trust and mutual affection through years of faithfulness—enough relational capital to carry him through a major lapse in the performance of his duties. The new pastor had some relational capital. Every pastor starts out with at least some relational capital by virtue of respect for the pastoral office and the hope that accompanies new pastoral relationships. However, the new pastor did not have enough relational capital to overcome the indignation at his unilateral decision to sell a beloved icon!
The tale of two pastors presents relational capital as a resource that can potentially carry people through the times when they let others down. St. Paul, on the other hand, leverages his relational capital with the Philippians in a very positive way. He uses it to make sure he has a hearing for counsel that will build the church up in the faith.
Philippians Chapter 2 is one of the most important passages in the New Testament concerning the person and work of Christ. It speaks of his deity, his pre-existence, his humiliation, his incarnation, his death and resurrection and exaltation. Yet it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the Christological summary serves as an exhortation to humility and that this exhortation to humility is presented as a personal request. The apostle introduces all of this with “Make my joy complete.” Or more simply, “Do this for me.”
On one level we might be tempted to dismiss the personal appeal, the leveraging of relational capital, as just the wrapping in which the exhortation or the doctrine is packaged. In other words, as interesting, but of no real significance. We can find essentially the same exhortation, for example, in Romans 12:1ff where the apostle exhorts the brothers and sisters to a transformation of attitude characterized first and foremost by humility. The Romans exhortation is to a church that Paul has not personally met. In fact, he is writing to introduce himself with a view to visiting them some day. Nonetheless, he writes with the authority of an apostle. The fact that he has not accumulated a lot of relational capital with them does not prevent him from speaking boldly. But, it is clear that he frames his appeal very differently than his personal appeal to the Philippians.
It would be wrong, though, to dismiss Paul’s strong personal relationship to the Philippians as of only secondary interest. The Gospel draws us precisely toward relationships in which a concern for the joy of others demonstrates our faith in Christ. This is clear even in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Even though he does not yet know them by face, he hopes to come and see them “so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” (Rom. 1:12) In fact, it is precisely in the formation of gospel communities where people see themselves as stewards of the joy of others that the missionary enterprise reaches its culmination. More on that in a moment.
This morning I would like to suggest two basic ways in which a life that displays the humility and obedience of Christ would make Paul’s joy complete. We need to appreciate at the outset that Paul’s language about joy is relative. It is not that these people, in and of themselves, have the capacity to fulfill all of the Apostle’s heart’s desire. Later in the letter, he speaks of himself as a man on a quest to know Christ—a quest on which he has not yet arrived. Only when he completes his quest to share fully in the fellowship of Christ’s resurrection will his joy really be complete. But Paul is writing to say thank you to people who have already demonstrated their love and concern for him in very tangible ways. They have sent financial assistance to help him in his imprisonment. They have sent Epaphroditus, one of their own, to personally minister to Paul on their behalf. Paul’s “Make my joy complete” is in this context. The meaning is, “You have done so much to help me and encourage me—to bring me joy in my imprisonment. If you really want to bring me joy, though, there’s one more thing you can do to make it complete.”
Remembering the prison context, then, one way in which the Philippians can make his joy complete has to do with legacy. Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ, has spent his post-conversion life as a missionary, planting churches throughout Asia Minor, Macedonia and Achaia. One question that must have been uppermost in his mind was what would become of these churches which God has raised up through his labors. From the letter, we know that he was planning to send Timothy to Philippi and that he was confident Timothy would care for the welfare of the church. Central to Paul’s “legacy strategy” was the development of leaders who could continue to strengthen the churches.
But there are so many threats to the survival of young churches. Persecution from without was a stark reality, so he exhorted them to stand firm and contend together for the faith of the Gospel. (1:17) The greater threat, though, was divisions from within, arising from “selfish ambition or conceit.” (2:3) For this reason, he reminds them of the reality of God’s transforming work that they had already experienced. In 2:1, he lists the saving graces that they had received to draw them together—“encouragement in Christ, consolation from love, sharing in the Spirit, compassion and sympathy.” On this basis—the grace and provision of God—he urges them to unity and mutual love. He then reinforces the exhortation with the example of Christ, rehearsing the mystery of the Gospel in the beautiful words of 2:6-11. Clearly, as far as St. Paul was concerned, nothing would secure his missionary legacy more than the unity of the body.
We should appreciate that, for St. Paul, legacy was not some self-centered issue, but a matter of faithfulness. Legacy, for the Christian, is what we leave behind for the glory of God and the blessing of others. Legacy has to do with our lives counting. As Paul famously said in 1 Corinthians 15:58, looking forward to the resurrection, “In the Lord, your labor is not in vain.” Mutual love would secure Paul’s missionary legacy. As he would also say to the Corinthians in an earlier chapter (13:8) “Love never ends.”
Legacy, of course, is a major concern for churches in the West in our time. Church attendance is steadily declining, especially among churches who have roots in what may be called “main-line” Protestantism. Unaffiliated” is the fastest growing religious category in North America. Congregations with long histories struggle to maintain programs and property inherited from more dynamic days of church growth. Legacy is on everyone’s mind. How will we keep this going? Who will keep these buildings with treasured memories open? Most important and vexing—will our children and grandchildren really care about any of this?
Of course, part of the challenge of legacy is the certainty of change and discerning in the midst of change what really needs to be handed down. St. Paul saw legacy as a pretty simple matter: the legacy to be passed on is the Gospel. Everything else is secondary. If the Gospel is passed on, the church will continue to draw life from, and arrange its life around, that message. That is why it is so important to test our proclamation of the Gospel in the light of Scripture so we can pass it on faithfully. Doctrine is not some peripheral pastime for theologians. We are all to contend for the faith of the Gospel. Moreover, the Gospel is best passed on in a community whose life is “worthy of the Gospel,” a community held together in Christ’s love through Christ-like love.
This leads naturally into a second, closely-related aspect of the Philippians making Paul’s joy complete. Paul earlier spoke of his personal joy in the fact that the Gospel was being preached by more people as a result of his imprisonment. In 1:18 he says that whether people were doing this out of worthy or base motives, Christ was being preached and in that he would rejoice. Now I do not want to fall into the fallacy of saying that because Christ being preached gave him joy, all instances of his joy were instances of Christ being preached. Obviously, the Apostle found joy in all sorts of dimensions of life in Christ.
However, because of the strong connection between Christian unity and a way of life “worthy of the Gospel” (Phil. 1:27), there is good reason to insist that Christian unity is a kind of Gospel proclamation or witness. Mutual love not only preserves the church down through the ages, it also testifies to the world. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:25) St. Paul reminds us that mutual love involves crediting others in the body with a great deal of “relational capital.” Seeing ourselves as stewards of each other’s joy can help the world can begin to see the vision of a New Creation, the kingdom of God, breaking into the world with new hope. Amen.