Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.  This week, I begin a new sermon series on Philippians.

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Philippians 1:21-30

Having finished our series on St Paul’s letter to the Romans last week, we are beginning this week a new series on St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Philippi was a city in Macedonia that had the status of a Roman colony. Philippi had been at the turning point in Roman history. It was here in 42BC that Octavian and Mark Anthony fought Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, at the battle of Philippi. Octavian and Mark Anthony won. Octavian went on to defeat Mark Anthony, and to establish himself as the Emperor Augustus. The Republic, which existed before, was now dead. In 27BC, the Emperor Augustus renamed the city, Colonia Iulia Augusta Philippensis.

But Philippi was important for a far more important reason than one to do with who ruled human empires. Philippi was the first city in Europe where the Gospel was preached by Sts Paul, Silvanus, Timothy and their companions on what is misleadingly known as St Paul’s second missionary journey. St Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, was it seems, one of these companions.

The story is an interesting one. St Paul and those accompanying him had reached Troas, a city on the Aegean Sea, having been prevented from preaching the Gospel up until this point. At Troas, St Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia who pleaded with him saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia, and help us. (Acts 16:9).’ They immediately, St Luke tells us, set sail and arrived at Neapolis, the port of Philippi. They then travelled some nine miles inland to Philippi itself.

In the letter to the Church in Rome, St Paul wrote that the Gospel is the ‘power of God for salvation to the Jew first, but also to the Greek (Romans 1:16)’. This was not only a theological statement; it was a missionary strategy. When he could, St Paul always began his preaching of the Gospel with the Jews. There was, however, apparently no synagogue in Philippi. On the sabbath, then, they went looking for a ‘place of prayer’. In other words, somewhere that Jews might gather to pray when there weren’t enough people to form a synagogue. They came across a group of women gathered by the river outside the city. They sat down and spoke to them. In other words, this was a deliberate decision to share the Gospel with them. I’ll let St Luke take up the story:

‘A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.’ (Acts 16:14-15)

I think it is interesting that it was a man in St Paul’s vision who asked for his help, but it is a woman who first responds to his preaching. This is significant because, as we shall see, women play a major role in the Church at Philippi, as indeed they did generally in the Churches that St Paul established. This challenges the popular picture of St Paul as being something of a woman-hater. The truth is rather that women played an important part in his work. Lydia became a patron of his work at Philippi as Phoebe did at Corinth.

Not everyone in Philippi was as receptive. The full story is told in Acts chapter 16. Suffice it to say that after a night in prison, St Paul and the others have to leave Philippi. It was, however, the beginning of a significant partnership. The Philippian believers and the Churches of Macedonia seem to have supported St Paul without causing him the sort of problems he had with many of his other Churches. Philippi supported him practically sending him money for his work. This is something that St Paul acknowledges and is thankful for in the letter. He writes

‘You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once.’ (Philippians 4:15-16)

Indeed, it is because of he has received a gift of money that the Philippians have sent to him with Epaphroditus, a member of the church at Philippi, that St Paul writes this letter. If the letter to the Church in Rome is St Paul’s pitch to the Roman believers for support for his planned mission to Spain, the letter to the Philippians is St Paul’s ‘thank you’ to the Philippian believers for their support for the work he is doing in the Aegean region.

St Paul, when he writes the letter, is in prison for preaching the Gospel. Despite being in captivity, however, he tells the Philippian Church that his imprisonment has actually helped to spread the Gospel (Philippians 1:16). The reason why he has been imprisoned has spread throughout the place where he is imprisoned. But where is that exactly? Traditionally, it has been thought that St Paul is in prison in Rome, and so this letter would have been written after the letter to the Roman Church. This is still the view of the majority of commentators. It is not mine!

St Paul is described in Acts as having been imprisoned on three separate occasions: overnight in Philippi, for two years in Caesarea, and then again for another two years in Rome. There were, we know, many other imprisonments. St Paul alludes to one of them in the letter to the Church in Rome (Romans 16:7). As his imprisonments in Caesarea and Rome both occur after he wrote the letter to the Church in Rome, he must be referring to a different imprisonment not described by St Luke in Acts.

There were others also as we know from what he writes in 2 Corinthians (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:23). Again, as the letters to the Corinthians were also before his imprisonments in Caesarea and Rome these too must be imprisonments that we don’t the details of.

St Luke doesn’t tell us everything that happened to St Paul, and he doesn’t try to. He is just giving us an outline of St Paul’s ministry and some episodes from it. Much else happened in St Paul’s life and ministry that we do not know about, including various times spent in prison.

So where were these other imprisonments? We don’t know for certain, but a good candidate for one of them is Ephesus. We know from what St Luke does tell us how St Paul had big problems there with those who wanted to get rid of him. In 1 Corinthians chapter 16, St Paul writes from Ephesus:

‘ … for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.’ (1 Corinthians 16:9)

Having left Ephesus, he later describes his time there:

‘We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.’ (2 Corinthians 1:8)

This had led some scholars to suggest not only that St Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus for a time, but that it was from there that he wrote the letter to the Philippians. I think they are right. Philippians ‘fits’ really well into this time in St Paul’s life and work. In 1 Corinthians he writes about having fought ‘wild beasts in Ephesus’ (1 Corinthians 15:32). This is probably not meant to be taken literally, but it does at least indicate serious opposition. Wherever St Paul was, however, we know from what he writes that his life was threatened.

If, then, Philippians was written from Ephesus, when was it written? If it is from an imprisonment in Ephesus, it would mean it was written before the letters to the Corinthians and the subsequent letter from Corinth to the Romans. The letter to the Romans was written about AD57-58. This would mean the most likely date for the letter to the Church at Philippi, if the imprisonment is in Ephesus, would be in the mid AD50s.

The letter itself begins, ‘Paul and Timothy …’ (Philippians 1:1). It was customary for a letter to begin with the names of those whom the letter was from. St Timothy, we know, had been with St Paul when the Philippian Church was established, and he was well-known personally to the Philippian Church.

I feel a little sorry for St Timothy. He is completely over-shadowed by his more famous mentor. He was, however, a significant figure in his own right in the early Church and in the Pauline mission as St Paul himself tells us. He was frequently entrusted with work to do on St Paul’s behalf and accompanied him on his travels. St Paul tells the Philippians that he is planning to send Timothy to them soon (Philippians 2:19).

As well as accompanying St Paul, St Timothy is named as the co-sender of six of the thirteen letters that are attributed to St Paul in the New Testament (1 and 2 Thessalonians; 2 Corinthians; Philippians; Colossians; and Philemon). He is mentioned by name in two others (Romans and 1 Corinthians), and two are sent to him personally (1 and 2 Timothy). That leaves only Ephesians, Galatians, and Titus where he is not named in some way. St Timothy is even named in the letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 13:23). We don’t know who the author of Hebrews was, but whoever it was, the author expected his readers to know St Timothy!

St Paul pays tribute to St Timothy in this letter to the Philippians:

‘I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.’ (Philippians 2:20-22)

Apart from reminding us of the importance of people like St Timothy in the history of the Church, this also should help rid us of another misconception about St Paul’s ministry. St Paul is often pictured as something of a lone ranger, working as a pioneer on his own, preaching the Gospel and single-handedly establishing churches. Based on this image, St Paul is also frequently described as someone it was hard to get on with and who didn’t have many friends as a result. St Paul has to work on his own, it is suggested because he was hard to work with.

It may suit his detractors to describe him like this in order to undermine the force of some of what he writes. But like the picture of him as a woman-hater, it couldn’t be more wrong. St Paul had many who worked with him and who were willing to risk their lives for him. Prisca and Aquila, for example, whom, as we saw, he greets in Romans chapter 16, were two of them. He also names many more who worked with him. Here in Philippians, he names four of his ‘fellow workers’. As well as St Timothy, there are: Epaphroditus; Syntyche and Euodia, both women; Clement; and unnamed others he pays tribute to. The Philippians themselves he describes as partners in the Gospel (Philippians 1:5).

St Paul was the leader of the mission and an outstanding servant of Christ, but he was not alone, and he didn’t work alone.

This ought to make us think about whether we have as inclusive a model of ministry today. One that allows for the ministry of outstanding individuals, but one which does not leave God-gifted individuals to labour alone, and which recognizes different people and different gifts in ministry.

In writing to thank the Philippian believers for their financial support brought to him by Epaphroditus, St Paul tells them of his circumstances. He also, however, has heard of some conflict in the Church at Philippi between two of his fellow-workers. He has probably heard this from Epaphroditus, and he wants in his letter to the Church to deal with this conflict and bring it to an end.

Last week, we read in Romans how St Paul tells the Roman believers that they are to ‘welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions’ (Romans 14:1). Quarrelling and conflict over opinions does, of course, happen in churches. Far more common and just as divisive, however, is quarrelling over personalities. St Paul, as we shall see as we go through the letter, in seeking to end the conflict between different individuals at Philippi writes about this issue as well.

There are in fact some interesting links between Romans and Philippians, which is, of course, what you would expect given they are by the same author. However, if Philippians was, as I believe, written before Romans, we see some of the ideas that are present in Philippians being developed in Romans.

Here in chapter one of Philippians, St Paul is explaining how he feels about the prospect of being sentenced to death. He writes what is a famous sentence:

‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.’ (Philippians 1:21)

He goes on to say that he is hard pressed to know which is best for him, living or dying, but as it is better for the Philippian believers that he remains alive, this is what he expects to happen. His point, though, is that whether living or dying, he finds meaning and purpose in Christ.

Our reaction to this is to think that while this may be how people like St Paul feel and think, it is not how ordinary believers like us see things. St Paul, however, believes that this way of thinking should be central to every believer’s life and conduct. He tells the Philippians:

‘Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ …’ (Philippians 1:27)

As we go through the letter in the coming weeks, we will explore in more detail what St Paul means by this. For now, it is important to note that St Paul takes his desire to live or die for Christ as the starting point for his advice to the Philippian believers on what should be their own motivation for how they live.

We may think that St Paul is primarily thinking of how we would behave if we were to find ourselves in a situation where, like him, we were on trial for our faith. Would we be willing to die rather than deny it? He is, in fact, thinking primarily of everyday life and ordinary situations, and this is how he develops the idea in the letter to the Church in Rome.

Last week, we saw how St Paul tells the ‘strong’ that they should be prepared not to eat meat and eat only vegetables, if that helps the ‘weak’. He explains how every believer should approach life as a follower of Christ. He writes:

‘We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.’ (Romans 14:7-8)

In reality, it is often easier to be faithful when we are up against it and facing extreme danger. It concentrates the mind. It is much harder to live out our faith in the trivia of everyday life. So, if told by those in authority not to go to Church, we are confronted with a stark choice, and we at least know what we should do. But how do we behave when we are involved in quarrelling over opinions in the way St Paul describes in the letter to the Church in Rome or over personalities in the way, as we will see, was happening in the Church at Philippi?

It is one thing to stand for our faith when openly challenged; another altogether to live it out in the day to day challenges at home, at school, or at work. In these situations, we find ourselves focusing on what we want, rather than on what Christ wants. Sometimes, it can be easier to die for Christ than it is to live for him.

But for the believer, St Paul tells us, living for Christ means living Christ. There are no breaks, rest days, or holidays. It is a 24/7 affair.

This makes being a follower of Christ sound difficult. That’s because it is, and because being a follower of Christ is not at all like how it is presented in most Churches. Following Christ is all too often presented today as being about having a special friend who is always there for you, so that you don’t have to worry about how you live; someone whom you can call upon whenever you need him and whom you know will always come running.

Instead, St Paul describes a very different life: one of suffering, striving, and struggling. In Romans, St Paul makes it plain that suffering is not an optional extra in following Christ (Romans 8:17). Here he says the same thing. He tells the Philippians:

‘For he (God) has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well …’ (Philippians 1:27)

Most of us do not see suffering as a gift, but St Paul is only repeating what our Lord himself told us when he said we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24). All this makes being a follower of Christ hard and demanding. It sounds like a miserable existence.

But here’s the thing: it is hard and demanding, but it is not miserable.

St Paul is in prison, he is in real danger for his life, even fellow believers are deliberately acting in such away as to add to his suffering in his imprisonment, and yet what word does he continually use in Philippians to describe how he feels? It is the word ‘joy’. He uses the word ‘joy’ in its various forms sixteen times in Philippians.

St Paul begins the letter by saying how he prays ‘in joy for everyone of them’ (Philippians 1:4). Even though some believers are seeking to add to his suffering, he still ‘will continue to rejoice’ (Philippians 1:18). And although he personally desires to die to be with Christ, he feels sure that he will stay to help them in their ‘progress and joy in the faith’ (Philippians 1:25). He will have more to say to us about joy as we progress through the letter.

How to define joy? It is not the same as happiness; that feeling we get when everything goes our way, or when we do or get what we want. Joy is the certainty of knowing that whatever happens, however good or bad it may be, nothing and no-one can take away from us the most amazing gift of all, the gift of Christ himself. A gift so amazing and overwhelming that what then matters most to us is no longer the passing pleasures of this world, but that we may, as St Paul expresses it, be ‘pure and blameless for the day of Christ’ (Philippians 1:10).

We will, of course, fail at times. We will struggle, and we will meet opposition, not necessarily the sort of opposition that St Paul faced, but opposition, nevertheless, from those whose values and worldview are radically different to those of Christ. However, rather than being discouraged when such opposition comes, we will instead see it, as St Paul encourages the Philippians to see it, as confirmation of our ‘salvation and that from God’ (Philippians 1:28).

So how are we doing? Has Christ become such a part of our lives that St Paul would pray in joy for us? Is it really that what living means for us is Christ? St Paul challenges us to ask ourselves how real and how personal our faith is and how committed to it we are.

May our hymn this week then also be our prayer:

‘Take my life, and let it be
consecrated, Lord, to thee;
take my moments and my days,
let them flow in ceaseless praise.’


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