Thanksgiving, Optimism, Partnership: Report of Duncan’s sermon on Philippians 1:1-18

He will finish1

Today we began exploring the letter St Paul wrote to the Christians at Philippi. It is, Duncan said, one of the apostle’s warmest letters. Philippi was a colony in what is now Greece. Acts 16:11-40 describes the background to the church there:   Paul and his companions arrive there; a businesswoman called Lydia comes to faith; Paul and Silas are imprisoned and then miraculously liberated; the jailer and his household become believers.

Letters

Duncan asked how many of us have actually written a letter over the last few months. He was gratified that quite a number of hands were raised – these days, he commented, particularly among young people who do most of their communication by phone or social media, letters are not seen as necessary. When he was a student, he wrote to his granny every week of the term, and this regular written contact was a significant aspect of his relationship with her. Similarly when he and Shona travelled the world over 25 years ago, Shona conscientiously, and with love, wrote regularly to her parents.

How, we wonder, would Paul’s communications be different if he was dependent on social media?

The formal greeting

The letter begins with a formal greeting (vv1,2)  In those days, it wasn’t enough to say ‘Hi, Philippians!’ He writes to those who are ‘saints’ (v1), or ‘set-apart people’, and prays that they may experience God’s continued grace and peace.

And then he launches into the body of the letter:

Thankfulness

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (v3-5)

Notice, Duncan said, how positive and warm Paul was in his relationship with this congregation.  Every…all…all…always.  If we’re honest, he continued ‘not every group of believers we have encountered gives us the sense of positivity reflected in Paul’s opening words.’  And indeed it was the same in Paul’s experience – his letter to the Galatian Christians is written in a completely different tone.

But let’s try to connect ourselves with Paul’s thankfulness and joy as he thinks about these Christians, Duncan continued, and he asked us:

‘Who gives you joy as you think about them, or remember them, and reflect on the opportunities you have had to partner with them in faith?’

Duncan mentioned two people – Bill and Alison Taylor, whom he was involved with on Skye. But his script for the sermon contains a list of several people, and churches whom he clearly remembers with joy and gratitude.

Paul’s letter highlights the capacity we have to see the good that others have brought into our lives, and to let that shape our outlook. Paul teaches us how to draw from the well of thankfulness.

He will finishOptimism

The striking reality is that Paul was able to do this despite the very difficult situation he was facing. He was in in prison (v7), possibly in Ephesus. And yet, Duncan said ‘the flow of his life is not towards despondency but towards optimism, and a deep conviction that God can be trusted. God is working out his purposes despite everything, such as the chains, which would suggest otherwise.’

being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (v6)

We face numerous challenges and difficulties on our journey through life – Paul’s letters address the many problems which people in the churches he wrote to were facing.  Like Paul, we can feel ‘chained’ or ‘in prison’, locked into situations we feel unable to free ourselves from.

Yet, like the apostle, we can have faith in the God who has made a beginning in our lives, the God who is a finisher. We can trust God to finish what he has begun.

And Paul also realises that this completion is totally dependent on God, not on us, and that God can work in remarkable and unexpected ways.

The Apostle may be in prison, but can say ‘what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.’ (v12) The grace God has so obviously given him in prison has led to ‘most of the brothers and sisters’ becoming ‘confident in the Lord.’ (v14)

Difficult stuff has happened, but that cannot block God’s work either in Paul’s life, or the lives of the other Christians.

We can trust absolutely that what God has begun, God will finish.

Partnership

Duncan had talked about ‘partnership’ earlier in the service.  He spoke to Chris Watt about Out of the Box a project with which, as a church, we are partners; and with Dorcus and Ivona who partnered in planning the Church Weekend a couple of weeks ago.

St Paul wrote to the Philippians about ‘your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now’ (v5) and reminds them that ‘all of you share in God’s grace with me.’ (v7)

And Duncan said ‘I wonder if I were to ask you to write down who you partner with ‘in the gospel’ what would be on your list?

To help us reflect on what partnering in the gospel might mean in everyday life, Shona read us ‘Victoria’s story’ from a new book published by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

And Duncan left us with these three words: Thanksgiving, Optimism, Partnership.

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