First lesson: Philippians 2:1-4
Children: I Samuel 1:1-20
I do love the book of Philippians! And I love how it was written. I have this picture in my mind. The apostle Paul is sitting in prison somewhere, maybe in Rome though we can’t be positive about that, and probably in about the year 60 or 63 or so. In other words about thirty years after Jesus’death. He is writing to the church he founded in the Philippi, in Greece, about ten years earlier.
We’ve talked about that little church in Philippi and the business owner named Lydia and her friends who met for worship beside the river there. It was the first Christian Church in Europe as you recall. The first time the story of Jesus ever came to Europe. And you remember how Paul and his companion Silas met with Lydia and her friends beside the river and introduced them to Jesus. Shortly after that, Paul and Silas were thrown into prison there in Philippi and you remember how Paul baptized the jailor and his entire family right there at their home in the middle of the night. (I’m skipping over a great deal here.) And the next morning he left – on his way to the next town down the road. He may have been there for a few days or maybe a couple of weeks. But a little church had been formed there, with a business woman named Lydia and her friends and a jailor as a nucleus of that little church. And Paul stayed in touch with them, lovingly, through the years. They sent gifts to him through messengers and he received them gratefully.
And now he’s in prison, writing to them. The reason for this letter is that they have sent him another gift – brought to him by Epaphroditus. Now think about that for a moment. Presuming that Paul was indeed in prison in Rome, that’s a trip of 800 miles. Maybe he walked or road a horse overland, for most of the way. Or maybe he found passage on a ship carrying freight on the Mediterranean sea between Greece and Rome. But 800 miles in 800 miles. In ancient times.
And think about this. Those were the years when Nero was emperor in Rome. You remember Nero. He’s the man who took great pleasure in tying Christians to poles throughout his garden. And then he would set them on fire to provide light for his elegant garden parties. Among other things too awful to mention. That Nero. And Paul is in prison, awaiting trial. He knows that he may be sentenced to death and he speaks about his death when he writes this letter.
I picture that he’s sitting in a cold, damp mostly stone cell, perhaps chained hand and feet to a Roman soldier standing guard over him.(As he sometimes was.) He’s been given a piece of parchment and somebody had brought him something to write with. Maybe he’s wearing the warm cloak that Timothy had brought to him, and he would have needed it in the cold dampness of his cell. If we read between the lines we suppose that Timothy – his co-worker whom he loved like son, was somewhere nearby with him. He’s sitting hunched over at some sort of table, writing and pouring out his heart to the congregation he loves. He says, “I thank God every time I think of you and my prayers for you are joyful prayers.” He says, “You share in God’s grace with me and I long for you.” It’s a love letter to a congregation from a man facing his death.
But he’s also pained. Because he has heard that there has been conflict in that church. Two of the leaders in the church – two women – hard workers in the church – his strong companions there - Euodia and Syntyche - have somehow been at odds with each other. And that hurts Paul’s heart. We don’t know who these women were or what they were at odds about. I can only wonder if they were two of the women who met with Lydia beside the river – the very first members of that congregation.
So he writes to them and the love he has for them pours out of every word he says. He reminds them of another way of living. These days we would say that he’s giving them a picture of what spiritual leaders look like. They are people who have let go of their anxiety in continual prayer. They surrender all their pain to God, and all their hard questions that they don’t have answers for and all their fears. And the peace of God flows in and under and around and through them. They have learned how to be thankful in every circumstance (and Paul was their model in that.) He encourages them to fill their minds and their lives and their moments with things that are true and noble. He asked them to concentrate on what is lovely and admirable and excellent. He reminds them to center their thoughts on positive praise instead of negative thoughts and nasty comments.
Now this is contrary to our normal pattern. We prefer to plan our lives our own way rather than give them to God. We prefer to worry about our finances and our jobs and our families and our health rather than give them to God. We have a tendency to think the worst of people and talk about their faults among our friends and coworkers. We’d rather focus on what is dirty and ugly than on what is beautiful. We prefer complaining over gratitude. We prefer sloppiness over excellence. So what Paul is talking about requires a real a transformation of our spirits.
But there’s a great benefit in that transformation. Because then Paul says, when that’s what your life is, when that’s how you look, you’ll be full of peace. The peace of God will surround you. I like to say that you’ll live your life in a bubble of blessing.
So let me tell you about my mother. These are her favorite Bible verses. She has lived her entire life with these verses as her companion and she has repeated them to me often. She’s 94 years old, now, and in a wheelchair most of the time. But she is gracious and grateful as she has been all her life. For sixty years she was the wife of a pastor and she was his partner in every way. The churches he served were large ones and she visited the sick and troubled with him. She led the women’s Bible study group for years and years and sang in the choir and taught Vacation Bible School every summer. She surrounded her life in prayer and she knew the scripture well.
There were no hotels or motels in the very small town where we lived and no real restaurants either. But we lived in a large three story manse. So my mother hosted hundreds of people in our home for cake and coffee and often times entire meals – and overnight - often on very little notice. I remember one day when one family of six had been staying with us for a whole week. She had been putting food on the table for all of them and cleaning up after all of them for three meals a day for a whole week. By that time the cupboard was bare, but more to the point, she was exhausted from it all. She gave me a ten dollar bill and told me to take them all to our village drug store for ice cream cones for lunch. She raised a huge garden full of vegetables which she canned and served to our guests all winter long. The baker in our town knew about all of this and saved day old pastries for her and she served them graciously. She provided hospitality for people from all over the world, often for several days a time. Sometimes she and I could barely get the sheets and pillow cases washed and back on the beds in time between housefuls of guests.
My mother had a way of knowing who was troubled, and who needed some support and she gave it, graciously and quietly, and they loved her for it. She knew people who were hard and hurtful, and she always spoke kindly to them. She knew people who were selfish and self-centered and she was unfailingly gentle with them. She knew people who were negative and nasty and she served them coffee and her really, really good apple pie around our kitchen table. There were people who abused her kindness and took advantage of her and I can remember some of them, but she can’t. If she ever got angry she did it only the presence of my dad, and I never heard it. I truly do not recall that my mother ever spoke an untrue or unkind word about anybody and instead, she always found the best in people and brought out the good in them. She taught us all to put the best construction on somebody else’s words and to try to understand why somebody may have said what they did. My mother cared for her parents in their later years and for my father’s parents – always lovingly and faithfully and creatively. And in the midst of all that she raised three children including one daughter who thought she knew everything (me) and who must have tried her patience severely.
My mother truly does center her life around what is true, and noble, and right and pure and lovely and admirable. She truly does think about what is excellent and praiseworthy. And she lets the rest fall away. She gives it little thought and goes on with her life serenely and steadfastly being good and doing good in all the places she can. I love her for that, and I honor her. She truly does live the words that Paul wrote to the church he loved in Philippi.
And so we can we.