Today, I am preaching at our first church, in East Dover, Vermont. For today’s Sunday post, I include the text of my message along with a fitting and delightful aria from Bach’s cantata, “Merciful Heart of Eternal Love” (BWV 185).
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SERMON: Friends in the Gospel (Philippians 1:1-11)
Thirty-nine years ago, I was preparing for my first journey into the world. I was living at home with my parents in Maryland, serving as an assistant pastor in my home church, and get ready to launch out on my own. I was planning to move to Vermont, where I would live with my fiancee’s family and work for her father while I looked for opportunities to serve as a pastor in a congregation.
We had heard reports about a small congregation in East Dover that had been without a pastor for a few years. A friend, Jack Caulfield, had been preaching there, and some of the folks at Community Bible Chapel in Brattleboro, where my fiancee’s family attended and served, were familiar with the church.
And so it came to pass that, in the course of a few months, I acquired the title of “pastor” of East Dover Baptist Church at the ripe old age of 22. I won’t say I “became” the pastor, because I wasn’t really a pastor yet. I was barely an adult. I was as yet unmarried. I had little experience. Though I didn’t know it at the time, my Bible college education was woefully inadequate to prepare me for actual pastoral work. I didn’t really know myself. I knew little about life, even less about how life in a small Vermont community and church family works, but all that was about to change as I entered a new season of life.
What I did know was this: God loved me and had welcomed me into his family through Jesus Christ. I believed he had called me to be a minister. I knew a little bit about the Bible — probably just enough to be dangerous! — but also enough to get started in teaching a few things to others. I could do a little music, and I had a gifted future wife with a love for church music. I had a wise and loving future father-in-law who believed in me and was mentoring me. And here was a group of people who were willing to take a chance on a young man with not much more to commend him than his availability.
When I began ministry here in East Dover, I chose the book of Philippians as the first book to preach and teach in our services. I had come to love this little letter from Paul when I was in college. It was so simple, friendly, filled with Jesus and joy and affection that I thought it was the perfect place to start. I didn’t make a lot of wise decisions in those early days, but that was one. And I’d like to take you back to Philippians this morning to bring you a message from God today, thirty-nine years after we first studied this epistle together.
Philippians is a certain kind of letter. Some of you may remember the days when you learned in school how to write letters. You learned that there were different forms to use for different kinds. If you were writing a business letter, you followed a certain pattern. If it was a personal letter, you used another form of writing.
In the ancient world, people followed forms like that, and Philippians uses the form of a “friendship letter.” Paul follows the form those letters would take, but he also fills the form with the language of friendship. He talks about how he and the Christians in Philippi have developed a working partnership, he expresses joy in their relationship and talks repeatedly about the mutual affection they share, he expresses his gratitude for the generous and practical help they have given each other, discusses their mutual desire to see each other face to face, and reinforces their mutual desire for each other’s well being.
In some of his other letters, Paul comes across as authoritative, as a leader who calls the church to get in line. But in Philippians Paul does not appeal to his apostleship and authority. Rather, he appeals to their mutual faith in Christ and the example he and others have set for them. There is a remarkable sense of equality in their relationship. In other words, he speaks to them like friends, in a face to face kind of way, not like someone who has a position over them, directing them.
The other characteristic of this letter that I love is that it so centered on Jesus. As you will hear when I read the first eleven verses, Paul mentions Jesus over and over again. And so it continues throughout Philippians. In fact, Paul’s own testimony in this epistle is that for him, “to live is Christ.” His whole understanding of what life is about revolves around the Lord Jesus Christ.
And when he writes to the people in Philippi, he writes to friends who are “in Christ.” He calls them “saints who are in Christ Jesus.” In 1:27 he urges them to live lives that are worthy of the gospel of Christ. In chapter 2 he asks them to have the mind of Christ. In chapter 3 he encourages them to join him in pressing on press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ. And in chapter 4 he appeals to them to “rejoice in the Lord always.”
Clearly, when Paul writes a friendship letter to fellow believers, he is talking about a certain kind of friendship, a special kind of friendship, a friendship that exists because we are bound together in the love of God that has come to us in Jesus Christ. We are friends in the gospel. We are friends in Jesus.
So, to summarize this letter of Philippians:
- It is a correspondence between friends in Christ.
- It shows us what it looks like to be friends in the gospel of Christ, what it looks like to love each other, to encourage each other, to help each other, to sacrifice for each other, and to partner with each other in sharing the love of Jesus with the world around us.
Today, let’s just hear the opening of this letter to the Philippians.
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Letters in the ancient world began with three things: a greeting, an expression of thanksgiving, and a prayer or wish for the recipient. That’s how Paul starts his letter, and he fills these elements with explicitly Christ-centered content.
And so in the greeting (1:1-2), Paul introduces himself as a servant of Christ, he addresses them as saints in Christ, and he greets them with the grace and peace of God in Christ. Their whole relationship and his every wish for them revolves around Jesus.
Paul’s thanksgiving for his friends is found in verses 3-8.
First, he says, “I thank my God every time I remember you.” If I could say just one thing to you folks here at East Dover, that’s what it would be. I am so grateful for you, for our friendship, for our mutual faith, for the various ways we have helped each other in life. I think of you often. I reflect on the beginnings of my adult life and ministry with a sense of profound thankfulness for all you taught me and for the many ways you exemplified lives of faith, hope, and love to me.
I say along with Paul that this leads me to a place of joy. We shared something very special: a partnership in the gospel that led to meaningful times together, sharing our lives, laughing together, helping each other when we hurt, encouraging each other when we were discouraged, doing our best to show Jesus’ love to our neighbors.
Paul goes on to say something else: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Don’t you just love Paul’s encouraging spirit?
I have confidence about this church as well. This congregation was founded in 1814, over 200 years ago. It has had so many ups and downs that it’s hard to imagine it has survived and is still a vital place of community and ministry today. But it is, and God is not through with you yet. The work God began in this church will be brought to completion. God will bring it to completion. As older generations pass, new ones will arise. As people relocate, new ones will arrive. As pastors move on to take other opportunities, new ones will see opportunity here and come to be with you. It won’t always be easy and at times it won’t even seem possible, but God will complete what he started in East Dover Baptist Church.
Paul turns his confidence for his friends into prayer in verses 9-11. Note how Paul focuses his prayer on the most important thing. He prays that the Philippian Christians will be people of overflowing love. There is nothing more important than that.
Paul prays that God will fill them with the kind of love that is rich with wisdom and insight, with the kind of love that discerns how to best serve and benefit others, with the kind of love that will plant seeds of the new creation here and now, seeds that will bring forth a bountiful harvest when Christ returns to make all things new.
In my ministry now as a hospice chaplain I meet many wonderful people, people who show this kind of love. I’d like to tell you about one such couple this morning.
Freda died last year. Her family all said she missed her husband Louis since his death a few years ago, and would be happy to be at peace and reunited with him.
Freda and Louis were faithful Christians. At her funeral, the priest said Freda loved to share in communion and to pray. She and her husband raised a large family on the east side of Indianapolis and were the central figures in their family’s life. I served them both as hospice chaplain, and loved every visit with this gentle, kind, and funny couple.
Louis had been forced as a young man to give up his work because of an accident. A piece of drywall fell on him and injured his leg so severely it had to be amputated. From that point on, he stayed at home and Freda went to work to support the family. This was how they supported each other and took care of the family, and from all the reports I heard, did so without complaining or ever suggesting they got a raw deal.
About eight years ago, when the couple was in their mid-70’s, Freda answered the door one night and a young man pushed her back into the house. She grabbed his sweater and managed to kick him as they fell to the floor. But she was no match for his strength, and he beat her mercilessly. Hearing the commotion, Louis rolled his wheelchair in and soon came under attack as well. The home invader beat him in the face so badly his eyes were swollen shut. Freda gave the thief her purse and told him they had no valuables in the house, and he eventually left. The wounded couple spent two weeks in intensive care, recuperating from their injuries.
The children were obviously angry and frightened that someone would do such a thing to their parents. But when they visited the hospital, they were surprised to hear words of forgiveness coming from mom and dad’s mouths. The couple expressed not even the least bit of ill will toward the stranger, and they urged their children and grandchildren to turn the other cheek.
The children convinced their parents that forgiveness was fine, but that they should also consider moving to a safer neighborhood. They found a nice senior community a few miles east for their folks and Louis and Freda relocated there.
That’s where I met them, when Louis was diagnosed with a terminal disease. Do you know that in all of our conversations during his time on hospice, neither of them ever once mentioned that home invasion? It wasn’t until after Louis had died and I was making a bereavement visit to Freda that I learned about their ordeal.
A year or two went by, and then just last fall, Freda’s own health took a turn for the worse. In her illness, she suffered from an extraordinary number of wounds as her skin broke down. She was almost always in pain, and had to endure the agony of daily wound care and dressing changes.
Once again, Freda refused to be a complainer. When I visited, she never mentioned her pain to me, and instead always focused on making me feel welcome or asking a question that was on her mind.
I went to see her right before she died, and through some kind of remarkable change the swelling in her body had diminished and her wounds were healing. It looked now like God would take her home comfortable in both body and spirit. I prayed for her, gave hugs to her children at the bedside, and departed. She passed soon after I left.
At the funeral, the priest read something which Freda herself had written and asked him to share. It was a brief letter to her family.
Freda encouraged them to find solace in the many good memories of their life together and in the love that they had known. She urged them to remember that, although she would be separated from them bodily for a time, the love they shared would always be in their hearts. And then she wrote these unforgettable last words: “When all that is left of me is love, give me away.”
When Jesus ascended to heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit to live within us. And the fruit of the Spirit is love. I think Jesus is saying the same thing to us today. What he wants more than anything is that we continue to be friends in the gospel, friends in his love. And that we learn to give that love away every moment, every day.
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Make every effort in this life
soul, to scatter your seed generously
so that the harvest may make you rejoice
in the riches of eternity
where whoever has sown goodness
joyfully gathers the sheaves.