It’s Church statistics month in the Presbyterian church. The national church collects data like church attendance, split into different age categories, membership numbers and financial figures. They send out a letter with all the forms and instructions on how to collect and record the numbers for them.
One day at St John’s in Rotorua we received a letter asking us for statistical data on our flock. But it was not from the national church, it wasn’t really wanting data on our congregation. The letter was from the New Zealand Perendale Sheep Breeders Association. It really made us laugh. We wrote back to them to say that we didn’t have any Perendales in our flock, we were more a mix of different sorts from all over, and that our flock’s statistics wouldn’t help them very much and what they wanted to know wouldn’t help our statistical analysis either. While there was a very humorous connection we had received a letter that was meant for someone else.
Today, we are starting our winter sermon series at St Peter’s, and we are going to be looking at Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi. A letter that was meant originally for someone else, not for us. A letter to a specific group in a specific time and place. Written in a specific style, in response to a specific situation. In this case Paul is writing to the church at the city of Philippi to thank them for supporting him financially while he is in prison in Rome. Paul takes that chance to bring encouragement to his readers. Encouragement to stand firm in the face of persecution and opposition and to rejoice regardless of the circumstances, because of the good news of Jesus Christ.
There is more than a tenuous connection to us as Paul’s words have been recognised as being Spirit inspired and being God’s word to all who are ‘in Christ’. To all God’s people for all time and place, equally relevant and inspirational for you and I as they were to their original readers. Encouragement for us to ‘Stand Firm on our own joyous journey following Jesus’.
The passage we had read to us today is the formal introduction to this letter. It’s all the things a first century person would expect to see in a letter. Like you and I expect certain things when we receive a letter or an email today. It starts with who is writing, who the letter is for, a greeting, and then thanksgiving and prayer for the people being writing to. A more expanded and personal and spiritual version of the things we might expect at the beginning of a personal letter, like, ‘I hope you are well’. You see this format in all the epistles, or letters that along with Acts and the four Gospel’s make up the New Testament.
It gives us some basic information. The Letter is written by Paul and Timothy. Paul we know from the book of Acts is an apostle of Jesus Christ. We know his history, a member of the Pharisee’s faction of the Jews, very anti-Christian, who has an encounter with the risen Jesus on his way to get Christians in Damascus arrested, and is converted to being a follower of Jesus. He was responsible for planting churches in Asia Minor and into Europe. He planted the church in Philippi. Timothy we know from Acts as well is his protege, the young man he is training up to continue doing what Paul has been doing. Paul shares information he is in prison for the gospel, and that he is very blessed to have received a gift from the Philippian church for his support.
The letter is to the whole church in Philippi, along with its leadership team. We know from the book of Acts how the Church was established in Philippi. In fact that it was the first recoded church we have in Europe. Philippi is a major city on the trade route to Rome in Macedonia. Lydia is the first convert in Philippi, and therefore Europe. She is a Jewish merchant and immediately invites Paul and his team to base themselves at her house. The Church grows, Paul finds himself in prison after a riot caused by his delivering a slave girl of a demonic spirit, the slave girl had been making money for her master by telling fortunes. In Jail an earthquake set Paul and Silas free, but they stay put and their jailer and his family become believers. Paul does not get to stay in Philippi for long, to build up the fledgling church that meets at Lydia’s house. So as he writes to the church now he praises God that they have continued in the faith, evident by their gift to him, he acknowledges that God who started his good work in them will be able to complete it in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ, and Prays that they may continue to grow in love, as they grow in knowledge and insight in Jesus Christ.
This is not, however, just a perfunctory form letter, that simply gives us cold clinical information about sender and receiver, it is full of profound and inspiring truth. The whole thing can to be said to be In Jesus Christ. Inn fact paul mentions Jesus seven times in his formal opening, adress, greeting and prayer. We have the sender and receiver but who they are, their identity is given in Christ. The relationship between sender and recipient is given in Christ. We can know the history of the sender and recipients, but their times, past, present and future are held in Christ. The blessings and deep-felt prayer for the church at Philippi come from being in Christ.
Paul introduces himself and Timothy, as servants of Jesus Christ. It would be easy for him write as the person who founded the Church or one with Authority because of his position in the fledgling Christian group, but rather he sees himself as a servant. The word actually means slave, one who has been bought with a price and who goes about the business of his master. This is how Paul sees himself. He is aware that he is saved by God’s grace, the price has been paid for all he has done wrong, through Jesus, life, death and resurrection. He is aware that he is called according to Jesus plan and purpose and mission for the church: to witness to Jesus Christ and make disciples in all nations. He is aware that it is only the power and presence of the Holy Spirit that makes him able to do it. He is aware that it does not mean status and importance, but rather that he is alongside all the believers as fellow servants of the same master. Paul’s affection for the Church is not just a whimsical remembering of good times at Philippi but it a sharing of the love that Jesus Christ has for them.
Likewise the Church at Philippi are God’s Holy People in Christ. In other translations, it is ‘to all the saints in Philippi.’ We’ve often seen saints as being the more godly amongst us, the heroes and superstars of our faith: The apostles are saints, our church is St Peter’s after Simon Peter. In the Celtic church it was a honorific title for a missionary, like St Kentigern, which the Presbyterian school out here in Pakuranga is named after. St Kentigern was a monk who bought the gospel to the welsh people. St Cuthbert’s, in Epsom, is another one. We see the canonisation process that goes on in the catholic Church. But we are the saint. It applies to all of believers. We are people who in Jesus Christ have been set aside for God: by his death and resurrection made Holy. We are called to be children of the God most high through Jesus Christ, We are to be the people who in how we live are to show what God’s kingdom is like to the world around us.
Pauls address to God’s holy people at Philippi, is together with the leaders and deacons, and speaks to our understanding of Church leadership. First and foremost, it is who we all are in Christ that is important thing. We are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the reformation this year and one of the catch cries of that movement was and still is ‘a priesthood of all believers’. Our Access to God no longer needs to be mediated through special people set aside for that task, priests, but because of Jesus Christ we all have access to God, we can all boldly approach the throne of God. Leadership in the Church is leadership alongside the people, it’s not a hierarchy, through whom the presence or access to God is somehow contained and controlled. It is there for a purpose and a reason, to help organise God’s people and assist in their growth to maturity in Christ. Paul uses two words to describe them. Overseers or bishop’s in other places he will use the word elders, They are the people who assert Spiritual leadership and deacons, who are people who take on the more practical needs of the community. In Acts 6, we see seven Deacon’s chosen to ensure that the food given for widows is given equally to both the widows who were from Judah, and those who were Hellenistic Jews, from more of a Greek influenced area and background, so the apostles could concentrate on the teaching of the word. In our tradition it has usually been seen in two leadership groups elders and the board of managers. But they are alongside the church and there just like Paul to be Christ’s servant and to serve his people.
Paul’s blessing on the church in Philippi is that they may know the grace and peace of God or father and the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s Trinity Sunday today in the Church and in this greeting and blessing Paul is making a statement about the deity of Jesus Christ. The blessing is that the church may receive the Grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who has made that grace known to us, it is Jesus who has demonstrated that Grace to us in his death and resurrection. Also the peace of God, peace again is not the absence of conflict or trouble, but that wholeness in relationship, right relationship with God, with each other, with the created world and with our possessions, a peace that comes in and through Jesus Christ, who reconciles us with God, and with each other.
Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving also focuses on Christ Jesus. He gives thanks for the Philippians because of how they show how the good News of Jesus Christ has changed them because of how they partner with him in the furthering of the Gospel. This is evidence that they have come to know Jesus Christ. Lydia’s first response to coming to faith and being baptised is to offer hospitality, the Philippian jailer, his first response is to take care of Paul and Silas wounds. When they hear of Paul’s imprisonment, the first thing they do is send him money to support him. In New Zealand today we have this debate about how much it costs to keep people in prison, it’s a costly business, that hasn’t changed, but in Roman times it was not the state that footed the bill it was the prisoners themselves. If they didn’t have the means to keep themselves then it was a very hard time.so it’s a real lifesaver for Paul.
Pauls’ confidence that the church will continue and will grow in maturity and love and produce Christ like fruit is that Jesus Christ is at work in them. He started the good work, in his death and resurrection, in forgiving the Philippian Christians when they turned to him, he has given them the promised Holy Spirit, to lead and to guide, to dwell within them, he will continue that work till it is finished and complete at the day of the Lord. It is because of that he can pray that they grow in knowledge and truth and depth of insight and discern what is best and stay pure and blameless, because the faithful God is at work in them in Christ, able to carry on his work. Paul’s payer in verse 9-11 also shows us that the agenda of the Christian life is growth. The trend in education circles these days is life-long learning, The post graduate departments at some colleges are now called life-long learning departments, the work force is always being encouraged to upskill, the Christian faith is growing it’s in growing in depth of Jesus Christ and then seeing that worked in our lives by more Christ like fruit.
We’ve focused on what this introduction to Paul’s letter tells us about the sender and recipient, historically and theologically, and while this may be a letter originally ment for someone else, it speaks to us today because we find ourselves sharing the same address… In Christ. You and I share the same identity as the church in Philippi, in Christ, a people set aside for God’s purposes, with our leaders alongside. You and I share the same hope and confidence, that he who started this good work in us, Jesus Christ, can be trusted to bring it to completion in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our challenges and difficulties and obstacles maybe different from our first century, first church in Europe forebears but our hope is the same it’s in Christ.
We started off talking about statistics and while numbers may fluctuate up and down in a church, the certainty is We can rejoice because the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ will not just see us through, but see us grow in the depth of knowing Christ, grow in love and righteous fruit in Christ to the glory of God.