Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 9, 2018
Philippians 1:3-11 Commentary
This second Sunday of the month of December seems like an appropriate time to explore Philippians 1:3-11. Its theme of thanksgiving is, after all, consistent with the Thanksgiving holiday that Americans recently celebrated. What’s more, this Sunday is also near the beginning of the Advent season in which we look forward to “the day of Jesus Christ” (6).
It’s good for preachers and teachers to remind both our hearers and us that Paul embeds all of this thanksgiving in a letter. Christians have, after all, always been at least a bit tempted to shrink epistles like Philippians to theological treatises. So it’s good to remind each other and ourselves that while Philippians contains genuine truths about the faith, it is first of all part of Paul’s communication with the Philippian saints that gives us a window into his loving relationship with them.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the apostle who’s so deeply fond of the Philippians to whom he writes spends much of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson talking about prayer. He, in fact, both begins and ends this lesson with reference to prayer. What’s more, verses 3-6 are basically an extended description of the apostle’s prayers for the Philippian saints.
This emphasis on prayer may offer those who proclaim Philippians 1 an avenue into exploring it with their hearers. We might begin by inviting people to consider the people to whom they feel closest. What characterizes that kind of closeness? For Christians it almost certainly includes prayer.
Philippians 1’s preachers and teachers might then invite their hearers to think about what kind of prayers they offer for the people to whom they feel close. Nearly all of us will admit that we pray both our thanks for them and for our concerns about them.
Those who proclaim Philippians 1 might then go on to note that Paul is little different in that way. He thanks God “every time” (3) he remembers the Philippian saints. The apostle especially thanks God for their “partnership in the gospel” (5). He doesn’t feel the need to tell any of his readers the precise shape that long-standing partnership has taken. Yet we might imagine that it included monetary support, fellow missionaries or perhaps even material provisions for him while he’s in prison.
Paul adds that he can thank God for the Philippians’ partnership with him because he knows that God will carry their work to “completion” (6). So it’s not just that the Philippians and he have done and are going good work for the Lord together. The apostle is also fully confident God will finish that gospel work, even if the Philippians must, with God’s help, do it without the apostle’s help. God will accomplish God’s plans and purposes, even if Paul doesn’t survive to carry them out.
Fred Craddock, to whose commentary on Philippians (John Knox Press, 1985) I owe much for this sermon commentary, says Paul’s expression of affection for his Philippian partners in the gospel is stronger than that expressed in any of his other letters, except perhaps Romans 9:1-5. Philippians, after all, shows that God has created a space in his heart for these Christian brothers and sisters even though many miles and Paul’s chains separate them. He loves and longs for them with nothing less than the love of Jesus Christ (8). The Philippian saints, after all, “share in God’s grace with” the apostle (7).
Verses 3-5’s prayer of thanksgiving as well as verses 7-8’s expression of Paul’s deep love for the Philippians reminds those who proclaim them of the appropriateness of stating our own gratitude to and love for those who support us. It might prompt those who proclaim Philippians to look for ways to say just how those who hear them have been a source of both joy for and partnership with them. They might even find ways, honestly of course, to publicly thank God for their partners in the gospel ministry.
Yet though Paul feels such deep gratitude for and deep joy over the Philippians, he still feels the need to add prayers of intercession for them in verses 9-11. Those saints are certainly remarkable adopted children of God. Yet the apostle suggests the Philippians can still grow more and more in their Christ-likeness.
I’m grateful to N.T. Wright’s commentary on Philippians 1 (Westminster John Knox, 2002) for insights into the Philippian growth for which Paul prays to God. Paul prays, first, that the Philippians’ love will “abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (9). It may feel like an unusual request because we generally link love more closely to feelings than wisdom. The apostle, by contrast, ties what we sometimes call “heart” and “mind” closely together. True love, he suggests, is based on an understanding of God and God’s world, as well as God’s ways and purposes.
Secondly, Paul prays that the Philippians’ wise love will make them morally wise. As Wright points out, the Philippians’ culture was no less morally muddy than the 21st century’s. So the apostle prays that God will equip those to whom he writes to both know the difference between what pleases and angers God and live in Christ-like ways. That will allow them to live with genuine joy right up until the day Jesus returns for either them as individuals or for God’s whole beloved world (10b).
Paul, finally, prays in verse 11 that God will fill the Philippians to overflowing with “the fruits of righteousness.” Wright notes that that’s a major emphasis of Paul’s. “Fruits of righteousness” can refer to either God’s own faithfulness or even God’s people’s status as God’s beloved children. In this case, says Wright, “righteousness” seems to refer more to the behavior that arises from God’s faithfulness and Christians’ status as adopted members of God’s family. It’s the kind of lifestyle that’s fully dedicated “to the glory and praise of God” (11).
Paul’s intercessory prayers for the Philippian saints may allow those who proclaim them to reflect on the shape of their own prayers for those whom they love in the Lord. Do we, for example, join him in praying that those we teach and to whom we preach will grow more and more in wise love? Or do we, as I tend to do, mostly pray that God will meet their physical and emotional needs?
An examination of our own prayer lives may then also provide a means by which those who preach and teach Philippians 1 can invite hearers to do similar self-examination. We might ask them to reflect on the shape of their prayers for those they love. Do they pray that loved ones will know the difference between what pleases and displeases the Lord? Or do our hearers mostly pray, with us, that their loved ones will travel safely and have happy holidays?
Paul offers these prayers, of course, in the shadow of “the day of Christ Jesus” (6) to which he also refers as “the day of Christ” (10). Many scholars point to the urgency he felt as he offered those prayers that stems from his strong suspicion, if not assumption, that Jesus would return within his Philippian readers and his lifetime.
It may be fair to assume that many 21st century Christians’ prayers have lost some of that urgency. After all, few of us seem to expect (or perhaps even hope) that Jesus will return for God’s world before he returns for us individually. The urgency of our prayers for our loved ones’ “spiritual” well-being may even be shrunk by our assumption that they’ll always have tomorrow to grow in their wise love and faithful living. Reclamation of Advent’s emphasis on longing for Jesus’ second coming may, in fact, strengthen the urgency of our prayers for all those whom God loves.
Even within Islam, anticipation of the Judgment Day can intensify the prayers of the faithful. In her marvelous book, Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells the story of the way that Riyadh, Saudi Arabia experienced and interpreted a 1978 lunar eclipse. She calls it a “dark shadow moving slowly across the face of the moon in the darkening blue sky.”
This remarkable sight sent Ali’s neighbors scrambling. One knocked on her family’s door to ask if they were safe on this Day of Judgment. Mosques all over the city sent up their calls to prayer simultaneously. People prayed in the streets. Neighbors asked each other to pardon their misdeeds and children, whose prayers they assumed were most effective, to pray for them.
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