This week we begin a six week series on the short book of Philippians. Sometime in the next week, I encourage you to sit down and read this book for yourselves as a refresher, and then bring your Bibles with you on Sunday morning. This is a letter written by the traveling evangelist Paul to the Christians in the city of Philippi. If you remember from a few weeks ago that church was founded by a woman named Lydia who heard Paul and his companion Silas sharing the good news of God's love. That church grew when Paul and Silas when the jailer in charge of keeping Paul and Silas in prison became a believer himself. In the intervening years, Paul has moved on. But he maintains a great affection for this body of believers and they for him. Paul writes this letter from prison, although we're not quite sure where he was in prison. The church in Philippi had sent him food and supplies and money since in the ancient world prisoners were given NOTHING. Paul is writing to thank them and encourage them since they were obviously worried about him. This book is often known for it's theme of joy, and you'll hear that this morning. But I invite you also to listen for a theme of partnership.
Scripture: Philippians 1:1-18a
From Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus.
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 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. 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. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.
Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
The focus of our worship this morning is our celebration of communion, as we gather around God's table together in remembrance and gratitude and expectation. And so as we make our way to the table, I want highlight a couple of verses and tell you a personal story. One thing in the original Greek that we don't notice in English is that the words grace, thankfulness, and joy have the same root. They are connected. And they are all here right at the very beginning of the book. Paul says, "GRACE and peace to you all from Father God and Lord Jesus Christ. I THANK God every time I remember you all. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with JOY ... because of our partnership in the Gospel from the beginning until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among all of you will keep on completing it until the day of Christ Jesus."
In our highly individualized culture we struggle to find the way of healthy interdependence. We tend to get caught in either unhealthy independence or unhealthy co-dependence. The way of Christ is the third way: the way of understanding that each one is inextricably connected to the whole, and the whole is held in God. In the church this means that we need you (and you and you and you) and you need us. We are better together: stronger, kinder, more hopeful, more joyful, and more loving. Interdependence, usually phrased as "partnership" or "sharing" is a theme throughout this letter.
The good news, the Gospel, is a reality not only or not even mainly for individuals, but for whole communities. Our UCC Statement of Faith says God calls us into the church to accept the cost and the joy of discipleship. We are in partnership with one another; we are interdependent.
And as we approach the table this morning, I invite you to consider the joys of our partnership here at Zion UCC. Just like in our prayer time together each week, and like our Scripture this morning, we are better able to bear the cost when we are rooted in the joy. What experiences in our life together have brought you joy?
Several years ago, I had a crisis of faith, what some people call a dark night of the soul. I completely lost my ability to cognitively accept that God existed, and I was devastated. I had felt a deep personal connection with God for my entire life and to lose it was totally disorienting. It happened for several different reasons mostly having to do with the Bible and authority figures. But this morning I want to instead tell you what I did about it. Basically, I kept coming to church. Which is the opposite of what most people do when they start to question and doubt. So why would I do that? Well, partly because I was the outreach director for the church and I didn't want to lose my job! But more than that, it was because deep down I knew what I still needed. I needed community and I needed Communion. For a while, even when I wasn't sure about God, but I was sure about gathering with God's people at God's table. I desperately hoped that something would be happening in me and through me for other people, even if I couldn't tell it was happening.
That's what it means to have an interdependent faith, to be partners in the gospel. God invites us to stay in community and celebrate Communion even when we don't feel it, because it's not just about us individually. It's about us together. And, as you can tell from the fact that I stand here today as your pastor, community and communion did their work in me. God worked in me, in ways that I still can't quite articulate. But just like sometimes a shoot comes out of a dead stump, my faith came back to life. I began to understand grace in a new way. I experienced joy. And I'm so thankful.
Remember that I said earlier that in Greek the words joy, grace, and thankfulness have the same root? That root is the word char (c-h-a-r). Joy is chara. Grace is charis. And thanks is ... eucharist ... which is another name for communion. When Paul "gives thanks" for those in partnership with him, he is eucharisting. When we come to this table, we are thankful not only for Jesus but also for one another. Chara - joy, charis - grace or gift, eucharist - good gift. When we come to this table, we experience the good gift of God's grace through our joy at being together.
Because, beloved, as our ancestors in the faith have proclaimed for hundreds of years, This is the joyful feast of the people of God. People of all genders, all ages, and all races — every BODY — come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and gather about Christ’s table, and I am SO THANKFUL to be here with you this morning.