"A Church for Me" - A Sermon on Philippians 1:1-11 by Joe Ellis - Sept. 12, 2021
When I took Ben on some rides at the Fall Fair, there was a line that showed how tall kids needed to be in order to be allowed on the ride. He would stand on his tiptoes, and he even stood on a rise in the ground to be allowed on the Salt and Pepper. I had him wrapped safely in my arms to keep him from being thrown around. But as Christians we don’t have to measure up to a certain standard in order to belong.
Sometimes when we have conversations with each other about churches, we can begin to idealize the early Christian experiences that we read about in the New Testament, and imagine that things would be better if only we could get our church to be more like the churches in the New Testament.
In the New Testament churches, especially in the book of Acts, you read and hear about amazing works of power of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel advancing dramatically, people making incredible sacrifices for their faith. We hear remarkable stories, stories of people being beaten and jailed but then an angel comes and helps them break out of jail. We read about people having ecstatic visions of heaven, being rendered speechless after being transported into the throne room of God — I absolutely share in that deep desire to be like the early church in that sense. Yet one think that I so appreciate about all the letters of the New Testament is that we see it’s not all roses, not by a long shot! All the letters present a very realistic portrayal of life and its difficulties within those first churches. A reading of any of the New Testament letters quickly helps us get over the idea that those first churches were some Utopian reality and things would be perfect if only we could be more like them. All the letters that we have in the New Testament, the letters written by Paul, John, Peter, Jude and the writer of Hebrews, were written because there was some sort of problem, some sort of conflict. In reading the letters one can’t help but realize how much they are like us!
Actually, often when I read those letters I find myself thinking, “Boy, I’m glad that we aren’t as messed up as they are!” My favourite example of raw, honest exasperation is when Paul vents his frustration in Galatians 3, crying out, “You stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you!” But it’s in every letter that the people of God are trying to work out thorny issues. In 1 Corinthians, we read about members of the church taking each other to court. In a later letter the Corinthian church accused Paul of being two-faced: that is, timid when face to face, but bold when away. And this isn’t just conflict among mere humans — Jesus called the church of Laodicea lukewarm and was about to be spit out of his mouth. When you read about the churches in the New Testament, it’s like you’re reading about your own family. These are our people — we don’t have to be perfect to belong here. The Holy Spirit did not strip the congregations of the rough edges of their humanity in order to make life together some trip on a pleasure cruise. When you read the letters, you realize that these people are struggling with how to love God and each other in difficult situations amidst difficult people — just as we do. When I read these letters I think, “I’m in the right place. These are my people.” In spite of our imperfection, perhaps because of our imperfections, we’ve always got a place in the body of Christ.
Yet that can’t be the only thing that inspires a person to stay in the church — realizing there are questionable people like me all over these letters — if that was all there was, one could be forgiven for throwing up their hands and say, “Why bother? Let’s all just join the back-country ski club and go alpine skiing every Sunday instead” (or whatever suites your fancy). The conflicts I read about in the New Testament seems like a lot of work. Is it worth it? Yet the reason why Paul, Peter and John wrote these letters isn’t because they wanted to give us an example of church conflict — they wrote these letters because they believed that the church was worth living for.
Their vision of the church was powerful. When you read the book of Revelation, you get a picture of a vast congregation, a congregation made up of staggeringly diverse people, a countless number of people worshiping God and the Messiah, worshipping in peace and harmony, a people praising God together saying, “To Him who sits on the throne and to the lamb. Be praise and honour and glory and power for ever and ever.”
Our church is a segment of that people transported back to the present. That’s what churches are. We are the people we read about worshipping in heaven — transported back to now. That’s the vision of the church. We are the future people of God who have gone back in time and who live righteously in the present moment. God intends that the praise, proclamation, peace and harmony you read about in Revelation, that that be the reality we live here and now. We are the future people of God living in the present. We are the sign of heaven on earth. We are one part of God’s answer to the prayer, “Your Kingdom Come!” The church is one part of the answer to the prayer, “Your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” We are the future people of God living in the present.
Peter puts it this way: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.Live such good lives among the people in the Bulkley Valley that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
We are God’s future people living in the present — and by our lives we provide those outside the church a glimpse of God’s Kingdom. Our lives are a display of God’s Kingdom — so that when those outside the church see the way we live our lives together, they will see how good it is that our God reigns. That is Paul’s passion, and why he speaks so passionately to his churches. Paul says to the congregation in Philippi, “I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.” Paul is saying to the church in Philippi, that he is confident that God is at work in shaping this church to be the people they are — the future people of God. That’s why Paul prays that they grow in love for each other and depth of insight so that they might “discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” Paul is praying that the church in Philippi might continue to learn to love each other and live just as they would on the day when Jesus returns. Paul is praying that the people in Philippi would grow in love and knowledge so that there is very little difference between who they are now, and who they will be when heaven comes to earth. The church is intended to be a picture of the Kingdom of heaven. This church is one part of God’s answer to the prayer, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
Now, I started out saying how encouraging it was to read the New Testament letters and encountering people just like us, like me — a people struggling with how to love God and each other in difficult situations amidst difficult people. Does that mean that the vision of the church we’ve been talking about is just a pipe dream? A mirage, always just out of our grasp? I don’t think so, and this is why I personally want to camp out in the Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, we get a picture of the church as it is meant to be. Not perfect, but on the way. Unlike most of the other letters we have from Paul, this letter wasn’t written because there was some problem to be solved, some situation that needed discipline, some theological mistake that needs correcting — more than any other letter, Philippians is a letter of friendship, a letter to encourage them to keep doing what they’re doing, and a letter of thanksgiving. This letter gives us a picture of a healthy church, seeking to be an answer to the prayer, “Your kingdom come.”
The church isn’t perfect. It’s made up of humans. Nonetheless, the letter fills me with hope. Listen to the joy Paul takes in the church: “I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the Gospel.” Paul opens his letter saying, “I thank my God every time I remember you. I have you in my heart.” Paul says, “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.” Paul is writing this letter because the Philippian church sent Paul an unsolicited gift to provide for Paul’s needs while he is in jail. Roman jails did not provide for the needs of its prisoners. Without their gift Paul would have starved. Paul’s gratitude overflows as you read the letter. The other letters of Paul remind me that the church is a place I can belong — a people struggling with how to love God and each other in difficult situations. The letter to the Philippians shows me that the church is a place I want to belong — I want to be part of a people who are part of the answer to the prayer, “Your Kingdom Come”.
How do we get there? How do we become an answer to prayer? By praying ourselves. Paul teaches us how to pray for this. In addition to constantly remembering the Philippian church with thanksgiving in his prayers, Paul prays that their love “abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that they may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” Paul knows that even in the healthiest of churches, it is a reality that we all struggle with how to love God and each other in difficult situations. And so we follow Paul’s lead in what to pray for. We pray that God would help us to love each other, love each other often and well.
Often, when we think of love we think about a feeling. Here, Paul is speaks of love as an action. He prays that the Holy Spirit would teach the Philippian church how to love each other practically through their words and actions. If love here is about action, then the church must discern together and individually how best to act. Paul then prays that the Philippian church might learn how to discern what is best. He prays that they might learn how to choose what is good, what is best. That they might learn how to live in wisdom, and in doing so their lives might bear the fruit of living righteously — to the glory and praise of God.
Let’s join together and have this be our constant prayer. That the Holy Spirit would continue to help us grow in our love for one another. That our love for God and each other might overflow, fill us beyond filling. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit too might fill us with wisdom to choose well — as individuals and as a community. So that we might learn how to consistently choose what is best for the building up of each other and our community, all to the glory of His name. Then those outside the church might see our good lives and see this as a sign of the Kingdom of God — here on earth. We become an answer to prayer through prayer. We become the future people of God, living in the present, through prayer. His love that never fails.