"What Will Keep Me from Giving Up?"
October 21, 2007 Philippians 1:3-11 (19-28)
In It with an Inmate
The church in Philippi hadn't planned to get involved with prison ministry. That's just sort of the way things developed.
In Acts 16, Paul and his missionary companions responded to a night-vision by leaving Asia Minor and entering Macedonia. At a prominent city, Philippi, they spoke to some women gathered for prayer on the Sabbath and a merchant lady name Lydia responded by believing in the Lord. But from there things turned downhill. When Paul commanded a spirit to come out from a slave girl, the owners seized Paul and Silas, dragged them into the marketplace, and accused them of unlawful activity before the magistrates. "The crowd joined in the attack" against them, and the magistrates ordered them stripped and beaten. Next they were thrown into prison, where the jailer locked their feet in the stocks.
At this point, you or I might have been understandably discouraged. But Paul and Silas at midnight were astoundingly upbeat: they were "praying and singing hymns to God", with the other prisoners listening. A violent earthquake suddenly caused all the prison doors to fly wide open. The jailer woke up and was about to kill himself, when Paul shouted for him not to, because no one had escaped. They spoke the message of the Lord to him and he and his household came to believe in God and were baptized. Next day the officials released Paul and Silas - actually apologetically when they found out they had beaten Roman citizens publicly without a trial. Before leaving town, Paul and companions went to Lydia's house where Luke says "they met with the brothers and encouraged them."
So began a very special connection between the young church at Philippi and the apostle Paul. About 10 years later, Paul is in prison again, this time at the capital of the Roman Empire. And the Philippians are still sending him help - they don't seem put off at all by his chains. I wonder, how many of them had a decade earlier heard him singing in jail at midnight? Was that small man - "the Philippian jailer who slept on his watch" - now a prominent leader in the church, maybe a deacon or elder? Were other leaders those who'd been imprisoned with Paul before that earthquake, and experienced God reform their lives? For whatever reason, the Philippians shared a special bond with this interim inmate.
Prairie Christian musician Steve Bell recalls his early start in prison - accompanying his Baptist parents to conduct services with inmates. That's where Steve learned to play guitar. He recalls there was an amazing degree of honesty shown by prisoners: there wasn't much point trying to hide anything in jail. Yet as time went on and the Bells kept visiting, friendships grew; an inmate made Steve his first guitar. Another inmate helped him get his first job! There was surprising support from a source you might not have expected it.
In the first chapter of Paul's letter to the church at Philippi, we see him express encouragement despite his trials because of partnerships he cherishes - support from both the Lord and the believers back in Macedonia.
God will Complete the Work
Throughout the book of Philippians over the next few weeks we'll see there's a theme about WORK and work-related terms - power, strength, straining toward what's ahead. Paul toiled night and day in his ministry, using his skill as a tent-maker to generate income to supplement church's gifts. But the emphasis is never on how hard he's labouring; it's always God's work, and God is the one providing the resources to accomplish it. V6, "being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." God started it, God's the One who's going to finish it, transforming us into greater maturity until Jesus returns. We can talk about building churches in the sense of piling one concrete block on top of another, but Jesus is really the One building His church - in lives of believers like Peter, that will last into eternity (Mt 16:18).
There are several other references to God's part in the project. V7, "...whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me." Paul sensed the Lord standing at his side even when others deserted him at court trials (2Tim 4:17). V8, "I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus." The Lord's the One who pours supplies tender feelings in Paul's 'innards' (Gk) - that profound attachment emotionally deep down inside him. V11, when the church folk display "the fruit of righteousness", where's that come from? - "the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ."
V19, Paul refers to "the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ." That's one of the names of the Holy Spirit, isn't it? "Paraclete" or "Helper" (Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:7). V21 Paul says "to me, to live is Christ..." What's that mean? His whole existence, Paul's very being, is grounded in Jesus. V26, "your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me." The Lord is the source of the church's joy. And it's not an unfounded or unrealistic joy: it's based on and protected by God's sovereignty. V28, the Philippians not being frightened by their opponents is a sign that they will be saved, "and that by God". So by many means the Lord is supplying everything needed by His servants for the work at hand: to review - grace, affection, righteousness, help, joy, calmness so they're not frightened, and rescue from enemies. God's the primary supplier of resources so we won't be in danger of giving up.
Partners and Team-mates
Yet Paul is aware that God's help is often routed through human conduits. He just overflows with expressions of how supportive the Philippian church has been to him. V4, "I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now..." The term 'partnership' here translates the Greek word 'koinonia': fellowship, communion, joint participation, partnering, sharing. Skip ahead to v7 to see the same root translated differently: "all of you SHARE in God's grace with me." That's syn-koinonas, partnering-with or sharing-with; like co-pilot, co-worker.
This isn't just empty verbage Paul's using. All along the Philippi church had been contributors or supporters, helping him with the missionary enterprise. They shared manpower, money, and prayer support. In 2:25 Paul refers to Epaphroditus whom the church had sent "to take care of my needs". 4:18, Paul acknowledges, "I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent." Also in 1:19 Paul says his deliverance will in part be a result of "your prayers". So in multiple ways - people, finances, and prayers, the Philippians gave tangible expression to their backing of Paul's mission.
The apostle also sees such 'partnership' as playing a big role in their success as a church back home, helping them experience solidarity against opposition. V27, "I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel..." 'Stand firm in one spirit' - that takes joining together, doesn't it? But note especially the next word - 'contending as one man'. 'Contend' starts in English like 'contest': Paul's using sports terminology here. Gk.syn-athleo (like 'athlete') - co-athletes, team-mates; one commentator notes, "striving together as in an athletic contest." What visual picture does Paul spark for you here? A tag-team in wrestling, or runners in a relay? How about standing shoulder to shoulder in football or rugby? Whatever the sport, the image is one of separate players joining together with a common goal, fighting back-to-back "those who oppose you" (28).
In Monday night's game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, a Toronto defenceman Bryan McCabe unwittingly scored against his own team while trying to clear the puck, causing them to lose 5-4 in overtime. That's the opposite of "contending as one man"! Such a shame. By contrast, the end of the Toronto-Montreal game not long ago was a beautiful picture of teamwork: the Leafs on a power play passed it around in the area to the right of the goalie, then suddenly across to the other side where a Leaf 'one-timed' it straight into the net. That's 'fighting together' (NLT)!
It's not all one-sided; Paul reciprocates the partnership he enjoys with the church in Philippi. At this point in his life, he's suffered an awful lot; more beatings and shipwrecks and mob attacks than a normal person would survive. Physically he must have felt about 'ready to pack it in.' In fact he can talk frankly about the possibility: he's really torn; v23, "I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far" (there's a double or triple comparative in the original language, as in 'very much better'). But he doesn't just think of himself. V24, "But it is more necessary for you [the Philippians] that I remain in the body; convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith..." What a trooper! It would be easier for him just to give up and go to heaven; but for the sake of the church he determines to do his best to survive the hardships so he can keep on providing leadership and guidance. And, historically, it seems Paul was released from this imprisonment and did get to see them again.
Nor is he reluctant; v8, "God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus." He really feels a close bond with this group, they're close to his heart; he even says (v7) "I have you in my heart." Real partnership and sharing/communion.
Divine Supply when "Out to Lunch"
Don & Marion Mills of the Wilmot Centre EMC were the speakers at the Pastors & Spouses Retreat this past Tuesday in Stayner. Few people must be more tempted to give up than Don: since 1997 he's been battling a most painful case of osteosarcoma (the type of bone cancer that killed Terry Fox). Not only does the cancer affect his hip, it and the surgeries have affected the nerves in such a way that Don is in almost constant pain, and of a type most people would find it hard to endure. For years now he hasn't been able to walk without the aid of crutches; he's had to use an assistive device even to write with his arm. Yet Don feels compelled to carry on his ministry of pastoring a church. Marion has been a tremendous help, and their 3 sons and the congregation have been an encouragement as well.
Marion gave a good example of the kind of 'partnership' we've been talking about, as Paul experienced with the Lord and the Philippians. It was during the time when Don had a busy period of going to see specialists, taking treatments, and so on. One morning Marion went to get the boys' lunches ready and realized the fridge had nothing, the cupboards too - there just wasn't anything in the house with which to make the lads' lunches! She felt so bad at not being better organized, but with all the appointments and stress and running around, she simply hadn't had time for regular shopping.
That evening, when she returned home from taking Don to his medical appointments, she got a big surprise. The fridge was full. On the kitchen table was a heaping pile of food supplies, including lots of items suitable for making lunches. That very day some people from the congregation had come in and stocked the fridge and cupboards for them! Yet she hadn't said a thing about it to anyone. This couldn't be just a coincidence - that was the first time she had come to such a desperate state in terms of food supplies. She was sure the Lord had seen her need, and motivated some loving fellow believers to bring about such a loving practical gesture - precisely what the family needed.
Incidentally (and I'm not saying this because of our own situation, but as advice when you're looking to help anyone in general), Marion said the best idea wasn't to tell someone going through hardship like that to call you if they need anything; they never will! Instead, the thing friends did that was most helpful was to call up and say, "I'm just on my way to the store, can I pick up anything for you?" That sort of specific offer was much easier to accept.
Yvonne and I too have experienced loving partnership by God's grace and through your caring in our difficulties. This past Thursday I had a church meeting in Kitchener; Yvonne suggested I contact a certain woman to come and make her tea at 3. I hesitated, because she was doing pretty well, but eventually gave this lady a call. What did she say almost as soon as she answered? "I was just thinking of calling you..." (truthfully!) God had already been putting Yvonne on her heart - turns out they had talked previously of this lady coming over sometime to help Yvonne with her fingernails.
By such partnership, prompted and empowered by the Lord, may we continue to experience and be agents of "the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ" (19). Let's pray.