Proper 20 · Philippians 1:12–14, 19–30 · September 24, 2017
Editor’s note: David Schmitt provides this homiletical help as the first of four in a sermon series on the lectionary’s successive readings from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
By David Schmitt,
In a culture that is redefining what it means to be family, the Christian church has devoted significant efforts to defending God’s design of the human family. There is, however, another family that God desires for us to attend to. This family is created not by flesh but by the Spirit, not by genetics but by the gospel, not by human decision but by the working of God.
In a culture where more and more people find themselves displaced from the biological family, the Apostle Paul has a letter that encourages us to remember and reveal that we are part of the family of God.
Philippians is approached by identifying major themes, opportunities for application, and an activity that could done in the congregation that would put such faith into practice.
In reading Philippians, we are reading a letter of friendship. Paul is in prison, most likely in Rome, and has received from the church in Philippi a gift to support him in his imprisonment. Paul now writes to thank them for the gift, to send a fellow-worker to care for them, and to offer his words of encouragement to those he considers brothers and sisters in the faith.
In this section of the letter, Paul offers a prayer for the Philippians (1:3–11), updates them on his affairs (1:12–26), and offers counsel regarding their affairs (1:27–30). The letter, thus, begins with a remarkable demonstration of the way in which the Spirit works in the midst of separation and persecution to foster faith.
The Spirit’s Work in Separation (Paul’s prayer for the Philippians)
Paul is separated from the Philippians and yet that separation has only increased his desire to see them and his prayerful attention to their needs. Rather than being “out of sight and out of mind,” this separation from the Philippians has brought them deeper into Paul’s heart (v. 7) and closer to God in his prayers. The Spirit, then, is at work in times of separation to increase our love for one another and our concern for one another expressed in lives of prayer.
The Spirit’s Work in Persecution (Paul’s affairs)
As Paul updates the Philippians on his imprisonment, he reveals how the Spirit works in the midst of suffering. Rather than express frustration with his imprisonment, Paul focuses his attention upon the progress of the gospel. He sees how Christ is being proclaimed and finds satisfaction and confidence in that aspect of God’s work. “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Absence and persecution, thus, work to bring Paul closer to the Philippians and closer to Christ.
Connections for Application
Our culture has two proverbs about absence that offer us two ways of life. On the one hand, we say “out of sight, out of mind,” meaning that, when something is not near to us, we have a tendency to forget about it. On the other hand, we say “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” meaning that, when something is not near to us, we have a tendency to be drawn much closer to a recognition of its value. The question for us to consider today is “Which of these proverbs applies to us as God’s people, the church?” When members are absent from our midst or when we are no longer able to be present at church, which of these proverbs describes our way of life?
Absence has a way of calling our attention to the bigger picture. When a traveler remembers a journey years later, there are certain high points to the experience that are known only from afar. So, too, Paul encourages us to approach our absence from one another as a time for our hearts to grow fonder as we see the big picture. We can see how God works through members in our midst for a time and then sends forth his people in vocational service to other places in the world. Consider one or two members who used to be at work among your people but have been called to service in other places. Take time to rejoice in the work that God did through them in your midst and pray for the work that God continues to do through them.
This fondness for one another is a work of the Spirit. Notice how Paul’s absence from the Philippians shapes his memory of them in his prayer. He begins to see and recount how God is at work in their lives and prays for that work to continue.
As we think about those who are absent from us, what do we see? What work are they presently doing in the kingdom? How is God working through their vocations? What struggles might they be enduring? How can we offer support?
Identify a member who is absent and (with that member’s permission) share what God has done for that person in Christ in the past and how you pray that God works for his or her life and service in the future. Absence has a way of calling our attention to the bigger picture and enabling us to see God’s work in the lives of his people.
This fondness for Christ is a work of the Spirit that happens even in times of persecution. Separation from one another can be frightening because we live in a time of post-Christendom. To be alone in an environment that is not supportive of one’s faith is difficult and distressing. Paul’s words, however, turn our eyes to Christ. The one who has suffered and died under sin has now risen from the dead and ascended into heaven and rules over all things. Jesus cannot be dethroned by the forces of this world and, in fact, through our suffering, will continue to work and bear witness to his kingdom of grace. In connecting with one another, we are able to consider how Christ is at work in our situations of service and suffering and commend one another to his care.
Activity for the Week
As the body of Christ, we intentionally care for one another, even those who are physically distant from the church.
Identify members of the congregation who are distant from the church. It could be college students, those who serve in the armed forces, shut-ins, those who are hospitalized, or delinquent members. Then, plan how the congregation can engage in Christian service to them.
One approach would be to identify some of their needs or the nature of their service to God where they are located and plan a way of extending the church’s care to them. For example, the congregation could send devotional booklets to those who are distant from them with a letter witnessing to the church’s spiritual care and promising that they will be held up in prayer during this week and at the next worship service.