“For Your Progress and Joy in the Faith” (Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30)

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 20, 2020

“For Your Progress and Joy in the Faith” (Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30)

Today we begin four weeks in a row of readings from Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians.  Four chapters over four weeks, starting with much of chapter 1 today.  The epistle as a whole is not very long–you can read it in less than 15 minutes–so you might want to consider reading Philippians a number of times over the coming weeks.  You won’t regret it.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians:  What do we know about Philippi and Paul’s relationship with the congregation there?  A little background is in order.  Philippi was a city in Macedonia, the northern part of Greece.  Paul had gone there on his second missionary journey, when he crossed over from Asia Minor into Europe.  And Philippi was one of the first places he went.  You can read about it in Acts 16, where there are accounts of the conversion of Lydia, Paul and Silas in jail, and the conversion of the Philippian jailer.  That was the start.  And from that beginning, the church at Philippi had grown and had a good relationship with the apostle Paul.

Now it’s about ten years after those first events.  It’s around the year 60, and Paul is imprisoned again, this time in Rome.  During his time in prison, he writes letters to various churches, and Philippians is one of them.  So I guess you could say it’s one of Paul’s “chain letters.”  And it’s a thank-you letter too, since the church at Philippi had been sending him support on his travels over the years.

When you read the Epistle to the Philippians, you can see that the tone and the content of the letter contrasts with, for example, 1 Corinthians or Galatians.  Corinth was a screwed-up congregation with a lot of problems, rather dysfunctional.  Galatians?  Paul comes out blasting at them, rebuking them for falling away from the very basis of the gospel, moving from grace to works.  By way of contrast, though, Philippi seems to be a fairly healthy congregation.  They get it.  And Paul is encouraging them in their life of faith.  There is a warmth and an affection and a joy evident in Paul’s relationship with them.

And now, even though Paul is in prison, he still is writing them with a very pastoral approach.  He cares for them.  Paul doesn’t know what the outcome of this imprisonment will be.  He could be released, or he could be executed.  It could go either way.  And Paul is ready, whichever way it will go.  Live or die, it’s all good.  Even in prison in Rome, he has seen some good come out of his imprisonment, because he has been able to influence the whole imperial guard for the gospel.  If he is killed–well, that’s good too, since he will go to be with the Lord, which is better by far.  “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” he says.  And if he is released, then Paul hopes to come and visit the Philippians again, which will be refreshing for him and a blessing for them.  It’s a win-win-win situation all around.

Whether in prison or free once more, Paul has this pastoral attitude toward the Philippians, and he intends to continue his ministry for their sake one way or the other, whether in person or in prison.  “Convinced of this,” he says, “I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.”  Notice that:  “for your progress and joy in the faith.”  That’s what the pastoral ministry is all about, back then and still today.  God places a pastor among you “For Your Progress and Joy in the Faith.”

Do you ever think about that?  That God wants you to make progress in the Christian faith?  That once you become a Christian, God wants you to grow and mature in the faith?  And that this is a lifelong endeavor?  It doesn’t stop when you are baptized.  It doesn’t stop when you are confirmed.  No, God wants you to grow, to progress as a Christian:  In deepening your knowledge of Christian doctrine.  In living out your faith in a life of holiness and love and good works.  And your pastor is here to help you to do those things.  By the ministry of Word and Sacrament, through preaching and teaching and pastoral care, the minister of Christ is here “for your progress and joy in the faith.”

For your progress “and joy” in the faith.  Joy is a theme running throughout this letter to the Philippians.  In the four chapters of this epistle, I count the word “joy” or “rejoice” a whopping fourteen times, and if you add “glad,” it comes to a total of sixteen!  That’s a lot of joy!  And why not?  For the Christian faith is a thing of joy!  What a joy it is to know that your sins are forgiven!  What a joy it is to know you have eternal life waiting for you on the other side!  This is great stuff!  What a joy it is to know that God, your heavenly Father, is watching out for you and taking care of you!  It is a joy to know Jesus, your Savior, who even now is interceding for you, who once again today will give you his body and blood for your forgiveness.  It’s a joy to have the Holy Spirit dwelling in you by your baptism and keeping you in the Christian faith by the means of grace.  It’s a joy to be in the fellowship of believers, the church, your brothers and sisters who are here for you in this congregation.  All kinds of joy, all around you!

Yes, the church, this congregation–this is part of your progress and joy in the faith.  Listen to what Paul says:  “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”

Brothers and sisters, there is a corporate dimension to the Christian life.  It’s not just you and Jesus and that’s it.  You don’t go it alone.  No, you are called into the church.  You are part of the body of Christ here in this congregation.  We belong together.  God has a purpose for us being a family.  It’s his plan.  And Paul speaks to this here when he says, “that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”  That’s a plural “you,” and it speaks to the collective unity of the church.  “Standing firm in one spirit.”  You can’t do that alone.  And Paul adds, “with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”  You can’t strive side by side when you’re off by yourself, doing your own thing.

You know, some people say, “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.”  Well, that’s a bunch of hogwash.  That’s simply an excuse people make for not going to church.  Of course, I’m not talking about those who are homebound or shut-in.  I’m talking about those who choose to blow off church.  For that is certainly not the teaching of Christ or his apostles.  It is not the leading of the Holy Spirit to not participate in the life of the church.  The Bible is filled with passages testifying to the importance of Christians sharing their life together in a congregation.

“Standing firm in one spirit.”  “With one mind striving side by side.”  Is this at the forefront of your consciousness?  Do you see your identity in this way, that you are a member of this church and actively involved for the good of this congregation?  For that is God’s will for you.

Our reading today from Philippians calls attention to this vital aspect of the Christian life.  That you are I are members of the body of Christ.  That we each have a part to play in our life together.  That we are called to stand with and to support one another and to strive together for the faith.  That we are called to have one mind and one spirit as the body of Christ, pulling together in unity, not fighting amongst ourselves or working at cross purposes.

We have a mission to carry out here together.  We are to build one another up in the faith.  We are to love and serve one another, support one another, and care for one another.  We are not just a bunch of unconnected individuals.  God has woven us together in this life that we share.  This congregation is an outpost for the gospel.  We get built up here in the faith, and then we go out into the world, into our neighborhoods, into our workplaces, in our families, as walking witnesses for Christ.  Other people will get to know Jesus through us, and that is how more people will be drawn into the family of God in this church.

But this manner of life is not always easy.  There will be opposition.  There will be suffering for the sake of Christ.  There will be conflict.  The church has always faced these trials, and it is no different now.  We live in a hostile environment.  The enemies of the gospel are launching their attacks against the church.  We see it in the news.  We see it in our culture.  But God will strengthen us to face these adversities together, as we stand firm and strive side by side, in one spirit and with one mind.

What Paul is describing here in Philippians is a manner of life worthy of the gospel of Christ.  For it reflects the great wonder and grace of God toward us, to save each one of us sinners and to make us together his people.  We find meaning, identity, and purpose in this manner of life.  Our life is tied up with Christ’s life now, and that’s the best life there is.  His blood covers our sins.  His resurrection guarantees our own resurrection.  His life gives meaning to our life.  Christ’s victory gives courage to our weak and wobbly knees.  His word reveals God to us and gives us words to hold on to, to bolster our faith and to share the good news with others.

Paul writes to the Philippians for their progress and joy in the faith.  And I am here today to bring God’s Word to you for the same purpose:  “for your progress and joy in the faith.”  And you will be progressing in the faith, and finding real joy, as you dive deeper into this simple yet profound truth that animated St. Paul:  “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Published in: on September 19, 2020 at 8:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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