Bible Readings: Acts 16:11-34 & Philippians 1:1-11

Rejoice in prayer

This evening we are beginning our new sermon series exploring Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi but before we dive into the letter itself, it is worth taking a few minutes to understand the background and the context it is written into. A lot of this background is provided by the reading we had from Acts, in which Luke describes Paul’s first visit to Philippi. Here we discover that Philippi was a Roman colony and a leading city of Macedonia. Both of these facts are important. Firstly, to describe a town as a Roman colony is a specific technical term. It means that it was a place the veteran Roman soldiers could go to live after demobilization and enjoy the privileges of self-government and freedom from taxation. This would have brought wealth and regeneration to the city, but also introduced a more Roman flavour to the character of the place. Secondly, it was in Macedonia, which was a place that Paul had been sent to specifically. Paul had been planning to go somewhere else, but the Holy Spirit had prevented him and in a dream he had seen a man from Macedonia begging him to come and help them, so he had gone.

What did he discover when he got there? Well by implication not very many Jews or a synagogue. In virtually every other place Paul visits he goes to the synagogue first to engage the Jews of the city. But not here, and the most likely explanation is that in this Roman influenced Greek city there just weren’t any. Instead he goes out to the river and finds a group of women praying, and joins them and shares the good news of Jesus with them, and they come to believe.

Then Paul gets into trouble. A slave girl with a spirit of fortune telling keeps shouting after them as they go to pray, and Paul got so annoyed with this that he commanded the spirit to leave. This reduced the value of the slave to her owners and they turned on Paul. Notice the charge – “These men are Jews … advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept.”

Paul and Silas are beaten and imprisoned, but still praise God, and sing with joy. So much joy that the earth shakes and they are freed, and as a result even more people come to faith. The jailer went from being on he point of ending his own life in despair to being “filled with joy because he had come to believe in God.”

So the church in Philippi was born in joy but in a town of mixed cultures that was spiritually oppressive and opposed to the gospel. Since then it is likely that Paul has visited the church at least twice, and has been supported financially by them in his mission and ministry in other places. We don’t know for certain where he is now, apart from the fact that is in prison once again. It is most probable that he is in Rome, towards the end of his life, coordinating the missionary trips of his associates like Timothy and Epaphroditus and writing letters to various of the churches and congregations he had planted throughout his life.

So, that’s the background in place, now lets have a look at this opening prayer and have a think about what it shows us about Paul’s intentions in writing to his friends, and what it might have to say to us today.

The observant among you will have noticed from the Insight card that the titles of all the sermons in the series begin, “Rejoice…” This is a clue as to one of the key themes of this letter, it is the golden thread that runs all the way through, it is the touchstone of Paul’s call to the Christians in Philippi. Rejoice! The church had experienced at first hand the power of joy and praise in the most difficult of circumstances to change things, even to cause earthquakes, and Paul keeps bringing them back to that experience that was foundational for that church. So how does Paul pray for them? He prays with joy.

This joy has several roots, and I’d like to focus on two of them this evening. The first and clearest one is the partnership that the Philippians had in the gospel with Paul. They have a shared history of working together to bring the good news of Jesus to people and the recollection of that is a source of joy for Paul. The second is Paul’s confidence that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”. As we will see as we go through the letter, the church in Philippi is under attack. Just as Paul was opposed spiritually and humanly on his first visit to Philippi, so the church has faced pressure and opposition from the surrounding culture. Paul is not surprised or dismayed by this because he is confident in God to finish what has been started. This is not an easy, everything will be OK groundless optimism, a smile plastered on to try and convince himself and everybody else that there’s nothing wrong. This is a well founded joy that sees the problems clearly and chooses to trust and be confident in God anyway.

So, Paul prays with the joy that comes from a shared history and a confidence in God’s power to sustain his friends, and what does he pray for them so joyfully?

He prays that their love may abound more and more in 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, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.

This is a brilliant prayer, and I love it. If you ever don’t know how to pray for someone in a difficult situation then just open your Bibles to Philippians 1 and pray this for them. It is a great all purpose prayer, but it is also so much more than that. It is prayed for a particular church, with particular challenges.

We know from what we’ve learnt from the story of the founding of the church that it came to life in a city that was divided, with Greeks and Romans, people suspicious of Jewish religious ideas. As we read through this letter it becomes apparent that those divisions have infected the church. People are falling out with each other, are grumbling, are looking down on each other, are being ambitious, are arguing amongst themselves. So, before Paul challenges them about this, before he brings it all out into the open he prays for them that they will have what they need to resolve these issues. He prays that their love may abound.

As Jesus said, “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no-one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” We read this often around Remembrance and we think about those who died in war, but I wonder whether we sometimes put such a weight on this that we forget its everyday implications. Loving each other every day means laying down our lives every day. It means putting our preferences on the back burner, choosing the other person’s good over our own, choosing to forgive when we have been hurt, choosing to swallow our pride and asking for forgiveness when we have done wrong. It is this kind of self denying, life laying down love that leads to unity and reconciliation.

There is, however, another quality of Christian love that Paul emphasis here that I think that it is important for us to understand. Paul prays that their love may abound in knowledge and depth of insight. This strikes me as a little bit odd. We don’t naturally associate love with clear thinking. In fact, we might talk about “love being blind” and I suspect that we all know people whose love for somebody makes them entirely oblivious to some of the most obvious things about them. Paul does not pray for blind love, he prays for clear seeing love. Because with blind love people’s wrong behaviour can end up being ignored or swept under the carpet. The risk of this is that victims are pressurised or made to feel guilty for not loving the people who have been hurting them.

What is needed is insightful love that challenges people when they are going wrong, so that they can become more like Jesus. It is insightful love that can bring true reconciliation and health into relationships. This is love that is strong enough to see failings and love anyway. This is the kind of love that God has for us. God sees us perfectly. God knows all the corners of our lives, even the bits we don’t like to admit to. And God loves us perfectly. It is this kind of love that Paul prayed for the Philippians to experience themselves. It is the kind of love that we should pray for for each other.

There is another reason that Paul prays for insight and knowledge for the Philippians, and why he continues on to pray for them to be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ. As we go through this letter we will discover that as well as attacks from the surrounding culture, and internal relationship breakdowns there is also a rival version of the gospel being preached in Philippi. We will explore this in more detail when we get to chapter 3, but in summary it is fairly clear that the teaching of Judiasing Christians has come to Philippi, and the idea that Christians have to follow Jewish laws and practices, including circumcision, has been gaining ground. Remember that this was almost certainly an entirely Gentile church initially, and that anything that looked like Judaism would have led to further persecution. Again, before Paul gets into the challenge and lays out his arguments against this teaching he prays for the Philippians that they would have what they need to come to the right conclusion. He prays for knowledge and depth of insight, and he also prays that they would be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ. Not that comes through keeping the law, or being circumcised, or being Jewish, but that comes through Jesus Christ. Because the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the tree is identified by its fruit. If the people can see in each other the fruit of righteousness growing in their lives as they trust Christ Jesus, then they will have experience and evidence that they can point to and say we don’t need the law, or circumcision, because we are growing the fruit of righteousness as Christ works in us, apart from the law.

Now we, may not be facing the same pressures. I don’t think anybody has ever suggested that I needed to be circumcised. But we do face other pressures. There are pressures from other world views. There is a materialistic world view that tries to tell us that our highest good can be found in having and enjoying material things, that there is nothing beyond what we can see and experience and that we should be good consumers, shopping and buying our way to happiness and fulfilment. There is a world view that makes how we feel the ultimate decision making criteria. If it makes us feel good then it must be right. One of the things that came out of the political upheavals of 2016 was the idea that we live in a post-truth world. That somehow what actually happened or the facts of a case are almost irrelevant in the face of people’s opinions or interpretations of it.

What do we do in the face of these pressures? For sure, we need to use our minds to marshal our arguments, to defend sound Christian doctrine. We need to use our mouths to speak up for truth. We need to live our lives counter culturally, in defiance of these distortions of reality. But, I would suggest, that before all these, we need to do as Paul did and pray. We need to pray for each other that we may be filled with the fruit of the righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, so that there is no hint of self-righteousness about us, and so that we can see that fruit in each others lives and be encouraged, and so that other people can see that fruit and be convinced that what we say and live by isn’t just true theoretically but is true practically and demonstrably.

Paul prayed for the Philippians with joy that sprang from a shared purpose and a confidence in the faithfulness of God that overcomes all opposition. He prayed with that joy that they may be filled with a love that would overcome their internal tensions, and he prayed with that joy that they may so bear the fruit of Jesus’ righteousness in their lives that all other ways of living would be shown to be barren.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in depth of insight; so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.

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