Sunday, July 12, 2020

Partnership in the Gospel: Homily on Philippians 1:1-8

Paul's chains rattled as he shifted in place. He looked across the room at Timothy, pausing to remember. Paul was sandwiched – chained to – a pair of guards, who tried their best to tune him out, but who didn't seem to be doing a very good job of it. “Remember, Timothy?” asked the apostle. Timothy looked over at the parchment in the hands of the scribe – they'd just barely started the second sentence – and knew this might take a while. But it was Paul, after all. So they remembered. They remembered that march into Philippi for the very first time, getting the lay of the land in a city with no synagogue. They remembered finding the place of prayer by the river, and sharing the good news with Lydia and the other Jewish women gathered there. And they recalled the season of ministry that came next – having taken up a place in Lydia's house, how daily they used to go out and mingle in the marketplace, walk the streets, strike up conversations with people and point to good news. Here and there, someone would take an interest, enough to take that leap, to take that dunk in the river in the Holy Name. And then they'd tell that person to meet them at Lydia's place the next Sunday morning – and they could meet the others, and begin celebrating together the Jesus who'd become their Savior and their Lord.

Of course, it was a challenge most times to get all this done, with a python-spirit in a slave-girl screaming behind them, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation!” It was not the most helpful advertisement, given the source – designed to confuse and bewilder rather than impress. They dodged her when they could, but eventually Paul had gotten so fed up that he exorcised Apollo from the girl's soul, set her free – and, from the slave-owners' perspective, broke their most valued asset. No wonder they'd hauled Paul and Silas to court – just Paul and Silas, as Timothy and Luke, the team's newest member at the time, had been evangelizing elsewhere in town, helped by the fledgling members of the church just planted. Well, Paul and Silas were accused of causing a disturbance, of being unpatriotic, of being subversives – so, after a hasty beating by hot-headed Roman patriots deeply offended by anything that sounded un-Roman, they were thrown into jail while their case was considered.

Of course, it was all for the best – that's how the warden and his family found salvation, and how the gospel began to work on the prisoners caught up in Paul and Silas' hymns! In the dead of night, after the earthquake, the warden had taken them to his house, had listened attentively to good news, had gotten him and his house baptized, had shared a meal with them. In the morning, when the magistrates ordered their release, they secured a public apology to hold up the new church's reputation, and visited with the whole church at Lydia's before leaving town. They'd left Luke behind to help. Paul remembered how eager the church had been, even after seeing the bruises and cuts all over him and Silas – eagerness to take up the baton and run with it. The warden promptly shared the gospel with those prisoners, announcing the meaning of all those beautiful hymns. Lydia kept sharing good news with other merchants. The rest found ways to carry on the mission, even as Paul had been whisked off to Amphipolis, Apollonia, and Thessalonica (Acts 16:11-40).

Ever since, the church had run with that baton. They'd been evangelizing and baptizing and discipling, and it had grown them over the past nine years from a single cluster meeting in Lydia's house to a whole network of churches in houses all over Philippi, each with a pastor and his assistants, the overseers and their deacons (Philippians 1:1). And these churches had been praying for their neighbors, praying for their church, praying for Paul's continued work daily throughout the years. They'd been taking up regular collections and sending messengers to bring the proceeds to Paul wherever he was on mission – more than Paul needed, since he'd learned contentment, but an undeniable help and a fragrant offering to God (Philippians 4:15-18). The road had not been easy – they met with plenty of local hostility, and were suffering much like Paul was – but in the midst of that, they'd sent their leading pastor to go help Paul in Rome and carry their latest gift! And so when Paul looked back on all this, from the very start of his mission there to the present day, Paul was joyful, even while under Roman house arrest. He thanked God every time he thought of the Philippian churches, he prayed for them every time he prayed, he missed them like family, loved them affectionately in Christ, was confident of the consistent growth he saw in them (Philippians 1:3-4, 6-8). And why all that? Because they had established with him a full-fledged “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:5)

And that's the key phrase right there. What did it mean to Paul for them to have a “partnership in the gospel”? On the one hand, it meant that they were co-owners, co-recipients, co-sharers of something. They had been given the gift – yes, the gift – of being able to suffer for Jesus, “engaged in the same conflict you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:29-30). When the crockpot of suffering for Jesus was hauled to the table, they brought their plates to the line, same as Paul. They accepted a portion, doled out from the same pot, of those very flavors. But the same fellowship-meal line was the line for grace, an even bigger pot! And having accepted their spoonfuls of suffering, they all shared in the grace that God poured over: “You are all partakers with me of grace” (Philippians 1:7), Paul mentions. They all eat from the same pots. They eat together. They aren't concerned to customize their dishes to their own tastes. They all want what Paul's having. And they want to eat it together, pain and grace alike. They want to go through it together. Our Christian lives are not about pursuing our own paths, focusing on our own spiritual stomachs. Our Christian lives are about the experiences we share, the things we participate in together, the sustenance we draw from a common pot.

The language Paul's using here – 'partnership' – suggests the picture, though, of a business partnership. That's the picture Paul presents. He says that all the Philippian churches have formed a business partnership with him, in the gospel business, the Jesus business. In the Roman world, a business partnership was a contract between a group of people, who all had to trust each other and all had to contribute somehow. There could be no heritable membership, nothing automatic; a partner had to be welcomed in by the whole partnership to join. But once in, each partner contributed, each partner kept faith. And for Paul, the gospel had become a family business for the Philippians and him. Each contributed prayers, each contributed their own witness, each contributed as able to the financial support of the work Paul did and the work Philippi's local church leaders did. And as a church network, they'd gone above and beyond in lending Epaphroditus to shore up Paul's work-from-home gospel ministry in Rome. It was a business partnership in the gospel business, and they kept the faith. And the Apostle Paul was mighty pleased, was downright tickled pink, to be in business with the likes of them.

Would he say the same about us, I wonder? What would it take for us to meet the measure of the Philippian standard? We, as a church, are called to participate in such a business partnership in the gospel business – we have affiliate franchises in other churches, but here in our neck of the woods, it falls to us to go into the gospel business, the good news business. And I wonder if sometimes we aren't so bogged down by the bad news of the world that we lose sight of the hope we're called to deliver. Or perhaps sometimes we try to be free-riders – either hoard the product to ourselves, or hold back the investments we could be making, not just of funding but (more importantly) of prayer and encouragement and labor! But when it comes to a partnership in the gospel, each of us would have to contribute, each of us would have to keep faith, each of us would have to set our heart on bringing a profit of hearts to Jesus – and not just the hearts of individuals, but the hearts of communities and cultures. When we were baptized, we signed a contract to do just that. What would a church like that look like, a church of fully engaged business partners in the gospel, sharing our resources and abilities to the enterprise, each totally invested in the gospel and in its delivery throughout our neighborhood? Over the following months – as we reflect on Paul's letter to the Philippians, a letter from a political prisoner to a deeply politicized city – we'll consider how to pursue the good news business in a chaotic and politicized culture. Because even when the world is as it is, the good news of Jesus is in business.

I propose we launch just such a business partnership, as it were – a partnership in the good news business, right here, right now. I propose we each recognize ourselves as having more to invest than we realize. And I suggest that the benefits we'll receive, our treasure stored up in heaven, will have a rate of return on investment that more than justifies it all. For Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again with crowns in hand. And until then, we proclaim these truths in one other form of gospel partnership – that of dinner partners, fellow-diners at the Table of the Lord. Paul says elsewhere, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a partnership in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a partnership in the body of Christ? … Are not those who eat the sacrifices participants,” partners, “in the altar?” (1 Corinthians 10:16, 18). We are partners indeed – every time we sit down to this meal, every time we receive Christ in the flesh and blood, every time our plates are filled from the same holy altar, every time we pile high the brokenness and bloodshed of Jesus, smothered with grace. We are called to deliver life-changing good news. Let's begin by remembering how it tastes.

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