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Sermon for 1 October 2017

Philippians 1
This is the first in a series of sermons on Paul's letter to the Philippians, which you can read here. You can read a brief introduction and background to the letter here.

Paul has had an extraordinary ministry. He has travelled thousands of miles around the Mediterranean, and wherever he has gone he has told people about Jesus, and gathered together little communities of believers. And we have to remember that this is the very early days for the church. The number of believers is very small, and they are spread out around the edge of the known world. Their churches are very fragile. They have none of the church structure we enjoy - no Bishops or priests, no bank accounts or church buildings no Sunday services, lectionaries or hymn books. These are first generation believers who have often made huge sacrifices to become disciples, and are figuring it all out as they go along.

And Paul has given his life to planting and nurturing these communities, and now he’s in prison, on the wrong side of the world from the churches he loves, without any contact with them at all. And he must have wondered if it was all wasted. It would be the easiest thing in the world for the little communities in Galatia and Corinth, in Ephesus and Philippi to fizzle out and die. Being a Christian was hard, and being human is hard, and now with Paul out of action, they had little or no outside support.

It would be quite natural for Paul to long to be back on the road, to be back amongst the people he loved, teaching and guiding them, helping them sort out their issues, and we often get a sense in his letters of Paul’s strength of feeling for these communities. 

And what about all those people he has yet to meet, all those communities he hasn’t yet got going. All those people who need to know about Jesus, and about how God is at work in their lives. Paul knows that he’s good at it - that he’s got the gifts and the experience to bring people to faith. It’s what he was made for. 

But now he’s stuck in prison writing the odd letter.

What a waste of a life. What a disappointment.

Do you ever feel like that? Like there’s so much you could be doing, but the bills need to be paid, and the kids have to get to school, or that relative needs your care, or that break just doesn’t come with that job you long for. And all you can do is live with a sense of life passing you by? Of disappointment? 

Or have you ever done something that was really good, and which made you proud, and which you are confident made God proud too - and which now seems fragile and at risk? Or which you’ve had to leave behind and move on from, leaving it without the care you want it to have?

Life is full of these experiences. And Paul knew them too. 

But he’s come to terms with it, and in this letter, he tells us how and why. And there are three secrets to his joy, even in the midst of all the disappointment. And helpfully they all start with ‘C’.

They’re Celebrate; Centre; Christ

Celebrate the good; know who is at the Centre; do it all for Christ

The first thing is that Paul knows how to celebrate. He notices what is good, and he celebrates it, and he thanks God for it. In verse three his sheer pleasure in the church in Philippi is clear - ‘every time I think of you, I give thanks to God’. Like thinking about your child or grandchild, or a favourite niece or nephew, just remembering the people in Philippi makes him grateful.

And his gratefulness is a way of celebrating what has been done and what continues to come from it. The bible tells us to be careful of pride and arrogance when it’s all about us, but Paul isn’t shy about boasting in what he sees Jesus doing in the churches that he has planted. 

Sometimes when we look back at things that we’ve done - especially things that feel long gone, or which aren’t thriving any more, particularly the things that went wrong - a broken marriage, a redundancy, a bereavement - we worry that it’s all wasted, all worthless. Paul has discovered the importance of celebrating the things that gave God glory, or brought love into the world, or gave someone hope. 

If you’re struggling with disappointment, or if you’re struggling with the past, don’t forget to celebrate the good. Don’t hold back from looking at what has happened in your life and thanking God for all the good things you’ve done - the things you’re really proud of. Don’t be shy about it - Paul wasn’t. And don’t hold back from celebrating the good in those things, even when they ended up going wrong. A bad ending, doesn’t mean everything that went before is worthless or wasted. God doesn’t waste things and nor should we.  

Maybe it would be helpful for you to give some time to looking back over your life and writing down all the things you’ve done well and celebrating them with God, being grateful for them, looking for all the ways that those things pleased God and brought love and hope to the world. 

Paul tells us to celebrate the good.

The second thing that he tells us is to make sure we know who is really at the centre of the Universe and to keep our eyes on the bigger picture. Paul knows that what he does really matters, but that it isn’t the total story or the final story. He has a healthy sense of the significance of his place in God’s plan, and he’s ready to celebrate it - but he also knows that God’s work doesn’t revolve around him or even depend on him. I am confident that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. He knows that he has done something good in getting things going in Philippi, but he’s also clear that God’s the one who’s really in charge. 

It’s very easy for us to think that we are the centre of everything and that the project we’re working on, or the focus of our current life is central to the future of the Universe.

Paul says - not so much. We really aren’t the centre of the Universe and nor is our work, our family or our concerns. The job of being the centre of the Universe is already taken by God and - thank God - he’s very good at it.

We have important work to do for God; the work of loving each other, the work of standing with the poor, the work of using our gifts to God’s glory. But that doesn’t mean it’s all down to us, nor that God is depending on us. 

We really aren’t the centre of the Universe. It’s not all about the project that you’re working on, or the decision that you’ve got to make, or the relationship you’re trying to make work. 

That might sound harsh, especially in a world that tells us over and over again to love yourself and to discover that ‘you’re worth it’. But really, it can give us great freedom - to know that it’s not all down to us.  That we don’t have to love ourselves - that may well be the hardest thing for us to do. We don’t need to - that’s not our job. That’s for God to do, and unlike us, He does it without any question, any guilt, any raised eyebrows or hesitation. 

That’s Paul’s second great insight. There is a centre to the Universe, and it’s not you or me. It’s the God who loves us and who always will. 

Rowan Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury once described prayer as being a bit like sunbathing - "When you're lying on the beach something is happening, something that has nothing to do with how you feel or how hard you're trying.  You're not going to get a better tan by screwing up your eyes and concentrating. You give the time, and that's it. All you have to do is turn up.  And then things change, at their own pace. You simply have to be there where the light can get at you.”

So this week, in the midst of all the busy-ness, take time to let the light get at you. Don’t try too hard. Just sit in silence and let God get at you, and know that there is a centre to the Universe, and, thank God, it’s not you.

And then the last, most demanding and most glorious of all Paul’s discoveries. In the end, the goal of life is not to do great things, not to be fulfilled or happy, not to get things done or to lead a good life. The goal of life is Christ. Paul describes himself as ‘a slave of Christ Jesus’ - and his entire focus is to live entirely in relationship with him. 

Just count the number of times in that first chapter, that Paul mentions Jesus Christ - 19 times I make it - just in the first chapter.  Paul has discovered that Jesus is the beginning and the end of everything.   

You may know the story of the vicar who leads a school assembly and asks the kids a question - ‘What’s grey, fluffy, with a big bushy tail, eats nuts and is great at climbing trees? Anyone know?’ A boy who never answers questions raised his hand with a quizzical look on his face, so the Vicar points to him, and the boy says - ‘I don’t understand Rev. I know the answer’s always Jesus, but it sounds remarkably like a squirrel to me’. 

For Paul, the answer is always Jesus.

Jesus is who he serves. Jesus is who gives him purpose and meaning and direction. Jesus is the source of life and love. Jesus is his destination. It is all about Jesus Christ.

Now there’s no simple trick for living that kind of life - it’s a matter of a lifetime commitment. What theologian Eugene Peterson called ’A long obedience in the same direction’. A life constantly renewed by the Holy Spirit, ready to seek forgiveness and steadily stepping out in faith after Jesus, the beginning and end, Alpha and Omega, the one for whom we exist.

And with these lessons well learnt, locked away in Rome, far from his beloved Philippians, Paul can celebrate the good, knowing that God is at the centre of all things, and that Jesus Christ is his Lord and Saviour. With these lessons learnt, Paul tells us that nothing, nothing at all, is ever wasted. Disappointment will not have the last word. 

Going deeper
  1. Read Philippians 1 out loud. Read it slowly and with care. Notice what stands out to you; perhaps a word or a short phrase.
  2. Share an experience of disappointment that you have had.
  3. As you look back at a disappointment in your life, can you see things that are worth celebrating? Share these with each other
  4. The sermon suggests that remembering we are not the centre of things can help us with disappointment. What would your life be like if you confidently knew that God is the centre of everything, including the things that are really important to you?
  5. What does 'a long obedience in the same direction' mean to you?
  6. What one thing could you change to put Jesus Christ more fully at the centre of your life?
Posted: 01-10-2017 at 20:09
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