by Chris Ritter
As we celebrate Mother’s Day it is always good to ask ourselves: What are we celebrating? Certainly we are honoring our biological moms and all the blood, sweat, and tears they shed to give us life. We are celebrating the grandmas, aunts, and mentors who poured into us far beyond our deserving. We are celebrating womanhood in all its strength, stamina, and virtue.
But it really all comes down to celebrating love. Mother’s Day points to something beyond syrupy sentiment. It shines a light on something deeper… a particular kind of love… the thing the Greek’s called Agape. This is the unconditional gift that comes from the heart of the giver rather than the worthiness of the receiver. The Apostle Paul described it as patient and kind. It is not rudely self-seeking. It chooses to trust, to hope, and to persevere always. (1 Cor. 13)
Speaking of Paul, we are studying a letter he wrote during his House Arrest in Rome as he awaited trial before Caesar. Philippians is an encouragement letter. We learned last week that it is also a Thank-you letter. I would also call it a love letter. It is obvious when you read this letter that Paul holds tremendous affection for the people to whom he is writing.
Paul met the people of Philippi during his second missionary journey. He, Silas, and Timothy were operating in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) when Paul intended to take the Gospel east. Those plans were foiled and Paul had a vision in the night of a man from Macedonia calling to him for help. He took this as sign that they should head west. (Acts 16)
The crossed the Aegean Sea by boat and set foot for the first time on the continent of Europe. They landed at Neapolis where they took a paved road into the Roman colony of Philippi (named for the father of Alexander the Great). The Romans would put colonies throughout their empire to resettle retired soldiers and others to model their way of life. Paul’s normal first stop was the synagogue, but Philippi didn’t have one. (Traditionally it took at least ten Jewish men to establish a synagogue… so Philippi must have had a very weak Jewish presence.). There was, however, a place down by the river where Jewish people gathered on the Sabbath to pray. There they met a businesswoman named Lydia and they shared the message of Jesus with her. She became the first recorded European Christian.
Lydia opened her home to Paul and his associates and her church became the defacto church building. They ate together, prayed together, and evangelized together. In short, they became family. Years later, Paul finds himself physically separated from his friends with a chain around his leg. But he models for us how love remains strong even when distance separates.
As many of us are separated from those we love during this time, let’s listen intently to God’s Word written from a time of painful separation.
3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
12 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.
Paul has been dropping clues to us on how to thrive when life is limited. We have been moving through this letter somewhat backwards. Last week we looked at how Paul’s contentment was not in his circumstances but in his relationship with Christ (Philippians 3). It was the strength of Christ that sustained him, not his own power. He also shared that his identity was so wrapped up in Christ that came to abandon all the sources of identity that he clung to earlier in life. He tells the Philippians that they can choose their attitude even when they cannot choose their circumstances. We can’t always control what happens to us but we can control our focus. (Philippians 4).
Today we are looking at what keeps relationships strong when there is physical separation.
I Thank God for You
Gratitude flows through this entire letter, but this mention is unique. I used to have a friend that would write “Phil. 1:3” on all the cards and letters she sent. “I thank God every time I remember you.” When you thank God for someone, you are claiming them as a gift in your life. That is a unique and valuable lens on relationships… the people in our lives are gifts from God. It is also a discipline. People disappoint us. They are imperfect. They make messes.
Maybe the best time to thank God for someone is when they leave dirty dishes on the coffee table. Thanking God for people gives them a place in your heart. You claim them as part of the tapestry of God’s work in your life. We can do this whether they are present with us or not. Even though Paul was separated by many miles from his friends, he still remembers them with gratitude.
I Pray for You
“In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy. ” (Philippians 1:4). Joy is mentioned in some fashion over twenty times in this brief letter. Paul’s prayers for his friends are optimistic and filled with hope. He prays in trust that God is doing great things.
One of the beautiful things about prayer is that there is no distance. The connection with God is immediate and so is God’s connection with those we lift before Him. I believe the omniscience of God forms the basis for what we call “the Communion of the Saints.” We are connected with all the saints on earth and in heaven because God is present with us all.
I Hold You in My Heart
“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart” Philippians 1:7
One of the many regrettable facets of the COVID-19 crisis is that we cannot embrace one another. We miss holding each other, shaking one another’s hands, and giving an affirming touch. These physical touches, however, are an outward sign of a spiritual grace. They point to the fact that we are holding one another in our hearts.
Just as it is possible to share physical space with one another without making a heart connection, it is possible to have a heart connection without sharing physical space. How do people get into our hearts? We let them in. And Paul is letting the Philippians know that he continues to hold them there.
I Cheer God’s Work in Your Life
Philippians 1:6 is one of favorite verses is all of Scripture: “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” We used to sing a song in Sunday School:
He’s still working on me, to make me what I ought to be.
It took him just a week to make the moon and the stars,
The sun and the earth, and Jupiter and Mars.
How loving a patient He must be! He’s still working on me.
God’s work does not end when we come to faith in Jesus Christ. That is where it kicks into high gear. If you are a Christian you are still under construction that that work won’t end until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ when we will be transformed to be like him. Paul’s confidence is in God’s unshakeable commitment to this work. When we are separated by miles, we can still be cheerleaders for what God is doing in our lives.
This is the same hope expressed in Psalm 138:8: “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; Your love, O LORD, endures forever.”
I Believe God is Using These Circumstances for His Glory in Your Life
Paul tells them the Gospel is being advanced through their time of physical separation. I am blessed to have a lot of friends who are pastors and business leaders. We talk to one another in this unprecedented time of disruption. I believe we will always think this time as an historic dividing point. There will be “life before” and “life after” COVID-19. Much of what is happening right now is painful and harmful. But it is also true that some things are emerging that will give us all a fresh start. God is working for our good and His glory.
- Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous writing was a letter written from a Birmingham Jail.
- Corrie Ten Boom and her sister were locked in a concentration camp for helping their Jewish neighbors, but discovered in that place a new way to experience God’s love.
- In the 1600’s a Puritan Preacher ended up in prison for preaching without a license. He said he decided to use his prison cell as an office and use the time to write. The result of John Bunyan’s imprisonment was an allegory of the soul’s journey called Pilgrim’s Progress and it has been called the most popular work ever written in the English language.
- Julian of Norwich lived through isolation and the Black Death but produced The Revelation of Divine Love, the earliest writing we have from a woman in the English language. It has been a spiritual help to people down through the ages.
- Martin Luther was under House Arrest as he was being hidden from the forces that wanted him silenced. He used the time to produce the first-ever German language Bible.
And a First-Century Christian named Paul could not visit his loved ones personally, so he wrote a letter called Philippians that has been teaching believers how to follow Jesus ever since. It it wasn’t for the separation, there would have been no letter.
Hearts united in Christ are moving closer even when separated by great distance. Let me ask you a question: What is God doing in your relationships through COVID-19? Through Christ, they can be deepened, enriched, and shaped for God’s glory. This time of testing can create testimonies of transformation, grace, and new beginnings. May it be so.