Paul’s Warmest Letter
The country is now called Lebanon, but a long time ago it was called Phoenicia. And in Phoenicia there was a town called Byblos (B-y-b-l-o-s). Certain enterprising merchants in this town bought bundles of the papyrus plant from Egypt, cut it and dried it so people could write on it. That, it turns out, is why we call it “paper,” because it came from papyrus plants. But before it was called paper it was known as “byblos,” after the name of the town where it was made. Among the Greeks, who used a lot of it, the diminutive form of that word was “biblion”: little paper, little book. And their plural form was “ta biblia,” which literally means “the little books” — a phrase that gave us a rather important word in our church life: The Bible, i.e., “the anthology of little books.”
The name is appropriate. The Bible is made up of many little books, 66 of them if you happen to be Protestant, with slightly different numbers for Catholics and Jews. But the little books are very different from eazch other. Some are legal codes, some are songs, some are poetry, history, drama, letters. The little book we shall begin to read this morning is a letter. Not a gospel, with stories about the life of Christ; not a collection of proverbs; not an oration, like Hebrews ; or a manual of discipline, like James ; or a polemic, like lst John — all posing as letters in a day when letters were popular. This is a real letter, written by a man to a small group of friends in a particular town.
There is no hint at all that either the author or the people who first read the letter ever thought it would be published, much less that it would become sacred scripture. It was important to them because it dealt with one vital part of their lives, but it could easily have been lost, as many other letters like it were lost. No serious scholar thinks that the letters we now have in our Christian scripture were the only letters written by Paul or Peter, James or John. This one, for whatever reason, was saved. It may actually be a combination of two or three short letters, since there are some oddly abrupt breaks in the flow of it, but if it is a single letter then the author must have written others if we can believe a 2nd century bishop named Polycarp who said in a note to these same Philippians: “Paul, when he was absent, wrote letters to you.” Letters — more than one. How many, we wonder, would there be if we now had all of them, and what fascinating things would they tell us about early Christianity that we do not know?
The guessing is idle because we are not likely now to find any that were lost, but most students of the New Testament are glad this one was kept, this letter to the new Christian converts at Philippi. I ask you to remember that it is a letter to a specific congregation, not to the whole church. Some of it has nothing to do our life at the tailend of the 20th century, but some of it is timeless — and it’s up to us to decide which is which. Paul wasn’t sending out a circular addressed to Occupant, Greco-Roman world. His note was to a single church trying in its own way to live out the gospel, the good news of Christ, on a day-to-day level, at home, at work, in the marketplace.
Writing letters was nothing new when Paul wrote his, and the form was pretty much set. How you start off, for example. But there were a few variations possible, and those variations can tell us something — just as the way we begin a letter can signal our mood. If I write “Dear Dr. Rhatigan” after all these years with Jim Rhatigan, I’m being formal, as if someone else may also be reading the letter, or because I’m ticked off about something. If I start out, “Dear Jim,” the tone is relaxed and informal. If I simply begin, “Hi, Jim!” (as I have done) I show an intimacy that doesn’t have to bother with convention at all.
If you look closely you can find differences like that in the way Paul begins his letters. In one to the church at Rome he has a long formal opening of about six verses. He is writing to strangers, so he introduces himself and says, “I keep trying to get over to see you, but I’ve been prevented.” Then there is the rather cold and official opening in the letter to the Galatian church: “Paul an apostle…to the churches of Galatia.” Stiff and rather cool, because the next line of that letter will say: “I can’t believe what you people are doing, turning away to a different gospel….” He’s upset from Word One and he gets madder as he goes.
But in the letter we’re going to read for a while, he starts with a warm, personal greeting to people he clearly likes very much. He doesn’t list his credentials as an apostle, which he does in other letters, because his relationship with the Philippians makes that unnecessary. They know him well, they’ve gone through some trying times with him. This church at Philippi, I must tell you now, did not get off to a very auspicious beginning. Nothing like our first happy day at Collegiate School with nearly 250 people overcome with joy at seeing one another. Paul had come into town and gone down to a riverbank where a few believers in God were in the habit of meeting for prayer. One was a woman named Lydia, an independent merchant in a time when that was rare for a woman. She and a few of her friends responded to the Christian message, but Paul and his Associate Minister, a man named Silas, were charged with creating a public nuisance, beaten soundly, and thrown into jail. So the new little church was born in trouble.
And now, writing to it after several years, Paul is in deep trouble again. He is in prison, not just overnight like the time in Philippi, but apparently for a long time….in Rome or in Ephesis, we aren’t sure, but in prison….and his church friends have not forgotten him. They have sent one of their own group, a man named Epaphroditus (his name in Greek means “charming”) , to bring Paul a token of their love. Unfortunately, Mr. Charming got sick — fever, food poisoning, flu….something — but he has recovered now and is eager to get back home to his family which had heard about his illness and is worried. So Paul sends him home, and along with him he sends this famous letter which became part of our New Testament.
I suppose you could say that Paul “preaches” in it a little bit, but it isn’t difficult and argumentative, like Romans, with all the text-twisting he does in that letter, and it doesn’t have the kind of labored allegory he wrote into his letter to Galatia. Written in a very conversational kind of common Greek called koine, the language people used on the street rather than in the classroom, it’s not dull….and that’s a joy because so much preaching is dull. I still remember how I flinched one day, early in my church life, when I read a criticism of preaching by Anthony Trollope in a novel of his called Barchester Towers. He complains that no one else but a preaching clergyman has the power in England to compel an audience to sit still and be tormented by platitudes while they have to look respectfully at the preacher as if he were actually saying something. What we want, Trollope wrote, is to enjoy the comfort of public worship, but we’d like to enjoy it without the tedium of most sermons, “that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape which is the common consequence of common sermons.”
Well, this little letter is not dull, unless I make it dull, and I’ll try hard to keep from doing that. So let’s begin. Paul says “Hello” in the fashion of that time, and then he starts his letter by saying how pleasantly he remembers all of them. “I thank my God whenever I think of you. My constant prayers for you are a real joy, for they bring back to my mind how we have worked together for the gospel from the earliest days until now.” “I thank God when I think of you” — can you imagine how that sounded to these simple, ordinary people, to be told that this extraordinary man who carried the whole burden of so many young churches on his heart, was grateful every time he remembered them? We love to be remembered; we love to think we made a difference to somebody. Our heart jumps a little when someone says, “I still remember what you said to me once…..what you did that day when I needed someone.” And if the person saying that to us is someone we admire and hold in high regard, the compliment is one of the best moments in life.
We’re going to find out later that not all these people had behaved the way Paul would have liked, but he included them, too. He could never forget how much there had been in him that needed forgiving….why not forgive others? If there were a few fanatics, well, he could understand fanatics. He had been one, ready to kill people who differed from him. He understood that if a church is going to work, if any kind of relationship in life is going to work, you have to hunt for, and praise, the good in people who are not always good. The thing we have to fight against in church, sometimes, is the tendency to think that because a man or woman fails in some way, that person can no longer be counted on to do anything useful and good. Paul knew better. He had sent some beautiful people to prison and to death during a mistaken time in his life, but the spirit of Christ, tender, loving, forgiving, had changed him, and he was convinced it could work the same magic in others.
So even if some of his friends had failed him, he had hope of better things from them, and so he doesn’t hesitate to call them partners with him in grace. That’s a rich and special word in Paul’s writing. Grace means getting something good that you don’t expect and you don’t deserve. If you want to put it in crudely materialistic terms, grace is winning ten million in the lotter on a one-dollar ticket when you’ve been poor and in debt all your life. But what Paul has in mind is a different kind of wealth. He’s thinking of what he was, and what he became when the light flooded him that day on the road to Damascus. He’s thinking of what he calls the great privilege of preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ, after he had done everything in his power to stop people from following Christ. He doesn’t deserve that privilege, he says. He calls himself the least of all the people of God. But he had been given the privilege, and the wonder of that gift never leaves him. His favorite song, if he had only known it, might well have been the haunting words and music of a song we know called “Amazing Grace.”
Let me tell you a story now to illustrate what grace means. The boy’s name was John Newton and he first went to sea at the age you and I were in the fifth grade. At 18 he was forced onto a warship, but he hated it, deserted, got caught, was put in irons and whipped and degraded back to a common sailor. His captain was glad to exchange him to a slave ship headed for Africa, where young John Newton worked with a slave dealer on an island near Sierra Leone. His father managed to get him on a ship bound for home, by way of Brazil and Newfoundland, a long, long journey during which grace began its mysterious work. In this case because Newton found a book on board, called The Imitation of Christ , written three centuries before by a monk named Thomas a Kempis. It was much on his mind when the ship ran into a storm that threatened to send everybody to the bottom of the Atlantic, the kind of storm you have to see to believe, the kind I was in once when even the crew was terrified, when the rolling and pitching seem more than anything made by human hands could take.
When it was over, Newton began to think more often about religion, but he knew the sea better than anything else and when he got the chance to become captain of a slave ship, he took it. At the time, it did not seem ironic to him that he should hold worship for his crew twice every Sunday, up on deck in the sunlight and fresh air, while hundreds of sick and terrified blacks lay side by side and head to toe, stacked like cordwood under his feet. But what Paul calls “grace” in our letter was at work, and he finally grew sick, both physically and mentally, of what he was doing. Not an Englishman on earth who knew him would have dreamed that Captain John Newton would ever quit the sea for a pulpit, but once he got back home, working days and studying at night, he qualified himself to be ordained in the Church of England.
It is astonishing, if you know how the mind of Paul the Apostle worked, how much alike he and John Newton felt about their past lives and about the mercy of God in letting them live to be different. Newton’s tombstone reads, for example, like an echo of words Paul once wrote: “John Newton….once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slavetraders in Africa, by the rich [grace] of our Lord preserved, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.
But before that epitaph was carved over his grave in the little church at Olney where he had his first ministry, he had written some other words one day to be the conclusion of one of his sermons. Paul would have liked the words, so in honor of how he felt when he began the letter we we arereading , and in honor of John Newton and all the rest of us who have found it hard to account for some great and undeserved blessing, I shall stop talking about Paul’s letter and let the choir close this sermon with John Newton’s hauntingly beautiful : [Sing vss. 1 and 2 softly]
There is one sure way to happiness, gracious God: It is to remember more often those moments in life when we have had so much more than we deserved, and when we have said ‘Thank you’ for the mystery of grace. Amen.