Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, September 24, 2023, the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost.  Readings for this Sunday:   Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6,37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16. 

“Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1.27)

A minister writing to his or her congregation is a fairly normal thing.   In fact, on Thursday I sat down and wrote you my Thanksgiving letter, which like the Christmas letter and Easter letter is a regular part of a priest’s yearly routine.  The seasonal letter is a good chance to take stock of how a parish is doing, to highlight new initiatives, address any problems, and hope that some folks return those little envelopes with some extra givings for the parish bottom line.  All fairly normal stuff. 

But yesterday, as I was thinking about our second lesson, I found myself wondering, what would I write to you about if I was writing to you from prison?   I’m not talking about being in prison for having done something nasty, but I’m talking about being in prison for preaching and for living out my faith in Jesus Christ.  What would I say about my situation, and what words would I have for you as church?


Which is exactly the situation behind the writing of Paul’s letter Philippians.   Since I have the pulpit for this and for the next two Sundays, I intend to use this time to speak about the context and message of Philippians.  I’d like to talk about how it is a letter from prison, and how Paul’s hope in Christ sustains him in what may well be his last days, which will lead me in the next two sermons to talk about how wonderfully Christ is presented in Philippians.


Maybe the first thing we should say is that Paul was no stranger to prison.  The book of Acts tells us that Paul was imprisoned three times, the final time being in Rome where he met his death sometime around 60 CE.   In fact, the first of these occasions happened in Philippi some years earlier, when Paul and Silas had made a disturbance after curing an enslaved woman who gave prophecies, thus depriving her owners of their income.


You may recall the wonderful story (Acts 16: 16-41) of how Paul and Silas are singing and praying in prison when God sends an earthquake to free them, but they remain where they are and as a result the jailer and his family come to believe and are baptized.    It’s out of that story that the Christian church in Philippi, the one that Paul is now writing to some years later, was founded.    So let’s take a moment to think about Philippi and what it would have liked to have been a believer there.


Philippi was a Greek town on a trade route between Asia and Europe, at the northern part of the Aegean Sea.    The Roman civil wars, as described in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, ended with a large battle at Philippi in 42BC, after which much of the good farm land was taken from the Greeks and given to Roman veterans as a reward for their services.  


Chances are then that the members of the church in Philippi were Greeks whose livelihoods had suffered in the decades following the Roman takeover.  Perhaps their poverty and lack of status had led them to follow Jesus, though there may have been some Roman believers among them.    So the first thing we can say about this church is that is a church that needs hope.


Besides their economic struggles, the Christians in Philippi would have risked suspicion and persecution.   Philippi was a Roman colony, and we know from archaeology that there were many Roman temples and monuments built there before Paul’s time.    As Jesus followers, the Philiippian church would have ben conspicuous in a landscape of official Roman religion.  The early Christians put themselves in jeopardy by placing Christ above the Roman gods and divine emperors.


I’ve taken some time to describe the context of this letter because the context helps us understand the similarities that Paul sees between his situation and that of the church that he is writing to.    Paul knows that the believers in Philippi could face the same things he is facing – poverty, persecution, imprisonment, and death.   Thus, at the end of our first reading, he speaks of how God has “graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well”, and of how they have this in common.


And what’s perhaps most surprising about this letter is how positive it is.  Paul uses words like “joy” and “rejoice” and “be glad” over and over again, so that we sometimes forget it is a letter written from prison.   Paul says, for example, that he hopes to be released from prison so that he can “continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith” (Phil 1.25).  For a saint who has a reputation as a finger-wagging scold, Paul here is full of kindness, love, and encouragement for this church, and in my experience as a priest, parishioners generally appreciate love and encouragement.


I wonder if, as he was in his cell in Rome writing this letter, Paul remembered being in a cell in another cell with Philippi years ago, singing hymns and songs of praise, because that’s what this letter feels like.  We’ll see that particularly next week in the beautiful and soaring hymn to Jesus in Chapter 2.   And I am sure that subsequent Christians writing from prison over years have found the same joy and sense of freedom that Christ can bring even in a cell.


One of my Christian heroes is a Jesuit priest named Alfred Delp.  He was imprisoned in 1944 for his resistance to the Nazi regime, and was hanged in prison just months before the end of the war.   Like Paul, he spent many months in prison wondering if he would be spared, and drawing closer to God in the process.  In one of his final letters, he wrote this:


“one thing is clear and tangible to me as never before:  the world is so full of God.  This realization wells up towards us as it were from all the pores of things.”


In another letter, Delp wrote “Let us trust life because God lives it with us.”   Remarkable words for a man who had been tortured and was awaiting death.


Or, as Paul says, “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”.   Perhaps if I was writing to you from prison, dear saints, knowing that you too were facing hardship, I would say something like this.   “Put the gospel at thee centre of your life.  Live in joy because Jesus loves you.   Live in hope because Jesus is always with you.  Act accordingly.”


You and I will (God willing) never be imprisoned for our belief, though many of our fellow Christians do suffer for their faith.   But  will and do experience moments of darkness and despair.  Philippians reminds us that those are just moments.  St Paul and those faithful men and women, like Alfred Delp, reach their hands out to us across time and say “take our hands, for the Christ who was faithful to us is faithful to you.  Now it’s your turn to be faithful.”


In the next few weeks of this three part sermon series we will look at how Paul shares Christ with the Philippians, in some of the most wonderful passages in the New Testament.  I think you’ll be inspired.   The book is quite short, so feel free to read all of Philippians between now and then.