In a file at home, I have a stack of hand-written letters I received back in 1997 and 1998. From way that I’ve filed them, you can tell I was kind of neurotic about those letters – they’ve always been in a neat pile, and each letter has its original airmail envelope stapled neatly to its back left corner. Back in 1997 and 1998, email was taking off as a communication tool. At that time, particularly given where they were coming from, letters made the most sense. I can remember the feeling of anticipation as I check the mail each day during that time period. I can remember the happiness in receiving a letter in my hands. I can remember sitting down to read those letters with care.
As you might suspect, those letters were sent by Becky – this was before we were married and when she was living in West Africa. Those letters were an expression of our deepening relationship – an expression of our interest in each other’s lives – of our desire to know more of each other. I should say that there was an equal number of letters traveling in the other direction, from my pen to her hand. To look back at those letters now is to look back onto an earlier stage of life. Memories and experiences have been preserved through ink and paper.
Thinking about those letters makes you wonder what’s going to happen to all of the communications of this new era. Already historians are worried about it. What happens when Facebook goes bankrupt in 15 years – and people lose all their status updates and their timeline is wiped clean? Or what happens when the old emails clogging up your system are thoughtlessly wiped away with one stroke of the key. Or what happens when we pack away that old computer in the basement, all those old messages locked in an inaccessible technology tomb?
This morning we should perhaps be grateful that one particular letter written 2000 years ago was not sent by way of some transient electronic means – that letter, rather, was scratched out with a pen on rough piece of parchment. This letter was a physical thing, an artifact. We should perhaps be grateful that this letter was carried some 1600 kilometers over land and see – hand delivered to a small community of Christians living in the city of Philippi.
As we think about this particular ancient letter as an artifact, we can point out that its original recipients were in contact with others groups of Christians living in other cities. When they received this letter, the Christians in Philippi were in fact so impressed and excited by it that eventually they had it copied out by hand and sent on to other communities of Jesus-followers. Copies of this letter proliferated. Eventually, in fact, this particular letter to the Philippian Christians was incorporated into a volume, a book of others letters written by the same author. These letters mattered to people. And because these letters mattered to people, a number of them were bound together in one volume. Adding to this web of relations and interactions – that bound volume of letters was itself copied many times, by hand, so that more people could read what the author had to say.
To fill in the blank – these ancient letters were, of course, written by Paul. We know that there were, in fact, several different collections of Paul’s letters that circulated in the first centuries after Christ. And it’s interesting to know that the collection of his letters (this binding together of different letters in one volume, in a codex) – this volume was a precursor to the formation of that wider collection of documents we know now as the New Testament. Over time Paul’s letters were joined together with other writings about Jesus and the earliest Christians – the result being our New Testament.
Over the Sundays of this Fall we are going to spend some time looking at this particular letter of Paul, written to Christians living in the city of Philippi. We already have some basic information about the transmission of this letter. Another important variable we can add is that Paul wrote this letter while imprisoned. From the book of Acts we know that Paul was imprisoned several times during his life as an itinerant preacher, tentmaker, and evangelist. We can’t know for certain during which imprisonment he wrote this letter to the church in Philippi – but is likely that he wrote this letter during his final imprisonment – when he was under house arrest in the city Rome. Paul was imprisoned in Rome while he was waiting for the Emperor to hear his appeal of the charges against him.
Stephen Fowl, a New Testament professor, points out that prison conditions in the Roman Empire were often gruesome – prison was essentially a holding tank for people until it was decided whether they would be released or executed. For some reason it seems that Paul was permitted to live under better circumstances. If he was under house arrest in Rome, as was probably the case, then he was able to receive guests, to receive gifts, and to communicate with through letter writing.
So we have some sense of how this letter comes to be in our hands this morning – people cared enough about this letter for it to be hand-copied, multiple, multiple times. And we have some vague sense of the circumstances under which it was written – from imprisonment in Rome. But I want for a moment to go back to where we started – with that other collection of letters in my filing cabinets – with the collections of personal letters that can perhaps be found in your filing cabinets.
I think we all realize that writing a letter by hand, with pen and paper, is a deeply personal thing. And in our day, of course, letter writing is becoming a lost art. And sometimes it feels like the loss of letter writing means the loss of something deeper.It feels like the loss of letter writing means a loss of some degree of honesty and intimacy and respect in our communication. After all, what can really be captured in a text message, or in a one-hundred-and-forty character tweet, or in Facebook posting? Perhaps that’s a discussion for another time.
In any case, the letter that Paul writes to the small Christian community in the city of Philippi is a deeply personal letter. To even write a letter, to even engage in that physical act of putting pen to paper, reflects a high degree of personal engagement.. And then beyond the mere act of writing – we note that in terms of content, this particular letter is filled with language of affection and friendship.
From the opening few lines of this letter we learn that the group of women and men to whom Paul writes in Philippi – they hold Paul in their hearts. They love him. We know from these opening lines that Paul longs to be with them. We know that Paul prays for them. We know that Paul finds joy in remembering what they have shared together. Later in the letter we’ll discover that this Christian community has sent financial contributions to support Paul during his imprisonment. Theirs is a personal relationship – this is a deeply personal letter.
Every particular relationship is unique. Those letters written by Becky some fifteen years ago – they reflect a particular relationship. Every relationship is built around shared experiences, or shared interests. Every relationship is about something. So the question arises about the relationship between the Philippian Christians and Paul – What is this relationship about? What is the basis of their friendship? We know it’s a relationship of friendship and affection – but what is it about? What is their shared interest or experience?
From the opening words of this letter, it is evident that their sharing is a sharing together in Jesus Christ.
is at the centre of their friendship. That first century Jewish man is what binds Paul and the Philippians together in a relationship. Jesus the Christ (as it is in Greek). Or Jesus the Messiah (as it is in Hebrew). Their relationship is centered on Jesus.
But what does this even mean? What does it mean that Jesus is at the centre of their relationship? We begin to get something of an answer to this question as we look at the content of the letter. Over the coming weeks we will see more of what it means that their relationship is built around the name and person of Jesus.
This morning I want to just zero in on one particular verse as we try to understand the relationship between Paul and these Christians. In verse 6, Paul has this to say to the women and men of Philippi: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
Paul and the Philippians share this idea that their lives are a work in progress – that their lives are being shaped toward some specific end or some particular goal. And Paul, here, expresses his confidence, his conviction, that God is going to finish this work of molding and shaping their lives into something meaningful and beautiful.
In the passage of time – in the passage of our days – particularly when we face challenges – or when we are confronted with our failings – it is easy to start wondering whether our life is going anywhere. And no doubt Paul and the Philippians Christians sometimes felt that way. One step forward two steps back. Are we getting anywhere?
Often when I drive home if I’ve been downtown in the car – I will drive across Cedar Avenue, just above the Montreal General Hospital. And over the last number of years I’ve watched the construction of a new building there on Cedar, just to the West of the hospital. Construction began on what looked like a condominium building. And they got to a certain point – with concrete floors and columns – about 3 stories high. And then it just stopped. It’s been sitting like that for a few years now. Turns out that the land was owned by a developer, who was indeed building condominiums. And then part way through his project, the land was purchased by the hospital – which wanted to add an extension on. But just this summer, the city of Montreal finally refused the zoning request made by the hospital – so the project is dead. And there sits the empty shell of a building. It’s been there for years now. Will it ever be anything more than an empty shell of a building?
The question the Philippians faced – and the question we sometimes face – is the question of whether our lives will ever become something beautiful and worthwhile. Paul is convinced that it will happen – that God is at work – that God can be trusted to finish what he has started.
Now the question remains, of course, as to what vision of life Paul has in mind. He says: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” But what is work? Do we have any idea what our lives are going to look like? Do we have any idea what a beautiful or fulfilled life looks like?
It seems that in our culture today, there is a kind of bricolage going on as we build our lives. We have lost confidence in the traditions we have inherited – we have lost confidence in many of the givens of the past – we are losing confidence that there is any vision of what life is or should be. And so there is a kind of bricolage going on. By bricolage, I mean that our lives mirror a form of art of sculpture in which the artist takes a bit of this and a bit of that (whatever is at hand) to create something. When you look up bricolage on Wikipedia, you find this image of a sculpture.
In a way we are all becoming bricoleurs – trying to coble together lives that have some kind of meaning, in a world where meaning is hard to find.
Toward the end of this opening passage, Paul offers words that begins to give a sense of the work that God is doing in his life and in the lives of the Philippians. He offers words that give some sense, if even a vague sense, of what the fulfilled or beautiful life looks like.
Reading from Eugene Peterson’s translation or paraphrase, these are the rich words that Paul offers: “Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.”
We’ll get into the substance of this in the coming weeks – but the simple answer of Paul is that we are invited to a life – and are being molded into a life – in which we exhibit the love of Christ. This love is not mere romantic attachment or emotion – this love is expressed in a particular form of life. There is no love without truth and there is no truth without love.
Paul and the Philippians share a deep friendship, a friendship embodied in this ancient letter. And their friendship is rooted in Jesus. They share a conviction – Paul reminds them of this shared conviction – that God is at work, forming them in the image of the crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus. God is at work, forming them in the image of the servant king Jesus.