How to care - Philippians 4:10-23
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Some of you will have come across the story told by the American comedian, Bob Hope who relates the time he was crossing the Atlantic on a passenger airliner in the early days of transatlantic flights when suddenly the whole plane was struck by lightening. Panic stricken, as in one of those Airport disaster movies, an old lady ran into the middle of the aisle and in a state of blind panic and yelled: ‘Quick somebody do something religious.’ To which Bob Hope quipped ‘So I did. I took a collection.’ From one point of view it is unfortunate that people tend to associate ‘religion’ with collections and taking in money because it feeds the popular suspicion that such movements are really ‘on the take’. But from another point of view of course Christians giving for Gospel causes lies at the heart of what it means to be Christian, for it actually takes us to the very heart and example of God himself as Paul magnificently displays before us in that great hymn to Christ in chapter 2- ‘Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be clung to, 7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness and who humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!’ God gives that much! And that is the mind -set Paul says all Christians are to adopt and which Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus modelled. So if God gave his all for our need in the Gospel then can we as his people do any less in giving for the Gospel? The answer is of course, no. And at the end of this lovely letter we see how this young church excelling in the grace of giving, showing practical care. And we would do well to learn from their example. in fact there are three things which stand out.
First, there is the grace of giving and true contentment vv 10-13, ‘I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13I can do everything through him who gives me strength.’ Now when we read it like that we can get the wrong impression that Paul is a grumpy old man, as if he is saying, ‘Well at last you have managed to get around to thinking about me and sending some money (which is what he is talking about according to verse 14), but I don’t want you to get the impression that I need it, I am so spiritual I can manage all by myself, but thanks anyway.’ It is not like that at all. When he says, ‘at last’, it is not an exasperated ‘finally’, but an acknowledgement that he knows they have been keen on trying to get a gift to him which is why he goes on to qualify this by saying they have been concerned for a while but have not had the opportunity to do anything about it, but now the opportunity has finally come they have taken grasped it with both hands. And that is why he rejoices ‘in the Lord’ because it is God who has sovereignly overruled everything so that this act of Christian care can be shown, and Paul is genuinely moved by it. In fact the word translated ‘renewed’ concern, is a botanical picture of a flower ‘blossoming again’- this is a perennial feature of the Philippian church, as he says in v16, he received support from the Philippian church ‘again and again’, so these Christians were great givers, you didn’t have to twist their arm to give to Gospel work, on the contrary they were looking for every opportunity to give. I think that it was Martin Luther who said that the last part of a person to get converted is his purse. Well, Paul must have been thrilled to see how the Gospel had penetrated into every area of their lives, including deep into their pockets for this shows they really have been changed to become like Christ, the great giver.
So why does Paul appear to spoil it all by quickly qualifying his gratitude by saying he is not in any need and has learnt to be content. Why not just say ‘thank you’ and leave it at that? Well, it is all to do with the Greek-Roman view of friendship which operated in this society. Without going into all the details, putting matter simply, Greek and Roman society was carefully constructed around a patronage system, a sort of ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ arrangement amongst the ruling classes. And so “friendships” were carefully cultivated with an eye to seeking some advantage for yourself. You can imagine how useful this would be in business or politics. That was simply the way this world operated. So by Paul saying he has learnt to be content in all circumstances, when he has little and when he has a lot, he is distancing himself from that view of friendship, a friendship which is all about using people and he is acknowledging that the Philippians aren’t buying into that view either. This is Christian friendship he is talking about, upon which he is about to elaborate. It is not a matter of putting someone in a position where they feel they have to return you a favour, or feeling you are making yourself vulnerable having to ‘owe one’. That is a pretty ugly friendship in any case. Christians are not to play that game. Rather there is an acknowledgement that God is the ultimate provider and now he is providing through these Christians. So here is a model for the way Christians are not to treat each other, as a means to an end, just making friends with those who you think might return the favour one day, or who can advance your standing in the church- sadly it does happen, sucking up to the Minister or Bishop. It can also happen in terms of hospitality; perhaps we are reluctant to accept an invitation to a meal at someone’s house because we feel that we could not match up to providing a return meal. No. here is genuine Christian friendship-you just give and gratefully receive with no thought of ‘payback’. And it has to be admitted that sometimes it is the receiving which can be the hardest because it hurts our pride, we baulk at the idea of receiving ‘charity’. But it is a good thing to do because it reflects back on God who has kindly moved amongst his people to provide for you. This was something Heather and I experienced when I went to train at theological college with a baby son in tow. We had no means of supporting ourselves and were almost totally dependent upon the kindness of Christians in our home church to feed and cloth us. That is humbling I can tell you. But I can also tell you this it gave us first hand experience of God’s kindness through his people and to this very day I thank God for those Christian friends, as Paul is doing here.
But Paul is also providing a model for the way a Christian should be, namely, content. An American actress was once asked whether she would have been happier having 10 children rather than being a millionaire (as she was). She replied "I'd rather have had 10 children because then I would have known I had got enough"! We live in a world where true contentment is a rarity; there is always the quest for more. What a contrast to the apostle Paul who, note, ‘learned to be content’. Given that this section follows on directly from verse 9 where Paul says ‘The God of peace will be with you’, we can assume that Paul is setting an example so that other Christians can know this peace as he does by being content. Now we tend to think that we have to be content when we don’t have much. Paul says something quite different here. He points out that contentment is something which has to be learned (he says it twice), so it something which doesn’t come naturally, it has to be worked at, and we learn this contentment in both the hard times and the good times, v12. So Paul is saying that if we at the moment are fairly well to do, would we know contentment if most of that were to be taken away from us or would we be griping, especially against God- and remember Paul is in prison? On the other hand, supposing our circumstances change for the better and we suddenly have a kind of windfall, how would we manage that? ‘Ah’ you say, ‘that would be much easier to handle than being in need’. I wouldn’t be so sure, why else do you think that Jesus offers far more warnings about the perils of plenty than the problems of poverty? It is because he knows that wealth tends to corrupt our hearts and easily replaces God. It may even appear innocuous. Perhaps we obtain a holiday home or caravan which draws us away from God’s people and hearing his word Sunday after Sunday, that can’t be all that good for the soul. Or perhaps it is the offer of more work with the lure of more money which means more time away from home and church which could well indicate the lack of contentment in times of plenty which Paul managed to guard against. The key is where his contentment lay, it is ‘through him who gives me strength’, that is the Lord Jesus Christ in whom Paul is continuously rejoicing. You see, he is the fixed pole star, the one great unchangeable in an ever changing world. Money comes and goes, and so does our health, but Christ’s devotion to us remains the same and so we are to draw on that. George Herbert, a 17th century Anglican poet wrote a prayer for one of his poems, “You have given so much to me. Give me one thing more- a grateful heart.’ (Rpt) Could I gently ask: How is your contentment rating these days? Are you known as a whinger or a rejoicer? One who is for ever wanting or forever thanking? One thing is for sure, God will put us in circumstances which will be his school for contentment.
Then Paul moves on to the grace of giving and true partnership, v14-17, ‘Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. 15Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. 17 Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account.’
Right at the beginning of this letter Paul was full of praise to God for what he called the Philippians ‘partnership in the Gospel’. The word is ‘koinonia’ which is sometimes translated ‘fellowship’. Many churches tend to think of a time of fellowship as being something that happens after the ‘service’ so people are invited to have ‘fellowship’ over tea and coffee. But partnership is the better word, since koinonia was normally used on a day to day basis to describe the running of a business, so James, John and Peter had koinonia before they followed Christ in that they were partners in a fishing business. Well, once you become a Christian you become a partner in the Gospel business, that is God’s great work of enabling people to hear about his beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who came to rescue us from a rubbish way of life now and certain judgement to come and for a great life now and eternity hereafter. That is what we are about. But in order for this to be effective, people, like Paul and others, need to be freed up to give their time and energies to that work, and to equip others for that work, and that is where this matter of ‘giving and receiving’ comes in. He is talking about giving money for Gospel work. And that money has to come from somewhere and normally it comes from Christian people- you and me. It is a privilege to belong to a church at St John’s where its members do see the importance of Gospel ministry and are active partners in it, so we can have such a great and dedicated staff team and employ new folk like Jake so that the work can grow. Remember how these Philippians started giving the moment they were converted and continued to give regularly, blossoming like a perennial plant? That is what we are meant to be like. So if you do not do so already, let me encourage you to give regularly, using standing orders, the envelopes in your pews, to give generously out of the plenty the Lord has given you and so learn contentment. We do have a leaflet on Giving at the back of the church which might help you do this more effectively. Let me also encourage you review your giving on a regular basis, that is a good discipline. Have you heard about the man who had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital? He could deal with only a few visitors and was not to be excited. While he was in the hospital a rich uncle died and left him a million pounds. His family wondered how on earth to break the news to him with the least amount of excitement. It was decided to ask the local vicar if he would go and tell him quietly. The Vicar called in and gradually led up to the question. He asked the patient nonchalantly, "What would you do if you inherited a million pounds?" The man said, "I think I would give half of it to the church." Then the vicar had a heart attack! That's often how the subject of Christian giving is thought about- it's a big surprise if anyone gives to the cause of the gospel! But what we see in the Bible is that while it costs nothing to belong to God's people, a sure sign that we do belong to God’s people is that we will be keen to be partners in the Gospel by giving.
But did you notice the strange way God’s finances work? Normally if something goes out of your bank account, your account goes down and if more goes out than comes in, eventually you end up in ‘the red.’ Not so here- v17, ‘I am looking for what might be credited to your account.’ Do you see what a remarkable thing Paul is saying? What thrills Paul from top to toe, is not that he has received some badly needed money to alleviate his situation in a filthy Roman jail and therefore helping him to go on with sharing the Gospel with some pretty remarkable results according to verse 22- some of Caesars own household have become converted- but because they are showing they are in terrific spiritual shape by their giving. Not only that, but he knows that God is no man’s debtor and the more we give generously and happily to his cause, he will shower blessing down upon us. To use the financial metaphor here, our spiritual account goes further and further into the black and so Paul is more pleased for them than he is for himself. Do you see? I have been a Christian now for nearly forty years and a minister for nearly thirty years and I can personally testify to this truth. The Christians who have a real joy in the heart and a spring in their step are invariably happy generous givers- partners in the Gospel. Those who don’t seem to have quite got it together, who seem to be bumping along the bottom all of the time, are often those who are reluctant to part with their money for Gospel causes. It is not easy to see where the cause and effect is here. Is it that the happy Gospel partners are that because they give or give because they are happy partners? Well, it is surely both. You break the pattern of trundling along as a Christian by making that decision to give to Christian work, and then you discover that God gives you a delight in being caught up in his great plan which in turn makes you want to keep on with this and go further and so the reality of Christ increases and your walk deepens and on and on it goes. That is Christian economics for you- the more you give the more you receive.
Thirdly, we have the grace of giving and true worship v 18-20: ‘I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. 20To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’
Do you remember that wonderful definition of worship by Archbishop William Temple? ‘Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose - and all of this is gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.’ Notice how all encompassing that definition is? We tend to think of worship as the last part- ‘adoration’, but it is also the ‘surrender of will to his purpose’. And what is God’s great purpose? At its heart it is that ‘at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow’, and that primarily comes through people hearing and responding his saving message. So the very act of giving money to this end is a crucial part of real worship. That is why Paul employs worship language which in the Old Testament was associated with what went on in the Temple to describe what happens whenever we put money on the plate or whatever means we choose to give. To ‘make a joyful noise to the Lord’ is one thing, but perhaps a better measure of our devotion is our readiness to give to his cause from whatever we have. And do you know that when we do that it actually has an effect on God? It is like a sweet smell which brings him deep pleasure. Like when you walk by a garden or roses or honeysuckle, and you inhale it and think, ‘Isn’t that beautiful?’ That is what the text says: ‘a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.’ Isn’t that a wonderful thought? And such a God will not see his people who have given so generously go short: ‘my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.’ The more we give to such a kind God, the more we receive out of the infinite treasure chest of Christ. And so Paul ends this section a he began his letter-with praise. He looks upon these dear believers with such love and affection and sees them as trophies of grace, as you are; he sees the works of God in their lives, as he is at work in your life; he is thrilled with their practical partnership in the Gospel, as I am with yours, and so declares, ‘To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’
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