Sunday’s sermon: Every Time I Pray

Text used – Philippians 1:1-18

  • For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been following Paul’s travels through various parts of the Roman empire as he set up churches and shared the good news of the gospel.
    • Last week: talked about how Paul ended up in Athens via Thessalonica and Beroea
    • Week before that: talked about Paul and Silas’ imprisonment in Philippi
    • Today’s Scripture reading is a little like one of those scenes in a movie when they cut away from the plot line – from all of the happenings – to one of the characters writing later about his or her reflections on the happenings.
      • Writing a journal entry
      • Writing a memoir
      • Writing a letter to someone else → I picture it sort of like the 1987 classic film “84 Charing Cross Road,”[1] the movie with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft.
        • Bancroft = woman from New York City seeking some particular out-of-print books who writes to a bookshop in London
        • Hopkins = one of the owners of the bookshop
        • Two correspond back and forth via letter for decades and end up developing a close friendship
        • Format of the film: scenes of Bancroft and Hopkins going about their normal lives with their families and friends overlayed with sections of them speaking aloud their letters to one another
      • And that’s sort of how I picture today’s reading from Philippians. → book of Philippians = one of the letter written by Paul to a congregation that he had started elsewhere
        • Books of 1 and 2 Corinthians = Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth
        • Books of 1 and 2 Thessalonians = Paul’s letters to the church in Thessalonica
        • Book of Philippians = Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi → Yup … the same city in which Paul and Silas had been imprisoned. The city of the fortune-telling slave girl, the earthquake at the prison, and the prison guard who became a Christian along with his whole household.
  • So before we dig further into this morning’s text, I want to set the Philippian scene a little bit for you this morning. – excerpts from “Introduction” section of commentary on Philippians from The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series[2] → Let this paint a bit of a picture for you. 

“Philippi was a fairly small city in the first century CE (approx. 10,000 inhabitants) … Philippi had originally flourished because of gold mines nearby, but these had been worked out long before the first century CE, and the city was important mainly as an agricultural center, being situated on the edge of a fertile plain where grain and wine were produced. … The fact that the city was a Roman colony gave its citizen great privileges, for they enjoyed considerable property and legal rights and were exempt from the taxes imposed on those without this status. Citizens of the colony were also citizens of Rome, and the city’s administration was modeled on that of Rome. … When Paul came to Philippi, therefore, he would have found a stable nucleus of Roman citizens, many of whom were Italian by birth and who constituted the aristocracy of the city. He would have found Roman administration and discipline as well as Roman culture. The official language was Latin … and the city was loyal to Rome, which meant, among other things, that the cult of the emperor would have been much in evidence. [The “cult of the emperor” was the Roman practice of worshipping the emperor, and, by extension, his family, as divine. It’s a practice that was begun with Julius Caesar in 44 BCE.] … No archaeological evidence has been found for a Jewish presence in the city … [so] Paul’s converts would have been entirely, or almost entirely, Gentile.”

    • So that gives you some insight into who Paul was writing to – the people, the culture, and the geographic nuances of Philippi.
    • A bit of other pertinent information → Many of Paul’s other letters that made their way into the New Testament canon are letters that address a particular issue that the church was going through at the time.
      • E.g.s
        • Galatians = letter written by Paul to churches in Galatia that had received other Jewish-Christian missionaries who were preaching “a different gospel” and trying to force the practice of circumcision on new Christians[3]
        • 1 Thessalonians = letter written by Paul to church in Thessalonica (reminder: Thessalonica = city that Paul and Silas were chased out of because the Jews in that city were angry that Paul was welcoming Gentiles into this new Christian subculture) → purpose of 1 Thess is to encourage the believers there to stay the course – to remain strong in their faith – despite opposition and even outright hostility from non-believers[4]
        • Ephesians = broad letter intended for multiple communities written by Paul to address importance of incorporating Gentiles with the people of Israel in the new creation that God had planned from the beginning → emphasis on unity and community[5]
      • But the book of Philippians is different. There doesn’t really seem to be any major issue that Paul feels the need to address in this letter.
        • Touches on a few points of theological clarification and teaching
        • Spends a very short time (1 single verse) on mildly rebuking a few of the local leaders who seem to be in disagreement with one another[6]
        • But on the whole, the purpose for this particular letter from Paul seems to be wholly and utterly joyful. Paul is expressing his encouragement for the Christians in Philippi and the work that they’re doing. Paul is expressing his thanksgiving for his faith and the ways that their faith bolsters his own. And of course, Paul is expressing praise for the person and work of Jesus Christ.
          • Summed up nicely by scholar: The passage that opens the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi is striking in its emotion and intimacy. It suggests a deep, and potentially enduring, relationship. The key theological themes are remembering, joy, and fellowship. Paul’s recollection elicits thanksgiving, his joy is rooted in shared tribulation, and the longing for fellowship can only be fulfilled in Christ.[7]
  • One of the main emphases throughout this passage = concept of koinonia
    • Powerful concept throughout Paul’s NT writings
    • Powerful concept within the mission and worship and identity of the early Church
      • Rev. Dr. Katherine Shaner, ordained ELCA minister and assoc. prof. of NT at Wake Forest University School of Divinity: A koinonia in the ancient world is literally a partnership. And not just a “hey, we’re all on the same team” partnership. It’s a partnership that is formalized, recognizable to the outside, and often with tangible goals. Oftentimes it is a share in a financial or another kind of large valuable entity. Even in our own world, whether it’s a share in a stock, or a share in a home, or a share in another kind of property, we make these partnerships all the time. But we rarely think of the ancient world as having such partnerships—particularly when the shares are shares in the Gospel.[8] → And how often do we think about our faith like that? How often do we think about our faith as a valuable share in the work of the Gospel? But truly, that’s what we’re doing here this morning. That’s what we do whenever we gather here whether it’s for worship, for fellowship, even for Christmas cookie sales or cleaning days or major milestone celebrations like our 150th anniversary coming up. We’re gathering together because of the partnership that we find here. We’re gathering together because of the partnership that we’ve formed here – a partnership that we form and re-form and re-form every single time we come together as a community of faith. We’re gathering to regenerate our spirits and our minds with our shares in the Gospel – that message of God’s love for us and for the world, a love so big and so wide and so strong that it took Jesus to the cross, to the grave, and back again.
        • Paul’s words from our passage this morning: This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.[9]
          • Gr. “more rich” = even more effusive than our translation this morning makes it sound → literally “overflow,” more than what is ordinary or necessary[10]
            • Outstanding
            • Abounding
            • Above and beyond
          • NOTICE: It’s not your faith that Paul wants to see grow “more rich” (though that’s definitely a part of it). It’s not your perfection. It’s not your beauty or your wealth or your success or any of those other measures that society likes to uphold. → Paul: “This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insights.”
  • I have to be honest with you, friends, I feel like this passage is such a passage for the times in which we are currently living.
    • Hard time
    • Divisive times
    • Angry and hateful times
    • People I know who have long been “news hounds” – who have always tried to keep up with the headlines and what’s happening around the world – have stopped checking their news sources because all of the anger and fear and mistrust and disinformation and ugliness that is spilling out all over the place is just making it too dang hard for them to be a good human right now. And I get that! I don’t know about you, but I feel a little bit like a prize fighter that’s been in the ring too long and has taken too many hits.
      • Spirit is aching
      • Mind and my soul feel battered and bruised
      • But even in the face of all that pain and brutality, I feel like I could stand up here and preach Paul’s words directly to you this morning because even nearly 2000 years after they were written, they are still true.
        • Text: I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace.[11]
          • Truly, friends, I do indeed thank God every time I mention you in prayer. I am thankful for you – for who you are, for what you do for me and for this congregation and for the love and work of God out in the world. And I am thankful for this community – all that it has been, all that it is, and all that I know it can be. With Paul, I am glad, and I’ll continue to be glad. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] 84 Charing Cross Road, directed by David Hugh Jones (1987; Culver City: Columbia Pictures, 1987), DVD.

[2] Morna D. Hooker. “The Letter to the Philippians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 469-471.

[3] Richard B. Hays. “The Letter to the Galatians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 184.

[4] Abraham Smith. “The First Letter to the Thessalonians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 682.

[5] Pheme Perkins. “The Letter to the Ephesians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 362, 365.

[6] Eph 4:2.

[7] James H. Evans, Jr. “Second Sunday in Advent – Philippians 1:3-11 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 38.

[8] Katherine A. Shaner. “Commentary on Philippians 1:1-18a” from Working Preacher,

[9] Phil 1:9-11.

[10] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy:

[11] Phil 1:3-7.

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