Sharing in God's Grace Together

English Service on August 17 Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison Title:"Sharing in God's Grace Together"  Scripture: Philippians 1:1-11

1. Do you remember several years ago, when our church prayed and talked and worked and finally put into print our vision for the future?  We spent weeks and months finding the kind of church we understood God to be leading us to become.  We also set specific goals.  We have reached some of those and not others.  Now as we approach Open Door's 25th anniversary, I sense that it is time to look again at the dreams God has for this community of faith.  Maybe He will lead us to reaffirm some, leave others behind, and add some new ones. 

2. There is a good deal of looking back over the past when anniversaries arrive, and that has its value, I believe.  But my greater hope and prayer is that Open Door's anniversary celebration will be a time not just to turn backward but to discover again and in deeper ways God's hopes, dreams, and plans for this group of believers.  If this celebration becomes an occasion for a greater understanding of God's will for ODC and a deeper commitment to it, then it can become a source of power that can move us ahead for the next 25 years and beyond.  It can protect us from the danger many organizations face, that of losing the sense of mission that originally grew out of a compelling vision.  God has a clear-eyed vision for our church.  Let's make it our purpose to live with our "eyes on the prize"--the prize of hearing God's voice saying, "Well done." 

3. With that goal in mind, on the Sundays it is my turn to bring the message, I feel led to go with you for the next several months through a series of talks, "Re-discovering God's Vision for Open Door."  I would like to do that by learning together the teachings in Paul's letter to the Philippians.  We can see God's vision for His churches in various ways in the letters Paul and others wrote to the new Christians in New Testament times.  But Philippians is unique in that we probably know more about it than any other single church that appears in the Bible.  The challenges and problems its people faced have a lot in common with those that we face in Japan in 2014.  And it shows, maybe clearer than any book in the Bible, what God wants for and from His people. 

4. So here we go.  I want to look with you at God's desires for us, shown in Philippians, in what we call the five areas of church life: worship, faith, community, service, and evangelism.  Today let's focus on Christian community, or fellowship, and we'll follow up on this in another message.  One part of our vision, we have said, is to be "a church where we are strong in fellowship, where regardless of how much membership increases, we maintain an 'at-home' atmosphere."

5. Before returning to today's Bible passage, we need to see a few things about the background of Philippians.  By the time Paul writes this letter, a lot has already happened.  In I Thessalonians 2:2, he recalls this saying, "You know what happened earlier in the city of Philippi.  We suffered, and people treated us badly there.  But God gave us the boldness to tell you his good news.  We preached to you even though people opposed us strongly." 

6. That is the simple version.  Acts 16 tells the story more thoroughly and colorfully.  Please read it for yourself.  Here is a too-brief summary.  Paul was on his third and final missionary journey.  He had a vision of a man asking him to come to Macedonia.  He and his partners, including Silas and Timothy, believed God was leading them to go there, so they did.  The leading city there was Philippi, a Roman colony.  By the way, it existed until about A.D. 1400 in what is today Greece, as you can see on the maps.  When Paul and his team arrived there, they found there a woman named Lydia.  They told her the message of Christ, she and her family received it, and they were baptized as believers.     

7. There was a servant who was controlled by an evil spirit that had the ability to predict the future.  Her bosses were using her gift to make money.  When Paul helped her become free from that spirit, her bosses became angry about losing the money she was making.  They made trouble for Paul and Silas, and the town leaders had them beaten and put in prison. 

8. God delivered the two men through a powerful earthquake.  But instead of escaping, they stayed, which in effect saved the life of the jailer.  He would have had to pay for their escape with his life.  He wanted to know about the God of such men, and when he learned about Christ from them, he and his family became believers, too.  They joined the other new believers as probably the first Christian church in Europe.  (If you want to understand the roots of European and other Western cultures, you have to know this story.)   

9. So Paul writes these people some time later to encourage them in their new faith.  As we go through the letter, you will see more of the message of faith that he wants to give.  But a specific reason is to send a helper in his work, named Epaphroditus, to the church in Philippi.  Epaphroditus will apparently take this letter with him to Philippi, and it will serve as an explanation of why he was sent, along with Paul's other teaching.   

10. Most scholars think Philippians was written by Paul when he was in prison in Rome.  Many place the date at about A.D. 61-63.  That is based on words here and there in the letter about the people around Paul, such as palace guards.  They sound like the ones in Rome, described in Acts 28, who have the job of staying beside him constantly and end up learning about Christ from him.  He is there for about two years, under house arrest.  He is in a house, not a prison as such, but he is not free to come and go.  He is always chained to a guard, who is changed about three times a day.  In that situation, he writes the letter to the Philippians, it seems.     

11. When Paul writes to these brothers and sisters in Christ, they have already gone through quite a bit together.  Acts reports Paul and Timothy, after the church in Philippi is planted, going back for follow-up visits.  And now Paul is suffering in another prison, much as he did when he was in Philippi the first time.  So he is not just writing about some lofty theological ideas on his mind.  These people mean a lot to him, as he does to them. 

12. Even his greeting in v. 2 shows the strong bonds between them as God's people.  "May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace."  Greek people in this time would use the greeting "joy" (chairein) which was related to "grace" (charis).  The Hebrew greeting was "peace."  The Roman greeting was "health," which is between the Greek and Hebrew greetings in that it is related to joy, grace, and peace.  In other words, Paul is giving an intercultural greeting, as he often does at the beginning of his letters.  Even here, he is communicating how God brings different people together with Himself and with each other.  He may also be making a point in the order of the words he uses.  As someone said, "Grace must come first if we are to have true peace" (Jamieson, Fausset, Brown, 1). 

13. He says something similar in vv. 7b-8: "I love you with all my heart.  I may be held by chains, or I may be standing up for the truth of the good news.  Either way, all of you share in God's grace together with me.  God can give witness that I long for all of you.  I love you with the love that Christ Jesus gives."  Paul is not just giving correct information about the idea of Christian love.  He actually loves these people, and he is letting them know it.  Coming to know Christ has brought him closer not only to Christ but to other people.  In discovering God's grace, he has found something that not only makes his life better but also links him with others because God loves and calls them to live as His children, too.   

14. Do you see how important that is for us as a community of faith?  Someone put it like this.  When you invite Jesus into your heart, he doesn't come alone.  He brings His family with Him.  We may feel more comfortable sometimes in dealing with God just by ourselves.  It gets complicated and messy when other people get involved.  Human relationships never go well all the time.  We get hurt, and we hurt others.  But in the end, what we need is not only a relationship with God but with people, as well.  He has made us that way.  Nowhere in God's word do we find Him teaching a faith that is lived in isolation, cut off from relationships with others.  He designed us to live as members of His family. 

15. If our relationships with people aren't going so well, the first questions for Christians are, How is my relationship with God going?  Am I feeding it well enough through spending time in prayer, Bible study, and other disciplines?  Is there something blocking my communication with God?  We have to have that love flowing back and forth between Him and us if we are ever going to build the kind of love-based relationships with people that He teaches us are absolutely necessary.  It all starts with God.  It continues and ends with Him, too.  So Paul does not say, "We get along with each other very well.  We have a lot of common interests.  We care about each other deeply."  He says, ". . . All of you share in God's grace together with me."  That is key.  It's the vertical relationship with God first.   

16. But living in Christian community is not only having strong relationships with God.  It is also relying on His love to guide and empower us in dealing with each other.  Without that, we sooner or later come to an end of our own human love and begin to act out of self-centered motives.  We end up neglecting or actively damaging the people God has put us here to give and receive support with. 

17. Oh, those problems may not come out in the open for a long time.  It may take 25 years for some to develop.  Especially if a group is new, it may seem like everyone gets along wonderfully all the time.  In cultures like Japan's, where people tend to avoid speaking directly about negative things, nasty problems in relationships can stay below the surface for a long, long time.  Then when they finally do come out, it can be too late, almost impossible to solve them.  If a group is small and the first members like each other, they may go for a long time with no particular conflict.  But that may be simply a result of group size more than great faith or relational skills.  When groups grow, they take on certain characteristics.  After that, some people entering the group will feel comfortable or not, agree or not, want to do certain things or not, all in ways that are different from before.  The chances for personalities to clash and goals to conflict also grow.  Mistakes are made because the chance for them to be made is now there more than before. 

18. That is why Paul writes, "I love you with the love that Christ Jesus gives."  He knows that his human love is not adequate.  But he is also aware of the presence of the God of love in his heart and daily life.  God intends to love people through him, and does.  It is the same for you and me.  The love of God working in us--that is something we always have as Christians.  In the end, that is all we have.  Our financial resources, connections with talented people, skills in running programs, and other wonderful gifts, all come and go.  Especially in a small church, even a few people moving away or deciding to stop attending or losing the financial ability to support the church due to retirement or losing a job, for example, can quickly and dramatically change the life of the whole church.  What we need and what we have to rely on over the long term goes far deeper than those things.  It is the love of God, His grace that we share together, as Paul writes.  That is what has brought us to today and can carry us ahead far into the future.  

19. That is also what gave Paul the joy that is the keynote of the whole book of Philippians.  Remember, this is one of the letters he wrote while in prison.  So he is not just talking about the God of health, wealth, and good times.  He is talking about the God who can sustain and greatly bless His people no matter where or in what conditions we are.  That makes it possible for him to write (vv. 4b-5), "In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.  I am happy because you have joined me in spreading the good news.  You have done so from the first day until now." 

20. That joy is what the Philippians need to hold them together.  I have seen God hold Open Door together, too, through giving us a remarkable joy, sometimes even in very difficult times.  Paul was thrown in prison when he was there in Philippi, and he knows it can happen to his readers, too.  So he is not teaching them a faith that is an escape from reality.  He is not just telling them to look on the bright side or always take a positive attitude.  Instead, in vv. 27-30a, he writes:

No matter what happens, live in a way that brings honor to the good news about Christ.  Then I will know that you stand firm with one purpose.  I may come and see you or only hear about you.  But I will          know that you work together as one person.  And I will know that you    work to spread the teachings of the good news.  So don't be afraid in   any way of those who oppose you.  . . . Here is what (God) has given you to do for Christ.  You must not only believe in him.  You must  also suffer for him.  You are going through the same struggle you saw me go through.  

21. How can Paul have joy and encourage others to do the same in such times?  How can he expect them to live as a family of faith when human relationships can be so difficult, even without special problems like persecution?  Again, it goes back to the power of God's love, which (unlike his and our human love) can help in good and bad times, when people are pleasant and when they are cold-hearted, all the same.  Here is what gives him hope not only for himself but for the struggling new church he has planted.  "I am sure that the One who began a good work in you will carry it on until it is completed" (v. 6a).  He is seeing the people in Philippi through the eyes of faith.  That is, he is seeing them not only as they are but as they will be when God's work in them is finished. 

22. I once knew a lady who had a plaque on her wall with "PBPWMGIFWMY" printed on it in large letters.  Below, in small letters, it said, "Please be patient with me.  God isn't finished with me yet."  Let's learn to take that attitude toward the people around us each day, and toward ourselves.  That will be a valuable tool for us to use in building and maintaining the community of faith God has in His vision for us to be.

23. One final think to note about v. 6.  ". . . The One who began a good work in you will carry it on until it is completed."  If we truly accept that teaching, we realize that it's not up to you and me.  Our personal success and Open Door's success do not hang on us.  You and I did not start this life of faith, and we can neither sustain it nor complete it.  It is God's work, start to finish.  So don't worry and don't be afraid when trouble comes, as it always will.  And don't get full of pride when things go smoothly.  Just hold firmly onto God's hand and keep moving ahead, step by step.  That's the Christian life.  That's His command to us. 

24. When we think the future of ODC or the church in Japan or anything depends in the end on our effort and wisdom and resources, we are failing to remember how we came to be here in the first place.  God started this group, and He will continue to take responsibility for it if we will continue to place it in His hands.  We need only to let Him lead as He chooses and actively follow where He leads, cooperating with Him in His work. 

25. To review the message we are receiving today, when God calls us to walk with Him by faith, He is also calling us to walk with each other.  Paul is able to say in 1:19, ". . . No matter what happens, I'm sure I will still be saved."  But what gives him that hope, he says, is both "that the Spirit of Jesus Christ will help me" and "that you are praying for me."  We need both the vertical relationship with God through Christ and the horizontal relationship with the people around us through Christ.  We can learn to rely day by day on the power of His love to grow us and those around us into the community of faith that He wants us to be.  Let's ask Him now to do that.

26. Loving Father, your word tells us (Phil. 3:20) that ". . . we are citizens of heaven."  We receive this teaching and confess that we are not alone but united under your leadership as our King.  Thank you for that invaluable gift.  But also help us, Lord, to receive and use that gift well.  It is not easy sometimes.  We need your Spirit working in us day to day, hour to hour, moment by moment, helping us build and keep strong relationships with each other.  In all our interactions with the people around us, please use your "power to bring everything under (your) control" (Phil. 3:21).  Make us more like your Son Jesus, able to know your love for us deeply and let it be the power that moves us ahead.  And, Lord, love the people in our lives through us.  Let this become a source of deep joy for us as it binds us closer to them and to you.  In Christ's name we ask it, amen.

References

Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., and Brown, D. (1871). Commentary Critical and  Explanatory on the Whole Bible. Retrieved Augutst 15, 2014 from http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/jamieson-fausset-     brown/philippians/philippians-1.html

Patterson, B. (January 23, 2006). "The Cost of Following Christ." Westmont College Chapel Service. Retrieved August 16, 2014 from http://forms.westmont.edu/audio/chapeltalkarchive/s06/01-23-06.mp3

Robertson, A. T. (1960). Robertson's Word Pictures of the New       Testament. Rev. ed. Broadman Press. Retrieved August 12, 2014 from http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/robertsons-word-               pictures/philippians/philippians-1-1.html

Steadman, R. C. (2010). "Partners!" Sermon delivered 1963. Ray Steadman Ministries. Retrieved July 15, 2014 from http://www.raystedman.org/new-testament/philippians/partners Steadman, R. C. (2010). "Philippians: Christ, Our Confidence and Our Strength." Published October 1, 1967. Ray Steadman Ministries.  Retrieved July 15, 2014 from http://www.raystedman.org/ bible- verview/adventuring/philippians-christ-our-confidence-and-our-strength