“A Joyful Gospel Partnership” (Philippians 1)
Today we start a four-week series of readings and sermons–and Bible classes, as well–on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. The official Epistle readings from the lectionary have big chunks of each of the four chapters over these four weeks, but since we’re diving in whole-hog, as it were, I decided I’d read the whole chapter each week, as you just heard.
So today we begin with Philippians chapter 1. In trying to come up with a theme for this message–and really, for the whole book–I thought back to a sermon I heard long ago at my home church in Chicago. We had just installed a new pastor, and his first sermon to us was based on this passage from Philippians 1, verses 3-5: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” And so the pastor’s sermon that day, almost forty years ago–and I still remember the sermon title–the message back then is the same as it is for us here today, that the church is “A Joyful Gospel Partnership.”
A joyful gospel partnership: It was true for my pastor and congregation back in Chicago. And it’s true for us here at St. Matthew’s in Bonne Terre. God has brought us together into a joyful gospel partnership. That’s what we’re going to explore now as we consider Philippians 1.
You see, that’s what Paul is saying is the case for him and the church at Philippi. From the first day Paul had begun his ministry there, until the time Paul is writing this letter, some years later, God had formed them into a joyful gospel partnership.
Yes, this partnership between Paul and the Philippians was joyful! That is one of the most noticeable things about this letter to the Philippians, its recurring theme of joy. In these four chapters, you will find the word “joy” or “rejoice” a total of 14 times! That’s a lot! A few examples from right here in chapter 1: In verse 4, Paul says he is making his prayer for them with joy. In verse 18, he rejoices in the fact that Christ is being proclaimed. In verse 25, he says he wants to continue with them for their progress and joy in the faith. So lots of joy! So strong is this emphasis running through Philippians that it is often called “the Epistle of Joy.”
What is joy? Well, it is not the same thing as happiness. Joy runs a lot deeper than happiness. Happiness depends on what happens, on your circumstances, and those can be happy or sad. Joy, on the other hand–joy is not dependent on your circumstances. You can have joy even in the midst of challenging circumstances. There is Christian joy, even when things are going bad in your life. Happiness depends on what happens, and that can change. Joy depends on Jesus. Joy is found in the gospel of Christ, and that’s a sure thing.
See, so our life together in the church is a joyful gospel partnership. It is centered in, and flows out of, the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. There is nothing more sure than that. There is nothing more joyous than that. For what is this gospel of Jesus Christ? It is the good news, The Good News, the goodest good news there can be! The gospel tells us what God has done for us in our Savior Jesus Christ. The person and the work of Christ for our eternal salvation–this is the heart of the gospel.
The gospel that Paul preached back then is the same gospel we preach and you believe today. Paul says that it is the gospel “of your salvation, and that from God.” For God has saved us in and through Christ. God sent his Son to save us from our sins and from eternal death. Jesus lived and died and rose again for your salvation, that you would be forgiven and live forever. This Christ accomplished by fulfilling God’s righteousness on your behalf, living the perfect life we have not lived, the life of love, according to God’s good law. Then Jesus suffered the punishment for all law-breakers, what all us sinners deserve, namely, death under God’s judgment–again on our behalf, in our place. This is how your sins are forgiven: Christ died for them. You have his righteousness given to you as a gift. And through faith in Christ, you have life in his name, everlasting life. On the day when our Lord returns, you will be judged righteous, not guilty, because of Christ. And until that day, God will guard and keep you in this saving faith, as you continue in the gospel. This is how Paul can say, here in Philippians: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” It is through this gospel that you will be, as Paul says, “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
So this is the gospel, and it is a joyous thing. Nothing better. The gospel is what we need more than anything else in the world. And this is why the church exists: to be the home of the gospel. The church is where the gospel sounds forth for all the world to hear. The church is where the gospel of Christ forms us into a community, into a family of believers, where we build up and support one another in the faith. We have something special here. This is where Jesus is present, to forgive our sins and to give us life. The gospel, in Word and Sacrament, is the church’s very life. And it is the life we have been given, entrusted with, to share with the world. This is what all people need, whether they realize it or not. We need the gospel.
And so the church is this joyful gospel partnership. We are a joyful band of brothers and sisters, walking together on our pilgrim way, bearing one another’s burdens in love, shining out with the light of Christ to the world. In our daily lives. In our life together as church. The gospel animates us and sustains us. It gives us peace of conscience, knowing our sins are forgiven. It gives us a joy that lifts our spirits when we are down. And we have a mission. We have a purpose. We have meaning and direction in our lives. In our individual vocations. And in our life as the body of Christ. We have been formed into a joyful gospel partnership.
What is this “partnership”? In what does it consist? Today I want to point out a few things I see in our text. First of all, this word that is translated here as “partnership.” It is the Greek word that many of you have heard before; it’s the word “koinonia.” “Koinonia” is variously translated as “fellowship,” “sharing,” “participation,” “communion,” or here, “partnership. The idea is that a group of people has things in common, a shared experience, a shared life. And that’s us. We all have been baptized into Christ, joined to Jesus, which also joins us to one another. We all share in the body and blood of Christ, in Holy Communion. Our communion in the holy things, Christ’s body and blood, forms us into a communion of holy ones, the communion of saints. We have these things in common. And that makes us the church, God’s joyful gospel partnership here on earth.
And here in Philippians chapter 1, we can see a few things this partnership entails. First, it is a partnership of prayer. Notice how Paul opens this epistle. In prayer: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” Paul is praying for the Philippians. And what is he praying for them? “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,” etc. Paul is asking God to help them to grow in the fruits of faith, in their love, in their knowledge and spiritual discernment.
Paul prays for them. And they pray for Paul. He writes: “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.” The Philippians were praying for Paul during his imprisonment. So this partnership of prayer went both ways: Paul, the servant of Christ, praying for the saints at Philippi, and they, the saints, praying for him.
So it is here at St. Matthew’s. We pray for one another. I pray for you, you pray for me, we all pray for one another. Pastor and people, partnering in prayer. Certainly we do that when someone is sick. And that’s good and fine. But let’s also pray for spiritual concerns, as well. I’ll pray for you, for you to grow and abound in love and knowledge and discernment. And you pray for me, that I be bold and diligent in my ministry, that I preach the gospel faithfully and fearlessly. And let’s all pray that all of us live a life worthy of our calling as Christians.
So this joyful gospel partnership is a partnership of prayer. Secondly, it is a partnership even in prison. And here I’m using “prison” as shorthand for “suffering,” for all the adversities we face in life. These things do not break our fellowship, our partnership in the gospel, and they do not rob us of our joy. Paul was in prison as he writes this letter to the Philippians. He is in prison, and yet he still rejoices in the gospel. He still expresses his joy over the Philippians. He still has confidence that the gospel will go forward, even as he is confined.
Brothers and sisters, we face suffering in our lives. What are the prisons we are enduring? Do we feel trapped by our life circumstances? Are we struggling with chronic illness, ours or a loved one’s? It can feel like we are in prison, with no way out. But we have the sure hope of the gospel to sustain us. We have brothers and sisters here in God’s family to help us or just to lend a listening ear. We have people here who will pray for us, for it is God’s help that we need most of all. We have a joyful gospel partnership, even when we are experiencing a prison.
A partnership of prayer. A partnership in prison. And last, a partnership of progress. Paul writes: “I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.” Our progress in the faith. Christians can grow and get stronger in their Christian life. This is God’s will for us. Paul says: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” Dear friends, let this be said of St. Matthew’s: that our manner of life is worthy of the gospel, appropriate to who we are in Christ; that together, we are standing firm in the faith, united, in one spirit, with one mind, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel. God help us to be a partnership of progress and joy in the faith!
Fellow redeemed, servants and saints alike, today we are starting a walk through this precious Epistle to the Philippians. Truly it is an Epistle of Joy! And through our weeks in this epistle, may God continue to form us into a joyful gospel partnership!