Pray with Joy – Philippians 1:1-11

At this time of year, the lectionary (the 3-year cycle of readings that many churches follow) focuses on one of Paul’s letters to the early church. Two years ago, we looked at Ephesians. Last year, Colossians, and today we are starting a six-week series on Philippians – with a two-week break in the middle. On Sunday 22nd, Aboriginal Christian leader Brooke Prentis will be preaching, for the Blessing of the Animals, and on Sunday 29th we are privileged to have Carolyn Francis, Lecturer in Baptist Identity and History at Whitley College.

As you have probably worked out, the theme of this series on Philippians is ‘joy’, for the simple reason this is a very joyful letter! The word ‘joy’, in its verbal and noun forms, is mentioned 16 times in its four chapters. As eighteenth-century Greek scholar, J.A. Bengel, famously wrote, ‘summa epistolae; gaudeo, gaudete’, or for the non-Latin speakers, ‘summary of the letter: I rejoice, (now) you rejoice!’

So, as we study this letter, let’s rejoice! And – as I mentioned earlier – to assist us in rejoicing, I need your help! I am looking for children willing to share where they find joy. I am looking for grown-ups willing to share a short poem or reading that, for you, sums up joy. And I am planning this week to create a ‘joy board’ (a bit like a vision board) here in the church where all of us can pin up quotes or poems or pictures – anything that for us has ‘sparked joy’ or, more significantly, sustained joy throughout our lives.

For Paul, writing to the Philippians, writing from a Roman jail, writing under a sentence of death, what sustains his joy is praying with joy for the Philippians. “I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…”

Why is it that praying for the Philippian church brings joy to Paul?

Firstly, because he loves them! The Philippians are his friends. Good friends. Loyal friends. Friends who have shared in the gospel with him, who have been partners in the gospel with him, “from the first day until now.” Philippians 4:15 tells us they supported him – financially, emotionally, with their prayers – long before other churches did, and they have continued to support him in his current difficulties.

I am reminded of something C.S. Lewis wrote in Letters to Malcolm about praying for the dead. “Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?”

This is what Paul is doing! He is praying for what he loves best. For those he loves best. And for those who God also loves. For as Paul says, they ‘share in the gospel’ – the good news that God reaches out to us in love. And sharing in the gospel is another way of saying family or community (koinonia in Greek). Christian community is the place where grace is shared among us and where grace is shared with others. Is this community a place where grace is shared among us and where grace is shared with others? Is this a place of genuine Christian friendship? “It is right for me to think this way about all of you,” Paul writes, “because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel.”

Paul prays with joy for the Philippians because they share in God’s grace together.

Paul also prays with joy because he knows that that grace, that love, will guide them home. “I am confident of this,” he writes, “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

I am reminded by this passage – by Paul’s confidence in God’s love reaching out to us – of Michelangelo’s famous fresco, The Creation of Adam, in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

In that painting, based on Genesis chapter 1, God is depicted reaching for Adam at the moment of creation. Both figures stretch towards one another, their index finders meeting in the centre of the composition, but Adam’s posture is passive, waiting for God to initiate life, while the figure of God is strong and vigorous, his face dynamic, as he focuses on Adam.

But just between their fingertips there is a small gap. “As if,” art writer Alicia due Plessis says, at any moment, the world will explode when their fingertips touch.” A gap that represents the moment before human life begins, but also a gap that represents God’s eternal longing for humankind, for relationship with humankind. Paul shares this divine longing in Philippians. He writes, “How I long for you with all the tender affection of Christ Jesus.” And his prayer is that, in response to that longing, their love will overflow more and more.

Paul prays with joy because God loves us, and knowing that love, more and more, transforms our lives, more and more. He speaks of two specific ways here.

Firstly, love guides us in our living, in our practice, as a community of faith. Verse 9: [I pray] “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best.” (Or as the version we read said “what really matters”.) For the early church, just as now, there were difficult issues to be worked through, issues of biblical interpretation and Christian practice, using the methodology of love. And for the early church, just as now, there were assaults from those who viewed this love-centred Christian gospel as ‘unscriptural’, as ‘going too far’, as ‘dangerous’. But for Paul there is far more danger, far more potential to miss out of God’s grace by rigidly adhering to law. As New Testament scholar Bill Loader says, “Paul’s stance echoes Jesus’ declaration that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”

Secondly, Paul prays with joy because this love which guides us will result in a harvest of justice and righteousness. Good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the sight, freedom for the oppressed, the year of God’s favour… For us is this generously sharing, through our Baptist agencies and others, resources to end poverty? Is this standing with those in detention? Is this calling for justice, for recognition, for voice for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters? Is this inclusion in Christian community – God’s outstretched arms of grace – for LGBTIQ+ people? Is this sharing skills and social connection at Cooking Circles? Is this shared learning and shared laughter over veggie gardens or around the playdough table or while doing downward dog together? Is this the year of God’s favour?

Yes! Yes, I think it is. The joy we find in God’s love, in God’s love together, in Christian communities shaped by grace, in being guided by love into the best way, along paths of righteousness and justice is what it means to know God’s favour, or as Paul puts it, this is what “comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” Love will guide us home.

Back in 2017 my family had the opportunity to visit Rome and joined the 25,000 or so people who visit the Sistine Chapel every day – it can be a crush – but we did something slightly clever and joined a night tour, the last tour of the day, so at least there was no group pushing us from behind.

But you will know – if you’ve been there – that the chapel is busy and noisy, though if you raise your voice very severe looking monks shush you – loudly.

So, when there was an opportunity, I gathered my three children, Miriam age 18, Grace 14, and Zach 11, and said in my loudest quiet whisper, “There it is, just above our heads, Michaelangelo’s famous painting of God reaching out Adam in the moment of creation.” And then I pointed out a couple of other Biblical characters they would know.

Eventually we were told it was time to move on and we made our way through the corridors, shepherded by men in uniform with machine guns – all very serious – to the gift shop and there, after a brief browse, I called Zach over and asked if he’d like a set of pencils – with Michelangelo’s famous image on them – as a souvenir.

“Where was that?” he said! “I didn’t see that painting!”

“It was in the chapel,” I said. “Don’t you remember I called you all over and pointed up at the ceiling. It was right there in the centre of the ceiling!”

“No,” he said, “I thought you were pointing at something else. I didn’t see it! I didn’t see it and that is one thing I wanted to see!” And to my astonishment he burst into tears.

“I have to go back,” he said. “I have to see it.”

“You can’t go back,” I said. “It’s impossible. They’re closing up. Did you see all the guards? I’m sorry, dfarling, I’m so so sorry, but we can’t go back.”

Enter Aron Downey, Father of the Year 2017, who, I’d explained, said, “Look, let’s give it a try. Come on, Zach, let’s go.” And they headed off, towards the corridor we’d just exited.

As Aron tells the story, at each check point he would explain, pointing at his red-eyed son, that he’d missed the image of God reaching for Adam and this was what he most wanted to see; that he’d pinch Zach occasionally so he’d cry more (but that’s exaggeration!) but whatever the case  – it worked – and Aron and Zach found themselves alone (watched closely by a contingent of security guards) standing under the image of God reaching out eternally to humanity.

That story of Aron going on that journey with Zach reminds me of what Paul is doing here, of why Paul prays with joy. He prays with joy because he loves the Philippians. He prays with joy because he, too, is making a difficult journey, but with companions he loves, and together they are making their way towards the God who loves them, who reaches out to them, whose love guides them home.

This is Paul’s prayer of joy. And this is our prayer of joy too.

I come with joy to meet my Lord,

forgiven, loved and free;

in awe and wonder to recall

his life laid down for me.

Let’s sing this together as we prepare to celebrate this meal and the love that makes us one together.