Saturday, July 09, 2005

Philippians 1:1-11 'Message from the heart' - A sermon preached in Dromore Cathedral on 3rd July 2005

Have you noticed how rare a personalised letter from someone you know has become? These days, our postboxes are full of letters addressed to us, even with our name in the letter, promising all sorts of good things for us, for example, a holiday, a loan, a prize… Yet these letters are more and more from companies seeking to take advantage of us, or seeking to benefit from our custom. But they aren’t intended for us specifically, just for whoever will take up the offer.

And then of course, there are those personalised letters, specifically for us, which contain the bills – for credit cards, or the phone, or electricity etc… While these are for us, they aren’t just such a pleasure to receive.

Yet personalised letters are also becoming more rare due to the phenomenon of the internet and email – no more envelopes and stamps, but instead, type your message on the computer, press a button, and away it goes to the next door neighbour or the other side of the world. So when you do get a letter, a personal letter, an individual letter, specifically for you, from someone you know and love, then it is terribly exciting.

And as you read it, you can sense the love that they have for you, the value they put in your friendship, and the enjoyment they get from writing to you. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is such a letter, from one person to a church, whom he loved dearly, and who delights in his relationship with them.

It is, in many ways, a ‘message from the heart’. You can see in these first eleven verses, the love, and the joy and delight that Paul has when he thinks of the Philippians. He ‘thanks God’ when he remembers them, he ‘prays with joy’ for them, because he ‘has them in his heart’ for their ‘sharing in God’s grace’ with him. He therefore ‘longs for all of them with the affection of Christ Jesus’.

This is a tender epistle, written to friends, but more than friends – he feels like a father to them, having planted the church in Philippi. He is therefore interested in its progress, and remembers with joy those he met in Philippi.

What is even more amazing, though, is that he could have such feelings of warmth towards the place where he was treated so badly. This was, remember, the place where he had met Lydia at the place of prayer by the riverside, but on going towards her house, they exorcised a demon from a slave-girl and, after being beaten, were thrown in prison. They didn’t stay in prison for long, though, as they sang hymns at midnight, you remember the earthquake, and the conversion of the jailer. We read in Acts 16 ‘when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed’ (Acts 16:40).

So even though this was a place of suffering for Paul, he still held it in his heart, because there were those who had received his message and become Christians. It was to these Christians he was writing, and his heart overflowed with love and joy and thanksgiving for them. We will continue to see these flowing over the rest of the summer, as he acknowledges a gift from them, as well as the helper they had sent to him.

The letter to the Philippians is therefore, a message from the heart. But even in these early verses, we find the heart of the message that Paul is seeking to remind them of, and to encourage them with.

The heart of the message is, of course, the gospel, of which the Philippians are partners with Paul. It was this gospel that Paul had proclaimed when he was with them, in very simple but profound words. Firstly, at the riverside, as they spoke with the women who had gathered at the riverside. Then in a demonstration of the gospel, when they provided salvation/freedom/release to the slave girl possessed by a demon. Even in prison, Paul had proclaimed the gospel to those listening by singing psalms and praying. And then the Philippian jailer had asked: ‘What must I do to be saved?’ to which Paul had replied ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.’

This situation in Philippi, was of course, not unique. The gospel was always the heart of Paul’s message. As he says in the letter to the Romans, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth’ (Romans 1:17), to the Corinthians he wrote ‘For Christ sent me … to preach the gospel’ (1 Cor 1:17). Indeed, there was such a compulsion upon Paul, that he said ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!’ (1 Cor 9:16) So for Paul, the heart of the message is the gospel.

But to turn it round again, the gospel is the message of the heart – because our hearts are sinful – but through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we can have a new heart. Our need for this was recognised in Psalm 51, where David said: ‘Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51:10). Therefore God promised that he would indeed give us new hearts, as Ezekiel prophesied: ‘And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put in you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36:26)

Through these summer Sunday evenings together, we will be looking at the epistle to the Philippians, taking it a bit at a time, to observe life in that early church, but also to apply it to our own situation, and see how we can learn from them. All Scripture, including the epistle to the Philippians was written ‘to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope’ (Romans 15:4). So while we can observe the interplay of relationships between Paul and the church at Philippi, or mark certain themes which emerge as the chapters unfold

Our first point of challenge tonight is this: do we know the gospel of which the Philippians were partners with Paul? Has the message of the heart affected our hearts? Have we got a new heart within us, changed by the gospel?

Secondly, if we have indeed been changed, do we maintain the heart of the message? Is the gospel at the centre of our thoughts, and speaking, and interaction with others?

But also, how do we relate to those around us in the church? If we were to be writing to them, or even when we deal with them in person, is it by messages from the heart? Do we hold one another as precious and special? Is there true brotherly love among us? Oh that this church would increase in brotherly love, that others would know and see that we are united together.

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