January 12, 2020

A Prayer for the Church

Passage: Philippians 1:1-11

At the beginning of the year, some of us at least have made new year’s resolutions. I don’t know what your experience is with new year’s resolutions. It could be a fun thing to do, but perhaps you think it is just silly and childish; or, you may think it is just a frustrating and futile habit, not worth doing. After all, many of our resolutions don’t make it past the first weeks of January. Most never come to fruition.

Last week a pastor friend posted a new years resolution on Facebook.

This year I want to be more like Jesus

  • Hang out with sinners
  • Upset religious people
  • Tell stories that make people think
  • Be kind, loving, and merciful
  • Take naps on boats

Whatever you think of new years resolutions, there is something to be said for the discipline of pausing, noticing, doing an examen of the year, and expressing our deep hopes and desires clearly as we look ahead and ask, "What will matter most?" These are always good habits, but they are especially fitting in this time where we are poised between the old and the new.

Paul has a keen sense being in an in between time. His life is in danger. He has an awareness that he is in the final stretches of his life on earth. He longs to be with Christ. And he is expecting the coming of Christ. In the text we read this morning, he talks twice about the second coming of Christ. Verse 6: Paul is confident that "that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Verse 10: Paul prays that their love will abound "so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ."

We are living in an in-between time; between the NOW and the NOT YET; between the OLD and the NEW; between what IS and what IS TO COME. The second coming of Christ is real; it is a thing; it is near. The way we live takes on a new urgency in the light of his coming; our lives, our decisions, our worship, our relationships matter. This is not a time to fool around; it is a time to be discerning, so that we can do what matters most.

Let me ask you, as you think about your family, your friends, your neighbours, your colleagues, what is your prayer for them? What is it that matter most? Take some time to sit with that. Now think about the church, what is your prayer for the church? What matters most?

Paul prays for the Philippians "that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight …"

That your love may abound more and more …

That you love may overflow (NRSV) …

"That your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well." (MSG)

Paul gets it. The Christian life is not just about doing things for God, it is about being the person God wants us to be; it is not just about what and how much we know about God, it is who we are in relation to God and our neighbours; it is about life in communion with God and others. There is more to the Christian life than figuring out right from wrong; than acing your catechism classes; than running effective churches; than showing up and working hard for the church; than faithfully attending gatherings. The Christian life is about getting love right. Remember the Great Commandment? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, in other words, love your neighbour as you love yourself.

Love is what matters most. Remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians?

  • "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal."
  • "If I have the gift of prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing."
  • "And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. (1Cor 13:1-3 NAU)

Love is essential. In mathematical terms you could say X-L=0. As simple as that.

We find this emphasis on love throughout Paul’s letters.

  • He prays for the Ephesians that they will be rooted and established in love, have the power to grasp with all the saints how high and deep and long and wide that love of God is, and know the love that surpasses all understanding (Ephesians 3:14-21).
  • He reminds the Colossians that his goal in ministry is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love so that they may know Christ (Colossians 2:2).
  • He appeals on the basis of love to Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother in Christ, not as a slave (Philemon 1:9).
  • He exhorts the Galatians to not use their freedom to indulge their sinful desires but to serve one another humbly in love as they walk by the Spirit, for the fruit of the Spirit is LOVE, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:13f).
  • He invites the Romans to offer themselves as living sacrifices to God and follows that with a teaching on love. Love must be sincere … (Romans 12:9f).
  • God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, he tells the Romans (Romans 5:5).
  • He charges Timothy to oppose false teachers, saying, "The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Timothy 1:5).

Paul learned this from Christ. Jesus embodied the love of God. He invites us to remain in his love. He gives us a new commandment, "Love one another as I have loved you. By this people will know that you are my disciples" (John 13:34). When we love one another, we are most like Christ; that is when we reflect his image most clearly.

Now, the Philippians were not new to love; they were not lacking in love. The relationship between Paul and the Philippians was affectionate and sincere. They mutually cared for one another. The Philippians’ caring showed in all kinds of practical ways. On more than one occasion, they physically supported Paul with donations of food and with financial aid; they also supported him emotionally, sending Epaphroditus to visit him. Paul rejoiced in them and in their relationship. He carried them in his heart. He considered them partners in the gospel.

Their love was not perfect, but they were good at loving. Still, Paul prays that their love will abound more and more. Why? Because love should never be taken for granted. We never arrive when it comes to love as we all know from experience. Love is simple, but love is never easy.

Take the Ephesians for instance. In Ephesians 1, they are commended for their love, but in Revelation 2 we read that they had lost their first love. Take the Corinthians, a spiritually alive, charismatic church where great things happened, but troubled by internal, theological divisions. The same goes for the Galatians who were free in Christ to love one another but ended up biting and devouring each other. The Philippians loved Paul, but they had to be reminded to help Euodia and Syntyche get along; Paul admonish them for their vanity and selfish ambition that gets in the way of love.

Paul knew what he was doing when he prayed that their love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight. But what does that mean?

It is interesting that he does not specify whom they should love more; he just prays in general that our capacity for love will increase. Karl Barth talks about the quality of our love improving. Eugene Peterson translates it, "That your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately" (MSG).

He prays that our love may abound in knowledge and depth of insight. The love Paul prays for is not a touchy-feely sentimentality; it is not just an emotional thing, having good feelings about others. The love Paul prays for is intelligent, it is wise, it is discerning.

Paul does not pray that our love may abound so that we will feel better, or have more fun together, or so that our meetings will be more pleasant. Paul is not interested in us just being a nice, friendly group of people. He prays for our love to abound so that we can be the people God wants us to be in this world.

How then does love grow in knowledge and depth of insight? First, remember that this is relational knowledge Paul talks about. This is knowledge that comes from engaging in relationship with God and others. Getting to know God and others well takes time; it requires a commitment to the other, to patience, to vulnerability in our relationships. It grows as we engage in relationships, making an effort to pay attention to one another, taking one another seriously, making time to listen and talk, and walking the extra mile. As we do this, we gradually develop an understanding of one another, we become more sensitive to each other’s needs, we become more attuned to one another.

Why is it important? Paul carefully names the purpose. So that we can discern what is best, be pure and blameless on the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness that come from Christ, to the glory of and praise of God.

Let us look at that briefly.

Love enables us to discern what is best. Christian discernment is not just an intellectual exercise. We tend to think of discernment as a mind thing, but it is more than that. It involves more than gathering information, weighing options, considering pros and cons, looking at statistics, or taking a vote. When we practice discernment, we don’t just think our way into decisions.

Christian discernment asks the love-question. It is an act of paying attention, of searching for and listening for the voice of God. It goes out from the belief that love is our primary calling.

Ruth Haley Barton describes it beautifully in her book Sacred Rhythms (p. 117-118).

We may think our decisions are about the details of where we live, who we marry, what job we take, but for the Christian person, the choices we make are always about love and which choice enables us to keep following God into love. There may be other factors to consider, but the deepest question for us as Christian people is, What does love call for in this situation? What would love do?

Why is it that we so rarely ask this question relative to the choices we face? What distracts us from love in various situations in which we are trying to discern God’s will? I don’t know your answers to this question, but I can tell you a few of mine. For one thing, love is a major inconvenience at times. It is rarely efficient. It is much more complicated than just listing pros and cons and getting on with it. Furthermore, love challenges my self-centeredness, and sometimes it requires me to give more of myself than I want to give. Sometimes love hurts,

or at least it makes me vulnerable. All the time, love is risky, and there are no guarantees.

And yet love is the deepest calling of the Christian life, the standard by which everything about our lives is measured. It is the standard by which Christ evaluated himself at the end of his life. "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end" (John 13:1). Any decision-making process that fails to ask the love question misses the point of the Christian practice of discernment. Discernment is intended to take us deeper and deeper into the heart of God’s will: that we would follow God passionately into love—even if it takes us all the way to the cross.

Discernment pushes us back into the arms of the Holy Spirit who helps us to love well, to love much, to love appropriately. The Holy Spirit helps us to discern so that we get love right.

Love that is intelligent, wise, and discerning changes how we walk together, serving God, our neighbors, and the world. It sanctifies our motives so that they become pure. It makes us steadfast in our walk so that we do not stumble or cause others to stumble. It makes us safe. Verse 10 could be translated, that we may have pure motives, and be steadfast in love, not causing others to stumble.

That is the fruit of righteousness that comes from Christ. That is the work that God began and will carry to completion until the day of Christ. Such a life brings glory to God.

Would you pray with me?

Holy Trinity, we pray that our love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,
so that we may be able to discern what is best
and may be 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.