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“I Thank My God for You”

Date: May 23, 2022/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

Philippians 1:1-18a

Every week, as we entered Lydia’s house to worship and break bread together, we were faced with an uncomfortable reminder.  The last time Paul had been with us, he left without his hat, and it’s still on its hook in the front hall.  When we see it, week after week, we lament that Paul isn’t with us, and we worry about him.

His companion Epaphroditus, who had been very ill while he was with Paul but eventually recovered, has just returned to us and brought us a letter, responding to the one from us that he had carried to Paul before he got sick.

Letters take a long time to get from place to place in our world, but the Roman roads do make it easier than it might be otherwise—and Epaphroditus’ illness made matters worse.  Even so, the troubles we had written to Paul about were by no means settled when his reply got to us.

That hat hanging on its hook sort of made it harder for us to move forward.  Every time we see it, it reminds us of our fears:  our fear that Paul might not make it out of prison alive; our fears about what will become of us without him to guide us; the constant, low-grade, nagging anxiety about when the other shoe will drop and we’ll find ourselves persecuted.

Being a follower of Jesus isn’t easy, even when the local authorities are inclined to look the other way, but if someone new rises to power and they’re more hostile to Christians, things could turn really bad.  We’ve heard stories from people in other parts of the Roman Empire, about  Christians being disappeared from their homes in the middle of the night, soldiers invading worship services and carrying off the leaders, those leaders’ homes being burned to the ground, people being rolled in tar and set on fire—just horrible things. When there’s persecution going on, it’s hard to know who can be trusted, who might appear to be sympathetic to us and then turn us in to the police.  Some people have buckled under the weight of it and left us.

So even though, thank the Lord, that isn’t our situation right now, there isn’t any telling when that could change. 

And even though we’re blessed to have relative peace right now, we can’t help but worry about Paul.  He’s in the imperial city[1] in prison. 

Paul has been in prison quite often, although a lot of times it’s only been for a day or two.  He was even in prison here, around the time that Lydia first met him.[2]  But this time it’s serious.  Very serious, and we aren’t sure if he’ll be released.

I don’t know how much you know about the prisons in our time.  They were often in the basement of a retired soldier’s house, or sometimes a person was under house arrest, living in his own home but chained to a guard 24/7.  And prisoners had to support themselves; if they didn’t have the wherewithal to buy food, or clothing, or whatever they needed, they wouldn’t have those things.

When we first found out Paul had been arrested in the imperial city, we wanted to help him, send him money and food—and his hat—but we couldn’t.  Times were pretty tough for us right then; we had our hands full looking after ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Philippi.  That was another worry for us, to add to our worry about Paul and our own safety if a persecution should get going.

Finally, we were able to gather some resources to send to him along with our letter, by way of Epaphroditus.  But we forgot the hat, so it’s still hanging on that hook, reminding us every Sunday that Paul is in prison and we don’t know what will happen to him.

Now Epaphroditus, recovered from his serious illness, has returned to us, and he has a letter from Paul.  We know Paul is writing to address the problems we’ve been having, disagreements within the church over silly little things, disagreements that probably would have been sorted out quickly if we weren’t all so anxious right now, but because we’re afraid and worried, they’re tearing us apart.  We really expected that the letter would be a tongue-lashing from Paul, like the one we’d heard he sent to First Christian in Galatia; so when we saw Epaphroditus coming down the road toward Lydia’s house, we sort of dreaded the moment when we would all gather to hear him read it to us.

With all the troubles we’ve been having, the gathering was tense anyway—families sitting not together but some on one side of the room and some on the other, some people refusing to speak to others, people gossiping and looking for the absolute worst in folks they used to call friends.  We had written to Paul for help in sorting all this out.  We listed all the things we were arguing about, and asked him to tell us who was in the right.

But we sort of dreaded his response, because no matter which side he took on any of the issues, some people were going to be on the losing side, and they’d be mad.

Our gathering to hear the letter read was on a Sunday evening.

There was actually another preacher in town that night, somebody who was advertising herself as “better than Paul,” and that worried us, too.  These other preachers were going around saying they could do better at baptizing people than Paul had done, teaching strange beliefs that we knew Paul wouldn’t approve of (which is what he wrote to Galatia about), showing off how much better they were at preaching and teaching than Paul was—one even made reference to an incident in Troas where Paul preached well into the night, and a boy there listening went to sleep, fell out of the window he’d been sitting in, and died.  (But could these other preachers have done what Paul did next?—he went down to the street where Eutychus was lying dead, and raised him back to life!)[3]

We had written to Paul about these people, too, and we were worried that they were going to tarnish Paul’s reputation.  But Paul didn’t care.  “It’s not about me,” he said in his letter.  The important thing is that the gospel is getting preached, not whether people pay proper deference to Paul.  And if the gospel is preached, Paul said, I’m happy.

But you know, what really surprised us in that letter was how Paul started it.  We were in a pretty bad way right then; we were scared, and we were arguing over stuff that at any other time wouldn’t have mattered a hill of beans, but it all seemed bigger and more serious because we were so worried about Paul and the world around us.  We sometimes wondered if we could even make it as a church.

Even though we weren’t really dealing with major persecution, we still had folks leave because they were afraid of what their family, or their neighbors, or their business associates would do if their faith in Christ became common knowledge.  We were adding new people, yes, but would it be enough?

We wondered if we were on a downhill slide as a congregation, and we wondered if Paul would think we were failing.

Maybe he would start his letter like the one he wrote to Galatia, which we’d heard about.  He just said, “Dear Church,” You guys are bad!  Did nothing I said to you soak in?  What is wrong with you people?

That’s not what Paul said to us.  He said, “I thank my God every time I think of you.”  He said, “I’m praying for you, and remembering you with joy and love.”  He said, “Even if times are tough, like they are now, remember that what God started in your community, God can be trusted to bring to fruition.”  You’re worried about many things, but don’t worry about that.

“I thank my God for you, each time I think of you.

Each time I pray for you, I’m filled with thanksgiving.”[4]

[1] There were three cities designated as “imperial cities,” including Rome, obviously, but also Ephesus and Caesarea.  Most scholars tend to believe Paul wrote Philippians from his final imprisonment in Rome, but it isn’t impossible this could have been an earlier incarceration, perhaps in Ephesus.

[2] Acts 16:11-40 tells the story of Paul and Silas in Philippi and their short imprisonment there.

[3] See Acts 20:7-12.

[4] Paraphrase of vv. 3-4 from the choir anthem “I Thank My God for You,” by Joseph M. Martin (Delaware Water Gap, PA:  Harold Flammer Music/Shawnee Press, 2004).