An English poet wrote, “Letters Mingle Souls.” And today we shall mingle our soul with the Apostle Paul by reading his letter to the Philippians.
This letter, written from a difficult jail cell, oddly uses the word joy sixteen times. Thus the correspondence is often called, “The Epistle of Joy.”
The question is why? Why does a rejected, single man, late middle age, with health problems, no home, and in jail— why or how does he have such joy?
A hint of the reason is found in the opening line of his letter. And to a study of that letter we now turn.
“A Unique Individual”
The opening word of this letter is “Paul.” Actually, this is called the salutation. Ancients started off by telling you who the letter was from. Makes sense, does it not? For today, we receive a letter and must turn to the last page to see who signed it.
But more than a businesslike salutation, Paul, in opening with his own name, is affirming himself before God and man as a unique individual.
Actually, the name “Paul” is Latin for “shorty”, a distinct physical feature Paul must have had. His real name had been, “Saul”, Hebrew for “loaned.” Paul must have grown up understanding himself as the creation of God “loaned” to earth for a time. Yet the world took one look at Saul and nicknamed him after his lack of physical stature, “Paul.” “Shorty.”
My wife and I were out walking just the other day when a bird flying overhead decided to take aim and poop on my balding head. Seeing my plight, my wife laughed heartily! All I could say was, “You know honey, for some people they sing.” Same with our world. For some of us the world sings our praises. For others of us, it humiliates us, derides us, points out our flaws. “Shorty”, it sneers. Poops right on our heads!
Nevertheless, Paul wears his name like a badge of his own uniqueness before God and man, “I, Paul… am the one writing you this letter.”
From the world’s point of view Paul was short, single, trouble-maker, rejected by his own people, incapable of preaching a decent sermon, and constantly on the move throughout the Mediterranean nations. To God, however, Paul was a man of faith being remade by the Spirit into the Divine image, a Theologian, a leader, writer, and mentor of young preachers.
All of this has spawned a rather humorous letter, supposedly written in 66 A.D. to Paul from a missionary society in Jerusalem…
An Open Letter to a Candidate for Missionary Appointment
Rev. Saul (The Apostle Paul), Jerusalem
Independent Missionary, Province of Judaea
Corinth, Greece January 1, 66, A.D.
Dear Mr. Paul:
We recently received an application from you for service under our Board. It is our policy to be as frank and open-minded as possible with all our applicants. We have made an exhaustive survey of your case and it is astounding!
To be plain, we are surprised that you have been able to “pass” as a bona fide missionary. We are told that you are afflicted with a severe eye trouble. This is certain to be definite handicap to an effective ministry. We require 20-20 vision.
Do you think it proper for a missionary to do part-time secular work? We hear that you are making tents on the side. In a letter to the church at Philippi you admitted that they were the only church supporting you. We wonder why!
Is it true that you have a jail record? Certain brethren report that you did two years time at Caesarea and were imprisoned at Rome. How much time have you spent in jail? Why??
You made so much trouble for the businessmen at Ephesus that they refer to you as “the man who turned the world upside down.” Sensationalism has no place in missions! We also deplore the lurid “over-the-wall-in-a-basket” episode at Damascus.
We are appalled at your obvious lack of conciliatory behavior. Diplomatic men are not stoned and dragged out of the city gate or assaulted by furious mobs. Have you ever suspected that gentler words might gain you more friends? I enclose a copy of Dalius Carnagus’ book “How to Win Barbarians and Influence Greeks.”
In one of your letters you refer to yourself as “Paul the aged.” Our new mission policies do not anticipate a surplus of elderly recipients. We feel the hope is in youth.
We understand too that you are given to fantasies and dreams. You said at Troas you saw “a man of Macedonia” and at another time “were caught up into the third heaven” and even claimed “the Lord stood by” you. We reckon that more realistic and practical minds are needed in the task of world evangelism. We consider our work to be very serious.
You have caused much trouble everywhere you have gone. You opposed the honorable women at Berea and the leaders of your own nationality in Jerusalem. If a man cannot get along with his own people, how can he serve foreigners?
You admit that while you were serving time at Rome “all forsook you.” Good men are not left friendless. Three fine brothers by the names of Diotrephes, Demas, and Alexander the coppersmith have notarized affidavits to the effect that it is impossible for them to cooperate with either you or your program.
We know you had a bitter quarrel with a fellow missionary named Barnabas. Harsh words do not further God’s work. Why don’t you try getting along better with people?
You have written many letters to churches where you have formerly been pastor. In one of these letters you accused a church member of living with his fathers’s wife, and you caused the whole church to feel badly and the poor fellow was expelled from the membership.
You spend too much time talking about “the second coming of Christ.” Your letters to the people of Thessalonica were almost entirely devoted to this theme. Put first things first from now on. Our strategy calls for thorough organization and long range planning.
Your ministry has been far too flighty to be successful. First, Asia Minor, then Macedonia, then Greece, then Italy, and now you are talking about a wild goose chase into Spain. Concentration is more important than dissipation of one’s powers. There is wisdom in settling down to do some work of a permanent nature.
In a recent sermon you said, “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of Jesus Christ.” It seems to us that you ought to glory in our heritage, our denominational program, the unified budget, and the World Federation of Churches.
Your sermons are much too long for our modern culture. At one place you rambled until after midnight and a young man was so sleepy that he fell out of the window and broke his neck. Nobody is saved after the first twenty minutes. “Stand up, speak up, and then shut up” is our advice.
Dr. Luke reports that you are a thin little man, bald, frequently sick, and always so agitated over your churches that you sleep very poorly. He reports that you pad around the house praying half of the night.
A healthy mind in a robust body is our ideal for all applicants. A good night’s sleep will give you zest and zip so that you wake up full of zing.
You wrote recently to Timothy that “you had fought a good fight.” Fighting is hardly a recommendation for a missionary! No fight is a good fight. Jesus came not to bring a sword, but peace. You boast that “I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus.” What on earth do you mean??
It hurts me, Brother Paul, but in all my twenty-five years of experience I have never met a man so opposite to the requirements of our Mission Board. If we accept you, we would break every rule of modern missionary practice. We are sending a copy of this letter to other mission Boards in case you try them. We are also sending this letter to churches throughout the area so that all may be aware of your “fly by night” unorthodox methods.
Most sincerely yours,
J. Flavious Fluffyhead
Secretary Mission Board
So, the question for all of us is: shall we think of ourselves as the world does? Short, losers, single, in poor health! Or shall we consider ourselves as God does? “Loaned!” One of a kind! Made in God’s image. Loved. And useful.
Walt Whitman wrote a poem in which he confessed, “I celebrate myself.” That’s what Paul is doing in Christ in his Philippian letter. And it is what we must do as well.
“A Unique Set of Relationships”
Now, in the letter, Paul goes on to mention his friend Timothy. “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus…”
Timothy had been a teenager when Paul first met him in central Turkey. Seeing a faithful, available, and teachable person in Timothy, Paul mentored him over the years. And Timothy eventually grew into the pastor of the Ephesian church.
So, Paul, in his opening remarks, not only affirms himself as a unique individual. He also points out at least one unique friendship that makes him who he is. He tells the Philippians that he and Timothy are friends in fellowship, that he’s had something to contribute as well as something to receive from the young man.
Today we need to recover the art of friendship, the art of initiating and sustaining Christ-centered relationships. We need to repent of rugged individualism, Lone Ranger religion, and invest in people. Oh that we could rediscover the fervor of the poem…
“I love you
Not only for what you are
But for what I am when I am with you.
I love you
Not only for what you have made of yourself
But for what you are making of me.
I love you for putting your hand down deep
Into my heaped-up heart
And for passing over those weak, foolish things
You could not help but simply see there
And for drawing out into the sunlight
All those deep, beautiful longings
That no one else had searched quite
Far enough to find.
I love you
For helping me to make
Out of the timber of my life
Not a tavern but a temple!
Out of the works of my everyday
Not a reproach but a song…”
So, Paul opens his letter affirming his own unique self and relationships. Now he identifies himself as a servant. “Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ.”
The word “servant” in the Greek is “bondservant.” It’s like this: a slave works for his master, say, twenty-five years. The master calls the slave one day and says, “Your loyalty and hard work please me. And I am setting you free. No longer must you be my slave. Go wherever you will. And may God bless you!”
The slave, now a free man, clings to his former master and says, “I won’t leave. I love you and wish only to remain a servant in your household!”
Hearing this, the master takes the slave to his doorpost, drives an awl through the servants ear, and gives him a golden ear ring to wear. He is now a bondservant. He serves not because he has to, but because he wants to.
And that is how Paul understands himself and offers his life to the Philippians in his letter. He serves Jesus Christ out of love, not fear. Ministry is not something he has to do, but something he gets to do.
I wonder, do we see ourselves as love servants of Jesus Christ today? Have we come to voluntarily give up our rights and labor not from duty but devotion?
The author of Luke and Acts in the New Testament was a physician. He was also the apostle Paul’s companion on his prison journey to Rome. According to Roman law, a prisoner in custody could not have any friends in his company, but he could carry a personal slave with him. In every likelihood, Dr. Luke willingly set aside his status and enrolled himself as Paul’s servant in order to travel with him to Rome for trial.
The church is made up of innumerable acts of such selfless devotion, of people who wash the feet of the saints, who answer the phone, clean a toilet, mop a floor, sacrifice for missions, befriend the friendless, care for the sick, tend a nursery, rehearse a song…
“Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ,” the letter begins. And now it continues, mentioning how we are “saints of Jesus Christ.”
The Greek word for “saint” means “one who is set apart.”
In my wife’s china cabinet are two sets of dishes— the every day cheap stuff, common, often chipped. And the fine English bone china she received for a wedding present. It is reserved for special guests on special occasions. The common dishes are used for hash, a dog bowl, a water catcher under a plant. What Paul is saying in the text is that we are God’s best! As unique individuals we serve God in our relationships as saints. We are literally set apart from this world for the noble use of God.
I asked a child once, “What is a saint?” The child, thinking of a figure in a stained glass window, said, “A saint is someone who let’s the light in!” And so we are! So we are!
My sons and I were in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently, and I was fascinated by a tee shirt they sell to tourists there. The front of it is covered with eight faces of Charlottesville citizens who have helped make the city what it is. Tomas Jefferson’s face is there. So is William Faulkner and Edgar Allen Poe. Yet there is also the face of a woman who for forty years ran a Christian boarding house for university students and influenced several generations for Christ.
There you have it. A saint of Christ letting her light shine.
“A Unique Geography”
“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus, who are at Philippi.”
Yes, “saints… who are at Philippi.” Here Paul reminds us we each share a specific geographic local for Jesus Christ.
In your home you place lamps about the rooms with great care so that when the night comes you may have light to live by. And this is what God is reminding us of in Paul’s letter. Our Lord very carefully places us in the world so we each may bring his light to a different portion of the globe.
Over the years I’ve met dozens of Christian musicians as they’ve grown up in this area or passed through on tour. So many of them have confided in me that it is their desire to go to Nashville and make it big. However, one singer warmed my heart when he told me, “Nashville’s got more musicians than it knows what to do with. I believe God has put me here so that the Central Piedmont of North Carolina can enjoy some of the freshness of contemporary Christian music.”
Albion College. Ever heard of it? It’s in southern Michigan. Morley Frazier is the football coach. Been there forty years. Tells me it wasn’t easy coaching near Michigan State, Notre Dame, Purdue and such. Said he found out over time, however, that “The big time is where you are.” Says they get so involved in their own community and games they don’t even announce the scores of the other colleges.
In the Old Testament book of Esther, Mordecai tells the queen, “Who knows but what you’ve come to the kingdom for such a time as this.” And so we have! This is the time! This is the place! Thou art the man!
Each of us is a local expression, a visible demonstration, a focus of God’s truth in our neighborhood.
In just a few words, opening remarks from a letter written from jail, Paul reminds us of all the things we are and what joy it all brings!
He confesses himself to be a unique individual, a set of relationships, a servant, a saint, and a denizen of Philippi. And what of us? We each are a spiritual, ecclesiastical, social, and geographic sphere of influence.
The world may poop on us, but God the Lord sings! And it’s time we learn to believe God not society.
Morris Bishop humorously writes how it is with us in today’s world in his poem, “The Perforated Spirit.”
“The fellows up in personnel,
Have a set of cards on me.
The sprinkled perforations tell
And what am I? I am a chart
Upon the files of IBM,
The secret places of the heart
Have little secrecy to them.
It matters not how I may prate.
They punch with punishment the scroll.
The files are the masters of my fate.
They are the captains of my soul.
Monday my brain began to buzz:
I was in agony all night.
I found out what the trouble was:
They had my paper clip too tight.”
For all today who are weary and heavy laden trying to be somebody in today’s world, come unto Him, take His yoke, for His burden is easy. His yoke is light. “Paul and Timothy, servants to Christ Jesus, to all the saints at Philippi.”
Lord, I can do that, if you help me!
Lord, light my lamp and put it where it will be seen. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.