Working Preacher Commentary Philippians 1: 1-18a
May 6, 2018
As we move from Easter to Pentecost, this is a great time to invite congregations to hear the communal character of the good news.
The gospel is no lone ranger enterprise. It’s a partnership for all the saints, the whole church.
What difference does it make that Paul is writing his letters to an entire community, the ecclesia(assembly) in Philippi? He could have addressed his letter just to the elders there. He could have written directly to the bishop, telling him what to say to his flock and what to do next. He could have exercised a “chain of command” understood both in the Roman household and the Roman Empire that recognizes authority in specific leaders who then require those beneath them to carry out the wishes of those at the top. There is efficiency and quality control in the top-down system.
But he doesn’t. Paul writes “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi” (verse 1). And this matters! Especially as we walk toward Pentecost. He and Timothy are in jail, a condition of vulnerability in the ancient that relies on friends outside for basic needs like food and blankets. He and his partner Timothy reach out to more partners beyond the prison walls. Paul’s whole ministry is one of partnerships, sometimes with fellow missionaries (for example Barnabas, Timothy, Silas) traveling alongside him, and sometimes empowering local leaders such as Lydia or Priscilla. So, while Paul seems like a pretty big personality, he was not a lone ranger. Paul’s letter is clear that the whole community of brothers and sisters in Christ share “in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (verse 16).
The claim that we all “share in the gospel” is a key narrative for Christian life, especially when so much Christian culture seems to focus on individual salvation. The good news of Jesus, our experience of God’s love and grace, is not an individual possession but a communal reality that God is enacting all the time and in which we are invited to participate. Instead of focusing on individuals, Paul calls attention to the community, “all the saints,” who, together as a community, share in the gospel. This means sharing alike in the joys and in the sufferings of our common life on behalf of God’s love for the world.
Finally, here are some questions to ponder as you consider your own congregation’s partnering in the gospel:
Why is it so hard to be church, to share in partnership in the gospel in this time and place?
What does a saint look like? What do “all the saints” look like? A visual review of images, icons or even news stories, might offer some spring boards for these questions.
What, in your congregation/community, are the joys of partnership in the gospel? What are the challenges of such partnership?
When you are tempted to “go rogue” and quit Christian community, what keeps you connected, what helps all the saints in your congregation/community stay in partnership in midst of challenges?