The apostle Paul begins his letter to the first Christians in Philippians with a familiar greeting that you hear every Sunday as I begin the sermon. "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." You have probably heard that greeting so many times from pastors that the words are old for you, and you take it for granted.
But for those first Christians in Philippi, and hopefully for us this morning, the words “grace” and "peace" were full of new meaning and hope for a better future.
It was on Paul's second missionary journey that stopped in the city of Philippi around 52 A.D. This was just 22 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
The city of Philippi was a Roman colony and a commercial trade center in northern Greece. It was an important city because it was on Agnatian Way, a road that connected Asia and Europe.
The book of Philippians was written around 60 A.D., eight years later, and is a letter from Paul to the Christians at Philippi. Letter writing was common in Paul's day and was used by him to keep in contact with the various churches he had established in his missionary journeys. According to the book of Acts, Paul was never in one location longer than two years, three months. Letter writing was the next best thing to being there.
Philippians is an ordinary letter in that it gives thanks, expresses good wishes and gives encouragement and counsel. But it is also a special letter because it’s the warmest sounding of Paul's letters. Philippians were very dear people to Paul. They were his partners in the gospel.
And so, he begins the letter with these words. Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons; Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
"Grace to you and peace." The church in Philippi was now almost ten years old and growing, with bishops and deacons. They had come to know the special Christian meaning of the word “grace”. For the believer, whether it be in Philippi in the first century, or in Cuyahoga County in the twenty-first century, the grace of God is actualized, made real, made effective for human need in Jesus Christ.
In today’s gospel reading we hear how we need continual forgiveness from God and yet we struggle to forgive those who have sinned against us. How on our own, our destiny is sin, death, and hell.
Yet in the midst of our sin, grace is offered by God to us with the special purpose of accomplishing for us good things which we cannot achieve for ourselves. Grace is the reverse of a reward for good conduct; grace is rather a MEANS of rescuing us from our helplessness to overcome our sins on our own.
By the grace of God sinful humans may be forgiven, and in spite of our obvious wrongdoings, we can be treated by God as if we are innocent; and the door to resurrection is opened to us by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yes, grace has a special meaning for Christians. Martin Luther always emphasized, “We are justified by grace through faith”. The grace of God in Christ brings salvation to sinful humanity.
And where do we find and experience the grace of God? There was a little fish who swam up to his mother one day and said, “Mom, what is this water I hear so much about?” Laughing, she responded, “You silly little fish. Why, it’s around you and within you and gives you life. Just swim to the top of the pond and lie there for a while; then you will find out what water is.”
Another time there was a little fawn who walked up to her mother and said, “Mommy, what is this air I hear so much about?” Smiling, she answered, “You silly little deer. Why, air is within you and around you. Air gives you life. If you want to know what air is, stick your head in the stream and you’ll find out.”
Finally, there was a young man who was beginning his spiritual journey. After having difficulty knowing where to turn, he asked a holy woman. “What is this God I hear so much about?”
God is within you and around you. God gives you life. If you want to know what the grace of God is, go live in a town of proud boys where there is no forgiveness and no grace. Where everyone worships himself.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Like grace, the peace Paul offers comes from God. When Paul uses the word peace he is talking about personal relationships. He is talking about the restored relationship, the reconciled relationship between us and God. Again, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ and the blood of the cross.
When we are in a right relationship with God then we can be in a right and peace-filled relationship with one another and with ourselves. As I end my sermons, it is a peace that passes all understanding and keeps our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is a peace that enables us to look into one another's eyes and to know that we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
This past Tuesday evening, seven of us visited with our Afghan families. For the first time, we were able to have a translator, an Afghan woman who has lived here for 5 years, on the phone. When the 2 fathers, Zahari and Zaheed were asked what their goals were living in the U.S., Zahari said, “To get his children educated,” and Zaheed said, “To finally live in peace.”
It was an ancient rabbi who asked his students how they could tell when night had ended and day was on its way back. "Could it be you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?" "No" answered the rabbi. "Could it be when you look at a tree in the distance and can tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No.” "Well, then" the students demanded, "when is it?"
"It is when you look on the face of any man or woman and see that he or she is your brother or sister. Because if you cannot do that, no matter what time it is, it is still night. "
The peace God gives us allows us to look into one another's eyes and to know we are brothers and sisters in body of Christ. That peace allows us to look within ourselves and to rejoice and to be thankful for the life God has given us. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ .
Following this warm greeting Paul goes on to thank the people in Philippi for their faith and prayers. Paul remembers these people and sees them as his partners. Even though Paul is miles away, imprisoned in the city of Ephesus, and has visited Philippi only twice since the founding of the church, they have a partnership that is close and satisfying. Philippians had even sent a servant, Epaphroditus, with a gift of money and to visit with Paul in prison.
Sometimes we can feel very close to people we have only spent a short time with and people we spend a whole lifetime with can sometimes feel very distant. Paul and the Philippians had obviously hit it off in the short time they were together.
Yes, and I shall rejoice. For I know that through your prayers and the help of the
Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I should not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to Live is Christ, and to die to gain.
Yes, and I shall rejoice. It is amazing that Paul can rejoice when he is sitting in jail for preaching the Gospel. How can he be so happy? He is sitting in jail awaiting his trial and thinking about life and death.
When we read these verses, we wonder why Paul is even writing about whether to live or die when he has no control over it at all. It depends on how his trial turns out. But Paul still wants to discuss the issue of life and death both for the Philippians and for himself.
Paul knew the Philippians needed to face the question of death so that they would not lose faith if Paul were executed. He assures them that to die is gain because to die is to be with Christ. Paul is doing his best to prepare his congregations for the inevitable. He was released this time in Ephesüs. But on his next missionary journey he is imprisoned in Rome where he eventually dies .
As I sit with families who have loved ones just rushed to the hospital or in the intensive care unit, we try to prepare ourselves for the possibility of death. I think of the families of Jim Howe, Sandy Petersen, Kathy Czapor, and Patricia Roff more recently, the time we spent together in waiting rooms and hospital rooms preparing for death.
At those times silence was the easiest and maybe the most meaningful. But also, there needs to be a word of hope. And it is that word of hope that Paul gives us this morning as he faces the possibility of his own death. To live is Christ and to die is gain.
It is a difficult word for us to accept because we are losing a person dear to us, a part of us. And yet, deep down, we know it’s true. The suffering is over. To die is gain.
But Paul does not write these words just for the sake of the Philippians. He writes these words for himself and the tension he is feeling inside. He needs to get that tension out and put it into words. It’s hard. It’s hard to face your own death and to talk about it. It’s a little easier when we have the kind of faith Paul has in knowing in death he will be with Christ.
But for Paul, this time it will be life. He says, “If it is to be life in the flesh that means fruitful labor for me. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.”
To live would mean hard work for Paul, responsibility for his churches, and more suffering and imprisonments. Faith and ministry did not mean power, glory, wealth, and health for Paul. A strong Christian faith meant just the opposite. Suffering, self-sacrifice, and hard work were necessary for the church to progress and grow.
I want to end with an interview with a modern-day Paul that was in National Geographic. I think you will find this man’s words very similar to this morning’s text from Philippians.
Chief Corbett Sundown is the keeper of the Seneca Indian Confederacy’s “spiritual fire” at Tonawanda on the New York and Canadian border. Chief Sundown is a frail but still feisty man in his 70’s, and he is retired from most duties since three rapid-fire heart attacks.
He says, “We have a saying that when you die, you are going to eat strawberries – because strawberries line the road to heaven. Well, I almost ate’m. I wouldn’t have minded – I’m ready to go – but I’m glad to still be here. There is always something more to do for your people”.
“You know, you white guys come down here and you don’t see anything. Then you write your articles about how poor we are. Well, let me tell, we’re not poor. We’re rich people without any money, that’s all. You say we ought to set up industries and factories. Well, we just don’t want them. How are you going to grow potatoes and sweet corn on concrete? You call that progress. To me ‘progress’ is a dirty word”.
“I’ve got a warning for you. You can’t go on destroying and poisoning everything. Our prophecies say there’ll be signs of the end of the world. We won’t be able to drink the water, trees will burn, land will flood, and disease will kill. Now it’s all happening – only you call it water pollution, forest fires, hurricanes, and Covid”.
“Well, the creators mad. He’s going to send a great wind – more terrible than any atom bomb. We’ve had some visions about it recently, and we’re burning tobacco, so it won’t happen. But you guys better come to your senses. Then maybe the creator won’t send that wind. Otherwise – and you write this in your article – we’ll all be eating strawberries together”. – strawberry fields forever.
To live is Christ and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh for us, let it mean fruitful labor for us. We will have plenty of time later on for strawberries. Let us come to know and to live in our lives today the grace and the peace of God and let us use that grace and peace to slow down the coming of the great wind until we are ready for strawberries fields forever.