Imagine with me: two friends meet on the street in the ancient city of Philippi. One says to the other, “Have you heard from Epaphroditus?”
“Not since we heard that he was on his way with the love gift to visit Paul in prison.”
“Have you heard anything from Paul?”
“No, other than he is in prison awaiting trial at any time. If he is found guilty he could be executed immediately. He could be dead even as we speak.”
“It’s hard to believe that our beloved Pastor could be dead. It seems like only yesterday that Paul and Silas visited our city for the first time. They went to the edge of the water searching for those to join in prayer and found the women. Lydia and her household were Paul’s first converts.”
As the two were talking another approaches and asks, “Have you heard that Epaphroditus has returned? Paul is well. Epaphroditus has another letter from Paul that will be read in our worship on the Lord’s day.” They dismissed saying, “I’ll be there!” “So will I!” “And so will I!”
In worship we seek to translate the experience of the biblical text to the needs of today’s worshipper. In doing so we try to recreate the experience to which the Scripture bears witness. Paul, the founding pastor of the church, had written to them a personal letter. He had sent to them several letters which were read aloud to the congregation as they assembled in someone’s home to worship.
As we try to recreate that experience, we begin by asking who was there to hear the first reading of the letter. Syzygus was there, the person to whom the letter was written. Euodia, Syntyche and Clement were there. Euodia and Syntyche had been in disagreement and Paul wanted them to get their problem solved. Paul calls all three fellow workers in Christ. These three faithful servants are about to hear the final words of their former pastor. Then, of course, there is Lydia. No doubt, Lydia is there with her family. They are about to hear the final words from the man that led them to Christ.
I would like to think that the jailer was there. You remember the story of the jailer. Paul and Silas were thrown into prison, beaten and tortured because they freed a slave girl from demon possession. At midnight they were singing hymns and praising God when God caused an earthquake to shake the jail. The doors were thrown open. The jailer, thinking that the prisoners had escaped and realizing he would inherit their sentence, started to take his own life. Paul called out, “Do not harm yourself. We are still here!”
The jailer rushed in to where Paul and Silas were and he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The jailer and his entire family were won to a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I cannot help but think that the jailer and his family were gathered to hear the final words from the man who was responsible for saving his life not once but twice — physically and spiritually.
Can you put yourself there? Take a seat right now in that home and hear Paul’s final words to his favorite church:
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God.” (NIV)
What would it have felt like to have been there? What would it have felt like to have heard the words that God gave to Paul to give to you? What would it have felt like to know that Paul was praying for you? Here is a man awaiting trial and — if found guilty — could be executed at any moment. Here is a man about to die and he is praying for you! “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” (NIV)
Prayer is most appropriate as one nears death, but Paul is not praying for himself. Jesus took care of that on the road to Damascus. No, Paul is not praying for himself. He is praying for you!
I still have in my possession, and I read it again this morning, the last words I received from my paternal grandfather. They were written on a postcard in shaky script right before his death. His last words were a prayer. He wrote, “I pray that it will be God’s will for me to hear you preach God’s Word. May God bless you. Love, Grandpa.” Those words changed my life.
Here is the great pastor Paul’s last prayer — that you grow and grow in Christ’s love.
Everett Alvarez, Jr. was the first American pilot shot down over North Vietnam. He spent nine years as a prisoner of war. His attitude, spirit and behavior became a model for all other prisoners. Upon his release, speaking for all of the prisoners, he said, “We knew the right to be who you want to be and the right to be what you want to be were what we were fighting for.” Paul is saying the God-given right to be all you want to be and the God-given right to be all God has created you to be is his prayer. He reminds us that we are in process and that God continues to work in our lives each day so that we may abound more and more in Christ’s love.
What would it have been like to hear Paul’s last words assuring you that what Christ has created in you, He will accomplish? What Christ has begun in you, He will finish? What Christ has started in you, He will sustain? Look at
This past week I listened to the tape of your former pastor, Don Harbuck, as he preached his last sermon to this great church. Knowing he was dying of cancer, he entitled his final sermon “Why Be a Christian?” It was a wonderful sermon. In his sickness he labored, but through that laborious effort came forth a heart of love and compassion of a pastor preaching for the very last time to his beloved congregation. He talked about why be a Christian; about how to become a Christian; and about why not become a Christian now? A simple sermon; the basic elements of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. This great intellect and marvelous spirit of a man came to his church with his last words, offering the very basics that had started him on his journey with Christ.
These are the same basics that God has begun in you — repentance, trust and faith. These are the same basics that will sustain you through anything life throws at you and will take you into the world beyond to a home in Heaven to an eternity with God. Yes, what God has started, He will sustain; what God has begun, He will finish. We can be assured of that.
What would it have felt like to have been there and heard Paul’s words? What would it have felt like to have heard Paul say, “Every time I think of you, I thank my God.” In
Mark Twain once contracted to write articles for $5.00 a word — an astronomical sum in those days. He was asked by an interviewer what was the most significant word. His answer was simple. He said the most significant word is “thanks.”
We have so much to be thankful for: God’s grace that has been extended to us and role models that have helped us to see it. Every time I think of the role models in my life my heart smiles and I thank God for their presence in my life. Our role models may have been a parent, a Sunday School teacher or a school teacher, an aunt or uncle or a grandparent or it might have been a fellow Christian in the church. As you are recalling them now your heart beats a little faster and you want to smile and say, “Every time I think of you, I thank my God.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day little Benji or Hannah or Mary Margaret or Mary Catherine — children this church has dedicated — came up to you and said, “Every time I think of you, I thank my God.”
We have much for which to be thankful. Let’s be the kind of faithful friends and role models for which others will be thankful, too!