“Encourage Like Paul!” – August 2, 2020
Philippians 1:3-11 (1:3-6)
Do you remember a time when someone encouraged you? I mean, when you were feeling downhearted or down in the dumps, and a friend or relative gave you a real, sincere word of encouragement? I am afraid to say that my words of encouragement often do not measure up when compared to this encouraging letter Paul wrote to his Philippian friends. Paul really meant what he said in this letter to Philippi – every word!
We are starting a sermon series on the letter to the church in Philippi this week. This letter is one of the most heartwarming and personal letters written in the New Testament. Philippians is one of my favorite Bible books, too.
Just to remind us all, the apostle Paul traveled around for years. As an itinerant preacher and missionary, he was often on the move. Although, Paul did settle down from time to time, and stay in particular towns for a number of months. Like, right here, in Philippi.
` I know today we might be encouraged by a family member over the telephone, or by a co-worker in a Zoom meeting, or by a friend through email or Instagram. But in the apostle Paul’s day, there were only two choices: either face to face, in a personal encounter, or in written form. Paul was far away from his friends and former parishioners, so he used a letter.
Paul’s affection and care for his Philippian friends went much deeper than a nodding acquaintance, such as we might see in casual, continued encounters like in line at a grocery store, walking in the neighborhood, or in a polite exchange at the office.
Let’s look at exactly what Paul said here. This was a thank-you letter for a financial gift sent by the Philippian church. Since Paul was in prison, he was doubly thankful for the gift! I suspect it provided for his food, clothing and other needs while he was locked up. Let me remind people that if a prisoner’s friends or relatives did not supply these necessities, the prisoner was sadly out of luck. The prison did not supply anything. At least, not for free.
So, you and I might think this was a sad time and puzzling situation for Paul to have positive words to say about anything – much less to send such a positive, uplifting letter to his faraway friends in thanks for their financial gift.
Paul is fairly bubbling over with gratitude and thankfulness as he begins this letter. I wanted us to especially notice the 3rd verse. Paul thanks God every time he remembers his friends in Philippi. Do you have friends you can say that about? Do you or I have even one or two friends who are so special to us that we remember them to God with such warmth and excitement? What a marvelous thing to say about a friend. A good friend. Even, a best friend.
Verse 4 tells us that Paul always – always prays with joy when he prays for these special friends from Philippi. This is the first of many times Paul uses to word “joy” in this letter. He uses either the noun “joy” or the verb “rejoice” fourteen times! When I first took the course Bible Study Methods decades ago in bible college, we were told that if a passage or a book of the Bible repeated something, there was a really good reason for it. I believe, and commentators and Bible scholars agree, the apostle Paul means joy to be an overarching theme in this letter.
And, verse 5 tells what fills Paul with such joy: the Philippians not only were supporting Paul in prayer, but they also supported him in the partnership of the Gospel. They shared the Good News of Christ, too! That really filled the apostle Paul with joy.
How do you feel when you are especially encouraged and affirmed? What if that someone who encourages you is someone very special? Someone who means a whole lot to you? Doesn’t that make that encouragement and appreciation even more meaningful?
Let’s imagine. Close your eyes, if that helps you imagine. You and I are among this group of believers in Philippi, and we have just received this letter from our Pastor Paul in prison. Let’s listen again to these three verses: “3 I thank my God for you every time I think of you; 4 and every time I pray for you all, I pray with joy 5 because of the way in which you have helped me in the work of the gospel from the very first day until now.”
Paul is thankful for the money his friends sent. But, I hear these words saying how incredibly thankful and grateful Paul is for the caring and love of these people, friends from far away. Have you ever been encouraged and affirmed, with these amazing words?
I am reminded of when I taught piano lessons, some years ago, before I started seminary and several years into it. I taught for about ten years. I remember one student in particular. Her parents were going through a nasty divorce that lasted for many months. I taught this girl for a whole year. Her mother wanted her to continue with lessons until the end of the school year, as a stabilizing factor, because she saw how encouraging I was to her daughter in each lesson. And, I really tried to be a caring encourager for a troubled time in this girl’s life.
We all have had teachers, coaches or mentors in our past. Who has taught you about the Christian faith? Who has mentored you along the way, and encouraged you to become a more faithful believer? Do you have an apostle Paul in your life? Or, perhaps an encouraging and faithful Barnabas, one of Paul’s companions? Or, maybe an excited and eager John Mark, another companion of Paul? 
Whatever kind of teacher, coach or mentor in faith you have had, praise God for this beloved person. Thank the Lord for the impact this dear one has made on your life, and on mine. And, perhaps you can be that person who has a lasting impact on someone else. Please God, may it be today!
“A Letter from a Mentor,” Larry Broding’s Word-Sunday.Com: A Catholic Resource for This Sunday’s Gospel. Adult Study, Children’s Story, Family Activity, Support Materials.