We entered Advent last Sunday with the choir leading us through the Christmas story in narrative and song. They did us a favor by connecting the biblical story with our contemporary story. They reminded us that the Holy Family ended up as refugees, guided by angels to safety. With that broader story in mind, both ancient and modern, we hear the Advent invitation to prepare ourselves for the Advent that took place some two thousand years in the past and the Advent that is yet to come.
The path we are taking will lead to that moment on Christmas Eve when we will hear the message that Jesus is the reflection of God’s glory, and the one who sustains all things by his word (Heb. 1:1-4
). Hearing that message we can join the angels in singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo
”; “Glory to God in the highest.”
Christmas Eve will come soon enough, but there is still more to do before we get there. Last Sunday, we lit the candle of hope, and today we lit the Peace candle. We lit it in the hope that peace will come to all of creation. While the candle speaks of peace, that word doesn’t appear in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. While that is true, it doesn’t mean peace isn’t present, it just means that we have look deeper into the words of our reading to find it. Perhaps we find it in Paul’s prayer that love will overflow with knowledge and insight, so that the reader, both ancient and modern might “determine what is best so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.”
These words from Paul’s letter offer us a path that leads to a “harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” Standing at the heart of this pathway is a recognition of the importance of friendship. Yes, Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a reflection of a deep and abiding friendship between himself and the Philippian church. We can see in these opening words the depth of this friendship, and how it sustained Paul as he sat in prison. Yes, Paul found peace while sitting in a jail because of this friendship, this relationship, with this congregation. They weren’t mere acquaintances. They were committed to each other. That is a word worth hearing as we move through Advent toward Christmas.
There is something different about this letter. Even though Paul writes from prison, with a few problems to deal with in the Philippian church, there is a different spirit here than in the Corinthian or Galatian letters. As I pondered the passage, with some help from my commentaries, I realized that the message that was emerging had to do with the importance of deep friendships.
The very first words we hear from Paul in this reading are: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” I don’t remember Paul writing words like that to the Corinthian or Galatian churches, but he did write these words to the Philippian church. This letter is marked by joy and hope and love. Paul speaks here of “love overflowing.” Then, in verse 7, Paul tells his readers “I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel” (Phil. 1:7
“I keep you in my heart.” In other words, there is mutual love and affection between Paul and this congregation that sustains him even as he endures imprisonment. It is, as Theodore Wardlaw suggests, a “personal, handwritten letter, that is laced with love.” [Connections,
p. 25]. And, as Cynthia Campbell notes, “this letter is not abstract theology. Its purpose is not primarily instructive. This is a letter that shows what Christian friendship looks like and how deeply joyful it is” [Connections,
This wasn’t the first word I heard when I read the passage. I was looking for something else, something that spoke of Advent and preparation for receiving the good news that Jesus is coming. But then as I read these commentators, I saw something else present. This is, after all, a letter filled with joy, which is the explicit theme of the fourth chapter of Philippians, which we’ll look at next Sunday. Then we’ll hear the invitation to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4
I know this is a busy season. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by everything. While there may be much to do to get ready for Christmas, it’s good to stop and ponder Paul’s words about what it means to be a true and loyal friend.
So, take a moment and think about your friendships. Think about the people who have sustained you in the course of life. These may be recent friendships or they may go back to your childhood. These are the relationships you treasure, the people who have been with you through thick and thin. They stand with you even when you’re not in complete agreement with each other about things. You know— things like religion and politics. Just maybe these are the people whom you are willing to entrust your lives.
As I thought about my friendships, a number of people came to mind. Some of these friends I’ve known for decades, people like my family’s neighbors in Mount Shasta—the Gray family. Two summers back, Cheryl and I stopped to have lunch with Don, Mary, and Doug, along with their spouses. Although it’s been a while since we’ve been together, it was like a family reunion. I’ve known the Grays almost my entire life, so as we shared stories from long ago, when I was a young child, I was filled with joy. I could go on and name other friendships that developed in high school, college, seminary, and beyond, people I keep in my heart because of what we’ve shared over the course of our lives, but this will suffice for now.
With friendship on my mind, I found myself listening to George W. Bush offer his eulogy for his father. I was driving to the church for Bible Study, and I heard him speak of friendship—deep, loyal friendships. Since I didn’t hear the whole eulogy, I went back later in the day and watched it on the internet. I also read along with the transcript. These words that a son spoke of his father stood out:
“George Bush knew how to be a true and loyal friend. He nurtured and honored many—his many friendships with a generous giving soul.”
Then he said of his father:
“Many a person would tell you that Dad became a mentor and a father figure in their life. He listened and he consoled. He was their friend.”
Near the end of the eulogy, the son quoted from his father’s inaugural address, offering words that I think we would do well to heed:
“What do we want the men and women who work with us to say when we are no longer there? That we were more driven to succeed than anyone around us, or that we stopped to ask if a sick child had gotten better, and stayed a moment, there, to trade a word of friendship.”
I think Paul was a bit driven. We can see that in the way he went about his work, but here in this letter we see a different side of Paul. What we see in this letter is the caring, compassionate side of a man who was at the moment sitting in jail. He had every reason to be unhappy, angry, bitter, but he writes a letter filled with joy and love overflowing. In large part, he could do this because of this relationship that sustained him.
Are these not words we need to hear and heed at this moment in time? Even as we prepare to welcome Christ again into our lives, we hear words of anger and bitterness and hate all around us. They seem to have taken root in our souls, but Paul invites us to take a different path, and let love overflow so that we might know what is good and right and best.
When love overflows, empowering enduring friendships, then perhaps we can live into the message of the peace candle, which we lit this morning. In the words of “One Candle Is Lit,” we can sing:
Come quickly shalom, teach us how to prepare
for a gift that compels us with justice to care.
Our Spirits are restless till sin and war cease.
The candle is lit for the reign of God’s peace.
[Mary Anne Parrott, Chalice Hymnal #128]
Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
December 9, 2018