Being confident of this very thing, that He who hath begun a good
work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. (Phil. i. 6)
In the lections appointed for this morning’s service, we are presented with an excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Philippi is in modern-day Macedonia, north of Greece and east of Italy. The church in Philippi was the first to be established on European soil, with which Paul maintained very good relations throughout his missionary career. The passage that we read is upbeat, which is curious for those who know when and under what circumstances it was written.
Tradition tells us that this letter was written at the end of Paul’s life, when he was imprisoned in Rome, awaiting trial during the reign of the notorious Emperor Nero. Paul was under house arrest and wrote a letter full of hope, thanksgiving, and love. Paul is consumed with Jesus Christ, whom he receives continually through the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. Paul is determined to pass on the presence of Christ Jesus to his followers, with the minor distraction of his imminent execution!
No matter: St. Paul is uplifted by his church plant at Philippi. He is filled with thanksgiving for Lydia, the maker of purple, and Christ’s first European convert. Lydia haled from Thyatira but had relocated to Philippi for business purposes. Thyatira was famous for having been a chief center in the Roman Empire for the indigo trade. Indigo is the plant that provides purple ink for coloring clothing and paint for all artisans. The color produced from indigo was costly and thus became the symbol of kingly power and prestige in the Ancient World. Archeologists have found remnants of inscriptions telling us of the Dyers’ Guilds of Thyatira. Lydia was, to our knowledge, wealthy from her trade in indigo. She first met St. Paul on his Second Missionary Journey to convert the Gentiles. St. Luke tells us in his Acts of the Apostles that when he, St. Paul, and their company of fellow Evangelists arrived in Philippi:
…On the sabbath we went out of the city by a riverside, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither. And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul. And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us. (Acts xvi. 13-16)
Lydia constrained the Apostles, and we believe that the itinerant Evangelists were more than slightly embarrassed that a woman of such means and nobility would invite them to lodge in her lordly Roman manor. That Lydia was a worshipper of God means that she was probably a Righteous Gentile. Lydia is a Greek name meaning noble one. So, they took up her offer and began to establish the Church at Philippi in her opulent home. This was perhaps the first Church-House outside of Jerusalem. Lydiawas ready and willing to receive Jesus as the Messiah, was baptized with her whole house, and the rest is history. The Church of Lydia’s House went on not only to expand and grow, but it also opened its collective heart and coffers to Paul when he was preaching in Thessalonica and when he was imprisoned at Rome. St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians is a letter of hope, love, and thanksgiving for the Church at Philippi in Lydia’s home.
Still, we are astounded at St. Paul’s spiritual centeredness with a ball and chain around his ankle, awaiting his impending execution at the hands of the Romans. His love of God with a grateful heart is truly a powerful treasure. His spiritual riches consist of zeal, courage, faith, hope, and love. Paul is under house arrest, and his trusted friend St. Timothy is by his side. Addressing the Philippians, he writes, I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you, making my prayer with all joy. (Idem, 3) St. Paul’s letter reflects a life of conversion, sanctification, and salvation and his treasure is given to others. He thanks God, because God had shared his faith, hope, and love with those who opened their hearts and souls to the reality of God with us, Jesus Christ. He thanks God because his new family is an extension of his own redeemed life. He is filled with all joy because his brethren at Philippi continue to tradition or hand over the faith once delivered to the Saints, (Jude i. 3) even as he suffers unjustly at the hands of Nero. He reminds them that God has begun the good work of his Holy Spirit in them. He encourages them to cultivate the good work begun in them, the new life as the riches of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. The work that God has begun at Philippi, Paul insists, will be perfected, and brought to completion if his friends remain faithful to the Lord Jesus and hope in His promises. St. Paul is overcoming Lydia’s earthly wealth with God’s spiritual treasure.
St. Paul then introduces a concept that invites his friends to take on his burden. Paul, in his suffering, takes in with joy the presence of Jesus Christ in the church at Philippi. He says, I have you in my heart; inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, ye are all partakers of Grace. For God is my witness how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. (Phil. i. 7) Paul asks his friends to take on the burden of his love, which conquers all suffering.In other words, he asks those who are not facing imminent death to identify with his struggle, to hold him up in prayer, to put his weakness into their hearts, that their faith might give him grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews iv. 16) Paul insists that burden-bearing strengthens the faith of those who bear it and the one who suffers. Burden-bearing will become the norm for Christian in centuries to come, as those whose faith is perfected in the unjust suffering of others.
St. Paul imitates his Master and Lord. Jesus Christ hangs on the Cross at Calvary and holds his friends and even His enemies in the center of His heart. Jesus takes on the burdens of sin, suffering, and death, with no just cause in earthly terms. He takes on the joy and sadness, weaknesses, and strengths of those who trust in Him. He says Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you…my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Though painful and hard, Christ takes on the burden as His joy, His honor, and His privilege for us. Christ Jesus has taken on the burden of all mankind. The Lord takes on St. Paul’s weakness and fear. In turn, St. Paul takes on the burdens of others. Against his suffering, in Christ, he invites the Church at Philippi, rich in earthly things, to discover spiritual treasure. Hold me in your hearts; pray for me; ask the Lord to strengthen and help me. St. Paul asks his flocks to lift him up in prayer.
Burden-bearing is possible only because men realize that Christ has first born our burden of all sin. From the Cross He holds men in His heart, He forgives them their sins, and invites them onto the road that leads to salvation. Jesus Christ is the Forgiveness of Sins made flesh. He brings our sin to death. He rises from death and is ready to come alive in as many as will receive Him. Because St. Paul has been forgiven much, he can pass on Jesus Christ to others. Once, he persecuted the Church. Now he will give his life for it. St. Paul reckons himself to be dead indeed unto sin but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. vi. 11) Now, he prays for the salvation of his sheep at Philippi because, though in bonds, he has them in his heart. (Idem)
In today’s Gospel, we read of the forgiveness of sins and our need to forgive always. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 St. John i. 8, 9) If we repent us of our sins and forgive all others, our Heavenly Father will forgive us. St. Paul embraces the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ, in a dramatic volte face or reversal of attitude that converted and saved him from his journey into Hell. The forgiveness of sins, Jesus Christ, is now resurrected in Paul; he extends it to his oppressors with mercy, compassion, and long-suffering. In today’s Gospel, Peter asks Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. (St. Matthew xviii, 21) In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Portia has this to say about mercy and forgiveness.
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
(The Merchant of Venice, Act-IV, Scene-I, Lines 173-195)
God’s mercy and love are made flesh as the Forgiveness of Sins in Jesus Christ. It blesses those who give it and those who receive it. It is of God’s nature to give it for as long as anyone lives. It falls from God’s heart as naturally as the gentle rains fall from the skies. It falls into humble and lowly hearts which will receive it, emptied of pride and vanity, resentment, envy, and fear. It blessed St. Paul. His flock at Philippi returns it to his oppressors in joyful hope from grateful hearts for his ministry. Its quality overcomes all attempts by vengeful unbelievers to kill Christ’s Apostles.
Today, we ask God to help us receive His forgiveness. We pray that the forgiveness of sins might be resurrected in us as it was in Lydia and the Philippian Church. We long to embrace the new life in Jesus Christ. As Charles Williams reminds us,
The new knowledge [in Jesus Christ] is to lose all recollection of past sin; it will be remembered neither in Heaven nor on earth; the Kingdom of the Lord is free from it. The new knowledge…is to be instinctive and natural, a lovely habit, a practice of joy…it is to be in the flesh of man and in his heart.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: