A Big Hello from Prison

Philippians 1:1-2

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a variety of research raised awareness of a dramatic rise in anxiety in the U.S., which was only heightened by the national COVID ordeal. This problem manifests an especially strong presence among teens and young adults as well as an abnormal presence among children.

Pollsters, psychologists, and pundits offer a variety of possible reasons for this phenomenon. What is especially remarkable is that this spike in anxiety comes at a time when we enjoy a relatively stable economy, safe communities, and lengthening lifespans. Shouldn’t these social and scientific achievements bring less anxiety not more?

What is anxiety? It is a whole-person response to stressful information and experiences, whether real or imagined. It manifests itself through fearful emotions, apprehensive thoughts, and sensations of pain and duress. Do you experience anxiety?

Lindsay Holmes, of the Huffington Post, offers some humorous but all-to-real examples of how and when we experience anxiety:

  • When your boss wants to see you in the office … the walk to the office is a long and hard one filled with painful thoughts like “did I something wrong, is everything okay, and what if I’m fired?”
  • You overthink everything, feeling genuine sadness for the difficult life of an ant to internalizing and worrying about all the problems in the world when you go to bed.
  • When a friend schedules a phone call for 4 p.m., the phone doesn’t ring at 4 p.m., and you break an increasing sweat as the minutes pass by.
  • You wonder and worry all day if you locked your apartment door at home, being haunted by that question throughout the day.
  • You check to be sure your phone is in your pocket before you get into the car, after you get into the car (twice), and after you arrive at your destination – wonder each time if you actually still have it.
  • You’re extremely indecisive and can’t even answer the question of how you’re doing with anything but IDK.
  • You compulsively read the news even though it only makes you ask why even louder.
  • You’re paranoid and excessively cautions about the smallest of things.
  • You catch yourself not worrying about anything and wonder if you’ve forgotten something!

Steve Barry, a contributor to Healthline, describes anxiety in these ways. It’s like:

  • “A knife stabbing you in the chest with each breath you take.”
  • “A rain cloud of negative speak following your every move.”
  • “An imposter hijacking your normal self.”
  • “An explosion in your brain, sending your thoughts spiraling out of control.”

If you can identify with these portrayals, you are no unusual. Yet as followers of Christ, we have an alternative experience that God makes available to us as we navigate the challenges and traumas of life. That alternative is called ‘joy.’ Joy is a calm, confident, and contented enthusiasm that comes from a life centered on Christ.

As a beloved children’s songs says: “With Christ as my captain, I can smile at the storm, smile at the storm, smile at the storm. With Christ as my captain, I can smile at the storm, as we go sailing on.” Does this describe your mindset and outlook in life? No matter what difficulties blow your way, do you remain calm, happy, optimistic, and steady? That’s joy.

Paul wrote this letter called ‘Philippians’ to help a church, which was facing painful internal and external challenges, to move from anxiety to joy. Throughout this letter, we will notice two recurring emphases and themes. These are first and foremost a focus on Christ, and secondarily a focus on community, teamwork, and togetherness as a church family.

Both themes weave throughout this letter like threads running through a piece of fine fabric, so they will receive repeated attention and emphasis throughout this entire sermon series, beginning here. Notice, for instance, how Paul adjusts the normal, usual opening greeting for a first-century letter to highlight these two emphases:

  • He emphasizes Christ by mentioning him three times in this greeting, at the beginning, middle, and end.
  • He emphasizes church community and togetherness by pairing himself with Timothy as a team, addressing all the members of the church not just some, pairing pastors with deacons as a team, insisting on close cooperation between the pastors and deacons and everyone else in the church, by pairing the Father and Son together as a team, and also by expressing how the Father and Son cooperate with us by providing us with grace and peace.

Together, these two priorities and values – a focus on Christ and a commitment to Christian togetherness in the church – provide a firm foundation for experiencing abundant, consistent joy, whereas the absence of these two values in our lives will contribute to an increased level of anxiety.

Consider, for instance, how just this past Tuesday the U.S. Surgeon General declared an official loneliness epidemic, saying that loneliness and isolation can be just as deadly as smoking. So, while loneliness and isolation tend to increase anxiety, Christian togetherness tends to encourage and increase greater joy.

Together, let’s see how Paul’s opening greeting to this letter introduces us to the importance of togetherness if we are going to experience a life of consistent, Christ-centered joy.

Personal collaboration increases joy.
Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ

Paul was a highly educated, politically powerful Jewish man who had intensively persecuted people who followed Christ, having ordered the first execution of a Christian, named Stephen, and pursuing similar treatment of believers in Jerusalem and beyond. After his surprising conversion to Christ, he immersed himself intensively in Christ’s teachings. Then he travelled thousands of miles (many by foot) on multiple trips westward into Turkey, Greece, and mainland Europe, planting new churches and establishing the members of those churches in the teachings of Christ.

Here is how he described his experience of serving Christ in 2 Cor 11:23-28 (NIV):

“I have … been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.

As he wrote this letter ‘Philippians,’ he was sitting in a prison cell in Rome, the capital city of the Roman empire, under the jurisdiction at that time of the deranged, Christian-hating Emperor Nero awaiting possible execution. When you compare your life experiences to these of Paul, who has a more legitimate case for succumbing to anxiety?

Timothy was a close ministry partner with Paul. As a young boy he grew up in a split home, with a non-believing, non-Jewish father and a Jewish mother. It also seems that father died early in Timothy’s life.

On Paul’s first missionary journeys, he met Timothy for the first time, probably while he recovered from being stoned nearly to death for presenting the gospel in Timothy’s hometown. When Paul returned to that town a few years later, Timothy had grown into a responsible young man, and Paul received permission from Timothy’s mother to add him to his ministry team.

For decades afterwards, Paul treated Timothy as his son in the faith – befriending, mentoring, and training him to serve Christ. As time went along, Paul entrusted greater ministry responsibilities to Timothy. In this case, it appears that Timothy had visited Paul in prison and was someone upon whom Paul could closely rely. More will be said about the importance of the relationship between these two men later in this letter.

Needless to say, Paul found great joy in his discipleship relationship with Timothy:

“Greatly desiring to see you, being mindful of your tears, that I may be filled with joy.” (2 Tim 1:4)

This reminds me of how the Apostle John described the joy he experienced from hearing that his own spiritual children – people he had helped to follow Christ – were doing well:

“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” (3 John 1:4)

So, to open this letter, Paul offers his own teamwork and togetherness with Timothy as an example to follow and a source of true joy. I say this not only because he will return to this relationship more in depth later on (Phil 2:19-24), but because he altered the standard format for opening a letter at that time. It was not customary to list more than one letter writer to open a letter, but Paul deliberately altered that custom to include Timothy here.

Who is your Timothy? Who is your Paul? Having someone who is mentoring you in your walk with Christ while also being sure that you are mentoring and training someone else to follow Christ is a constant and sure source of joy in any trial. If you do not have either of these relationships, then prayerfully ask God to provide such relationships for you. This sort of Paul and Timothy relationship is a key to experiencing joy.

Also notice how Paul describes himself and Timothy. He does not use honorific titles such as apostle or elder to gain respect, nor does he use affectionate terms like father or friend to gain appreciation. He doesn’t refer to his relationship with the recipients of this letter at all. He refers instead to another relationship he shared with them, a close relationship with Christ as God and Savior. And he referred to this relationship in a surprising way – as being bondservants or slaves of Christ.

By identifying himself this way, Paul did not envision Christ as an abusive, cruel slave master and himself as a poorly treated, overworked slave. He envisioned himself as one who was completely indebted to serve Christ and he was envisioning Christ as a kind, caring, and benevolent master who cared for him so well that it would be inconceivable and miserable to be a free man and not serve Christ.

There is greater joy and freedom in choosing and serving Christ as our master than in choosing and serving yourself as master. A self-serving, self-oriented, self-centered lifestyle only increases anxiety, while a Christ-serving, Christ-oriented, Christ-centered lifestyle increases joy.

Oswald Smith, in the mid-1900s, wrote a simple but insightful song which says:

There is joy in serving Jesus,
As I journey on my way,
Joy that fills the heart with praises,
Ev’ry hour and ev’ry day.
There is joy, joy,
Joy in serving Jesus,
Joy that throbs within my heart;
Ev’ry moment, ev’ry hour,
As I draw upon His pow’r
There is joy, joy,
Joy that never shall depart.

There is joy in serving Jesus, though Satan would have us think otherwise. One of the reasons why we experience so much anxiety in life and so little joy as followers of Christ may simply be that while we attend Sunday morning worship service and some other church events on occasion, we aren’t very engaged in actually serving Jesus. We’re glad for Jesus to serve us but we don’t naturally pursue serving him with equal gladness. May God enable us to discover the joy of serving Christ in close collaboration with others.

Church cooperation increases joy.
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons,

Having identified who is writing the letter, Paul now identifies the recipients – the people to whom he wrote. First, he spoke to the church at Philippi, a Greek city just off the coast of the northern Aegean Sea. It was the first European city west of Turkey that Paul had traveled to and you can find the backstory or origin story of this church in Acts 16:11-40.

On that particular missionary journey, Timothy had traveled with Paul as part of the team, along with Luke and Silas. During their visit to Philippi, Paul and Silas were severely beaten and imprisoned over opposition to their teaching about Christ. While their feet were elevated in the stocks and their backs were freshly wounded from their beatings, here’s what they did:

“But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” (Acts 16:25)

Is this how you would have behaved that night? This sounds like how I described ‘joy’ earlier in this sermon: “a calm, confident, and contented enthusiasm that comes from a life that’s centered on Christ.”

As a result of this joyful response in the midst of suffering, Paul and Silas impacted the prison guard and his family so profoundly that the entire family put their faith in Christ. It is also very likely that this family was still in the church at Philippi as Paul wrote this letter. So, the church at Philippi began in a city that was antagonistic to the gospel and it began with an instance of serious persecution and serious joy.

To this church Paul wrote this letter because they were continuing to live out their faith in this difficult city. The pressures of doing so were wearing them down, causing them to lose joy, fade in their focus on Christ, and even complain against or mistreat one another.

Paul wrote to “all” the members of this church, not just some. He wanted them all to hear his message and renew their focus on Christ and commitment to one another. He also wanted to remind them that it is not only collaboration in a small group of believers (like Paul and Timothy) that brings joy, but joy increases even more when we are committed to close cooperation with our entire church family. Every member of a church is crucial to serving Christ and when any member withdraws, isolates themselves, or marginalizes their commitment to and involvement in their church family, that person’s potential for and experience of true joy diminishes and anxiety increases.

In addition, Paul calls all the members of the church “saints.” This description means “holy people” and emphasizes that as believers and followers of Christ, we belong to God. This means that we must no longer speak of living my life or my best life, but of living my life as his life – living in Christ and for Christ. We must no longer live for our own enjoyment and satisfaction but for his. Rather than speaking of inviting Christ into our life, he invites us into his.

As saints we are also consecrated by God, specifically and specially called and commissioned to serve him. So, we not only have a special position before God, but we have a special purpose from God, as well. True joy only comes as we devote ourselves to carrying out and fulfilling that purpose together – the purpose of helping people take their next steps in following Christ.

Next, within the full congregation of “all” the members, Paul specifically mentions “with the bishops and deacons.”

  • Bishop means “overseer” or “administrator.” It refers to the same role that the words pastors and elders refer to elsewhere in the NT. These are the men that Christ calls to provide spiritual care and leadership for the church.
  • Deacon means “servant” and refers to a second and different role. This role focuses on meeting the practical, material, and financial needs of the church so that the elders/pastors can focus more effectively on the spiritual needs of the church.

By specifically mentioning these two roles in the church, Paul recognizes that there were multiple pastors and deacons in the church at Philippi. He also recognizes that it is important for “all” the members of a church to cooperate “with” the spiritual leaders and caretakers of the church, the pastors and deacons.

With is a word of togetherness. It means “together with” and speaks of closeness, cooperation, shared involvement, partnership, and teamwork. Together, all the members of a church should work together with the pastors and deacons to worship God, meet one another’s needs, and help people take their next steps in following Christ.

When pastors and deacons cannot work together harmoniously, the potential for joy diminishes. And when churches cannot work together harmoniously with their pastors and deacons, the potential for joy diminishes and anxiety rises. That’s why we must guard against a spirit of competition, divisiveness, independence, suspicion, and self-will and should passionately pursue a spirit of sweet, humble, trusting togetherness.

A church family is like the crew of a racing rowboat. An octuple scull for instance is a team of eight rowers, each with two oars, and a ninth person called the coxswain, who sits at the front of the boat and provides guidance and instructions. To compete and win in a regatta, which is a rowing boat race, each crew member must participate to their maximum potential in perfect harmony and sync with the others. One oarsman out of sync or missing entirely will lead to great anxiety for all, while each oarsmen doing their part in harmony with the rest will lead to great joy.

When all the members of a church are equally committed to the church family through worship, support, involvement, and service – and when they do this in harmony with the pastors and deacons, there is greater joy for all as we experience the challenges of life together for the gospel.

Having recognized Paul’s early acknowledgement now of the value of ministry collaboration in small groups and the value of cooperating together as an entire church family, we must also and finally notice his acknowledgement of one more key partnership we must enjoy – our partnership with God.

Divine partnership increases joy.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ

Having introduced us to the importance of close collaboration and cooperation together as followers of Christ in the church, Paul introduces us to one more crucial partnership that we must rely upon if we are going to experience joy instead of anxiety – and that is a close partnership and togetherness with God himself.

First, notice the close and supreme partnership and togetherness modeled for us by God the Father and God the Son, who have worked together closely and intimately in perfect harmony for eternity without beginning or end. With them, there is no competition, only perfect, loving harmony and partnership. And this close partnership and cooperation of God himself has not only brought us into existence but enabled us to enjoy forgiveness of sins and a close and everlasting relationship with God.

This close, complete cooperation of God not only provides us with the example we need to follow, but it provides us with the ability and means we need to experience true joy. Paul describes these means as “grace and peace.”

The standard way to greeting the recipients of a personal letter in Paul’s time was to say, “Greetings,” or, “Good health to you!” Paul modified and expanded this standard form to say so much more.

Paul cleverly used a modified form of the Greek form for “greetings” (χαίρειν) to say “grace” instead (χάρις). Then he added a word, peace, which includes a prayer for good health but so much more. By adding “peace,” he added the standard Jewish greeting of shalom.

By desiring grace for the believers at Philippi, Paul wanted them to experience the undeserved and unreserved goodness of God to the greatest possible degree. Mark Keown describes this as Paul’s prayer “for divine favor in the fullest sense … that God’s grace would be sufficient for them, sustaining them and giving them hope, optimism, and triumph in all circumstances” (Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, 111).

Like grace, peace is another broad and all-encompassing concept.

  • Roman people viewed peace (or pax) as the ultimate experience of enjoying freedom, quietness, and rest from a state of war.
  • This kind of peace closely resembles OT Jewish concept of peace (or shalom) as well, which included living in the Promised Land in health, safety, and prosperity, enjoying the fruit of the land with great pleasure and satisfaction. The Jewish concept also emphasized a peace which included personal, interpersonal, and community-wide peace from relational and social tensions.
  • Most importantly, Christ taught his followers that he provided an even deeper level of peace, the kind of true, internal peace that comes from a close, restored, and intimate relationship with God.

“Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)

Only once we have first received and then more fully comprehended the complete and perfect peace which Christ provides with God can we then enjoy a peaceful state of heart and mind and relationship towards other people at home, church, and in community at large. Could it be that the reason we experience so much anxiety, both internally and externally, is that our hearts are not at peace with God?

What steps can you take towards a more joyful life?

Though you cannot experience joy and eliminate anxiety without Christ, with Christ you are able and responsible to make choices that access the grace and peace of God in your life through Christ. You are not just a helpless victim of your circumstances.

  • Do you need Christ to provide you with peace towards God? You can receive this peace freely from God by acknowledging your sinfulness and trusting in Christ completely as your God and Savior. He will forgive your sins and grant you full and complete peace, acceptance, and closeness with God forever.
  • Do you need to commit yourself to serving Christ together with your church family? Are you willing to become a functioning, contributing member of a church family who gives and serves together with us all to make a difference for Christ?
  • Do you need to develop a close relationship with another person, such as Timothy with Paul, who can mentor you and or whom you can help to take their next steps in following Christ? Are you willing to pray to God for both and seek out someone as an answer to that prayer?

Joy is a calm, confident, and contented enthusiasm that comes from a life that’s centered on Christ, and taking these steps will move you forward in a significant way towards experiencing less anxiety and greater measures of genuine joy. This is true no matter what your circumstances in life may be. Remember, Paul was writing about these things from prison and yet he was committed to these priorities in his life even so. No wonder he experienced such joy despite his circumstances.

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