Sunday 6 January 2019

No thank you (Philippians 4:10-20)

As Asians, we are not great at saying thank you.

Think of Christmas. Someone gives you a gift and what goes through your mind? Haiya, next year, I must give a gift also. That is, our way of saying thank you is payback. You take me out for coffee, I buy you a latte. That sort of thing.

The book of Philippians is a thank you letter from the Apostle Paul to these Christians, to this church in Philippi, who send him money while he is under house-arrest in Rome. But it is only here in Chapter 4 that we find out it is a thank you letter.

The thing is: Not once does Paul say thank you. And not once does Paul say they have given him money (though they have and probably lots of it). Instead, Paul frames his thanks, and indeed, the whole letter, in terms of the gospel. You are partners with me, Paul says, in the gospel. And Paul frames their gift as an act of worship, pleasing and accepting before God (verse 18).

Why? Because Paul wants us to understand the difference between needs-based giving and grace-based giving. Needs-based giving that is prompted by needs, by our compassion in response to a sad situation, to a cry for help, is good. It is generous and good. But it is different to grace-based giving, which is the kind of giving we see here in Philippians. How so? In three ways: Contentment, partnership and worship.

1. Contentment

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Philippians 4:10-13

“Thank you for that box of chocolates. I enjoyed it.” That’s what we expect from a thank you letter (or WhatsApp message). Not, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me.”

But concern lies behind the gift of Philippians. Concern for a pastor in chains. Love for a brother who is suffering. And that says a lot about their relationship, their motivation for sending this gift to Paul so far away. They want him to know that they are with him. He is not alone.

And that is what Paul thanks them for - their concern. But at the same time, Paul goes out of the way to reassure them: I’m OK. Do you see that? Verse 11: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” In response to their concern, Paul talks about his contentment. Question is, what does he mean? For most of us, I suspect, contentment means being OK with what we have. OK with the money in the bank. OK with leftovers in my fridge. OK with the relationships in my life. But notice, Paul talks about extreme situations - how to be brought low and how to abound. And he talks about the secret of contentment - facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. Paul’s contentment seems independent of circumstance and he isn’t saying I’m OK with what I have, but rather, I will always have Christ. More than that, I will always live for Christ. That is the thinking the lies behind verse 13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

To put it another way: Paul is still a Christian. In any and every situation of life, Paul has learned what it means to be a Christian and to stay a Christian. To trust in Christ and to continue living for Christ. In plenty and in hunger. In abundance and in need. In any and every situation of life.
Now every single bible study group I’ve been in has focussed on the hunger and the want and the need. It is tough to be content when you are in need and probably that was the same concern the Philippians had for Paul. And there is that moment in every bible study everyone stares into the distance and you can tell they are imagining what it feels like to be in prison and what means to be content in that time of need.

If that happens, the way to snap them back to reality is to ask: Are you full or hungry right now? Are you in abundance or in need? (This works really well if they’ve just had dessert) And it is important to do that because Paul does that here in Philippians. Here he is, objectively in a position much, much needier than the Philippians, in chains for the gospel, telling them he has learned the secret of contentment in both plenty and want, abundance and need. Meaning, what? Meaning: You need to learn this, too. You need to realise that you who are living in abundance, in plenty, in fullness (of pudding); that you, too, need to learn what it means to be content in Christ. Not hankering for more. Not imagining what if I had more of this or that. But in the moment, trusting in the fullness of the grace of Christ to live completely for him and him alone.

Paul had to learn this himself. He says it twice. “I have learned…” (verse 11) and “I have learned…” (verse 12). Even the great Apostle Paul had to learn what it means to trust God when he had very, very little and when he had very, very much. And that is encouraging, isn’t it? Maybe you are in a tough situation in life and around you are surrounded by people who seem to have so much more than you. Learning to be content in such a difficult situation is hard, Paul is saying, but God taught him though that situation and God is doing the same with you.

And maybe you are doing well in life but you feel guilty telling your friends because they think you should be OK, you should have nothing to worry about, but the truth is: you are worried and you are anxious. Well, Paul says he knows that what that is like, too. Learn to be content. Learn to trust in Christ and Christ alone.

2. Partnership

Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.
Philippians 4:14-16

Imagine a friend trying to persuade you to go into business with them and they say, “This is going to be great. If you invest your money, if we work together on this, we will change the world. It will grow. In five years, we will be driving Teslas and flying first class.” Every start-up works that way, every new partnership works that way.

Imagine another friend coming to you saying, “Come join me in suffering.” That’s Paul’s invitation in verse 14. “It was kind of you to share (or have partnership in) my trouble.” It is the same word he uses back in Chapter 3 talking about Jesus when he says, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share (or have partnership in) his sufferings, becoming like him in his death”.

But you see, they did join him in this kind of partnership. “And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.” Right from the beginning when no one else thought it was a good idea, they said, We are with you, Paul. And all through his ministry, they never gave up, not once. “Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.”

What do you call this? Faithfulness. Steadfastness. The bible calls this fellowship (the same word translated “sharing” in Philippians 3 and 4). Fellowship is not hanging out after church at Wetherspoons, it is not even meeting up once a week for a meal and bible study (as good as that is). It is partnership, not unlike business partnerships. You are invested in something. It costs you something. It has a goal. And what you are investing in, what you are working towards, what you are you partnering in is the gospel. That’s fellowship according to the bible.

Why is that important? It is costly. There is a reason people want fellowship to mean something other than the gospel. No one else wanted to partner with Paul, no one else wanted to have anything to do with Paul because it meant sharing in his trouble. Because it means sharing in Christ’s suffering. And that’s why we redefine the word to mean something else: chilling out, hanging out, getting to know one another over bubble tea. But for Paul and the Philippians it means sacrifice. It means togetherness. It means faithfulness even when no one else wants to be involved in this kind of partnership, in this kind of relationship.

But that is what makes their relationship so special. You know, the friends who are really your friends are the friends who were friends when no one else wanted to be your friend. (You might want to read that last sentence again)

Isn’t that true? The ones who were with you since the beginning. Who stuck with you through the tough times. Who are with you still today. Yes, they helped Paul out of concern but Paul wants them to know, We are equal partners in this. You and I have the same goal, the same mindset - the gospel. You see, fellowship is not seeing thing eye-to-eye but working together side-by-side. Paul is preaching, travelling, planting churches. The Philippians are sending money, sending people, praying for the mission. They are not even in the same country, they haven’t seen each other for ages. What kind of fellowship group is this? Yet theirs is a fellowship that is true to Scripture because theirs is a fellowship that is true to the gospel.

If that is true, it might be worth thinking about our fellowship groups in church. How is the gospel at the centre of those relationships? How is suffering for the gospel (not simply suffering in general or praying for difficult circumstances) at the centre of our relationships with one another?

3. Worship

Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Philippians 4:17-20

At this point, Paul has problem. Why do I say that? The Philippians have sent him money again and again, they are concerned for him again and again but what does Paul do? He says he is OK. He reminds them they are the most faithful bunch of all his friends. Now, either one of two things are going to happen. Either they are going to think: OK, Paul doesn’t really need my help any more so I shouldn’t be generous any more. Or they are going to think: OK, I’ve done enough. I’ve done my bit.

Whenever you watch one of those charity events on TV, there is always a segment when the presenter says, “Let’s get serious for a moment.” And the scene cuts to a village, to an impoverished child, to a real-life situation of need. Help us to help them. Your contribution will go a long way. Again, that is good, that is godly and it is generous to respond to such a real need.

But that is not Paul, is it? He goes out of his way to dispel any notion of needs-based giving. “I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied.” I say that because need-based giving works here in church. We need to fix the toilets. You guys have so much talent, gifts, time, we could really use your help. It works. Using guilt, appealing to people’s generosity, highlighting real needs within our church and fellowship groups, well, it works. And I guess, there is a place for that (maybe not). But Paul doesn’t do that. What does he say instead?

“Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.” He wants them to be generous for their own sakes. For their own benefit.

And it is interesting how he uses worship language to describe their gifts. “The gifts you sent (are) a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” One friend said, “They think they are giving Paul but Paul saying they are really giving to God.” And that’s right. Elsewhere, he says, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” Again, using worship language, Paul is saying his offering is just the cherry on top of their much larger, much more significant sacrifice before God.

What he is doing is opening their eyes. They think they sending a cheque to help a brother. (In Cantonese, we say, “Hou chamm, hou chamm ah!”) But Paul is saying to them, Do you realise how pleased God is with your generosity? One of the most uplifting, most encouraging thing you can do for a fellow Christian is simply to remind them how much God is pleased with their generous spirit because, friends, they probably don’t realise it themselves. Even Jesus says so in Matthew 25.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Matthew 25:35-40

They were surprised (When did we do this?) but Jesus says to them, What you did for them you did for me. And, you see, Paul wants them to see that. God is pleased with their giving. God loves their generous spirit, their grace-based giving that is so uncalculating that even they do not realise it but God sees and God is pleased with.

Now we have be careful sometimes when we ask people to “give back to God what God has given us,” because it is tempting to use this passage to justify that sort of thinking. It is our Asian tendency again, to pay back God as a way of saying thanks but I suggest to you, it is a poor way to be thanking God, perhaps, even, a selfish of thanking God. Why do I say that? Because of verse 19.

And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:19

Give to God and God will give back to you. It sounds a bit like that doesn’t it? And sadly, we can use that to motivate Christians to be generous. If you give twenty percent, God will give you back two hundred percent! After all, my God will supply every need of yours, it says so right there. Of course, what happens is we give our money, time, gifts generously but at the back our minds think, God, I’m holding you to that promise you made. I’m expecting that payback of two hundred percent!

Rather, Paul is speaking again of contentment, of a mindset that trusts God in any and every situation. I say that because Paul says “my God” will fill up all your needs. Paul is speaking of his own personal experience of being in need, still in prison, still in chains, still in exile, but still in Christ, still content, still faithfully preaching the gospel of Christ. That is what it means for Paul and that is what it means for us to have all our needs filled up according to the riches of Christ Jesus. This is grace-based contentment, grace-based fellowship. This is grace-based giving.

Or you could say, simply: This is Christian giving. Giving simply to please God. Giving knowing that he is God, knowing we have received grace, forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus Christ.

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