A Sermon from Sherborne

Compline Address 1 – Rejoice in the Lord!

From slave Paul to the saints at Philippi [1.1-11]: preached by Canon Eric Woods, Team Rector, on Monday 19 February 2018


“Here beginneth the first chapter of the Epistle of Saint Paul the Apostle to the Philippians” is how I might introduce the passage I have just read at an Abbey Evensong. At the Eucharist it would be more like “A reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Church at Philippi”. But if we are to be true to the Greek of Paul’s opening salutation, it would be “A reading from slave Paul’s letter to the saints at Philippi”.

A slave? Yes, Paul regards himself and Timothy as “slaves” of the Lord Jesus Christ. Most English translations soften the Greek doulos to “servants”. And they have a good reason for doing so, namely that in our day and age, we cannot use the word “slave” without seeing it through the filters of the infamous slave trade between England, Africa and the West Indies or the modern slave trade which is haunting our own country in this 21st century.

In Paul’s day, slavery was a very different institution – a social institution well-recognised and often well-regulated. It seems foreign to us now, but slaves were often privileged members of a household. I’m sure there were frequent cases of abuse, but many so-called slaves were valued members of a household, held in high regard, and often reluctant to seek so-called “freedom”. I suppose a pale version of that could be found in the role of Carson, the butler in television’s Downton Abbey. Doulos carried, apart from any negative connotations, the sense of “belonging” to the master in a very positive way, and being totally dedicated to and obedient to his service. There was nothing of “Kunta Kinte” here.

So Paul is happy – very happy – to describe himself and his companion Timothy as “slaves” of our Lord Jesus Christ. If you are unhappy to accept the same appellation for yourself, will you accept the more usual “servant”? In Sherborne, even that can have negative connotations. When I arrived here in 1993, an Abbey grande dame asked me if I needed “a woman”. It took me a moment or two to work out that she meant a cleaner. “A woman” had replaced what the good lady would undoubtedly have referred to a few decades earlier as “a servant”, and a pretty lowly one at that. I’m glad to say that Di has been with us as “our lady wot does” for years, and is now part of the family – just as a doulos could be. We are all called to the role of doulos in the service of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So Paul was more than content to describe himself as a doulos in writing to the “saints” at Philippi. Here we go again. What’s your understanding of the word “saint”? It all depends on whether you want the ecclesiastical – the “churchy” – or the biblical answer. I’m not bothered with the churchy answer tonight. We are looking at a biblical passage, where – as in most of the New Testament – “saints” simply mean “Christians”. The word “Christian” appears only three times in the New Testament. Its equivalent, “saints” is used over sixty times.

So, whatever the Church has done since with the word “saints”, here in his letter Paul is quite clear that all the believers in Philippi should be addressed as saints. And what does the word mean? It means “holy”. But that is precisely not holiness in the sense of white, plaster-cast saints of utterly irreproachable sinlessness. It means belonging to the Lord and being totally dedicated to his service. In other words, it means being a slave or servant of Christ!

What it doesn’t mean is being sinless. Paul is not so unrealistic as that. Time and again in his letters he castigates himself as a sinner – sometimes as the “Chief of Sinners” – and often has some very harsh words for the recipients of his letters too. But even then he doesn’t deny them their title “saints”. He wants red-blooded followers of the Lord, not what Jesus called “whited sepulchres”. He never gives up on any of the congregations he has founded. That’s because he knows that God has never given up on him.

Having touched upon that opening salutation, in this introductory address I had better put the letter to the saints in Philippi into some sort of context. Philippi was the then name of a community in Thrace, a really difficult area to describe in modern-day terms. Try “a geographical and historical area in southeast Europe, now split between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, which is bounded by the Balkan Mountains to the north, the Aegean Sea to the south and the Black Sea to the east”. Philippi, or what’s left of it, is now technically in modern-day Greece, about ten miles from the sea. It is no surprise that it straddled so many frontiers, ancient and modern. It is on a major trade route, and owes its name to its founder, Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great. So whilst it is only an archaeological site today, it was once a community of some note.

We can tell from reading all Paul’s letters in the New Testament that the Christian community at Philippi was the one which gave him the most satisfaction and caused him the fewest headaches. But on what was it based? The first clue about the religious community that gave birth to the Christian church in Philippi comes in Acts 16:13, in the parallel passage our study groups are asked to read this first week. On the Sabbath, Paul and his companions “went outside the gate by the river, where [they] supposed there was a place of prayer.” Whether this “place of prayer” was a proper synagogue or not is unclear, but the majority of commentators maintain that the presence and role of the women here suggests there were not enough Jewish males to constitute a proper synagogue. With little or no Jewish presence in the city, Philippi’s citizens were devoted primarily to the traditional Greek and Roman gods and goddesses.

St Luke, the author of Acts, notes that Paul and his group speak to the woman there, and one in particular, Lydia, listens and responds [Acts 16:14-15]. Lydia is described as a “worshipper of God” (probably synonymous with “God-fearer,” used elsewhere in Acts) “from the city of Thyatira” (located in Western Asia Minor) and “a dealer in purple cloth” (a luxury item in the ancient Mediterranean). She and her household are soon baptised and offer hospitality to the travelling preachers. Lydia’s house becomes the site for the church in Philippi, with her as its host and perhaps its leader.

As the story of the church in Philippi unfolds in Acts 16, it seems that the church grows as the result of a conflict between the Philippian residents and Paul’s group of disciples when one of the latter exorcises a demon from a fortune-telling slave girl [Acts 16:16-18], who had brought profit to her owners. Upset about their loss of an important source of income, the owners of the slave girl bring Paul and his companion Silas before the authorities, arguing that “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe” [Acts 16:20-21]. While the exact nature of this charge is unclear, it was clearly enough to move the assembly into action. Paul and Silas are arrested, flogged, and imprisoned. This provides the context for the miraculous prison break, during which a sudden and violent earthquake shakes free the prison gates and chains. In its wake, the awed gaoler asks Paul to baptise him and his household [Acts 16:19-39]. As Paul and his disciples prepare to leave the city, they stop briefly by Lydia’s house to encourage the members of the new Christian community there.

Despite being in prison, despite being “in chains”, despite everything that has happened to him, Paul greets the saints at Philippi with the most amazing joy. It is a theme which, as we will be reminded again and again during this sermon series and in the study groups, runs throughout the letter. Because in all four chapters Paul talks of his joy – in the Gospel, in his brothers and sisters in the Lord in Philippi, and even being in prison. The word he uses is chara, best translated as “joy” but some translations chose a rather more bland “happiness”. And the vehicle of this joy is charis, which is best translated “grace”. And together this joy and this grace transform our minds. The Greek word is nous, sometimes narrowed by classical philosophers to mean “intelligence” or “intellect” and in common parlance still used by those who have no idea they are speaking Greek when they ask “Has he the nous for this?”

I can’t resist quoting you an American scholar who puts these three words from Philippians together and concludes: “Basically this is what Paul is saying: God gives us grace when we receive Christ. Grace is of course the unmerited, unearned favor of God. Nothing we can do to impress God will give it to us. He does it on his own initiative. In other words, God is always thinking about us. If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If he had a wallet your photo would be in it. You and I need to face it, God is crazy about us. He proves that by giving us charis. Then as a result of that charis/grace, we have chara/joy. Where does this joy live? In our mind of course. We can have a joyful mind/nous. The source of real joy comes from grace and it lives in the mind. So it is a gift God gives to us; we cannot create it, we cannot drum it up, we cannot buy it but once we have it we can spread it to other people.”

And my American commentator goes on to ask, do you have this joy, through grace, in your mind? If you think so, then why aren’t you happy all the time? It must be because you don’t really know what makes you happy. And you can’t believe that, when things aren’t going according to your plan, you can still have in your mind the joy offered by and through the grace of God.

It’s a wonderful blog, but I think it demonstrates the error of confusing “joy” with “happiness”. Happiness seems to me to be a much more superficial state of mind. A sunny day makes me happy. A £25 win on the Premium Bonds makes me happy. The cats playing in the sunshine make me happy.

But joy is a much deeper emotion. Indeed, is it an emotion at all? Is it not rather an enduring state of mind? I am sure that other preachers this Lent, and the study groups too, will explore this more thoroughly. But just look at what, in our short eleven verses, brings Paul joy. It is sharing in the Good News with his friends in Philippi. It is proclaiming the Good News with them. It is knowing that, in a sense far deeper than the physical restraints of prison bars, Paul and the Philippians are all “prisoners” called to defend and establish the Good News. It is loving them, and them loving him, with a love that comes from Christ Jesus himself. It is the hope and the prayer that this love will grow deeper and deeper. It is the hope and the prayer that this love will produce a “harvest of goodness which only Jesus Christ can give, for the glory and praise of God.”

A former Chaplain General to the British Forces, Bishop Taylor Smith, was once preaching in a large cathedral about the need to listen for Christ’s call, to respond to it and to be born again. To illustrate how even devout churchgoers might not be listening for that call and therefore might never know the joy of the love of Christ, so freely offered to us by his grace, the Bishop pointed at the Archdeacon sitting in his stall and said:

‘You might even be an Archdeacon like my friend there, and not be born again, and unless a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. You might even be a bishop like myself, and not be born again, and unless a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.’

Next day he received a letter from the Archdeacon: “My dear Bishop, you have found me out. I have been a clergyman for over thirty years, but I have never known anything of the joy that Christians speak of. Mine has been a hard, legal service. I did not know what was the matter with me, but when you pointed directly at me and said ‘You might even be an Archdeacon and not be born again’, I realised in a moment what the trouble was. I had never known anything of the new birth.”

The next day Bishop and Archdeacon met together and before long were both on their knees, the Archdeacon responding to Christ’s call as he had never done before, taking his place before God as a sinner, and committing his life to Christ as his Saviour. At last he had listened, and heard, and responded. He had opened himself to the possibility of Christ’s joy possessing him through Christ’s grace.

Does this apply to you? Have you, if you are honest, never really listened for Christ’s call, never expected to hear his voice? Ours is a visual generation; we are not good at attending to a voice. And it is also a noisy world, with so much clamouring for our attention, that the still small voice of Christ is not often heard. It just may be that Christ is calling someone here tonight, calling someone to open their heart and life to him, to follow him along the path of peace and faith and love, to receive his mercy, his forgiveness, to know him as Saviour and Friend and Master and Lord. To know the joy which he will give to your mind, through grace, when you are happy to be known as fellow-prisoners. If so, come to the Lord, and he will never let you down.

Team Rector, Canon Eric Woods 19/02/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne