Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi…
It’s hard to imagine the excitement that would have greeted the reading of this first line of Paul’s letter. It was the custom, you see, to read Paul’s letters to the whole congregation, and because the Philippians had a very special relationship with Paul they likely thrilled to gather to hear his words. Paul had ministered to them and with them for long enough that they knew the thoughts, habits, and teaching of their founder quite well and would have been eager to learn more. Further Paul had suffered significant hardship in order to bring the Gospel to them and writes this very letter from prison. And the Philippians had not forgotten this; indeed, they had sent him supplies, letters, and companions to ease his suffering.
So the Philippians knew Paul well. But do we?
We tend to think of Paul as the first great Christian theologian, making sense of Jesus’ life and teaching and spreading the doctrines of the early church throughout the ancient Middle East.
But in some ways that couldn’t be further from the truth. Paul was a man who spent most of his adult life making sense of an unexpected, earth-shattering revelation: the Jesus whose followers he persecuted turned out to be his Lord and Savior. Many of us understand our lives as the endeavor to solve the problems and overcome the challenges we encounter. Paul was exactly the opposite: he was confronted with a solution that he neither wanted nor expected and spent the rest of his life trying to understand what this meant.
Nor would Paul have quickly identified as a Christian. A disciple of Jesus, certainly, but also a proud Jew from the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee by training and exemplary student of the law. When Paul is confronted with the presence of the Risen Christ he neither rejects nor disavows his religious upbringing; rather he re-envisions it completely. Paul’s is not, strictly speaking, a conversion from one faith to another. Rather he moves from being a Jew who rejects the messianic claims of those who follow Jesus to being a Jew who accepts, advocates, and advances them.
Finally, Paul’s thought wasn’t terribly systematic. Confronted by the great puzzle of his life – how could someone condemned and cursed under the law be God’s agent of salvation? – he spent his career rethinking everything he thought he knew about life in relation to that revelation. It took some time for him to develop his thought in any detail and much of what he comes to believe he works out in relation to the distinct and particular contexts of his congregation.
Paul was, at heart, a missionary pastor. His burning desire was to spread the good news as far and wide as he could. Yet he was no simple itinerant, cruising from town to town. Rather, he would move to a community, preach and teach and, if he found receptive listens, set up shop, form and nurture a community, and move on only when he believed that he had planted roots deep enough to grow. Once away from this congregation, Paul’s pastoral concern and support continued as he would attend to their needs and questions by correspondence and by sending companions and fellow teachers to nurture the communities he loved so deeply.
This is Paul, and the Philippians are eager to hear what he has to say.
Prayer: Dear God, as we venture into this letter by Paul let our hearts be inspired by the same good news that animated and energized his life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.