June 25th, 2018

In all this I win, because Christ empowers me.

Philippians 4:10-23


A friendship letter

This morning we have heard “Paul in Chains,” listening to Paul’s letter to the Philippians as if Paul himself were speaking to us. Rev. Duffy Roberts, who portrayed Paul, has been a friend to Linda and me for about a decade, and I loved reconnecting with him over dinner last night. One of the insights I’ve gained about myself in recent years is how strongly I attach to people. When I meet someone and hear their story, I want to stay connected and watch that story play out. It’s one of the frustrations of being a pastor in a large and growing congregation. I would love to continue and deepen the conversation with each person and family, but I can’t.

This past week I made my third mission trip to Moldova. On the second trip, one of the pastors said to me, “You’re different than most people who come on a mission trip. Many come and we sense that they’re just doing it because it’s an adventure or they want to say they did it. But you came back.” I can’t help but go back. Some of my heart lives in Moldova, with Fyodor and Ulizana and Anatol and Vitalie in Chisinau, and with Alex and Nina and Teo in Nisporeni. I have to write, to pray, to help, to go back.

The Apostle Paul was similarly wired. He writes letters because he can’t just let those connections fade. But his letters are not all the same. In Romans, he’s an apostle most of them have never met. In Corinthians and Galatians, he’s a teacher, sometimes a scolder. In Timothy and Titus, he’s a mentor. In Philippians, he’s a friend.

Friends help friends

We have experienced again the entire letter of Philippians today through “Paul in Chains.” What struck me most was how Duffy portrayed Paul connecting with the believers in Philippi. “I thank God for you.” “I pray for you.” “I long for you, my joy and crown.”

The last dozen verses of Philippians is where Paul becomes most personal. Some even think this is the primary purpose of the letter, but he waited until the end to say it. We might call it his “thank you card” for their gift, but it’s more than that. Paul expresses an entire approach to missionary support. There’s hardly any parallel in our world, because he is an itinerant evangelist and apostle who then moves on to other locations. He apparently has no investments or inheritance, so his sources of income are three – tentmaking, sponsors, and gifts from the churches he plants. It’s not hard to imagine that accusations of mixed motives would be a constant concern if not a reality, so Paul in many locations refuses help from his churches.

The Philippians were an exception. Why? Because they were friends. Friends help friends, and friends allow friends to help them. Giving and receiving money requires trust. Again, our teams in Moldova have been serving and giving this week. We love those brothers and sisters. We love giving to them.

The most memorable and oft-quoted lines of the end of Philippians are in verses 13 and 19. If they weren’t so profound and crisp, they wouldn’t be popular. However, they’re both prone to misunderstanding and misapplication. Since our time is short, I’m going to focus on those two lines.

I prevail

“I can do all things through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). This one consistently shows up in top ten lists of online Bible searches. Americans love this, because it seems at first glance to affirm our culture’s obsession with self and infinite possibility. “You can be anything you want to me,” we say to kids, but it’s not true.

That came home to me this past week when Ian Greveling, Mike Johnson, Jim Samson, and I met with about fifteen young adults at Doxa Deo church in Chisinau, Moldova about their business dreams. This was a “business mission trip,” and we were there to encourage and direct them as they consider their entrepreneurial dreams. I loved watching the attachment develop among Mike, who attends Contemporary, Jim, who attends Traditional, and Ian, who attends 8:30. They didn’t even know each other until we formed this team!

Everywhere we went this week in Moldova we heard it’s almost impossible to get a bank loan at an interest rate that will allow you to turn a profit. The combination of government corruption and poverty means that default rates are high, so interest rates are high. At one point Wednesday evening, Mike Johnson was sharing his story about how someone believed in him at age 40 to the point of investing in his dream of owning a Toyota dealership. A 28-year-old Moldavian wanted to know how he could find such an investor.

It was time for a pastoral word. I didn’t quote Philippians 4, but I could have. I turned to Mike and asked, “Would you have invested in your 28-year-old self to buy a Toyota dealership?” He immediately answered, “No, I wasn’t ready.” I wanted to make the point that you can’t do everything you want to do. Moldavian young adults are like American young adults in that they would love to do more than they’re ready to do. It would be wrong to say, “Remember, you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.”

This is where context is so important to understanding Scripture. Paul is modeling not vision but contentment. He’s not saying, “I can make a million bucks if I want to” or even “I can be a successful church planter.” He says instead, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty” (12). I would add it’s easier to be content going from want to plenty than the other way around. Paul could go back and forth and be “content whatever the circumstances” (11). It’s in the context of being either “well fed or hungry,” “living in plenty or want,” that Paul says, “In all this I win through Christ who empowers me” (literal translation).

The “all this” is being content whether you’re rich or poor, successful or a failure.  The point our team wanted to make is that there are likely to be many failures along the way to success.  The gospel lens through which Paul wants them to see their circumstance is that when Christ is supreme and your trust in him, he gives you strength to be content whatever happens.

The faces

“And my God will supply all your needs according to his riches in glory” (Philippians 4:19). This is another verse that can actually attack and undermine faith rather than strengthening it. How many times in your life have you been in a place where you believed you had needs that God didn’t supply?

I can’t help but read this verse through the lens of those we visited in Moldova. I could give many examples, but let me list two – the Tahvatulin family, where father and mother were both orphans who married and produced seven children. Their oldest, as is typical of many families, left the country with her husband to find work elsewhere, and left behind her two children. So now they have nine children in a small 4-room home that would probably fit in our living room. Little Samaritan Mission has provided them food, clothing, and wood or coal. Two of our team members are going to pay for a well for them. We brought corn, socks, and bananas. One of the children asked her mother, “May I have a whole banana?” They usually get a couple of slices. Yet we saw in them the “face of contentment” – parents and children showing the joy of the Lord who supplies all their needs. They sang for us “This Is the Day That the Lord Has Made” in three languages – Romanian, Russian, and English. “I will rejoice and be glad in it!”

Then there are the families in Nisporeni, with whom we reconnected. One young dad named Andrei drove me to the Gypsy village where we met up with our medical team for lunch on Thursday. He’s better off than most folks in that area because he and his wife and daughter have a car, even if it’s not new, and a home, even if it’s not completely finished. Since we had one-on-one time, he asked me for some pastoral counsel about his decision – should he focus more on ministry or a career outside the church? Since he was driving me around in his car I said, “I want to put some gas in it.” We stopped for gas, and he said, “How much should I put in?” I said, “Fill it up.” After we did so, he took a picture of the fuel gauge and said, “I’ve never seen it full.” Yet I saw in him the face of contentment. He’s not trying to get out of Nisporeni to a place he can make more money. That’s his home, his calling, and he’s trying to figure out how to do more ministry.

It sort of puts “needs” in perspective, doesn’t it? The context here is that Paul is thanking a church, many of whom are much poorer than the retired Roman soldiers who live in Philippi, for their generosity. He’s saying, “As you give, remember that God is your supplier.” I wish I had time to relate to you stories of how God has supplied financially when Linda and I gave what we couldn’t afford. But it’s not just about the money. God has been our supply as well as our supplier. He has attached himself to us through Jesus Christ. Paul had been shipwrecked, beaten to a pulp, hungry, imprisoned, rejected, but he said, “God is my supply in all of that. And when you give because you have been given to, what you think are your “needs” will fade away.”

Paul’s focus is on “My God.” The “riches” are “in glory.” Once again, Paul puts on his gospel lenses. God has attached himself to me in Christ Jesus. He didn’t stay in the place of his comfort. He came to us and then gave himself for us in death so that we would always know his attachment is real and permanent. We who belong to Jesus Christ know, as Paul says in Romans 8, that he who spared not his only Son will freely give us all that we truly need.

I saw people in Moldova this week who have so much more than I do yet display the face of contentment. They know they belong to Christ, and that is enough. He is all we need. Amen.

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