Who do you love? Who has the Lord placed in your life that gives you a glimpse of His love and His heart? Is your church family on the list? What kind of role has Christ designed them to play in your life?
I just spent the week at a conference that was attended by quite a few pastors, missionaries, and church leaders. We ate meals together, shared stories with each other, and prayed for God's wisdom and blessing as we seek to lead where He's called us to lead. I heard stories of great victories and stories that reflected despair and frustration. In the midst of all those conversations, I was poignantly reminded why I'm thankful for my church family and why I have come to love them so much.
The Apostle Paul expressed his love for his church family as well. In the first chapter of Philippians, Paul expressed some feelings that I find easy to identify with. Take a look at the reasons he gave for loving his brothers and sisters in Christ...
I. We partner together in living out and advancing the gospel
There are two ways to approach most circumstances or two perspectives that we can easily adopt. One option is to complain and to look at most things from the "down" side. The other option is to acknowledge what we're thankful for, regardless of our momentary circumstances.
The way this letter begins is evidence to me of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Apostle Paul's life. He opens this letter by expressing thanks. Please keep in mind where Paul was writing this letter from. He was in prison, most likely in Rome. He didn't have the privileges a man has when he's free. He couldn't just take a stroll down the block. He wasn't free to go visit friends, walk to the market, or spend time sitting on the shore appreciating the beautiful view. He was a prisoner who had become familiar with the uncomfortable feeling of wearing chains, being stared at by guards, and being locked in a room. Yet in all of this, Paul was thankful.
What brought his heart thanks in the midst of his unpleasant circumstances? For starters, Paul was thankful for the times when the Lord would bring the Philippian church to his mind. As Paul would let his mind think about their faces, their words, and the time they spent together, his heart was warmed and his imprisonment felt like a consequence he could live with, knowing that it was because he dared to make the gospel known that he was arrested.
Paul considered the Philippians to be more than just the fruit of his ministry, but also partners with him in ministry. They joyfully supported his work. They partnered with him in his passion to tell people about Jesus. And Paul states that he was convinced that the Lord who began a good work in them would continue working in them, strengthening them, developing their faith, developing their spiritual maturity, up until the day Jesus returns.
I can identify with the emotions Paul expresses in this passage and there have been quite a few things lately that have brought similar emotions to my mind, particularly when he speaks of his joy in having a church family that partnered with him in the spread of the gospel.
Just this week I was having a conversation with a man who serves as a pastor in a church context that has had a long-term problem with not partnering with their pastor in the work of the local church. He confessed to me that he felt very tired because he doesn't have enough help. I felt genuinely bad for him, but his words also reminded me to be grateful for my church family because so many of them partner together to teach, serve, and model the message of the gospel to others.
There's a whole army of people who help with the many aspects of our Sunday morning gathering. There are people who help with administrative tasks from home. There are people who help in very covert ways during the week. People who help with discipleship, children's ministries, missions, administrative and accounting tasks, mercy related needs, and so much more. As their pastor, I hope they know that I am truly grateful for their partnership in living out and advancing the gospel through our local church.
II. We are willing to stand together in all circumstances
Have you ever done something to embarrass yourself? I have done more to embarrass myself over the course of the past 40 years than I would like to admit. I'll never forget the time when I was 12 and my mother dropped me and a friend at the mall to hang out. Before I left the house, I filled my pockets with change. While walking around the mall without parental supervision, I suggested to my friend that it might be hilarious if I pretended to trip over a bench and made the change spill all over. He agreed, so I did it. Change went everyone and dozens of people were staring at me. My friend disappeared and I was left in the center of the mall feeling like the dumbest jokester on earth.
Have you ever done something so embarrassing that you feared it might result in your friends and family abandoning you? Again, where was Paul when he wrote this letter? He was in prison, and in many cases, that would be something that might cause others to feel shame or embarrassment to associate with someone. But the Philippian church continued to stand with Paul. They stood with him in all circumstances. When he was imprisoned for daring to tell others about Christ, they stood with him. When he was openly defending and confirming the truth of the gospel, they stood with him. We've all experienced "fair-weather" friends in this world, but the Philippian church stuck with Paul in all circumstances.
This contributed to the great affection Paul had for this church. He loved them with the love of Christ. He held them close to his heart. Their support was one of the things the Lord used to help Paul weather the unpleasant consequences of preaching the gospel in hostile places.
Just as Paul had taught the Philippian church who Jesus was and why they needed to surrender their lives over to Christ, so too did the Philippian church remind Paul of an important aspect of the gospel that we would do well to preach to our hearts regularly. They didn't abandon Paul because they understood that in Christ, we are not abandoned.
Look at how our Lord expresses His own heart toward His children in Isaiah 49:15-16.
Consider the depth of the Lord's great love...
There are times in your life when you're going to be tempted to preach a different message than this to your heart. You're going to go through a few things when you might become momentarily convinced that you're on your own, abandoned, and left to fend for yourself. But none of that is true. I can't promise you that your friends and family won't ever let you down, but I can promise what God's word promises. Our Lord will never abandon you. He will never bail on His children. No circumstance will ever separate those who trust in Christ from the love of Christ.
The Philippian church made it easier for Paul to preach this message to his heart because this is what they modeled to him. And I can say without a doubt that there are many people in my church family who, through the years, have helped me to preach that message to my heart as well because they were faithful to model this application of the gospel to their pastor.
III. We are a family in which Spirit-empowered love abounds
Do you believe Jesus makes a difference in our lives? What happens within us when we come to know Him by faith? What kind of fruit comes from our lives as our relationship with Him deepens. What is the evidence of His presence with us when we interact as a church family? Paul explains in this passage that Christ makes a real difference in our lives and that through faith in Jesus, we become a family in which Spirit-empowered love abounds.
So Paul prays for the Philippians that their love may abound more and more. That it would be displayed in greater depth. That opportunities would be seized for brothers and sisters in Christ to go out of their way to reach into the lives of those they were in fellowship with, and bless their Christian family by seeking the best for, and sacrificially serving one another.
Paul prays that through Christ, they would possess knowledge and discernment that would result in a mature understanding of what was right and good. That they would live out their faith. That holiness, purity, and righteousness would be powerfully displayed in their lives as the fruit of Christ's presence with them. That their lives would bring glory to God.
This is the kind of family the Lord has created us to be. This is something He is continually fostering within us and teaching us to value. These are the ideals He's inviting us to pursue. I can personally testify that as the Lord fosters this kind of family love within the fellowship of my church family, there are many of the people there that I feel just as close to as I do my own blood relatives. And I guess that's a good thing because, as I read in the Scriptures, we're going to be spending a long time together.
What kind of difference can this kind of love make in a person's life? Consider this...
Just this past week, a friend told me something that Jim Johnson, a retired pastor that I used to grab breakfast with, said about his former church. Before retiring, he pastored a church in Dickson City, PA for over thirty years and had a meaningful ministry there that was characterized by considerable good will and cooperation. Someone once said to him, "Jim, you just think these people are perfect, don't you?" And Jim replied, "No. I don't think they're perfect. I just love them."
I don't think I say it enough, but I definitely think it, so let me say it today. I love my church family and I'm grateful that God lets me spend my life serving together with them.
© John Stange, 2017