Paul’s letter to the Philippians is basically one big thank you note. It was inspired, coincidentally, by a generous financial contribution the Philippian church made to Paul’s mission work. Interestingly however, Paul never gets around to acknowledging the gift until here at the end of the letter. And even then he never actually says thank you. Part of this had to do with Paul’s own attitude toward church. In his mind, church worked like family—everybody did their part. The monetary support provided by some made possible the mission and ministry work of others. Throughout the New Testament, Paul championed the right of preachers to be materially supported by those who heard them preach (praise the Lord). However Paul seldom asked for or took support himself, so to guard against any misconception about the gospel itself. Grace is free of charge. Paul also wanted to guard against possible accusations that his work was a pretext for personal profit. Few things scandalize the gospel more than the misuse of money.
Still, Paul makes clear that giving money comprises a share of what it means to follow Christ. Giving, Paul writes, is in fact “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice accepting and pleasing to God.” “Sacrifice” means that giving is a way of worship—as much as singing or praying. It’s why we take offerings during worship services. To give expresses reverence, love and especially gratitude to God for His grace and goodness to us. It’s why we give gifts to people we love and appreciate. No, my wife Dawn did not need the present I gave her last Christmas, but that’s not why I gave it to her. I gave it because I love her and I am thankful for her. Giving shows her that, and it shows me too, further reinforcing the love I already feel.
If such is the case with the people in our lives, it is even more so with God. Granted, the Lord of the universe certainly has no tangible need or use for our gifts. Instead, giving to God translates into expressions of God’s love toward those who do have tangible needs. In a beautiful conversion, our worshipful generosity toward the Lord becomes an embodied expression of the Lord’s generosity toward others. And again, giving does something to you too. To give makes an important statement about your own personal attitudes toward money and material. To demonstrates a difference between possessions you control versed goods you are blessed to share. Giving also declares a detachment to the things of this world. Generosity keeps your heart aimed at heaven. Jesus said that wherever your treasure resides, that’s where your heart will reside too. The true measure of a person’s heart has always been their bank statement.
Now note that I say all of this post-offering so that no one can accuse me of trying to pump up the offering bags—not that I have any obvious proficiency in that area. Few ministers like to talk about money anyway because it can come off as so self-serving. Paul’s mention of it here reveals his own awkwardness. The language he uses in the these verses gets a bit muddled. It’s an odd thank-you note. “Dear Philippians, I’m so glad that you have finally shown your concern for me, not that you weren’t concerned before, you just never showed it. Not that I needed you to show it, I don’t need anything… Love in Christ, Paul.”
Clearly Paul doesn’t like talking about money either. Again, few things scandalize the gospel more than money’s misuse. Not only Paul, but the entire Bible is excessively circumspect when it comes to money. Throughout Scripture, the presence of material wealth always causes more troubles than its absence. Scripture labels money a temptation and a trap, an obstacle to salvation, and the very root of all evil, according to the Authorized Version. The reasons, of course, are familiar. As the book of Ecclesiastes observes: “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.” And of course from Jesus himself, And of course from Jesus: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions.” This is tough to avoid in America where we’ve manage to monetize just about everything.
By contrast Paul writes here of “having learned the secret of contentment,” though interestingly, he didn’t describe it within the parameters we’d expect. Contentment is typically applied to making do without, but here Paul recognizes that doing with requires equal attention. We all know how faith can function inversely in proportion to affluence. The more you have, the less you need God; which is why hard times can be good for your soul. You may worry more, but you pray more too. However Biblical contentment is ideally impervious to circumstantial variation, whether for better or worse, in sickness or in health, in prosperity or want. A contented person relies on God in all circumstances, having realized that to be free in Christ is not to be independent. People need the Lord. To depend on God means you don’t have to worry about your life, just like Jesus said. God takes care of the birds and the trees. He’ll take care of you too.
Of course reading Jesus say you need not worry about your life and actually not worrying about your life are two different things. Even Paul acknowledged that the contentment he possessed still had to be learned. And it was a difficult lesson. It didn’t come after merely reading a book or after a weekend on retreat or by hearing a sermon outside or by cross-stitching these verses and hanging them in your hallway. Paul’s contentment required a lifetime of experiencing Christ’s sufficiency in both the hardships and high points of his life; through the valleys as well as on the mountaintops, during the droughts and when life was lush. Christ proved to be enough throughout; which gave Paul the confidence to boldly assert what has become the most cross-stitched of all these Philippians verses; namely, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
Now you do have to be careful here not to place undue emphasis on the “can do” part. Otherwise this immensely hopeful verse will sour into a huge disappointment. The fact is that we can’t do everything, not even with Jesus. Than why does Paul write it down in the Bible? Is he trying to give us false hope? Curious as to how other preachers have dealt with the problem, (especially since my mind is still on vacation), I googled Philippians 4:13 and located several ready-to-preach sermons, better than mine, for just $4.95 each ($8.95 on Saturday nights—I won’t tell you how much I paid for this one). I did like this line: “For Paul to write ‘I can do all things” makes me wonder why I’m not doing anything.’” (That line cost six bucks so I chose not to use it). I found this one in the discount bin: “God wants to do so much more than we can fathom or imagine. He wants our dreams to come true. Those things that we strive for, those things that are deep down in our hearts—He put them there. He wants those exact things for us right now.” Wow. Talk about getting your hopes up.
That line reminded me of a vacation spent in sunny Southern California some years ago. While there we toured the campus of a large and famous church, where in addition to the lavish glass sanctuary that soars into the sky, various statues of Jesus in a Southern California tan dot the landscape; each projecting a hopeful, positive-thinking, can-do happy grin plastered across the Savior’s face. Granted, just because the Bible never says Jesus smiled doesn’t mean he didn’t, but it was weird seeing Jesus chuckle as he walked across water. OK, so that statue only had Jesus crossing a lily pond instead of a raging sea; but the message was clear: You can do it too through Him who gives you strength. Thankfully the church didn’t have Jesus smiling on the cross. Come to think of it, there weren’t any crosses. Too much of a downer, I guess. There were a lot of offering boxes however. This was one church unashamed when it came to asking for money. You know it as the Crystal Cathedral. The church went bankrupt in 2010.
Last Sunday Tony Jones challenged the dangerous tendency congregations have to put their trust in buildings (which is another reason we’re meeting outside this week). The Crystal Cathedral congregation held its final service last Sunday in their famous glass sanctuary. This morning it is occupied by another church, which is good news. The property was bought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County. They’ve thankfully renamed the place “Christ Cathedral” and have refurbished the whole 35-acre campus. Being good Catholics I trust installed a few crucifixes and wiped all those silly grins off the Jesus statues. Father Christopher Smith, the rector at Christ Cathedral, a vast multi-ethnic congregation, said the campus would support outreach to the poor and marginalized, as well as promote the arts, music and dance.
I shake my head trying to figure why it is that people are so attracted to Crystal Cathedral versions of Christianity, only to conclude that I’m attracted to it myself. Who wouldn’t prefer a God who only wants to make me happy; a God who promises help to do whatever I want? Make all my troubles disappear and I’d have nothing to worry about. But happiness has never been about the absence of trouble. Derived from the same word as happen, true happiness is that contentment with whatever happens. It is trusting in God no matter what. “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty,” Paul wrote. “In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need, I have learned to be content with whatever I have.”
“I can do all things with Christ,” by which Paul means “I can do all these things; namely, enjoy abundance or endure trouble, for better or worse, though Christ who is my strength. Jesus gives us strength to take both the good and the bad, because whatever happens, whether life or death, our hope resides in the one who died but then rose from the dead. To experience this hope is to experience genuine contentment and true freedom. Free to live in abundance you are not bound by it. Instead what you have is yours to share. Free to live in abasement, but you are not discouraged by it. You refuse to despair or complain. You know that weakness and hardship are only occasions for greater reliance on Christ. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Christ’s strength is perfected in weakness. Much or little, plenty or want; none of it defines you. Instead you are defined by your trust in God, by your hope in Him whatever. It is Biblical faith at its most basic. As Job most famously declared, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”