Letters from Prison, I: For Your Sharing in the Gospel from the First Day Until Now
I thank my God every time I remember you … because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. —Philippians 1:3–11
I'm going to give you a quiz. I would love to tell you to raise your hand when you think you know the answer, but people like us don’t do that. A lot of you are or once were Presbyterians, and Presbyterians aren’t very demonstrative at church. Barbara Wheeler was President of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York for 30 years. She says, “I became a Presbyterian because it minimized my chances of getting hugged in church.”
So we don’t raise our hand in church, but just nod or smile when you know the answer to my quiz.
What do these famous people have in common? Some of you will get this very quickly. In historical order:
St. John of the Apocalypse
Miguel de Cervantes
Marquis de Sade
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Yes, all of these famous people wrote books while they were in prison, or in some cases about their prison experiences. Some of these books are wonderful, and some are terrifying, but all are extraordinary.
You should read books that are written from prison. Somebody said that the reason World War II took the Allies by surprise is that nobody in the west bothered to read Mein Kampf.
Mein Kampf has been all over the news this week. Under German law, copyright expires after 70 years, so Hitler’s famous ramblings went back to the public domain for the first time since 1945. Till New Year’s Day, it’s been illegal to print Mein Kampf for 70 years. Now they’re reprinting a scholarly edition for the first time since 1945.
We should have read it. Mein Kampf, as you know, means My Struggle, but Hitler himself called it A Four-and-a-Half-Year Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice. Maybe if we’d known the original title, we would have paid more attention to it.
Too bad: there it was for all to see: his titanic malice. It’s all there: the need for Germany to expand its Lebensraum, its living space; the supremacy of Aryans, the stupidity of Communists, the futility of democracy.
Today in the United States, Houghton Mifflin owns the rights to Mein Kampf, and also to the works of Winston Churchill, which is kind of interesting.
In the United Kingdom, Random House owns the rights to Mein Kampf; Random House donates all the profits to charity. Do you know which one? Neither does anybody else; if anybody knew which charity was benefitting from Mein Kampf, that charity would have to give the money back instantly.
Oh, by the way, do you know who owns Random House? This is one of God’s nifty little jokes: the vast German conglomerate Bertelsmann, owns Random House, which means that a German company publishes the English translation of a German book which was banned in Germany for 70 years till last week. Well, that was a pointless aside, but at least it was free. And interesting, right? No extra charge.
We should read literature that comes from prison. So I’m going to preach a sermon series called Letters from Prison. I was going to call it Orange Is the New Holy, but Katie wouldn’t let me.
Of the 27 books in the New Testament, 13, or just shy of half, claim to be Letters from the Apostle Paul. Of those 13, four were written from prison—Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon, and Philippians. Most of my sermons will be about Philippians, because it’s the easiest and the most fun, and also my favorite.
Would you do me a favor and go home and read it this week? It’s only three and a half pages long, fewer than 2,500 words, or about the length of this sermon. I was going to just read it to you, but I thought I’d better earn my paycheck. It’ll take you about 15 minutes to read; it’s shorter than an article in People Magazine, and a little profounder.
Let me tell you a little bit about Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Four centuries before Paul’s birth, the Greek city of Philippi was named for King Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great. During Paul’s time, the population was about 10,000, a little bigger than Winnetka, a little smaller than Wilmette, but it had a significance way out of proportion to its size.
The gold mines that had originally made it a bustling place had long been exhausted, but it was still a prominent exit on the most important turnpike in the Roman Empire.
Forty-two years before the birth of Christ, it was at Philippi that Antony and Octavian, in a famous and important battle, defeated the Republican army of Brutus and Cassius, the Roman Senators who’d assassinated Julius Caesar, so you could say that the smallish town of Philippi was either the place where the Roman Republic went to die, or the place where the Roman Empire was born, depending on your perspective, because when Antony left his wife and kids behind in Rome to begin a highly indecent assignation with the Queen of Egypt, that left Octavian free to become Caesar Augustus, the first of about 500 years of Roman Emperors.
All that happened at Philippi. Octavian/Augustus was so grateful to the soldiers who’d helped him defeat Brutus and Cassius that he gave many of them a land grant at Philippi upon their retirement, so Philippi was full of retired soldiers, veterans from Caesar’s legions; the whole town was like a sprawling VFW outpost. So that’s the congregation Paul preached to, a bunch of Army veterans.
About 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, this silver-tongued preacher named Paul of Tarsus founded a church at Philippi, and so in about 50 A.D. Philippi becomes the first Christian Church on European soil.
But it was not a place of happy memories for Paul. At every turn, he encountered the hostility of the local people. He was beaten there, and thrown in prison there, and the church planting didn’t go so very smoothly at first. According to Luke in the Book of Acts, Paul’s first convert at Philippi was a seller of purple named Lydia, and his second was a crazy schizophrenic slave girl, and his third was the jailer who was supposed to make sure that Paul stayed locked up. A woman, a slave girl, and a jailer—not an entirely propitious beginning for a church in those days.
Anyway, Paul’s association with Philippi began with a jail term, and now, ten years later, Paul is in jail again, this time in Rome, and he is corresponding with the Christians at Philippi from his jail cell in Rome, thrown there because his seditious preaching created a ruckus wherever he went. When you read this letter, remember that it was written from the dull monotony of a jail cell.
Paul does not know whether his imprisonment will end in freedom, or in execution. You see, here’s the thing about prison in the first-century Roman world: Prison was not punishment. If you were in prison, it was because you were waiting for your trial. In the first century, prison was not punitive; it wasn’t like you were paying your debt to society. It wasn’t like Piper Kerman from Orange Is the New Black doing a year in the federal pen for being a drug mule. They didn’t throw you in prison to punish you; for that, they would either beat you, enslave you, or kill you. You were only in prison because you were awaiting trial, in Paul’s case, trial for treason, trial for claiming that Jesus is Lord, Jesus is the real Caesar, not Augustus, not Tiberius, not Nero, but Jesus. How will this imprisonment end: with freedom or with execution? Paul does not know.
So, when you’re in prison, for being a drug mule or for preaching about Jesus, when you’re in prison, what is most important to you? Well, probably your lawyer, right? But after that. Probably your faith, your attitude, and your friends, right. Those are the themes that will keep recapitulating in Paul’s little letter to the Philippians, sneaking back in and then out, weaving into the text of this document like John Williams’ little musical riffs in a Star Wars movie: faith, friends, and attitude.
You heard it FFF—fortississimo—in this morning’s lesson. “I thank my God every time I remember you for your sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now.” You see, here’s the thing: the Church at Philippi was Paul’s favorite church—by a long shot, by a country mile. If God had said to Paul, “Paul you can have all the Christians in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae, and Thessalonica put together, or you can have all the Christians in Philippi. What say you?”, Paul would have said, “I’ll take the Philippians, forget all those other bozos.”
Paul can be so mean to the other churches; did you ever notice this while reading the New Testament? Have you seen this film called Me and Earl and the Dying Girl? It’s about an insecure high school kid named Greg who spends most of his time and all of his energy inventing ingenious strategies to keep a healthy distance between himself and every other human being on the planet. Greg is the only kid in his high school who is not in at least one clique.
And then Greg’s mother—who, by the way, is played by Connie Britten, which is reason enough to see this movie, but don’t tell my wife I said that—Greg’s mother finds out that Greg’s classmate Rachel has leukemia, and she makes him befriend this classmate with cancer, which horrifies the shy, insecure Greg, but Greg’s mom won’t quit till he goes to her house, and Greg calls his mother “the LeBron James of nagging.” And I thought to myself, “No, Greg’s Mom is not the LeBron James of nagging; the Apostle Paul is the LeBron James of nagging.” Right? You’ve read the New Testament.
But not here. Philippians is the epistolary exception that proves the rule. “I thank my God every time I think of you, for your sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now.” Shouldn’t that be one of the first prayers we pray every single day, a chorus of thanksgiving for the people in our local congregation who share the Good News with us.
Oh man, this sermon is already longer than Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and I’m almost out of time, but in closing can I share with you why you are so important—to me, and to each other?
Two reasons. I thank my God every time I think of you for your sharing in the Gospel from the first day because it’s January, and we’re still collecting your stewardship pledges. The Stewardship Campaign is all finished and tucked into bed for the year, but you’re still sending your pledges in. There’s some good news, and there’s some bad news. You always want to hear the bad news first.
Here’s the bad news: we have 70 fewer pledges this year than last year; 704 last year on this date. 634 this year as of Thursday; 70 fewer out of 700 pledges; that’s 10%; that’s a lot.
But here’s the Good News: even with 70 fewer pledges this year, you’ve pledged more money. Fewer pledges, more dollars, within inches of our target. Those of you who came through really came through. So I thank my God every time I think of you for your sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now. And, oh, by the way, there’s more good news: if you’re one of the 70, it’s not too late.
Here’s another reason we’re always thankful for those who share the Good News with us: it’s because there are days when death seems very close and looms large in our lives, and we need the family of faith to remind us that in God’s world, death can never have the last word. Sometimes it seems as if death will win, when four recent New Trier graduates lose their lives in an accident at such a young age, so I thank God for the Sacred Heart Parish and for the Winnetka Congregational Church and for the Jewish synagogue who gathered those shattered families into their embrace and farewelled their sons and sent them off on the next adventure in that world beyond space and time where God waits for them to come home. What would we do with such news without our friends and without our faith? I thank my God every time I think of those sister congregations, for their sharing in the Good News from the first day until now.
Sometimes death seems so close and looms so large. I thank my God every time I think of you, because my mailbox is full every day with prayers and condolences from the likes of you after the loss of my father. Scores of them. Every day. They just keep coming. I am thankful for you all.
And you know what’s interesting about the cards we’ve received? So many of them are from folks who very recently lost their own long loves. And so at a time like this, I’m reminded that in the faith family, we take turns. We take turns caring for one another. For everything there is a season: a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to grieve and a time to console. Sometimes you’re the one with the broken heart, and sometimes you’re the one picking up the pieces and patching them back together again with duct tape and glue guns. What would we do if we did not have each other?
According to Christian tradition, Paul was beheaded in Rome, probably by Nero, two short years after he wrote his letter to the Philippians. It is possible that Paul never again left the prison cell from which Philippians was written. If my guess is right, this letter may be the last work of Paul, which has survived to this generation. For all practical purposes these are Paul’s last words: I thank my God every time I think of you, for your sharing in the Gospel, from the first day until now.
What will your last words be?