A reading and reflection for Saturday, December 8, 2012.
The seventh day of Advent.
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The bulk of the books of the Bible we call the New Testament are actually letters written by church leaders to churches spread out around the Mediterranean. The biggest letter writer was a guy named Paul. In addition to helping start many of these churches, Paul felt a particular obligation to write letters of encouragement, correction, thanks, and advice.
Letter-writing in the first century was a pretty formal affair. Letters were often structured in five parts, having first a greeting, then an exchange of pleasantries and goodwill, then the body of the letter, then a request, and finally a conclusion. This is especially true for Paul's letters in the New Testament.
Today's passage is from a letter Paul wrote while he was in prison. He was part of a team of people who had started a church in Macedonia, in an area dominated by Gentiles. This was a pretty new thing for the early churches as most had been started in Jewish cities or areas among folks who had become convinced Jesus was the Messiah promised the Jewish people. But now, even Gentiles had been invited to the party, (Gentiles didn't necessarily share the Jewish concept of a Messiah) and Philippi represented a pretty important step in that direction.
In this letter, after his greeting (v.1-2), Paul confesses his thanksgiving for the church in Philippi, especially for their support of him and in the ministry of preaching the gospel. Paul expresses his boundless joy for this group of people who responded to the call of the Gospel and acted on it by helping Paul. "It is right for me to think this way about all of you...for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel." The members of the church in Philippi partnered with Paul by encouraging him, loving him, and being generous to him and Paul responds in grateful prayer to God for this group of allies.
And as to the specific content of his prayer, Paul says: "This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."
We could break this down into two parts.
1. Your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best. This is probably the most important verse in this entire letter. Here Paul reminds the Philippians that love leads to knowledge, which leads to wisdom. Put another way: If you are interested in being able to discern the will of God, if you want to "determine what is best", then you require proper knowledge and insight. We might call these things "theology" or "theological foundations", but even these have their root in that sacred unmerited love we experienced in Jesus Christ toward us. We love one another (remember: not a feeling, but an action) because the act of loving one another produces insight into God's will which enables you to see the way of God.
2. So that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the praise and glory of God. This isn't the first time we've encountered the theme of purity and blamelessness during this season of Advent. And it won't be the last. For Paul, the byproduct of the above verse is that when Christ comes, the Christian might be pure and blameless. And this doesn't mean you can will away your sin so that you'll never do anything wrong, but rather that by knowing the will of God, and by acting it out in your love and knowledge, you will actually come to a greater dependence on Jesus Christ, who grants us his blamelessness. So Paul can say, "the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ." And when Christ comes again, the ones whose lives have been marked with a commitment to enacted love, faithful service, and true knowledge will recognize that day as their salvation and will join their voices in with all the other saints in everlasting "praise and glory of God."
Take out a piece of paper. Write a list of as many people as you can who support you. This might be financial support, help with your children, help with fixing a leaky pipe, people who listen to you when you're hurting, people who visit you when you're sick, or the like. Write their names down in a list. Then, find some time in your day to pray for each of them them specifically.
You might find this sample prayer helpful.
Gracious God, today I remember _____________. My heart overflows with love for them for he/she has been a constant support for me over the years. I thank you for him/her, I thank you that he/she has always been there and looking out for me. And now, Lord, I pray for him/her, that their love would continue to grow, so that by loving others, they would come to a richer knowledge of you, which leads to a better sense of their own purpose in your will. Grant them the grace to love and the will to serve. In Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.