Today’s reading will conclude our series in the book of Philippians, a series in which we have focused on the deep joy God gives us in the life of faith. Today we will hear, tucked in the lines of the best and worst thank you note ever, the heart of the good news: we belong to Christ, and we are called to share Christ’s love. Hear now the word of God.
I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. 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. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.
15 You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. 16For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. 17Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. 18I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
If you’ve ever failed to send a thank you because your handwriting is so embarrassingly bad (that’s me), Paul’s handwriting was bad too. Maybe you’ve felt awkward because you forgot to send a thank you note, it got to be too late, and you had to let it go? Well, this note is so awkward it may have been worse than saying nothing. Maybe when you’ve written a thank you note, you were conflicted about how to express your gratitude genuinely – to be grateful without being over the top or sounding silly. You’re in good company with Paul because he ties himself in knots trying to say thank you. And yet, he never manages to say it.
To understand this strange thank you note, we need to remember the gift that rekindled the relationship between Paul and the Philippians, and which inspired this letter. Paul is in prison, and the Philippians sent a person from their community named Epaphroditus to bring him gifts. The Roman government provided nothing while a person awaited trial, and so for a prisoner to survive friends had to bring food, clothes, and blankets. Epaphroditus arrived with what Paul needed, and his visit inspired this letter, which includes this thank you note. Except, Paul never quite gets around to saying thank you.
Why is this part of the letter so awkward? The language is tense, detached, and at times almost rude. The most generous thing to say is that Paul is simply human, and like us it was hard for him to say thank you sometimes. Maybe he had a hard time accepting a gift. Maybe there was some disagreement and complication in the background of their relationship that made a straight “thank you” hard to say. Some have suggested that we should remember Paul is in prison. The lack of intimacy and the power of isolation can rob us of the sensitivity and vulnerability we need to survive, and to say thank you.
There is probably some partial truth in all these explanations for why Paul’s thank you note is so painfully awkward. Paul was human and, as we know, saying thank you is sometimes hard.
To give you a sense of how strange this thank you note is I want to imagine with you that the church sent out a stewardship campaign thank you note along these same lines. Most notes we receive from organizations (and the church is not much different) go something like this:
“Thank you for your gift. Here are some of the wonderful things we were able to do because of your generosity. Without your giving, none of this would be possible. Please remember us in the future.”
Now that’s the outline of a strong letter, but here’s what Paul’s version would sound like and this is not an exaggeration.
We’re so glad to finally receive your gift. We knew you cared, but you were probably busy and weren’t sure how to show it. Don’t think we were worried, though. We have learned to be self-sufficient – we can do the budget dance. There have been lean times, and we’ve had to make cuts before; but we survived. There have been good times, and we did important work. But either way, we’ve learned we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.
Nevertheless, it was kind of you to make a contribution. We know you’ve given in the past – but please don’t think we were counting on it this year. Candidly, we were mostly thinking about the difference a gift would make in your life, how important it is for you to build up credit in your account.
In any event, consider this your receipt for tax purposes. You’re paid in full. We have all we need and more. Remember, though, your gift pleases God the most. It’s really an act of worship more than charity. We should have asked you to bring it in and put it on the altar! Remember too, God will supply all your needs out of everything God has done in Christ Jesus. To God be the glory forever. May it always be so!
How does that work for a thank you note? It breaks almost all the rules of non-profit fundraising. Did you notice that there’s not even a “thank you” there? It’s so painfully awkward it could be one of the worst thank you notes ever. And yet, in a very strange way, for the purposes of being God’s word to us, it may also be the best thank you note Paul could have written because he calls us deeper – into deeper stewardship and deeper faith.
In the first place, surely part of the awkwardness that came through to the Philippians is that Paul is not shy talking about faith and money. Money is not off limits. Paul uses very commercial language here – words like records, interest, credit, and accounts. He literally says, “Here’s your receipt – paid in full.” He doesn’t apologize for needing to talk about money, as if basic needs and financial giving was a necessary evil beside a spiritual gospel.
Instead, Paul urged the Corinthians to give to the poor because their generosity was a tangible way of living like Christ. Christ was rich but became poor for their sakes. To the wealthy Christians in Rome, he talked of his hopes for the Jerusalem offering. That was money that would be given by Gentile Christians to help the suffering of Jewish Christians. Paul hoped that the money they gave would bridge their cultural and ethnic divides and help them really become one in Christ.
To Paul, money is not just money. It is an expression of beliefs and values, and even a means of grace. Instead of putting money in the back of the church, Paul moves the whole transaction to the altar. Our gifts are sacrifices pleasing to God.
Just as the Philippians needed to hear this, we too need to remember this – because any faith that gets real must deal with money. Paul and Jesus talk candidly about money and faith and so should we. Jesus saw money as having the power of a rival god. Money itself is not the problem, but the love of money has the power to draw us away from loving God and loving neighbor.
Jesus teaches that money is a powerful test of where our true loyalties lie and has the power to reveal which direction the heart is really facing.
Paul teaches us that money is a powerful tool to live out our faith. Used rightly, money enables us to love our neighbors tangibly, to put the love of Christ into action, and to build meaningful relationships across the boundaries that God has broken down.
It’s true that the use of money will reveal many distortions of the heart: anxiety, despair, self-absorption. But the use of money will also reveal great beauty in the heart: kindness, goodness, care for others, and love for God. Money finds its greatest good when it’s a tool for loving God and neighbor. Paul is trying to help us see that in his awkward thank you.
Paul is also trying to share with us, beyond his straight talk about money, the depth of his faith in Christ. Even though he was trying to say thank you for what they provided, Paul wanted the church to understand that his fundamental frame of reference was not his need, but his life in Christ.
Paul’s life in Christ was the source of his joy, the contentment he had learned, and the peace that protected him from every anxiety. Paul might have needed clothing or food, but he wasn’t anxiously checking the mail. Whether or not a gift arrived – for that matter, whether he lived or died – was neither here nor there. This is what mattered to Paul: in life and in death we belong to God. Paul had taken that into the very depths of his soul. He was not anxious about his future.
In fact, Paul may have wanted to distance himself from what we sometimes experience as the victimizing power of gifts. That’s the gift that comes with strings attached, where we get drawn into an unhealthy relational tango. You know how that works. Paul was wary of the entanglement of gifts. Repeatedly, he refused to accept money from the churches that he served because he treasured his freedom to say what he believed. Now that he has received a gift, not once but twice from the Philippians, maybe he feels compelled to remind them and himself that he belongs to God and is still free.
This too is a good reminder for us. Our life is in Christ. We can do all things through the One who gives us strength. The church is alive because it is gathered and sent by the Spirit with joy and power to bear witness to God’s love and justice. The church has something to share with the world, not only because it can meet material need, but fundamentally because we are caught up in the life of Christ and the love of Christ overflows in every way. In lean times or in good times, our life is always in Christ, the source of our joy, and peace, our hope, our energy, and our promise.
That is true for each one of us too. As I reflected on this worst/best thank you note, I thought quite a bit about the power of thank you notes in my own life. I like to send them – despite my awful handwriting – because they build a human connection and express gratitude that needs to find a voice. I look forward to receiving them because they are affirming of my gifts and abilities, and they help me to see that I made an impact, a difference in someone else’s life. I even have a file of thank you notes that I’ve received that did that, and I pull them out and read them on days when I need an encouraging word.
Paul’s note speaks to just this point where we need affirmation about our worth, about the meaning and value of our life. Our life is in Christ. We belong to God. Our life is never defined by what we have or don’t have, by what we do or what we can’t manage to do. Whether we have much and when we have very little. When our days are happy, and when they are full of sorrow. When we are healthy, or when we are sick and feeble. Our life is in Christ. Even when we are weak, we can do all things through Christ who lives within us and gives us strength. Even when we do not have enough – enough resources, or enough wisdom, enough courage, or enough hope, or enough love, or even enough time – God will supply all our needs out of the abundance of his riches in Christ.
This is the promise of the gospel to each of us. Take this good news into your life; root it deeply in your heart. Our life is in Christ. Be joyful. Be grateful. Share with others. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina