[Transcript of a Communion meditation delivered August 7, 2016, at Plantation United Methodist Church]
Philippians 1:1-11 (New Revised Standard Version)
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And 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.
In a dark, dank, stone-walled room, away from friends, torn from the work he loved, Paul sat alone. He had been imprisoned for doing nothing more than sharing the story of Jesus with the people he met. That message — and most likely the bold way he had delivered it — had offended some powerful people in the towns he traveled. It had angered and frightened them, and Paul finds himself in jail.
He would have been entirely dependent on the goodwill of others. In jails at that time, there wouldn’t have been a state-provided meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Meals, clothing, water, writing materials — all that would have to be provided by friends from the outside. No breaks in the open with other inmates for exercise and fresh air. Just the room.
Every day, those stone walls.
Every night, that same ceiling.
Every hour, that damp, mildewed, confining air.
Awful. And… yet… it is in this context that Paul writes one of his most beautiful, affecting, hope-filled letters, our scripture reading for today. In just the 11 verses we’ve read we find these words: grace, peace, thanks, confidence, love, confirmation, compassion, insight, pure, blameless, righteousness, glory, praise.
So, how does he do it? In the midst of such difficulty, such discomfort, such darkness, how does he grab ahold of and hold on to the light?
In the search for an answer, I’d like to take you this morning on a bit of a whirlwind tour through some fascinating words in the Greek of our passage today. Are you sufficiently caffeinated to handle that? Ready? Okay, let’s go!
Our first word this morning is hagios. We usually translate this word as saints, or holy. “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi.”
I’ve struggled a bit with that word over the years: saint. I’ve known a lot of wonderful people in my life, full of hospitality and joy and wisdom. But I have yet to see a halo hovering above any of their heads. And I know there isn’t one above mine. And I would hazard a confident guess that there weren’t any be-haloed visions of saintlike perfection in the Philippians church, either.
And yet, Paul calls them hagios.
The core of hagios is of contrast. Hagios is something that is different than what is around it. A church building can be called hagios, because it is different from the other buildings around it. It has a different structure, and a different purpose. A church is a building that has been “set apart” for a very specific use: the worship of God.
Calling people hagios is saying that there is something different about them. But how different? It’s the next words that fill in an important blank:
ἁγίοις ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ
hagiois en Christo Iesou.
The people are hagios in Jesus. And that little word we translate as “in” (ἐν) has so many different meanings, such as…
It can be a physical place, as in “I live in Plantation, Florida.” Hagios people live our lives located in Jesus’ life and love.
It can mean “for,” as in we live our lives for Jesus, motivated by Jesus.
It can mean “by.” We are able to live a hagios life by the means of having the love of Jesus at our core.
Subtle differences in meaning, but important. And I don’t think we have to choose just one. Because they’re all true, and all important. The people of Philippi were hagios — we are hagios — not because we have reached saintly perfection, but because of the relationship we have in Jesus Christ.
Next up, verse 2. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
That word “grace” is charis. It is a word that absolutely pervades Philippians, appearing over and over again in many forms. It is the central theme of the letter. Sometimes we translate it as “joy.”
Charis, though, is more than an emotion. It is not just being happy. It is a mindset, a core characteristic of a person that allows him or her to look beyond their circumstances to the promise of God’s love. Charis is what allows Paul to be thankful in jail.
“Grace to you and peace…”
Eiréné is the word we translate as peace. When we use the word “peace” in English, we’re usually talking about one of two things: (1) a state of well-being inside a person, or (2) an absence of conflict between persons or groups. Eiréné doesn’t speak so much to that intrapersonal, subjective feeling of internal peace, but instead a unity between people. Eiréné is peace in relationship.
Our next Greek word is one of my favorites: eucharisteó. It comes from two lovely words: eu (good) and charis (grace), which we looked at a moment ago. Eucharisteó: to give thanks, to be grateful. “I thank my God every time I remember you,” Paul writes. I eucharisto my God.
And then there’s the next word. “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Remembrance is mneia in Greek.
It comes from the verb mnáomai, to actively, consciously bring into our mind a person or something that has happened in the past. It is a recollection, a mention, a commemoration.
And then, finally our last Greek word for the day, from verse 5, koinónia. Often translated as fellowship, it means an active partnership. “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” Paul is able to give thanks because of the koinónia of his brothers and sisters in Philippians.
How you hanging in there? Hagios, charis, eiréné, eucharisteó, mneia, and koinonia. That’s a lot to take in for one post!
So… after all that… let’s put it all together.
Because of his connection (koinonia)
with the people of Philippi
who were living life (hagios) in Christ,
Paul is able, in the midst of a difficult situation,
to remember (mneia) God’s promises with a joy
that rises above his circumstances (charis)
and to rejoice in the peace
of relationship with God (eiréné)
with thanksgiving (eucharisteó).
When we come to the Communion table, that is exactly what we are doing. In spite of our circumstances, we come to celebrate the relationship we have been offered with God and with each other. We come to remember. We come to celebrate. We come to give thanks.
Eucharisteó. Good grace, to give thanks. The “Eucharist” is one of the words we use to describe The Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, where we gather to celebrate the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. We come together in gratitude. And we remember.
Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and God’s people — an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you” (Luke 22:19-20).
The words we’ve looked at today as we open our Philippians study are all at the core of who we are as Christ-followers.
And at the core of the core… is thanksgiving.
I came to faith in a lovely church in upstate New York, Clinton United Methodist Church. And although I don’t remember the exact date, I do remember the exact circumstances.
I had recently made the intellectual decision to become a Christian. Meaning: I had weighed the evidence, and concluded that this religion made sense, and I made the analytical determination that I would follow Jesus.
But it hadn’t yet reached my heart.
Soon after I started attending worship services in Clinton, I heard that there was a class on healing prayer being offered. Taking classes is right up my alley, so I signed up. It was great, I really enjoyed it.
On the final night of the class, the visiting pastor who was teaching, Rev. Madeline McDonald, was offering a Communion service. As we were all walking into the sanctuary, Rev. McDonald came up to me and said, “I feel strongly that you are supposed to hold the cup during Communion.”
I was stunned. I told her that I was still very new at this whole Christian thing, and I didn’t think it was a good idea for me to be a part of the service. I would be happy to be a participant, but not actually involved.
She shook her head, and said again, “No. I really think you are supposed to do this.” She seemed so certain. And so serious. So I — very reluctantly — agreed.
At the conclusion of the short service, I stood up when she asked for the Communion servers to come forward. I took Communion from quickly, and with not a lot of thought, feeling a bit nervous about the whole thing. Then turned to face the congregation gathered. As each came forward to receive, I held out the cup and said the words that Rev. MacDonald had taught me, over and over again.
This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.
This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.
This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.
I don’t know how many times I intoned those words before it finally hit me.
This was the blood of Christ, shed for you… and for me, as well. It wasn’t an intellectual idea about grace. It wasn’t a lovely story of hope and promise. This ritual, this rite, was an active remembrance of an actual act in human history, when God became flesh and bone, and gave that flesh and bone up for us — so that we would be hagios, the ones who are called to live a life that is different, that is full of peace and joy and love.
That is the hope in which we stand,
in which Paul stood,
and which can transform our lives…
and our world.
We are stronger because of our connection with one other (koinonia), a community of people striving to live every part of our lives in Christ (hagiois en Christo Iesou).
Whatever is happening in our lives, we can choose to remember (mneia) God’s promises with a joy (charis) that can lift us from our circumstances into the peace of deep, abiding relationship with God (eiréné) with eucharisteó, deep, profound gratitude.
May it be so in your life this day, and all your days!
Greek translations courtesy of BibleWorks 6.0, the Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, the Greek-Engish Lexicon of the New Testament, and Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.