Monday, January 11, 2010

The Power of Encouragement

Of all the churches founded by the Apostle Paul, the Philippians brought him the most joy. The irony is that the story of how Paul came to Philippi began not with joy, but with disouragement and frustration. We read in Acts 15: 36ff. that at the outset of Paul's second missionary journey there was "a sharp disagreement" between Paul and Barnabus about whether to bring young John Mark along again. He was the young man who became homesick and abruptly left them on their first missionary journey. As a result Paul felt him to be unreliable. Barnabus, on the other hand, was intent on giving John Mark a second chance. Agreeing to disagree, Paul chose Silas and headed west through Asia Minor (picking up Timothy along in Derbe) while Barnabus took John Mark and sailed for Cyprus. To be at odds must have been difficult and discouraging for such close friends. But the trouble did not end there....because as Paul and Silas (and later Timothy) attempt to go south into the province of Asia, they were hindered by the Spirit from preaching the gospel there. Then, again, when they tried to enter the province of Bithynia "the Spirit of Jesus" would not allow them to enter there either (exactly how, we are not told)! Unable to continue north or south, and determined not to go back, they waited in Troas at the shoreline of the Aegean Sea (no doubt perplexed and praying about what to do next). That's when two unexpected things happened.

A close reading of Acts 16 reveals that it was in Troas that they met up with Doctor Luke, perhaps to treat a medical condition of Paul's. (Luke may very well have been from Europe or even Philippi.) The second noteworthy event happened when Paul had a vision in the night of a man from Macedonia, beckoning them to “Come over and help us” (Acts 16:9). This was the encouragement from God they had been looking for! They could not go north, or south, and they were certainly not going back…the only way left was across the sea to the province of Macedonia (northern Greece)! With the wind and the Spirit at their backs (Acts 16:11) they sailed across the Aegean in only 2 days (a journey that normally took 5 days); and came to the Roman colony of Philippi– it was the first city in Europe to hear about King Jesus.

As I said earlier, of all the churches Paul founded the Philippians brought him the most joy. It’s no surprise that when they learned Paul was again in prison for the gospel (in Ephesus or possibly Rome); they sent a man named Epaphroditus…to encourage him with money and supplies and friendship as he had so encouraged them with the gospel. Paul was deeply moved by this act of compassion. In a first century Roman prison one survived on the kindness of friends and that’s about it. So Paul wrote a letter to be carried back by Epaphroditus, thanking them for their gift, but also encouraging them to hold fast to their joy and unity in Christ despite present challenges. Encouragement: Paul needed it, the Philippians needed it, and we need it. It’s the assurance that we matter to God and to others. It’s essential to our life in the Spirit and growth in Christ-likeness. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul shows us the way to encourage well….

We are encouraged when we know we have partners (Phil. 1: 5). Paul writes, "I thank my God every time I remember you…because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now." He was thankful to God because of the Philippians’ sharing or ‘partnership’ (NIV) in the gospel. The familiar Greek word is koinonia which is translated elsewhere as ‘fellowship’. It means, literally ‘having something in common.’ Koinonia refers to a deep bond of friendship and shared responsibility. There is nothing more encouraging than knowing we have partners; a community backing us in our journey with Christ. “From the first day until now” the Philippians were partners in the gospel, Paul says. That was literally true.

It was during Paul’s first week in Philippi that he shared the gospel with a woman named Lydia…a dealer in purple dye, a lucrative business in the Roman Empire. “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” The result was that she and her entire household were baptized. Afterward, she invited Paul and his friends to stay in her home while they served the Lord there. Today, we talk about domestic partners, tennis partners and business partners. But the word koinonia means something much deeper and holier. It’s a gospel partnership, a spiritual community that shares the responsibility of mission for the sake of Christ.

Sometime later, when Paul and Silas were thrown in prison for disturbing the peace, an earthquake opened the prison doors in the middle of the night. When they didn’t try to escape, the jailer fell to his knees, “What must I do to be saved?” he asked. He and his household believed on the Lord Jesus and were baptized. Paul loved his new gospel partners in Philippi. “I thank my God every time I remember you” he said. Do you have people like that in your life? I'm blessed to be able to say that I experience that partnership in Christ with my wife Lisa, with my church family, and the extended network of brothers and sisters with whom I serve in this city. We need partners if we plan to serve Christ this year. We can’t do it alone... and partnership is what Christ promises as we follow him!

We are encouraged when we are thoughtfully affirmed and re-affirmed (Phil. 1: 7) Paul continues, "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." I love the way Paul affirms and reaffirms his partners and in such a thoughtful manner. “It is right for me to think this way because….” because you hold me in your heart in prayer; because you’ve shared your resources with me in my imprisonment; because you’ve shared in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. His affirmation was not vague or generalized but specific. You may have had it up to here with criticism…but you can never get enough affirmation. When I was about five years old my dad told me I was good at tying my shoes. (It's certainly not the only time he has affirmed me....but I still remember his simple words)! In college, a professor wrote a very positive comment on a paper I wrote in an American Literature course. I’ve never forgotten his words either. And you know what I do when someone sends me a nice card or letter? I put it in a special place in my office…and when my tank is low I open that drawer and read one! The next time you think about someone you’ve wanted to encourage, say it, write it, communicate it…and be specific, because they need to hear from you too.

We are encouraged when we know we are deeply missed by others (Phil. 1: 8). Here is a third principle of encouragement from Paul’s opening comments. "For God is my witness how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of missing someone so much, it physically hurts; and the only relief is to hear from them, to get some form of communication." When Paul saw Epaphroditus who had made the dangerous journey to bring him a gift all the way from Philippi, getting deathly sick in the process…he knew he was missed; and he wanted them to know how much he missed them too.

I heard recently about a beautiful thing going on in our own church family. Three women who live alone and attend a grief support group together decided to call one another…not once in a while or once a week, but every morning. It’s a reminder to each other that they matter and are being thought of. That’s an example and a model of caring that we can all learn from. Paul says he longs for his friends with the compassion (the Greek word means 'guts' or 'inward parts') of Christ Jesus. That is, Paul’s soul deep longing was similar to the way Jesus longs for us and, yes, misses us. Have you ever considered the fact that Jesus misses our company when we drift from his fellowship; that he longs for us, or is sad when we forget him? Let this be the year that we seek after him…not once in a while, or even once a week, but daily.

We are encouraged when we are specifically prayed for (Phil. 1: 9-11). "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…." Midway through an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington shared this story: "I walked in the house one day and—feeling full of myself, a movie star—I said to my mother, 'Did you ever think this was all going to happen?' She was like, 'Please. First of all, go wash the windows for me. You have no idea how many people have been praying for you when you were being a knucklehead.'" Now Washington is a man of deep faith, a member of the Church of God in Christ, married to his wife of 25 years…who reads his Bible daily; and is a spokesman for the Boys & Girls Club in addition to other charity work. But by his own testimony, it was the grace of God and a lot of prayer that helped him to know the difference between the good life….and what Paul calls “the best” life. Here in West Los Angeles, we pride ourselves on knowing what the good life is, a good education, a good zip code, a good job; but in many cases we don't realize that the best is still out there. This city has no idea how many people have been praying for it. This is a mission field. May God use every prayer by his grace to help us go beyond the good to what is best... a life lived as Jesus would live it if he were us.

Finally, we are encouraged when we know God will finish the good work he began in us. "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" (Phil. 1: 6). In other words, don’t lose heart: God is a finisher as well as a beginner. We humans are great at starting things, especially in January. We make resolutions and set goals, we promise ourselves and others that we will do better this time around. In his commentary on this passage, one of my favorite New Testament scholars, N. T. Wright, mentions an old prayer by Sir Francis Drake in which he prays that "when God leads us to undertake any great work, he will also remind us that 'it is not the beginning but the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished, that yieldeth the true glory'" (N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Epistles). As one who set out to circumnavigate the globe, he knew that beginning was easy…finishing is tough. You may or may not be planning to sail around the world this year; but what about dating your spouse again, spending more time with your grandchildren, committing yourself to a close-knit fellowship seeking to grow as disicples of Jesus, reading your Bible daily, sharing Christ with a friend, honoring God with hard work and dedicated study, or helping to alleviate suffering and stand up for what’s holy, good and right?

As you pursue such worthy goals…may the wind of the Spirit be at your back as it was at Paul’s as he set sail for Macedonia. May God encourage you with partners and make you one; may he encourage you with affirmation, and help you to give it; may he encourage you with people who care and pray for you this year, and spur you to do the same. And may you be encouraged to know that despite whatever challenges you may face, the same Lord Jesus who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it!

1 comment:

Will Vaus said...

Imagine coming across the blog of a former roommate and fellow seminarian just because he quoted N. T. Wright!

Great to cross paths with you again. You may also be interested in my blog http://willvaus.blogspot.com and web site: www.willvaus.com

Blessings on you and your family,
Will