As I mentioned in the first post in this series, Philippians is essentially a missionary thank-you letter. Paul, writes to his friends in Philippi to thank them for their ongoing support and to encourage them in their faith. However, it is different to most missionary letters in that Paul had not actually spent much time in Philippi and can’t actually have known the people he was writing to that well (see the story in Acts 16). Not only that, but Paul was writing this letter from Prison, which is slightly ironic, given that prison featured heavily in his experience of Philippi.
However, despite the situation, Paul obviously held the Philippians in high regard and with a great deal of affection.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.Phil. 1:7-8
This raises the question, which is particularly pertinent in our current situation, how did Paul maintain this depth of relationship at a distance and in his difficult situation?
I think that the Phil. 1:1-11 gives us two answers to that question. The first, surprisingly is technology. Paul used the technology of the time, in this case letter writing, to stay in contact with his friends in Philippi. From the way in which Paul writes, it appears that this is not the only letter which had passed between him and the church in Philippi. He was aware, both through letters and via the people who carried those letters what was happening in the church and they new about his situation.
Of course, for us, letter contact is far easier. We don’t have to scratch something onto a roll papyrus and then wait for someone to carry it the thousand of miles or so to get to its recipient. Email, Facebook, Zoom and a host of other technologies make staying in touch with people far easier than it was for Paul. However, these things only work if we actually use them. The fact that you can be in contact with people doesn’t mean that you actually are in touch with them. It takes effort.
Take the time to post the odd status update or photo on Facebook, it doesn’t take a lot of time, but it’s an easy way to let lots of friends know how you are doing. Why not call friends up for a video chat? Meeting up for a glass of wine or a cup of coffee by Zoom isn’t as good as meeting in real life, but it helps to maintain contact. Give it a try if you haven’t already.
The second thing that Paul did was pray. He thanked God for the Philippians, remembered the work they had done together and prayed deep prayers for their spiritual growth. These weren’t shallow, God bless the Philippians prayers, but thoughtful and thankful reflection and intercession. Undoubtedly, his prayers were helped by the things that he learned from distant contact with the Philippians, just as his letters were bolstered by his prayers.
Prayer needs to be intentional, too. It takes work and it takes effort. There are plenty of books, sermons and articles that can help us to pray, but in the end it all boils down to actually praying. Regular, disciplined praying. Most people struggle to some extent with prayer and all of us have times when it is really, really hard work. That common experience isn’t an excuse not to pray, but it should help us to realise that we are not alone when it isn’t going well. Some people really thrive on prayer lists and if you’ve not tried the prayer mate app on your phone, you might want to check it out.
I’ve no doubt that Paul would have preferred sitting in Lydia’s house, drinking tea and eating cake rather than writing letters from a Roman jail. Distant communication is not the same thing as face to face fellowship. However, by writing letters and regular praying, he was able to maintain a deep and warm friendship with the Philippians over significant barriers. There is no reason why our friendships cannot survive or even thrive during this period of lockdown, either.