The 2022-23 Chapel Theme
The Letter to the Philippians
This fall in morning chapels (Monday and Wednesday), we will be journeying through Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
In the affectionate opening of this letter, Paul’s gratitude for the church’s “participation in the work of the gospel” is followed by a substantive and powerful prayer for them. He writes, “it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9-11).
In another translation, Paul’s prayer reads, “it is my prayer that your love may overflow more and more,” which captures the image both of our theme word, Abound, and the tenor of Philippians generally: that life lived before God, in Christ and by the Spirit offers an overflowing source of love, contentment, relationship, praise and joy. Indeed, Philippians has long been recognized as the “letter of joy” as the words joy and rejoice abound in it eleven times in four short chapters.
This is not because all things are going well for Paul or the church in Philippi. The church itself appears to be suffering from polarization within and enemies without. Paul himself writes from a Roman prison, and it was likely his last letter after a life in which he was regularly battered by circumstances and enemies, a life he imagined as one poured out as a drink offering in the service of others (2:17). One would expect Paul to have become depressed or even cynical, but far from it. He says in his next breath, I am joyful and rejoice with you all (2:17). In the paradox of our faith, Paul has found in Jesus’ emptying, humility and servanthood (2:6-7) a life that abounds to the glory and praise of God (2:9). The desire to praise (or worship or glorify) is a universal human experience, which we experience instantaneously and exhaustively through social media today. Unplugged and imprisoned as Paul was, his vision was yet full of praise and wonder. He commends to them what they have seen in him, the capacity to dwell on and praise what is true, honorable, pure, pleasing, and excellent (4:8). What is the secret of Paul’s capacity for all of this even amid suffering? How does all this abounding work in a world so upside down? We will see.
From such abounding love come two other things in this letter. One is peace, whether by dwelling on the excellent things in life or lifting our anxieties to God (4:7-9). In both cases, Paul says, the God of peace and his surpassing peace will be with us. The second thing that abounds from God-given love is knowledge and all discernment (1:9). These are clearly relevant to the arm of the church we call the university. Surprisingly perhaps, there are kinds of knowledge and discernment that can only abound through love, which puts our relationship to God, others, and our formation in the center of our learning and its curriculum.
Finally, Philippians has been called Paul’s most personal letter. It is right, then, that we ourselves come to it this year personally, which is not to say privately or individually. Rather it is, as our act of worship together, to open ourselves and our lives to these words so that they may abound in our lives to the praise and glory of God. May it be so. Amen.