Many of you have heard a bit of the early history of St. Aidan’s starting as a church by people who met out in a pavilion by the beach in the summer ‘beach cottage’ season, and then over time became a community who wanted to meet year-round and build the church in which we are worshipping today. My church in Alabama, St. Stephen’s, has its own origin story of meeting in a trailer (or as they were called then) a Kwonset hut in the woods of what was at the time a hard scrabble part of Birmigham called Slabtown.
The people who are bold enough to start up new churches from scratch, without their own established buildings or land, are called church planters. Every church has to be planted at some point, but we get established and forget what courage and creative it took people back in the beginning to be able to envision gathering a brand new group of people together for worship in a new place. I know several Episcopal church planters in Austin, Texas, and they are some of the coolest, bravest, faith-filled priests I know.
My friend Minerva and her husband Paul started SoCo (or South of Congress) Community in the neighborhood where they already had been living and raising their two sons. The church met in a school cafeteria and they would have to bring in all their church supplies early each Sunday morning to make it into a worship space, and then take it down again at the end. St. Mary Magdalene in Manor, outside of Austin, had a similar weekly routine. My friend David Peters (also known as the Tik Tok priest) planted a church called St. Joan of Arc, which he recalls began when he had his first cup of coffee in January 2019 at West Pecan Coffee in the suburb of Pflugerville. They went on to meet at West Pecan for Bible studies and Sunday worship, then moved into a school cafeteria when their numbers grew, and then just this fall moved into their own space in a commercial building. Another friend, Lizzie McManus-Dail, another priest with a big ministry on TikTok, planted Jubilee Community Church in north Austin, following a simliar trajectory from borrowing space in a local restaurant to moving into their own dedicated space in a local shopping center.
It takes a lot of guts and vision and persistence to start a brand-new worshipping community from out of nothing but a desire to see more people know the love of Jesus. And that’s just what the now legendary Apostle Saint Paul did back in the early decades after Jesus walked here on Earth. After his own dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, but way before he was called a saint, Paul was first and foremost a church planter and an encourager of other church planters. So the best way to understand Paul’s letters, including the letter to the Philippians we heard read today, is as a letter from a church planter to the people who are continuing on the work of developing the new church in its next stages of growth.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians has a very uplifting and encouraging tone, and based on what we read in it, the church there seemed to be more functional than some of the rather dysfunctional church plants Paul wrote letters to elsewhere. In Philippians, Paul is thanking a community with whom he developed a deep friendship for their encouragement and financial support of his continued ministry of church planting beyond Philippi. The bond between Paul and the people of the Philippians church plant was so deep because, as Bible scholar Michael Gorman says, “The Philippian community, then, was founded in and continued to live in a climate of suffering for the gospel. Yet the Philippian believers were both generous and joyful in their affliction. This shared experience between Paul and the Philippians is at the heart of their gospel fellowship, or koinoinia… Paul and the Philippians are united in Christ by their common suffering for him and their common joy in him” (417).
The main theme of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is kenosis, which means pouring out our emptying out oneself for others, as Christ did for us. Paul wants to give the Philippians encouragement for “a life of cruciform (cross-shaped) service in faith, love, power, and hope as [their community] faces the challenges of opposition and discord. To live in this way,” Gorman paraphrases, “is to possess what Paul understands to be the ‘mind’ or ‘disposition’ of Christ” (423).
In the section of the letter we read today, chapter 4 verses 1-9, we read Paul giving very specific counsel and encouragement to his friends in Philippi for how to keep their church and their own faith growing, deepening, and thriving—and it is timeless wisdom for us as Christians today as we hope to grow and deepen our own lives in Christ and to see St. Aidan’s continue to grow and thrive as a community of faith.
First we hear Paul encourage the whole community to “stand firm in the Lord,” and specifically urges two women, Eudoia and Syntyche, to be of the same mind in the Lord. Philippi is one of the best known examples from scripture of a church with numerous women who gave financial support and leadership to this growing church plant. Lydia, the dealer of purple cloth, is the most well know of these. We don’t know the details about Euodia and Syntyche, but they are mentioned here in such a way that makes us think that they were not of the same mind about something, and Paul is asking that his loyal companion help mediate between them so that, in the end, they would be of the same mind in the Lord.
What could they have as a shared common ground, on which they could come together to be of the same mind? A shared desire to rejoice in the Lord always. Through shared worship and faith, they could set their discord aside for the greater good. One of the biggest things that scares people away from the church is in-fighting and back-biting amongst believers. But one of the biggest things we can do to welcome people into the life of a faith community is to do our best to love one another well and treat one another with dignity and respect. Or as Paul puts it in this letter to his friends in Philippi: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” We don’t have to agree with everyone here at St. Aidan’s or with every fellow Christian around the world about everything. But even in our moments of not being of the same mind, we are called to remember that we have Christ as our common bond, and that we are called to be gentle with one another as a way to share the good news of God’s love for us.
In Philippians 4, Paul is laying out for the church a rule of life, a model to follow both for healthy individual faith and healthy shared faith as a church community.
Be of the same mind
Let your gentleness be known to everyone
Here and throughout Paul’s letters, he was giving the church communities he had planted specific ideas and encouragement for how to live more harmoniously with one another—especially when people were disagreeing over issues of how best to run the church.
Being people of prayer, supplication, thanksgiving is the foundation of our being at peace with God—and with ourselves and others.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and preeminent theologian, in his book Being Christian tells of “a threefold model of prayer that became very popular in the early church… you start with the practical life: learning ordinary self-awareness, the common sense of the Christian life; recognizing when you are being selfish and stupid, and acting instead with an increasing degree of generosity. You move on from that to the freedom to see God in the world around you. When you have got your ego and all its fussiness a little bit in its place, then actually you see more; the world is more real and more beautiful. You see the order and the pattern in it, and your heart and your imagination expand until at last you arrive in the third level… the intensity and clarity of what you see in the world around you triggers a sort of leap in the dark—or rather into the light—and into God. Your vision is clarified; your actions are gradually disciplined; the divine life slowly transforms you” (RW 70).
In short, when we are praying for ourselves, and others, and the concerns of the wider world, we will find that we are ourselves are changed and our faith is deepened day by day. Trusting God and being with God in prayer is how we can access God’s peace, which passes all understanding.
Paul says we should think about these things: whatever is pure, pleasing, commendable, any excellence, anything worthy of praise
And we should keep on following the good teaching and examples you have received from fellow believers (such as Paul), forebears in the faith.
Sometimes people who are interested in congregational development can get very wrapped up in complex strategic plans and mutltistep paths to creating healthier, more thriving churches that are growing and attractive for new people to join us. But the best models I have seen for being church together in meaningful ways are beautiful in their simplicity and pointing us back to what is most important. RenewalWorks’ model is one: the heart of the leader, get people moving (into deepening their faith), embedding the Bible into all our preaching and teaching, creating a sense of ownership (that chruch belongs to and is the responsibility of all), and to pastor the community through emphasizing service to people beyond our walls.
So to echo Paul: Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.