Philippians 1:3-11 and Romans 8:31-39
A couple of years ago I went camping out at Johnson Lake with some friends. While Anne was cooking in the camper and her husband Doug was in town over in Cozad for a meeting, I looked around to see what I could do, what I could help with. I know, I thought, I can start a fire. Now, had I ever actually started a fire myself before? No, but Doug had set up the fire pit with wood all ready to go, it just needed a spark. Anne and I couldn’t find the tiny fire starter packet but they had a lot of newspaper and I was like, I’ll just tuck some newspaper down in there and light that, it’ll be fine, I’ve seen it done like that before. 40 minutes and half of a newspaper later all I had was an ash heap under seared, beautifully tented, logs of wood and a sweater that reeked of smoke. Thankfully, Anne and I found the fire starter and in under a minute had a nice, warm, fire to make s’mores and campfire pizzas over. Remembering that night, got me to thinking. Sometimes we can have everything in place, and feel like things should be easy or smooth sailing. Sometimes it feels like everything is in place but we still need a little something extra to get going, to keep going. Whether it’s fire or our faith, sometimes you need a little extra spark, a little extra help, to ignite and thrive and grow.
Today we continue with our sermon series, The Story of Scripture The Story of Us, and specifically we look at Church Stories, as author Rachel Held Evans calls them, or the letters of the New Testament. If you flip in your bible to the New Testament, the first book you’d find there is the Gospel of Matthew, the good news of Matthew. But chronologically, several of the letters were written first. The Gospels were told verbally around firesides and homes for awhile before they were ever captured in print. Those stories of the gospels, the stories of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection, lit the fire of people’s faith. The people were inspired, moved, and also had questions. In the first century large and small communities were hearing about Christ for the first time and figuring out what it meant to live as followers of Christ. In those early years, Christianity itself was taking shape and those early followers faced challenges.
Pressures to conform to the dominant cultures of Greece and Rome. Conformity that was enforced by the Roman military and violence.
Questions as to whether circumcision and dietary restrictions were required of non-Jewish followers of Christ.
Questions about Christ’s teachings, what his birth, life, death, and resurrection meant, and, as the apostles cultivated more leaders and teachers, the people had to figure out which teachers and leaders to follow, which ones to trust.
For the early followers of Christ, Jesus and the verbal gospels had lit the fires of their faith, but they encountered obstacles to keeping that flame going. They needed help rekindling it and bringing their faith back to life which is where the letters come in. Those communities sometimes sent messages to the disciple or leader who had started their faith community to ask for advice and assistance. Or other times, a disciple or leader heard about a new or struggling community and reached out to them.
Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon were all letters written by the apostle Paul or a student of Paul writing in his name or on his behalf.
Some of those letters address really specific issues in towns such as Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and Galatia. In many ways, reading 1st and 2nd Corinthians is like hearing one side of telephone conversation. The church in Corinth wrote letters to Paul, letters that didn’t survive over time, and we have Paul’s responses and answers, his advice, admonishment, and encouragement, to their situation.
Some of those letters, are more general in nature. For instance, Romans is a letter from Paul to the early church in Rome. Paul hadn’t been there yet but wanted to convey certain things to the Christians there.
And outside of those letters from Paul, are other letters as well.
There is the Book of Hebrews, which is a more like a sermon addressing a community of Jewish believers.
James is a letter from James to christian communities that had especially faced hardship and difficulties.
1 and 2 Peter, written by the apostle Peter to “house-churches across five Roman provinces.”
And finally, 1,2,3 John and Jude
Now, you might be thinking. What do the letters matter to me? What was the point of making 80% of the New Testament actual letters?
For one reason, our stories are not so different from the early church stories. The things we struggle with, have questions about, while our contexts look drastically different, those things are eerily similar.
We struggle with the same things Paul talks about in the later half of Galatians, things like anger, bitterness, jealousy, and pride. It is hard not to conform to the materialistic, power hungry, greed driven, society around us. It is hard to instead be transformed by a gospel that calls us to love one another, care for one another, and share our resources.
We struggle with personal and systemic sin.
We need reminders about the important things in life, what really matters.
Sometimes life feels too overwhelming with its pain, suffering, and sorrow.
So many things can block and get in the way, starve our faith of it needs to survive. The letters of the New Testament may have been written to communities almost 2000 years ago but they have value to us. God inspired those words to breath life into the stories of the early church and they also breath life into our stories today.
And another reason why these letters matter to us? All of the letters have something in common. Whether it is specific, timely, advice about food, head coverings, gossip, and infighting or general timeless truths, the letters want us to thrive and they point us to Gods love in Christ. As Paul wrote to the early church in Philippi, the letters want people to overflow with knowledge and insight, so they may be pure and righteous, so that the work love began within them will be brought to completion. Yes, some of the passages are confusing and difficult and troubling. Yes, their grammar is frustrating and Paul wrote with way too many dependent clauses grouped together. Yes, we need to keep their original contexts in mind as we discover what these letters speak to us. And, at their core, the letters draw people into God’s love. They teach what Paul writes in Romans, that nothing, nothing, can ever separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
The letters of the New Testament were written to different people and communities, written by different people, and written across a span of years and yet, in one way or another, every letter is about sharing the risen Christ and helping people start, continue, and grow in their faith. In one way or another, every letter helps rekindle the fire of faith that the Holy Spirit first ignited. They rekindled fires in their original contexts and they rekindle the fires of our faith today.
So, no matter what you are going though, what you are struggling with, what weighs on your heart, where you need new life and resurrection and hope, God has a word for you. Your story intersects with the greatest story ever told and nothing can ever separate you from God’s love. This week, may we keep the spark of Christ burning brightly within us. This week, may we all find ways to fan the flame of our faith. Amen.
Rev. Stefanie Hayes