GENEROSITY AND ABUNDANT LIFE
A Reflection on Philippians 4:10-20
|With Rev. Paul Joo, vicar of One in Christ Church. |
|With Bishop Robert Ilay of Iglesia Filipina Independiente Easter USA Diocese|
I am delighted that your vicar and my Korean American brother, Fr. Paul Joo, has invited me today to preach on the Letter of Paul to the Philippians. This 11th book in the New Testament is one of my favorite epistles and I tell you why.
It was many years ago, 1975 to be exact, that I attended a youth conference in Arusha, Tanzania (Africa) sponsored by the World Council of Churches. At the conference, we were asked to tell our names and which countries we came from. So I introduced myself and announced that I came from the Philippines. One of the delegates asked, “Where is Philippines?” Jokingly I replied, “Philippines is where St. Paul addressed his Letter to the Philippians.” The bible-loving Africans found it so funny that during the Church service, one African youth announced, “A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Filipinos!”
The context of this letter to the Philippians (not the Filipinos) was the Graeco-Roman world, sometime between 49-51 A.D. It was a period of religious persecutions and the Apostle Paul was imprisoned in Rome for preaching the Gospel. While in prison he received a generous gift of money sent by the Church in Philippi. The money was delivered by Epaphroditus, whom Paul referred to as his “brother, fellow worker, fellow soldier in Christ.” It is likely that Epaphroditus was a lay leader and a trusted official of the Church in Philippi, a city in ancient Greece. St. Paul was an evangelist and church planter and the Philippians was probably the joy of his life and ministry. These Christians were generous givers, not because they were rich but because they had given their lives to Christ and are demonstrating this lifestyle by supporting his ministry.
So this letter is actually Paul’s “thank you note.” Written from prison, it is a letter of joy and thanksgiving. I would like to call this a “jailhouse letter” of contentment, generosity and assurance of Christ’s promise.
1. Contentment in Christ
The mark of the resurrection life, the mark of life surrendered to God, is the gift of contentment. St. Paul wrote, “I know how to be rich and I know how to be poor. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation… I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:10-13)
Contentment is the state of being when you are free to be what God wants you to be; free to do what God wants you to do; and free to go where God wants you to go. You have a freed-up lifestyle because you are not possessed by your possessions. You are not envious of other’s wealth or success because your whole life is committed to the One who owns everything and who makes all things possible. You are not a slave of money; you are not in love with the gifts because you are totally in love with the Giver of those gifts. We can say that St. Paul was a free man, in more ways than one, even though he was in chains.
To those of you who have Facebook, I had just reprinted on my page, the amazing story of Dr. Charles Teo, a very successful cosmetic surgeon from Singapore. His life was one of choosing success over contentment and realizing that he made the wrong choice. He first wanted to be a General Practitioner but decided to shift to aesthetic medicine because of the money. In Singapore as in many other cities where prosperity and image matter, rich people do not mind paying huge sums of money to make them look good. This is what the media bombards us with. We are immersed in a culture of narcissism, where success is measured by how many toys we own, how large our cars and houses are and how beautiful our faces and bodies look like. So those who are wealthy would make no qualms paying thousands of dollars for a liposuction, breast augmentation, face lift, nose lift, or making your lips like that of Angelina Jolie. So instead of healing the sick, Dr. Teo became a “glorified beautician”---because there’s plenty of money in making the celebrities, and those trying to be, even more beautiful.
And he indeed became rich, a millionaire, with houses and flashy cars and membership in golf clubs of the rich and famous. But at the height of his career, he got sick of lung cancer. At his deathbed, Dr. Teo, reflected, “I realized that in my success and prosperity, I lost my moral compass; the more I became rich, the more I wanted more riches. There’s nothing wrong with being rich; but I did not know how to handle it. The deeper the hole I dug, the more that I got sucked into it.” He died last month at age 40.
The story of Dr. Teo reminds us of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life? I’ve done the commandments and all.” And Jesus said, “You lacked one thing; go, sell your possessions and give it to the poor and come follow me.” The rich young ruler went away sorrowful because he could not leave his possession to follow Christ. His possession possessed him. Unlike St. Paul, this man was imprisoned even though he was free. (Cf. Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30)
2. Generosity in Christ
St. Paul continued “Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church share with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me again and again when I was in need.”(Philippians 4:14-16)
It appears that the Philippian Church is Paul’s model of generosity. This generosity to Paul was not necessarily for himself but for the mission he does. In the Book of Acts, Paul was known to be a “tent maker,”(Acts 18:3) which means he himself was working as he planted churches. So the moneys that Philippian Church was giving go into his total ministry.
I am reminded of the story of Fr. Charles Chen of St. James Episcopal Church in Taiwan. When he visited the Philippines, he saw the Episcopalians in one town worshipping under a mango tree and he was moved with compassion. When he returned to his church, he challenged the congregation to exercise generosity. Responding to his own example of generosity, the church members chipped in dollars after dollars. Some gave from over and above their church pledge, others gave out from their savings, some sold their artworks and others missed out on some luxuries in order to give more. In a matter of time, they were able to send enough money to build a church for that congregation. This generosity caught up with the whole church in Taiwan that to date they were able to build twelve churches in the Philippines. In the process, their own church did not become poor but even grew healthier and healthier. Generosity is the gift that keeps on giving---and growing.
3. Assurance of Christ’s Promise
This is Paul’s concluding words: “I am amply supplied, now that I have received the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice pleasing to God. And (I pray) that my God will supply all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:18-19)
What a glorious prayer and promise: “My God will supply all your needs according to his glorious riches!” So it is God who owns everything; He owns the cattle in the thousand hills; He owns the world and everything in it. He gives us the skills, the health, the strength, the wisdom to gain wealth but it is not just for ourselves but for the sake of the Gospel. In other words, we are blessed so we can be a blessing!
Let me share my own testimony. Years ago, in 1980, my wife and I attended a conference in Singapore and we listened to a missionary from Sumatra who told of his ministry. It was a heroic ministry and we were impressed by his dedication and self-sacrifice. He also shared about his needs and as he was sharing, I felt the Holy Spirit urging me to give. Now I had only $50 bill in my pocket and that day we had visitors from the Philippines and I promised to treat them for lunch. That $50 was for our lunch. We were poor and I was just finishing my Master in Theology at the Singapore seminary. So I had quite an uneasy decision to make and my wife was watching what I would do. In an act of faith, I gave it all to the missionary but then my wife whispered, “How do we pay for our lunch with our visitors?” I dismissed it lightly saying “God provides,” though I was also a bit anxious.
When we got out of the conference, a friend of ours whom we met a few months ago, happened to be in the hallway and when she saw us, she got excited. “Father Fred and Sister Angie, it’s so nice to see you. I would like to treat you for lunch!” She was a lawyer working with the Development Bank of Singapore. I said, “Thank you, but we’ve got visitors!” “Oh, please bring them along. I also want to meet them” she said. So that day, we had a wonderful, sumptuous lunch---at Shangri-La, one of the most expensive restaurants in Singapore. I felt a bit embarrassed but then I also believe, “God provides!”
God’s provision did not end there. We went home quite contented. But when we opened our mail, there was an envelope without a back address. We opened it and behold, there was $100! I gave my only $50 and we had lunch and then got double of what I had given. I learned that we cannot “out give God!” The gospel clearly says, “Give and it shall be given unto you. A good measure pressed down, shaken together, will be poured into your lap” (Luke 6:38). Jesus likewise said, “I come that you may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Now I know that sometimes this scripture is taken out of context and the Word of God is manipulated like a speculative investment or an insider trading in Wall Street. But I think, the essence of the Letter of Paul, the stories I shared and the Scriptures I quoted, is not that of the so-called “prosperity gospel” where you give only because you expect to receive more. No doubt, we have given gifts without having received something in return. The message of Paul is that “when there is a need, do not be afraid to give because God Himself will take good care of your needs---according to his glorious riches.” It is more blessed to give than to receive. You are happy when you receive but you are happier when you give.
Deepak Chopra, Indian-born physician and writer, in his book “Seven Spiritual Laws of Success” wrote that “giving and receiving are two sides of the same coin.” The blessing of God is not to be hoarded but be allowed to circulate. If blood does not circulate, it will coagulate and the body will die. It is interesting to note that the other word for money is “currency,” and the word “affluence” comes from “afluere” which means “to flow to”. Like a river, money as currency should be allowed to flow.
I was in Israel in 2010 and saw the difference between two seas: the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. The Dead Sea receives water but it does not give out water; that is why it is dead. But the Sea of Galilee receives water but it also gives out water. That is why it is alive, abundant in fish and water supply. It seems to me that the two seas (Sea of Galilee is actually a freshwater lake and Dead Sea is a super-salty water lake) is nature’s analogy of two lives. One life is a life lived in selfishness, the other in selflessness; one is possessive life and the other a generous life; one life is lived in receiving but not giving; the other in giving and receiving and giving again and again. Which life would you like to live?
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, you see our needs, you hear our cries and listen to our prayers. You own everything and marked, even us, to be your possessions. We thank you for sending Jesus who promised to give us life and have it abundantly. We thank you for sending the Holy Spirit to be our Counselor and Giver of life. You wish that we shall prosper and be of good health as our souls prosper so that we may be a blessing to those around us. Help us Lord, to choose a life of generosity, a life of contentment and a life of giving. For the sake of your Son who gave His life to us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.