Partakers of Grace and Peace, Partners in the Gospel
|St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt|
Our text for today is Philippians 1:2-11, which has already been read.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I would guess that you’ve heard many sermons begun this way. Maybe you’ve heard this phrase so often that you haven’t really taken the time to think about what it means. It sounds like a churchy greeting, something to break the ice. Kind of like when someone says, “How’s it going?” or “What’s up?” But it’s not. Neither is it a signal for you to settle in and for the usher to turn down the lights. Nor is it just a statement about the goal of this sermon, although grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ better be the goal of this sermon and every sermon. And it’s not just a wish or simply information, either.
So, what is it? It’s a benediction—a blessing that brings and bestows what it says. It’s a proclamation of God’s Word—God’s holy and powerful, creative and life-giving Word. When God speaks, things happen. And it’s no different here. God speaks His grace and peace to you, and you receive His grace and peace.
Grace is God’s unmerited favor, the love for the unlovable that moved Him to bring about salvation in Christ. Peace results from grace. It is the reconciliation of forgiven sinners with God and with one another. To speak grace to you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is to say to you, “Christ has died for your sins on the cross, and now has grace—forgiveness—for you.” To speak peace from God to you is to say: “Once you were enemies of God, because your sinfulness enslaved you to fight against Him and His Word and His will; and because God is holy and just and must punish sin, He had no choice but to condemn you. But Christ took that sin upon Himself and received your condemnation and paid for it with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. And since that sin is paid for you have been declared holy and righteous. You are at peace with God.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a blessing—God’s powerful Word delivering what it says. Think of God saying, “Let there be…” and there was—light, land, life, and every created thing in heaven and earth out of nothing but that Word. Think of Jesus saying to the dead man, “Lazarus, come forth.” And because that Word delivers life, Lazarus comes out the grave. Think of Jesus saying to the blind beggar, “Recover your sight” and the man sees. Finally, think of the risen Lord saying to the disciples in the locked room, “Peace to you.” He’s not saying, “Calm down.” He’s saying, “I’ve died for your sins so that you might be a peace with God. Peace to you.” And by that blessing, He delivers peace to them, and authorizes them to pass on that peace.
Like Paul, we pastors speak Christ’s Word and blessing to you: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s not by any special power that pastors have; it’s the Word of God and His work. By this blessing, here is grace and here is peace to you, for you. For each of you individually and all of you (all of us), corporately, as the Body of Christ.
Which brings us to the next main point: It’s this grace and peace, won by Christ and freely given to us that binds us together. St. Paul continues: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all, making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now.” Paul enjoyed an excellent relationship with all the congregations that he served with the Gospel. Still, there was something special about the church in Philippi, a congregation the apostle himself calls “my joy and crown” and whom he remembers with joyful thanksgiving to the Lord.
Among those memories: (1) The special way in which the Lord had called him to bring the Gospel to that area—the night vision and the urgent call to come to Macedonia. (2) The first Christian worship service on the European continent, with a little group of Jewish women who met along the riverbank on the Sabbath. (3) Lydia, who had opened her home for the missionaries to stay and for the infant church to meet. (4) There was also Paul’s imprisonment in Philippi, the miraculous midnight deliverance, and the subsequent conversion of the jailer and his family. (5) The generous gift the Philippians had sent to support his Gospel work. (6) And the glowing reports Paul continued to receive about the Philippians’ faith, love, and loyalty. In all this, Paul sees God’s gracious hand at work, bringing them into a wonderful partnership with the apostle and all other believers.
Nevertheless, this partnership isn’t necessarily obvious to the eye. Paul is, after all, an apostle, while the Philippians are laymen, still just learning the ABCs of Christian doctrine. So they have different callings and levels of knowledge, but they are partners in grace because they are saved by Christ’s death for them. But there’s another reason that this partnership is not apparent: Paul isn’t with them as he writes. He’s in prison, perhaps in Rome, already facing a martyr’s death.
But the difference in locations and situations is not enough to divide them: Paul writes that they “are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel.” In Christ, as partakers of His grace and partners in His Gospel, Paul and the Philippians are together though separated by many miles and the confines of prison.
Across the span of nearly two thousand years, and several thousand miles, this grace and peace define us, too. For by the grace Jesus died to win for us, He brings us out of the dark and into His light. He transforms us from enemies of God to citizens in His kingdom, from slaves of sin to children of God and heirs of heaven. Because His grace has so saved and changed us, we are at peace with God. And by His grace, we strive to be at peace with one another. By this grace and peace, we are partners in the Gospel—brought together by the forgiveness Jesus has won. In other words, we are together partakers of grace. That is what makes us the body of Christ, the one holy Christian and apostolic church.
Like Paul and the Philippians, we will all have different callings and responsibilities, different gifts and talents, different social and financial status, different trials and strengths, different levels of success and failure as measured by the world; but we are altogether partakers of grace, partners in the Gospel.
This unity is important for us to remember as we strive to live in a culture that is so individualized. We are not and must not be “Lone Ranger” Christians. We share a Gospel partnership with all other Christians. Our worship life, our mutual support of the Lord’s work at home and abroad, our encouragements to one another to Christian living, are all expressions of that partnership. But too often we tend to regard our congregational and synodical memberships too lightly. We are inclined to look upon these partnerships not as precious blessings but as tiresome burdens and obligations. Seeing ourselves as partners in the Gospel would make our whole spiritual lives more positive and joyful.
How? For one, it should help define our worship. Worship should not be targeted to a segment of the people of God, but to the body of Christ. This is not a service that’s designed for a certain sub-culture of Christians, or as a marketing niche for seekers. It is the Divine Service for partakers of grace and partners in the Gospel. And it is an invitation to all others who hear to be brought in as well.
We are partakers of grace together. Beware of the devil’s temptations as he seeks to rob you of this joy. Your old sinful flesh may tempt you to get grumpy and say, “This worship style isn’t for me.” That’s true. It isn’t just for you—it is for all of us together. It’s not designed to target personal likes to sell you something, but to proclaim that together we are partners in the Gospel.
In addition, you can be sure that as we are together the Lord is giving forgiveness to all—and specifically to you—no matter what else is happening. The little one who is fussing can be distracting, sure; but by Holy Baptism, he is your fellow partaker of grace. So is the adult who dozes off during the sermon.
Now, I’m not justifying distractions (especially sleeping during the sermon), but when we are distracted, our initial reaction is annoyance, maybe anger. This is too easily the devil’s tool to get you to stop listening to grace and peace. By God’s grace, we will remember that we are partners in the Gospel, and for the sake of harmony we will find it possible to overlook many things in love, even as we trust that God’s Word is delivering His grace and love despite the distractions.
This partnership in the Gospel also has implications for the relationship between pastors and hearers. Like Paul and the Philippians, we each have different vocations and callings. Pastors are called by God to preach His Word and administer His Sacraments publicly on behalf of the Church. You are called to receive God’s grace, and then go out into the world sharing it as part of the priesthood of all believers. Together, we work as partners in the Gospel.
This partnership in the Gospel extends beyond this congregation as well. We are fellow partakers in grace with all Christians, we pray for Christians all around the world, especially those persecuted for the faith we proclaim so freely. The Christian man who is literally crucified in the Sudan for confessing Christ, and the Christian woman who is forcibly defiled and sold into slavery in Egypt—these are your brother and sister in Christ. Just as status and calling, time and space, do not bind us together, neither do looks nor language—partaking of the grace does.
This is also true when we disagree with the doctrine and practice of other Christians. We remain partakers in grace with them so long as we and they do not forsake the Gospel. It is, after all, the Gospel which unites us, not denominational affiliation. Thus, we regard all Christians as fellow partakers of grace. In love, of course, we point out where others have adopted teachings which disagree with Scripture, or have abandoned God’s means of grace, even as we hope others would do the same for us. We grieve when fellow Christians—and fellow Lutherans—adopt practices which cause further division within the Church. We pray that our brothers and sisters in Christ would likewise regard as us partakers of grace, and thus not infer offense from our practice when none is intended. Through it all, by God’s grace, we strive to remain uncompromisingly faithful to the Word, because that is where true Christian unity is found.
It is no small feat to stay focused on the grace and peace that Christ gives, or to maintain that partnership in the Gospel. Remember, sin isolates and divides. And the devil hates no gathering worse than the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints. He will do all he can to destroy this partnership and unity at all levels—among individuals, congregations, synods, and the Church throughout the world. To preserve this partnership is beyond our abilities—it is truly only by the grace of God. And He maintains the body of Christ by those gifts of grace and peace, His means of grace, for we are in need of this grace continually.
In Baptism, He says to you: “I forgive all your sins. If you die or I return today, you’ve got all that you need. Eternal life is yours.” However, because we’re daily tempted to sin, the Lord keeps giving us that grace and peace—all that you need again and again. By His Word of Law and Gospel, He calls you to repentance and faith. He instructs, reproves, corrects, forgives, and encourages. In His Supper, He give you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. In His Word of Absolution, He speaks to you His Word of grace and peace through His called and ordained servant.
Heaven is yours now; and on the Last Day, it will be yours, fully realized, because you will be there. That is Paul’s other great encouragement from our text: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” The good work that God began in you was salvation, not just a good start to salvation. This work will be completed on the Last Day: not that you have incomplete forgiveness now, but that on that day you will be in heaven—and sin and the temptation to abandon the faith will be no more.
The Day of Jesus Christ is coming: that’s the tie-in to our Advent theme. Christ has come, winning grace and peace by His death on the cross. Christ will come again to fulfill all things, to make your salvation complete. In the meantime, He is not far away—He is as near as His Word, preserving you by His means of grace as partners of the Gospel and partakers of grace until His return.
Therefore, dearly beloved fellow partakers in the grace of God and partners in the Gospel, I speak this blessing to you once more today: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. You are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.