In J.R.R. Tolkein’s Fellowship of the Ring—A band of individuals with disparate backgrounds come together to accomplish an important quest. After Frodo and Sam, my favorite character is Smeagol—the hobbit who became Gollum. His character teaches an important lesson about the consequences of idolatry and isolation.
He lived for his precious—the ring that he had acquired by murdering his cousin and best friend, Deagol. Although Gollum loved his ring for its powers, it also gave him a long life in darkness and isolation. To make a long story short, Bilbo found the ring in Gollum’s lair and passed it onto Frodo.
There’s an incredible scene in The Two Towers where Gollum is guiding Frodo and Sam with obvious internal conflict. His eyes flicker back and forth between grey (Smeagol) to green (Gollum). He wants to trust the hobbits, and he appreciates Frodo’s kindness, but he is also desperate to take his ring back. This scene represents his final opportunity to turn toward Smeagol, away from Gollum.
And so Gollum found them [Frodo and Sam] hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path out of the gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee—but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.
Sam wakes up to see Gollum hovering over Frodo and yells at him for sneaking around. He calls him an old villain. In Letter 96, Tolkien calls this “the tragedy of Gollum who at that moment came within a hair of repentance – but for one rough word from Sam.”
In a moment where Gollum longed for the kind of companionship he witnessed between Frodo and Sam, after this exchange with Sam, Tolkein writes, “the green glint did not leave his eyes.”
In this scene, Tolkein beautifully illustrates our universal longing for fellowship and the power of our words.
Every church bears similar goals for fellowship, but not all produce the same fruit. In Philippians, Paul is concerned to reveal his genuine appreciation for these beloved saints. He chooses his words carefully to build them up.
Many of you know what it’s like to long for a community where deep friendship can form, but always feeling like you’re on the outside. That is a miserable place to be, especially when it is the church. Because now we feel torn between our obligation to one another and our God-given desire for something that truly resonates with us at a more profound level.
Everyone longs to be a part of a genuine community where they can give and receive loving support. And they recognize the difference between joyful and miserable service.
Paul’s love for the saints in Philippi is rooted in their mutual commitment to the gospel which fills him with gratitude and joy.
Read Philippians 1:3-5.
Remember With Gratitude (3)
Not only are the Philippians on his mind often, but his thoughts about them fill him with gratitude. He is thankful for them. Gordon Fee points out that Paul typically gave thanks for people not things.
On the one hand, gratitude has fallen on hard times. People are so focused on the negative circumstances that they cannot begin to find the silver lining. Everything is gloom and despair for them. In fact, if anyone else is feeling joyful or hopeful around them, this group is likely going to assume (1) they are extremely naive about just how desperate a situation our nation is in, or (2) they belong to the opposition. The only reason they could possibly be rejoicing would be because their side won.
On the other hand, gratitude can become overused to the point of sounding trite and meaningless. The solar sales rep waves and begins to share his scripted remarks. All you want to do is get beyond him to the product you went to purchase. But, because you’re polite you let him go on for a sentence or two before telling him you aren’t interested, “but thank you…” We can all agree that kind of remark lacks gratitude.
Paul is not merely following formalities here, he is deliberately acknowledging why he is thankful for them. We would do well to model our own gratitude after Paul’s example. I’m not saying you can only use “thank you” in an intentional manner. Still be polite.
You don’t have to wax eloquently about your appreciation when the checkout clerk hands you your receipt. “You’re so kind to conduct this transaction with so much efficiency and poise. Thank you for representing VONS with professionalism and grace. You have truly made this shopping experience one to remember. I think I’ll journal about it when I get home…”
Meaningful relationships deserve meaningful words of gratitude.
Praying in general is hard enough, but when I am reminded to pray for someone—it is almost always because they have a pressing need. It might be a health concern, an important decision, life’s frustrations, etc. I pray for their request and move on to the next item.
How often are we simply rejoicing with gratitude in the Christian friendships we possess? How often does a fellow Christian come to mind driving you to joyfully give thanks to God for them?
Gratitude is a powerful reminder of the joy people bring into our lives. And, like a loving Father, God never tires of hearing his children share the ways in which they are grateful.
› Paul’s grateful remembrance takes him to God where he begins to pray for everyone in the church with joy.
Pray With Joy (4)
Acts 16 gives us the history of this Philippian community. It’s important that we keep that context in mind because it certainly affects the way we read each passage. It also makes sense of the rich joy that fueled Paul’s gratitude. His prayers for them are grateful and frequent because of that history.
Paul had concerns about tension in the church, but his initial reaction to the memory of each individual was joy. This does not come naturally. It is only possible if tensions and conflicts are relegated down to an appropriate level. They must pale in comparison to the gratitude we enjoy because of our unity in the gospel.
Paul doesn’t just pray for a few of the folks in the Philippian church, he prays for all of them. I’d like to think he prayed for each one of them specifically rather than all of them generically. Either way, he joyfully brings the needs of these saints before the Lord.
Let this become your prayer for the community here. Some of you are new to this church. And some of you have been with us from the beginning. All of us know how challenging transitions are.
Be sure to branch out in your interactions each week. Get to know people you haven’t met before. Learn something new about those you don’t know as well. We want to be hospitable hosts for our guests.
People don’t come back for the visitor gifts—because we don’t offer any!!—they return because they resonate with reverent worship and sincere people. I’m thankful that we have a community that enjoys extended fellowship. I hope everyone senses that here and feels welcome to be a part of it.
› And I hope your gratitude and joy leads you to become a…
Partner in the Gospel (5)
The gratitude and joy Paul expresses in his prayer for the Philippian Church is grounded in their partnership in the gospel. They support him financially, prayerfully, and physically (sending along Epaphroditus).
Paul’s imprisonment, described in Acts 28, was one of house arrest. He was not behind prison bars, but he was constantly chained to a guard. Roman prisons did not normally provide food for their prisoners. He was completely dependent upon the support of others.
Their financial support is certainly an aspect of their partnership. However, Paul will also describe their partnership in the Spirit and suffering for Christ. Partnership implies much more than merely sending a financial gift.
They are invested in his ministry in several ways. They do not begrudge their service, but long to do more. However, in Paul’s estimation, their partnership in ministry has carried on since they first met and established the community.
Let us recognize how telling it is that the Philippian believers gave to Paul’s ministry. Their enthusiasm to support Paul’s church planting efforts reveals their heart for the advance of the gospel (Phil 1:12-18). They treasured the gospel so they supported its spread (Mt 6:21).
Their generosity is all the more remarkable in light of their poverty:
2 Corinthians 8:1–2 ESV
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.
They did not spend much time in each other’s physical presence. Their affection for Paul grew through prayer, correspondence, and generosity. It was their unified mission that increased their enjoyment of one another.
Flourishing church communities require partnerships. Those partnerships will be inside and outside the community (i.e., internal and external support). The local church is made up of members who are committed to serve alongside one another in ministry.
The slave girl and the jailer had nothing but Christ in common. But now their lives are united for all eternity. This isn’t simply a relationship we enjoy Sunday mornings. These relationships ought to permeate every other sphere of our lives. We don’t physically work alongside each other, but we hold each other in our hearts (v.7). We come to each other’s minds often (v.4).
We also recognize that the Kingdom of God is much bigger than GPC. We want to partner with other churches locally, nationally, and globally. We want to keep our primary responsibilities in mind, without losing sight of the needs beyond our church walls.
Paul clarifies why he is filled with joy. His joy stems from their partnership in the gospel. Because of their support and interest in Paul’s apostolic ministry, he knows they are likeminded in ultimate matters.
They may have differences with one another, but hopefully, they will learn from Paul’s example just how low on the scale of importance those differences belong. As we think about the challenges coming for Christians—inside and outside the church—we need to be mindful of our unity in matters of ultimate importance.
› Note the escalation in commitment: Remember > Pray > Partner
Did Paul always possess so much affection for others? It’s hard to imagine the author of this letter being the former Pharisee who dragged off Christian men and women and threw them into prison (Acts 8:3). A story like Paul’s is ripe for a lifetime of shame, darkness, and isolation.
But rather than judgment, Saul was graciously blinded by a vision of Jesus asking, “Why are you persecuting me?” In the midst of his quest to destroy the Christian Church, Saul learned that he was persecuting the Lord. The unity we experience as Christians stems from the unity we have with Christ.
We cannot manufacture a community that experiences anything close to the kind of unity we enjoy in Christ. Jesus must interrupt us with a vision of his beauty. And once he does, there is nothing else we would rather do than repent and place our faith in him.
Meeting Jesus transforms self-centered sinners into self-sacrificial saints. It provides a loving community for the isolated. It brings joy to those angry and bitter.
The gospel of Jesus Christ transforms hardhearted sinners into a community of grateful saints.
Paul did not enjoy this kind of partnership with every church he planted. All of them had problems to address, but it appears the Philippian Church was one of the healthier examples. It’s the rare arrangement where the pastor and the congregation have a mutual longing for fellowship. Let us fight for that experience here!