There was nothing at the beginning.
No church, probably not even a synagogue.
It was a pagan military town in Macedonia, worshipping the gods of Rome and it all started (as revealed in Acts 16) with a handful of women that Paul met by the river.
And yet a few years later, when Paul writes to the church in Philippi, in the letter to the Philippians chapter 1 verse 1 to this first church in Europe, (to this start of Western Christianity) there is no doubt as to the high regard and strong affection that he has for them. He calls them warmly ‘the saints in Christ Jesus, who are in Philippi’
He uses a quite different introduction to some of his other letters…… in his letter to Galatia he calls them the ‘churches of Galatia’ and then goes on to make a stinking critique of them….
But the Philippi church was a success story for Paul and, just as we in the Itchen Valley are embarking on a new phase of the ministry here, there’s a lot we can learn from this church established 2000 years ago.
Fortunately we are not starting from scratch, but, in a way, every generation is a new battlefield we need to win for Christ….
Christianity, is always one generation away from extension and this is particularly the case amongst the 50% of our civil population here in Itchen Valley who are under 50, who mostly don’t come to church in the same proportions as those over 50.
You see our church population should reflect our civil population. It should be in the same proportions: half of our church population should be under 50.
And this is why we are doing a whole series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians at Valley Worship every month for the next few months: this month – we are looking at the New Heart we have in Jesus Christ and next month – at Valley Worship the New Purpose we have Jesus Christ.
So this month, we are looking at what gets a church going….
Paul had started from scratch, so as we look at what he did we can get some ideas on what we need to do to win a new generation for Christ.
Paul’s words to the Philippi ‘saints’ are very warm indeed. He thanks them, verse 5, for ‘sharing or partnering in the gospel’.
He is suggesting that he shares with them:
a common blessing of God’s grace (verse 7)
a common endeavour, in sharing the gospel (verse 5)
a common love, knowledge and insight (verse 9)
And there is no greater joy than this: partnership in the gospel; than this sharing of love, knowledge and insight.
But how did the small group of Jewish ladies and Greeks, converts from Judaism and Paganism led by Paul go on to become the saints of Philippi in the flourishing church about which he speaks so warmly whom he holds in his heart (verse 7)?
How did they get on the path to Jesus Christ? The path that Paul was also travelling?
It’s all about the heart
It’s all about the heart
and its a changed heart, a new heart which enables this to happen.
But our hearts don’t change easily….
As many of you know, I tend to find myself in what I would call “spiritual conversations” on social occasions.
Last week, when I went out to lunch with some old friends, there was someone there I didn’t know called Emma, who very quickly told me how she was an agnostic, and that her adult goddaughter, she had known all her life, had got ‘too much’ into Christianity: ‘it was taking over her life, that she (Emma) and the goddaughter were growing apart’, and she said: “I cannot follow her”.
So I said to her (with perhaps less tact than I should have used) ‘but let’s be honest about this’ ‘its not that you cannot follow her its really that you won’t follow her isn’t it….?’
She reluctantly agreed…
You see whether we are following down the path to Jesus is not really about the mind; although the mind can throw up obstacles, its really all about the heart….
Because the heart will tell the mind what to think, what we choose to do even though we often pretend to ourselves that our obstacles to faith are intellectual (with the implication, as with the lady, I was talking to, “I am too clever to believe any of this”).
When the heart shifts, the intellectual problems still are often not solved: there are still the miracles; there is still the virgin birth and Jesus has still risen from the dead (all three insuperable obstacles for many) but, somehow, when the heart shifts, these intellectual obstacles cease to matter….
But how did the hearts of those in Philippi change?
Firstly, and most importantly, it is about what the Holy Spirit does.
When Paul first came to Philippi, we discover from Acts 6:13 the group of Jewish women who Paul met by the river included Lydia ‘a seller of purple’.
Paul started speaking to them and (verse14) the Lord ‘opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message’.
We cannot do anything without the intervention of the Holy Spirit; without the Holy Spirit choosing to open the hearts of the people we are speaking to. We need to pray to invite the Holy Spirit to work in our community; to pray for the parents of the young children; to pray that the Holy Spirit will choose to open their hearts. And that is what we are doing at our informal worship on Wednesday lunch times at St John’s Itchen Abbas: to pray that hearts will be opened to receive the gospel.
So, firstly, is about what the Holy Spirit does…
Secondly, its about what our Leaders do.
Paul’s sensitivity to the Holy Spirit knowing what to say, being able to discern the hearts of those with whom he was dealing: Leaders: that’s not just me; its you too; anyone in a leadership position in the church community and that’s a lot of you.
There’s another story about a church right at the beginning. Actually it was a church which was about to be closed…..
David Watson had just been appointed, as curate in charge of St Cuthbert’s Church, York in 1965. His first task on the job was to take the representative of the Church Redundancy Commission round the church with a view to closing it down within 12 months.
Watson said at the time: “If anyone comes to this church and preaches the simple gospel of Christ, believes in the power of prayer and trusts in the Holy Spirit, this building will be full in no time”
By 1971 the little church was saturated with a regular church attendance of over 200 and a move needed to be made. Watson led the move to St Michael Le Belfrey.
So if anyone does spend any time praying for those of us in leadership in the parish, please do pray that we become acutely sensitive to discerning what the Holy Spirit is guiding so that our love (verse 9) may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight and that we may be able to discern what is best to do.
So Firstly it is what the Holy Spirit does; and
Secondly its about what our leaders do: preaching the truth; believing in the power of prayer and trusting in the Holy Spirit
and Thirdly it is about what we do we who have new hearts…
I am writing a book with Revd Yann Dubreil, the Rector of Bentley Foyle and Binsted which might end up being called “Lemon Drizzle Cake and other fruits of the Spirit: the countryside for Charismatics”….
Its aimed at helping clergy from charismatic evangelical churches who are posted to the countryside be as effective as possible in bringing people to Christ.
The main thrust of the book is how people become Christian disciples in the countryside.
I recognise it’s not going to have a great appeal, it’s not going to get to the top of the Amazon best sellers list but the aim is to have some sort of guide on how people come to become Christian disciples in the church in rural Hampshire; how their hearts change; because its very different from the towns and suburbs.
So as part of the research for this book I have asked some of my friends from the Stewards Trust (the house party which as you know Lucy and I attend in the Summer) to identify people in their rural church communities all over the country, those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ while attending a rural church: whose hearts have changed, to tell me what happened to them.
I have done email interviews with 17 of them so far. 17 people who would now self identify as followers of Jesus Christ; 17 people who can answer the question “what does Jesus mean to you now?” and say something substantial about him being the top priority in their lives; 17 people who in Paul’s words “are sharing in the gospel”.
And it is fascinating to read what they have written: the moment when their hearts shifted…
Some speak of being challenged by an outspoken vicar; others of a spiritual experience at the altar rail; others when someone prayed for them for the Holy Spirit to let his presence be known.
For many, its a penny dropping: the impact of a particular Bible passage or sometimes a gradual or sometimes a sudden realisation during a home group, prayer session, or Bible Study or Alpha Course (it usually happens outside a church service) that they did believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he had died personally for them.
But the key to all of these situations is that all the individuals concerned chose to ask God into their lives.
You have many times seen me show the picture of Jesus as the Light of the World by William Holman Hunt: Jesus is showing knocking at the door of our souls, the door is all covered with creepers. You will remember that there is no handle on the door – the point being that the handle is only on the inside.
The question is why did those 17 individuals open that door? That door to Jesus?
Why would Lydia and the other Philippian Christians make that choice to open that door in the first place?
She was an intelligent woman, a trader in purple, top quality material: a senior buyer from Zara or Top Shop perhaps; probably she would have had a house in the Itchen Valley, no fool why would she do this?
Well, seeing a miracle happen might have helped. Paul in Acts 16:16 removed a demonic spirit from a female slave who was pursuing them in Philippi. That will have made
a bit of an impression, as miracles always do.
It’s one of the reasons that we will be praying for people at the end of the service, please do join me at the sharp end of the church at the end if you would like me to pray for you.
Sometimes amazing things happen, not always, but sometimes so it is worth doing.
But in almost all the cases I have interviewed its not a miracle which has made a difference, it is an individual who has the new heart of the gospel, whose warmth and love and enthusiasm has brought them to a place where they choose to ask God into their lives.
An individual often makes the difference – An example of this changed heart is the case of Shane Taylor – please see this you-tube clip
As part of the research which I have done for my book, I was sent a recording of an entire dinner party with one of the couples, Martin and Karen. Their hosts, Henry and Caroline asked what it was that got them to open that door to let Jesus in. Martin replied “Well it was the two of you. Your enthusiasm, passion and honesty, when leading the village family service. It was clear you weren’t part of a mad sect, the service was relatively informal but still felt familiar but passionately delivered”.
What we do,
what we say
how we respond
how we speak to others
how we lead services
how we read prayers
how we read lessons
how we lead worship
even how we write emails
if we have new hearts….
Being sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s guidance: not being pushy (the Holy Spirit is a gentleman and we must mirror that aspect of his character) knocking at the door not barging it down
Making friends by listening but still gently speaking truth only when the moment is right
Perhaps that is what Paul was doing by the river when he met Lydia.
As we move forward, into the future, its going to be very exciting.
Some of us who have not done so before might want to call out to God to change their hearts.
I have given you all a sheet of paper with a prayer on it for you to take home and to pray when you are by yourself, if you haven’t prayed it before (see below). Let me know how you get on.
And for those of us who prayed this prayer all those years ago and have got off the track in some way Paul says (verse 6) “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ”
Come back on the path now is the time to do so!
New hearts, new lives
If we pray for the Holy Spirit to change hearts
If we are sensitive to how he is leading us in the way that we lead others.
And if we are enthusiastic and honest…
Then this building will be full in no time
A Prayer for a New Heart
Lord Jesus Christ,
I am sorry for the things I have done wrong in my life (take a few moments to ask for His forgiveness for anything that is on your conscience)
Please forgive me.
I now turn from everything that I know that is wrong.
Thank you that you died on the Cross for me, so that I could be forgiven and set free.
Thank you that you offer me forgiveness and the gift of your Spirit.
I now receive that gift.
Please come into my life by your Holy Spirit, to be with me for ever
Thank you Lord Jesus
1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Php 1:3–11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.