This is a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent. The Scripture it references is Philippians 1:1-11.
Last week, we looked at Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, and his prayer that those young Christians would grow in love and holiness; and I suggested that “love and holiness” might not be a bad focus for this Advent season.
This morning, we’ve had a reading from another letter of Paul’s, this time to the Philippians; and it also has in it a prayer that they would grow in love; and this prayer has some distinctive features that I thought might be interesting to examine.
But first I’m going to do something I don’t do that often, and that is to say that our usual translation (for blog readers: the NRSV) of this passage actually lets us down quite a bit here; and I’m going to put up on the overhead my best attempt at a slightly more precise translation. The English isn’t quite as smooth, but there are some differences that are quite important and which I’ll comment on as we go.
Philippians 1:9-11, NRSV:
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
And this I am praying, that your love still overflows more and more in recognition and with every kind of perception with understanding, with your putting to the test the better things, in order that you may have integrity and be without fault on the day of Christ, having been filled with the fruits of righteousness through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.
First let’s notice that although we get Paul’s absolutely typical emphasis on the primacy of love here – his prayer is “that your love still overflows more and more” – love is not, for Paul, here a question of feelings, and it’s certainly not something which is separate from or opposed to our rational faculties. Rather our love overflows “in recognition and with every kind of perception with understanding,” and with “putting to the test the better things.” Scientists might say that Paul is describing something of the scientific process; noticing phenomena, gathering data, and conducting experiments! This is a sort of love which is highly cognitively engaged.
And it’s not the sort of abstract or academic engagement which buries itself in books. It’s a hands-on engagement; the word I’ve translated as “perception with understanding” has to do with what your senses tell you; what you see, and hear, and smell of life; and then what you make of that. It’s the cognitive engagement of the laboratory rather than the library.
The interesting thing here is that Paul doesn’t specify what we’re meant to be observing and perceiving and recognising. Apart from a rather vague reference to testing “the better things,” he seems to assume that his readers and hearers will know what he meant.
But my hunch is that he’s talking about observing and perceiving and recognising God at work in the world. If we love God, we will watch out for the signs of God’s presence at work; we will recognise them when we see them; we will know the worth of the results in people’s lives.
Love here isn’t overflowing in knowledge in the sense of being able to recite facts, but is able to recognise the presence of its beloved. To know God in that deeply intimate, personal sense.
You know how when you’re infatuated with someone, you mentally track their every movement, and you listen for the first sound of their approach, and you tingle with anticipation of your time together? That. That’s the sort of love of God Paul is praying that the Philippians might have.
And that’s lovely, of course. But it’s not just an end in itself.
Paul’s prayer goes on: “in order that you may have integrity and be without fault on the day of Jesus Christ.” We love God, we love God so much that our senses and faculties are always alive to God’s presence and God’s actions, and that is how we will grow in integrity.
The NRSV translation there used the word “pure,” rather than “have integrity,” but the underlying Greek word here is about being sincere, without hidden motives or pretence. It’s about our actions matching our innermost motivations and beliefs. What you see is what you get.
So Paul’s train of thought is that if we love God, and we’re able to pay attention and perceive and recognise God as God is at work in and around us, that will help us get our own motivations and actions in line.
How does this work? Maybe an example will help.
There’s a famous study which was done at Princeton University in 1970. In it, seminary students were told to prepare a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then sent to the other side of the campus to give the talk. One group of students was told to hurry, they were running late; and the other group was told that they had more than enough time. On the way, they each encountered an actor slumped in an alley apparently in need of help.
What was interesting about this study was that the students who were told to hurry did not stop to help the apparent victim; the students who were told they had plenty of time, did stop and help. All of them were seminary students, devout, committed Christians; but being in a hurry to be somewhere else crowded out their ability to love their neighbour.
Now there are all sorts of fascinating things to reflect on in that set of results, but in terms of Paul’s prayer, the students who were in a hurry, had allowed their anxiety about being late, and perhaps making a bad impression (or whatever the social penalty for being late was going to be); had allowed their anxiety to block out their recognition and perception and understanding of what God might be up to, at that moment.
Where is God when someone is slumped in an alley, needing help? Do I perceive God’s presence, do I act in accordance with my love of God, and thus my love of God’s child, helpless in front of me?
Or do I just not see, not recognise what is in front of me, and walk past, in the process compromising my integrity and incurring fault?
Now the last bit of the prayer is a tricky thing, but Paul finishes with the thought that we may reach the day of Christ “having been filled with the fruits of righteousness.” Notice that this is passive; we don’t make the fruit, the end result, happen; but rather we are filled, it is something which is done in us by God. So we love God, we’re aware of God, that awareness corrects our attitudes and actions… and over time that fills ourselves and our lives with everything good which comes from vibrant relationship with God.
This three-verse prayer is not a throwaway line from Paul; it’s an incredibly rich, complex, layered vision of Christian spirituality and discipleship. It’s worth spending some time really getting to the depths of how Paul sees us growing and maturing towards that last day.
And it all starts with love; that your love (of God) overflows more and more.