by Daniel Harrell
Some things just take a long time to complete. Back in 1992 my wife Dawn decided she’d cross-stitch a Christmas present for her father who’s always loved gifts made by his daughters. For Dawn, the subject of the cross-stitch wasn’t so hard to decide: her dad served as a medical missionary in Angola and enjoyed CS Lewis. Put together Africa and Aslan and that meant cross-stitching a lion. Ten Christmases later, in 2002, Dawn was still working on that lion. Initially the problem was that the pattern was too tiny to read—so she enlarged it into eight pages taped together. It covered her bedroom floor. Not only was the pattern intricate, but it required some 200 different colors of brown thread—who knew brown came in so many shades? She’d gotten fairly deep into the project when she realized her count was off. So she ripped out the stitches and started over. The same thing happened a second time, causing no small amount of frustration. Dawn began to resent her pet cat just for being a distant lion relative.
Her sister intervened, and forbade that Dawn rip out the stitches out a third time. Her sister said that cross-stitching, like life itself, gets complicated and you inevitably lose count. The challenge is to deal with it and move on. Which is easier said than done. Daunted by both the enormity of the undertaking and the lack of headway despite her diligence, Dawn boxed and re-boxed the lion as she moved and married over another ten years. Some things just take a long time to complete.
This applies to people too. I received a framed, cross-stitched rendition of Philippians 1:6 many years ago: “The one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” It was crafted for me by an old girlfriend as her way (I think) of reminding me that I had plenty of room for improvement. You may remember my preaching this verse on New Year’s Day a couple of years back. New Year’s always brings with it resolutions for a better future--a calendar inspired chance to finish things this time that we’ve failed get done in the past. We resolve to be better people, to make those changes we need to make. And yet having tried and failed so many times before, most of us refrain from resolutions because we know we can’t keep them. Why compound the failure with only more frustration? Better to just box up the whole mess and avoid the disappointment.
But this is what makes Philippians 1:6 such good news. You don’t have to try so hard anymore. You don’t have to avoid disappointment. “The one” who began a good work in you is no other than God himself. And He’s the one who promises to bring it all to completion.
Philippians is a favorite among the apostle Paul’s letters. Many of its verses are habitually committed to memory. They appear on greeting cards, t-shirts and websites, and they get cross-stitched for gifts. It is to these particular verses in Philippians, the ones most likely to be cross-stitched, that I’d like to devote my energies for this Eastertide and into Pentecost.
Paul embedded this verse within an extended salutation wherein he thanks the nascent Philippian church for their financial support. He describes their support as their sharing or “partnership” in the gospel—the gospel being the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Nevertheless, as I mentioned last Sunday, the resurrection can be very upsetting. For Jesus to rise from the dead means that everything said about him is true: He is the Son of the Living God, the King of kings, Truth and Life, Master and Lord. To believe in Jesus means you have to live your whole life differently--which Paul and the Philippians were only to eager to do.
Their “sharing” in the gospel is a translation of the Greek word koinonia which we typically translate as fellowship. Koinonia means to have all things in common; it’s where we get words like community and communion. Koinonia was epitomized in these early churches where everybody gave up everything so that no one would need anything—these communities held all things in common. In this way fellowship is connected to stewardship, the economic concern Christians share for each other’s well-being, and a convenient way to remind you that our church fiscal year ends this month and yes we’re running behind again.
The koinonia of Philippians 1 is certainly economic. The life and mission of the church always requires financial support. And generous giving grows out of a generosity of spirit. “Your heart is where your treasure is,” Jesus taught, meaning that you can tell everything about a person by what they do with their money. Therefore Paul speaks to a koinonia of spirit--both with Jesus and with each other. It is love for God and neighbor that motivates us. Elsewhere Paul writes about the right hand of fellowship (koinonia), which we still extend to each other whenever we pass the peace. More than a handshake, the right hand of koinonia tangibly acknowledges our common bond to each other through Christ. In 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks of communion as our koinonia in the body and blood of Jesus. More than partaking of bread and wine, communion is our partnership in the Jesus’ death and resurrection: His dying and rising will be our dying and rising too. No longer fearful of any condemnation due to our sin, the communion table looks to that day when we will rise to feast with Jesus at his table forever. God who began his good work in us will definitely get it done.
Specifically described as God’s good work yet to be completed, Paul’s emphasis in Philippians is plainly on the future. His gospel reference is to God’s saving work, which we all know can take a lifetime. Christians might customarily speak of somebody getting saved, but in reality we’re just as much people in the process of being saved. Like Peter who sank when he tried to walk to Jesus on the open sea, our troubles and doubts still overwhelm us and drag us down too even with Jesus right in front of us. Paul pens these words while chained in a Roman prison with no guarantee of earthly release. For Paul, the “day of Jesus Christ” might mean the day that he dies, and he’s fine with that. “To live is Christ and to die is gain” he will write. For Paul, death is no longer terminal. The resurrection has opened the way to new life. So certain is Paul of this new life that he can live in the present as if his future has already happened--because it has. God always finishes what he starts.
Theologians have long described Paul’s confidence in terms of “realized eschatology,” which is just an arcane way of saying that God's future can be experienced now. His good work is already a job well done. The substance of Christian hope is not on a future that might happen, but on God for whom the future has already happened. We neither worry nor fear despite the troubles we endure in the meantime; the certainty of our future enables us to endure our troubles. We hope in the God who always finishes what he starts.
This Christian hope for a certain future drastically differs from that hope we mean when we say, “I sure hope the Louisville Cardinals win the NCAA Basketball Title tomorrow night and save my March Madness Bracket.” That’s a future that may or may not happen--as Louisville came close to discovering last night against lowly Wichita State. Christian hope is not like my hoping that my University of North Carolina Tar Heels would have won the championship. That would have been delusional hope this season. The University of Michigan, however, has made it to the Championship for the first time in twenty years. 1993 was the year of their vaunted NBA-ready Fab Five team, which I mention since that was also the year they succumbed to my University of North Carolina in the championship game in a most memorable fashion.
Given no hope to win, my Tar Heels took Michigan down to the wire, leading by two with eleven seconds to play. As basketball aficionados will recall, this was when Michigan’s Chris Webber, his team with the ball, called the time-out that the Wolverines did not possess. This resulted in a technical foul, two more points and the ball back to North Carolina. Game over. I couldn’t believe we’d won!
I recorded the game on a trusty videocassette, which for those under 50 is this rectangular box with black tape inside that people used before DVRs or YouTube. I watched the game again the next morning to be sure that I hadn’t been dreaming. I watched it any number of times after that, just for the happiness of it all, and each time I watched I would still feel anxiety and stress at the end of the game even though I knew the final outcome. The only difference was that now I neither worried nor feared no matter how anxious I felt when I watched because North Carolina won every time! That’s what Christian hope is like. In the end, no matter how troubled and anxious life gets, God always wins.
“This is my prayer,” Paul writes, “that your love may overflow more and more with sincerity and understanding to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness—a righteous character that comes from Jesus—to the praise and glory of God.” How can Paul pray that the Philippians be pure and blameless and righteous? Nobody lives that kind of life no matter how hard they try. But this is the point: Paul’s prayer is already answered. In Christ we are pure and blameless and righteous already. It’s just that our experience has yet to catch up with reality. Thus we need not worry or fear in the meantime, God who began a good work in us will bring it to completion. Even when we fail, the cross of Jesus stitches us back together so we can get back up and show what resurrection looks like. To be blameless and righteous is not to be flawless, but rather honest and humble and full of grace.
God is the one who began a good work among us and it is God who will bring it to completion. Christian hope is based on his work in us, not on our own ability or accomplishments. Christian hope fosters no illusions of human self-improvement. As opposed to those who’d look on the bright side and deny the effects of evil and sin, Christian hope understands that any real hope cannot found itself upon personal potential or wishful thinking. Christian hope views the effects of evil and sin for the tragedies they are, but then translates them into what they really are by the power of the cross: Suffering, rather than meaningless pain or just desserts, translates into meaningful redemption and reinforced character. Death, rather than a terrifying end, becomes the gateway to new life. Christian hopes stitches life’s tragedies into a beautiful tapestry of resurrection, pointing toward that day, when by grace, all things will be made new. Our confidence is in the Lord who always completes what he starts.
When we Harrells relocated to Minnesota almost three years ago, Dawn unpacked a box and found that unfinished African cat staring her in the face. Had it really been twenty years she’d been working on this thing? She determined again to finish in time for Christmas. Like Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, that lion started following us everywhere: on our road trip to Yellowstone and back, whenever we got on a plane, on a cabin vacation where Dawn so wanted to read a book. But rather than getting frustrated by the project this time, she grew increasingly excited as the lion’s face took shape and she could anticipate its joyous completion. Finally, on the last night of sewing, as the clock approached midnight with only the whiskers remaining, she realized too late that she didn’t have the right whisker color. Obeying her sister’s voice, she dealt with it and made the best of it, just like the Lord does with us, making us into the absolute best because it is God who does it.
It was beautiful. Dawn took the finished lion to Needlework Unlimited. The ladies who blocked the stretched fabric on which it was stitched and straightened the edges oo-ed and ah-ed. The framers oo-ed and ah-ed. Dawn posted her finished work on Facebook and Facebook oo-ed and ah-ed too. She sent it home and her dad was delighted. He said it was worth the twenty year wait, and like Aslan himself, as CS Lewis writes, it was “so bright and real and strong that everything else began at once to look pale and shadowy compared with him.” God will finish what he has started in us, because in Christ, he is already done. In time our experience will catch up with reality. We neither worry nor fear despite the troubles we endure in the meantime.
“I am confident of this,” Paul insists. And we can be confident too.