It is incredible to see the fervor with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing. Their first legislator [Jesus] has put it into their heads that they are brethren. Lucian A.D. 120-200

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. Phil 1:3-6

Jesus expressed this request on our behalf: “I pray….that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” [John 17:21] We who believe in Jesus have been linked to God and one another in a profound and life altering way. The unity we share is both a mystery and a reality. It defies our full understanding but we know it whenever we experience it. No matter where I go in the world, whenever I come into contact with a body of believers, I am instantly accepted as one of their own. It goes beyond agreement on a set of doctrines. It is a miracle of the Holy Spirit making us one in spirit. [1 Cor. 12]

This bond is experienced in the deep and lasting friendships that are forged in our fight for faith.  A day does not go by where I am not reminded of one of my former partners in ministry, stirring within me a feeling of joy and longing. We faced tough times together. We celebrated great victories together. I watched them grow up in their faith. I still consider them my family. Many years later I miss them like the blazes!  

A few weeks ago I returned to Santa Barbara. I served there fourteen years and long enough to see some of my kids grow up and fall in love. I had the privilege of officiating at their marriages and dedicating their babies. They even joined me in ministry. Since then, they have multiplied greatly and now honor me by having their children call me “Papa Gary.” Many are godly leaders in their church and community. I could not be prouder of them.

Not all church cultures allow for such relationships. I grew up in a time where the clergy were to remain somewhat aloof from their people. To get too close to the members of their congregation was considered to be a negative. I am not sure why. Perhaps the reasoning was that if they were to become too close, the pastor could not maintain the respect that being the leader demanded.

There was also a largely unspoken system of professional ethics which demanded that when the pastor left his church he no longer could initiate any contact with his former partners. Once the pastor was gone he was gone. Any “unauthorized” contact in the future was considered to be a form of tampering. Apparently, the new pastor needed the full allegiance of the congregation to adequately fulfill his responsibilities as shepherd.     

Paul had no such restrictions. Ten years after his first visit to Philippi he is writing to them as their mentor, still concerned and praying for them, still holding them in his heart. Even though he was in chains and hundreds of miles away from them, he was very active in their lives. He considered them a precious gift from God. That is why he thanked God every time he remembered them. It was a privilege to minister to those precious people. They were still the source of his joy.   

Partnering in ministry binds hearts together in a deep way that is both unique and deeply rewarding. Seeing the name of Jesus honored, lives changed, the church grow, all because God in his sovereignty brought us together in one place and time, seals hearts together forever. Those who partnered with me became my sidekicks. Those who remained spectators tended to become my critics. When you work and wrestle and win together, you become a “band of brothers, and sisters.”  

This was Paul’s favorite church. A look at the beginning gives a clue as to why it was. Paul came to Philippi because of a vision. Upon his arrival, he went to the river to look for Jews that might gather there for prayer. There he found Lydia. She was his first convert in Asia. Luke records, “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” [Acts 16:14] The Lord was at work in their midst. She was so filled with joy that she invited Paul to stay at her house. As a result, her whole household was wonderfully added to the family of God.

There was also trouble. Opposition was aroused against Paul and Silas. They were taken into custody, beaten and put in stocks. But, while praising God at midnight, an earthquake hit and all of their restraints were released. The jailer, thinking he would be held responsible for the prisoners escape, was about to commit suicide. Paul stopped him and was able to lead him to the Lord. Luke records, “The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God — he and his whole family.” [Acts 16:34]

Christ birthed this church. Christ sent Paul. Christ opened the eyes of Lydia and saved her household. Christ allowed them to be jailed and beaten. Christ caused the earthquake. Christ severed the chains. Christ saved the jailer and his household. Christ separated them from the world. Christ gathered them to himself. Christ bonded them together. The result was joy, pure joy! No one talked about sacrifice. No one complained about the hours. No one had time to critique the leadership. Christ was among them using them to glorify his name.    

This church loved Paul as much as he loved them. They did not forget him when he left. When Paul set out for Macedonia they were the only church that supported him. Again, in Thessolonica, they sent him help “again and again.” [4:17-20] Now, ten years later, they are still involved, sending Epaphroditus all the way to Rome, risking his life, to help meet his needs while in prison. [Phil 2:25] They were bound together. They were family. And, family is not dissolved by distance or time.

I know what Paul was feeling. I have not seen some of my partners in decades, yet they are still in my heart. If I were to walk into their home today, it would not be much different from the day we departed, except there would be a lot more grey hair and wrinkles. The oneness that Christ provided for us on the cross remains a precious reality. Although we are now separated by time and space we are united in heart. Our hearts are still bound together by the Spirit of God.

Although Barb and I are no longer leading a local congregation, we still are pastors at heart. One of our goals is that we would use the rest of our days on earth to be a source of encouragement for our family of partners. With Paul, we think we are going to stay around a little longer because our purpose is not complete. We still have desire to help our partners so that their “joy in Christ Jesus will overflow” [Phil 1:25-26].

So, if we can pray for you or help you in any way, please allow us the privilege of doing so. Like Paul, “We are convinced that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” We know you are going to make it, but when troubles and trials hit, we would love to be partners with you on the way. Tell us about your families. Send us pictures. Come and find us. The desert is a beautiful place and we have a guest bedroom just for you. You will find a warm welcome because we have you in our hearts. [1:7] And, if the Lord brings us to your mind, please pray for us.