More than polite

Didn’t Mom always tell us to say “Thank you” when someone gave us a gift? Weren’t we taught to send thank you notes or cards? It didn’t matter whether the gift was something you actually asked for or wanted; saying thanks was the right and polite thing to do. (Not to mention Mom didn’t want any grief from the relatives about her ungrateful, bratty kids.)

As we’ve seen, the believers in Philippi loved Paul and sent him a tangible gift of support while he was in prison. We don’t know what the gift was. And Paul was grateful for it. But he didn’t directly thank them for the gift until almost the very end of the letter.

Somehow, I imagine his mother would not have been pleased.

I sincerely doubt, though, that the Philippians would have been offended. After all, Paul does in fact begin the letter with thanksgiving, just thanks of another kind:

I thank my God for every remembrance of you, always in every one of my prayers for all of you, praying with joy for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (Phil 1:3-5, NRSVUE)

He doesn’t begin by thanking the Philippians; he begins by thanking God for the Philippians. And this isn’t simply because they have a special bond together. This is classic Paul. Several of his letters begin with similar words of thanks, right after the initial greeting. For example:

  • First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you… (Rom 1:8)
  • I give thanks to my God always for you… (1 Cor 1:4)
  • We always give thanks to God for all of you… (1 Thess 1:2)
  • I thank my God always when I mention you in my prayers… (Philem 1:4)

Did Paul have the same kind of relationship with all these churches? Paul enjoyed a good relationship, for example, with the churches of Macedonia, which included both the Philippians and the Thessalonians. His relationship with the Corinthians was rather more complicated, while the letter to Philemon was written to deal with a tense and difficult issue. But in each of these situations, Paul gives thanks to God for the people to whom he writes.

To me, the fact that Paul so consistently began his letters this way, across a variety of relationships, suggests something more than style or convention. It suggests something about his character, his attitude, his stance toward life and ministry. He was an authentically grateful person, always conscious of standing under the grace of God, always alert to what God was doing in every church.

Surely the Philippians knew and loved this about him. No one had to urge them to send a gift. And having sat under Paul’s teaching, they knew his “I thank God for you” was a better reflection of their relationship than merely “Thank you for the gift” (though that will come later).

. . .

You know how it is. You have friends, and then you have friends. There are people with whom you are friendly on the outside; you enjoy their company and they yours. But internally, you still maintain some reserve. You take more care to not say the wrong things, and you don’t say everything that’s on your mind or in your heart. But there are others around whom you may feel you can be more yourself, to speak honestly and without fear.

I imagine Paul’s relationship to the Philippians to be more like the second. Paul consistently prays for them, and when he does, he prays with joy. But what made those prayers joyful? We’ll explore that in the next post.