In Canada, today is Thanksgiving Day. Our American friends may find it strange that, for us in the True North, Thanksgiving is not the beginning of the shopping season, but aside from that difference, the day is pretty similar and the sentiments it represents and expresses are very much the same on both sides of the border. In our church, Thanksgiving has long been a church-wide day of celebration as we hold a dinner and a service of Thanksgiving with our church people. It began when we were very small, a church with some widows and widowers, single mothers and couples with few local family connections. We thought it would be good to make the church the family for us all and make the day a notable one in the calendar. We’ve done it almost every year for the last twenty-five years or so. For us, it is a day of true Christian fellowship and a means of outreach as we try to bring into our midst unsaved friends and family to hear the gospel message as we feast on the usual Thanksgiving fare – turkey and more turkey, mashed potatoes, turkey, dressing, pumpkin pies and turkey.
The celebration calls to mind the opening words of the book of Philippians, as the apostle sets the tone for his epistle of joy by thanking God for the people of the Philippian church.
Philippians 1.3-6 I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, Always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now; Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:
One writer states the theme of Philippians as “the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel” It is this partnership that brings joy to the heart of the apostle. He thanks God whenever these dear people come to his mind, moving him to intercede on their behalf as he recalls their partnership (fellowship) with him “from the first day until now.”
Paul is writing the book of Philippians from prison in Rome, most likely around ad 61 or 62, his first ministry in Philippi being some ten years earlier on the second missionary journey. If you know the stories from Acts, you will be familiar with the hospitality of Lydia and the penitence of the Philippian jailer who formed the nucleus of that congregation. The men and women of this church were so grateful to God for their salvation from sin that they joined enthusiastically with Paul in supporting his gospel preaching ministry. They supported him personally (Phil 4.15-16), they joined in the massive offering Paul supervised for the support of the poor church in Jerusalem (2 Cor 8.1-4), and, indeed, the letter to the Philippians was itself occasioned by still another gift from them to him (Phil 4.10, 14). Their partnership in spiritual things took a most tangible form on these occasions, as the apostle teaches us is natural and right for Christians to do (Rm 15.26-27). Partnership is at the root of fellowship.
The ministry of the local church in the gospel ought to involve many hands in the work of furthering the gospel. Just as a church dinner involves many hands in a cooperative effort to “feed the multitude,” so too the outreach ministry of any church involves the efforts of all the saints to bring spiritual bread to hungry souls. Our Thanksgiving dinner involves many individuals in partnership for a successful event: those who clean the facility, set up the tables, decorate the rooms, prepare the food, organize the seating, ensure the food trays are refilled, clear the tables at the end of the day, and do the final cleaning of the rooms. And then there is the preacher and musicians and service that caps off the event. And those who invite friends and family to come with them. Many people are involved in the whole thing. This is as it should be. A local church is a fellowship, a partnership in the work of the gospel.
So too with our weekly efforts for our regular service schedules and our soul-winning efforts. None of these events are the work of one person alone – much labor goes into the preparation of facilities, in preparation of services (preacher, musicians, teachers, child-care workers), in greeting those who arrive, in conducting the services, in contacting visitors and following up, in holding Bible studies through the week, in laboring in prayer for all of these efforts. This is the work of the ministry, and many hands are involved.
As a pastor, when I think of the work that goes into our ministry efforts, my heart is made very glad, but it isn’t simply the efforts, the work, that gladden my heart. The apostle said to the Philippians, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.” It is not the work but the workers that bring delight. And it is not the workers, but their “fellow-participation-as-partners-together” that causes Thanksgiving! That’s fellowship, and the real joy of the ministry is in the fact that we get to do it together, all of us united in the life-giving cause of proclaiming our Lord and Christ and the salvation he offers through his sacrifice on the cross for the sins of mankind.
Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.
- Robert C. Swift, “The Theme and Structure of Philippians,” Bibliotheca Sacra 141 (1984): 237. [↩]