Few of us will be sad to watch the year of our Lord 2020 draw to a close at the end of December. It has been, after all, to say the least, a most stressful year. COVID-19 has wreaked almost unimaginable havoc on countless lives, jobs and institutions. North Americans are struggling with racial injustice and renewed calls for racial justice. Americans are in the midst of the most heated presidential campaign in my memory.
Those who proclaim Philippians 4 do so knowing that our contemporaries are watching very closely how Christians respond to such stress. From my limited perspective we’re doing only “okay.” While some of Jesus’ followers are responding to the various crises in amazingly Christ-like ways, Christians’ responses especially to those with whose politics we disagree sometimes seem little different than our culture’s.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s beginning refers to stress within the Philippian church community. In it Paul alludes to some kind of quarrel between Euodia and Syntyche. While we don’t know the nature of their dispute, Paul considers it important enough to speak to the whole church about it. So it’s probably not the ancient equivalent of a disagreement about what kind of cookies to serve during church fellowship time.
The apostle reminds Euodia and Syntyche that God expects the same kinds of things of church leaders as those we lead. There is no double standard for church leaders and members. Leaders, after all, have perhaps a unique power to tear churches apart and destroy their unity.
Yet it’s interesting that Paul addresses the tension between two members of the Philippian church in a letter he sends not just to them, but also to their entire church. Perhaps that’s because he expects the entire church community to come alongside those women in order to help them reconcile. To be part of the body of Christ is, after all, to act like a body in working for peace within that body. Since members of the church have contended with the apostle for the gospel, the apostle challenges them to work to end the women’s contending with each other.
But those who proclaim Philippians 4 may want to ask ourselves and explore with our hearers just why Paul so quickly after that invites his readers to “rejoice in the Lord always.” Why do that tension and a call to rejoice seem almost “joined at the hip”? Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers may want to explore the link between stress or division and joy.
After all, the Bible is full of commands to “Rejoice.” Yet it isn’t necessarily calling us to “be happy.” After all, the Scriptures’ calls to rejoice sometimes seem to come in the least happy contexts.
Consider this morning’s text, for example. It’s not just that Euodia and Syntyche are quarrelling and so, presumably, unhappy. It’s also that the Paul who writes to the Philippians also seems to be in an unhappy situation. He’s, after all, in prison awaiting a trial that may lead to his execution. The apostle also worries about the spiritual health of the young churches he has started.
Yet Paul fills Philippians’ short letter with 14 references to joy and rejoicing. Those calls, in some ways, climax with our text’s: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” So though he is deeply threatened by powerful people, the apostle can be joyful as well as call others to be joyful. He’s content whether he lives or dies, whether he’s well fed or hungry, whether he’s safe or in danger.
Yet how can Paul call people, including those who are quarrelling, to “Rejoice” in the face of great adversity? How can God expect those who live in the dark shadow cast by both a pandemic and racial injustice, as well as struggle with things like joblessness, mental and physical illness?
Karl Barth once called “joy a continual defiant ‘Nevertheless’.” It’s a reminder that the biblical concept of joy isn’t based on circumstances. So some of our hearers are happy. They’re celebrating new babies or new marriages, healthy relationships and satisfactory jobs.
Others plan to celebrate upcoming holidays with family members and friends in good physical, mental and economic health. So some of us find that we can rejoice in the good things God has graciously showered on us. Yet others struggle to be happy in these difficult times. We worry about our health and jobs, families and friends, as well as our country and world’s future.
So do does this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson call only God’s happy adopted sons and daughters to “rejoice in the Lord”? The answer is “No!” The imprisoned apostle insists that suffering Christians too can rejoice.
For years I’ve looked for a synonym for the word “rejoice.” I think I’ve found two. Those who are experiencing God’s blessings can “be happy.” Those who are struggling, however, can still “take heart” or “have courage.”
After all, as Paul reminds Philippi’s Christians, whether we’re glad or troubled, “the Lord is near.” Whether Jesus’ followers live in freedom or in some kind of captivity, the Lord is near. Whether our culture is healthy or sick, the Lord is near.
Whether our health is solid or shaky, God’s dearly beloved people can rejoice because the Lord is near. Whether our finances are booming or busting, we can rejoice because the Lord is near. Whether Jesus’ adopted siblings feel alone or surrounded by people, we can rejoice because the Lord is near.
As David Bartlett notes, we can rejoice that the Lord is near especially in two ways. The God who, in Christ, promised never to leave or abandon us is close at hand, by the Holy Spirit. Even our most difficult circumstances can’t wrench Jesus’ followers away from either the Lord or God’s love.
As a result, whether God’s adopted sons and daughters are trudging through dark valleys or hiking through beautiful mountains, God is right with us. Whether we have to swim through flooded waters or bathe in soothing waters, God stays with us.
The Lord is near in the comfort the Holy Spirit gives. The Lord is near in the loving prayers and presence of other believers. The Lord is also near in the trust God grants us that God is working even through difficult circumstances for good.
However, Paul also recognized that Jesus’ followers can rejoice that the Lord is near because Jesus is coming again very soon. When Christ returns, God will show God’s approval of those who have suffered or whom others have ignored or persecuted. Because we know God will someday, perhaps very soon, make all things right, we can take heart even when happiness seems very far away.
God’s adopted sons and daughters can also be “gentle” with each other. We don’t have to adopt the angry rhetoric that currently seems nearly as contagious as COVID-19. Jesus’ followers can adopt the gentle posture that Jesus adopted even with his enemies, because we never forget that even those with whom we most sharply disagree are created in God’s image and, thus, deeply beloved by God.
Because God is near, God’s beloved children don’t have to be anxious either. While anxiety in our culture is nearly as rampant as racial injustice, we can have peace. To quote an old hymn, we don’t have to worry about what tomorrow holds, because we know Who holds tomorrow.
I think it’s no accident that Paul follows up his reminder about the nearly unfathomable peace God grants God’s dearly beloved people with a call to think about wonderful and lovely things. That call may, in fact, be more important than ever in a world that our media and others so often saturate with terrible things.
Christians are realists, not Pollyanna’s about the world’s misery. But those who only focus on that misery easily overlook the signs of God’s loving reign over our world. While our culture almost seems to revel in what’s untrue, unholy, unjust, impure, ugly and vicious, Paul invites Jesus’ followers to a different way. A way the Spirit uses to promote within us joy, gentleness and peace.
God’s dearly beloved people concentrate on what the apostle calls “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy” things. In a world that God called “good,” but we’ve managed to badly scar, we persistently and faithfully look for and contemplate what John Calvin spoke of as “God’s fingerprints” on creation.
Jonathon Kozol’s provocative book about people who are poor in the Bronx is entitled Amazing Grace. His title reflects that of the old hymn that he heard people often sing in churches in the Bronx. However, it also reflects Kozol’s amazement that even in the midst of real deprivation, something very much like joy flourished. Even struggling people were able to “take heart.”
One local pastor told Kozol that the fourth stanza of Amazing Grace was the anthem of the people he served. There, after all, we sing, “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
One of Kozol’s students wrote a paper for him that described his vision of the Lord’s nearness in God’s everlasting kingdom: “There will be no violence in heaven. There will be no guns or drugs or IRS … Jesus will be good to all the children who have died and play with them … God will be fond of you.”
It’s a vision of the Lord’s nearness in which all of God’s adopted sons and daughters, even those whom people and circumstances beleaguer, can rejoice.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 11, 2020
Philippians 4:1-9 Commentary