Grace Presbyterian Church
October 11, 2020, Pentecost 19A
Unlike letters such as those to the churches in Corinth and Rome, which served in the former case to address some major foul-ups in the church and to introduce Paul in the latter, this epistle to the church at Philippi is quite brief, and in fact we are coming to its end. As a result we now encounter some recapitulation of subjects Paul has already addressed in the letter, along with a few closing instructions, final greetings, and some reflection on Paul’s part (as well as words of thanks for the gift the Philippians had sent him). It’s a fairly typical way for Paul to end a letter, particularly in a situation where he is not having to clean up after some major conflict or trauma in the church in question.
What has long been interpreted as the conflict in question in Philippi comes up quickly in this passage, as Paul addresses to the congregation his concern that two of their members, Euodia and Syntyche, “be of the same mind in the Lord.” This is familiar language from the very beginning of the letter, as you may remember. Most interpreters argue that the two, whom Paul says “have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel,” have come into some sort of conflict or disagreement, one which (as modern churches know all too well) could cause division in the larger body.
Some interpreters, though, offer an alternate and quite opposite suggestion; Paul is offering up the two women leaders in the church as examples not of conflict, but of exactly that being “of the same mind.” Paul is recommending these leaders in the church (for that is what they are, to the dismay of those who don’t think women can do that) as being worthy of the members’ emulation and support in the work. I’m not biblical scholar enough to weigh in with any credibility, but in one sense it does make sense that their names be invoked here, in the wrap-up of the letter, rather than in the early part of the letter if they are being named as models for emulation rather than as sources of division. But I leave that for you to ponder.
As is also common in his letter conclusions, Paul starts to wax rhapsodic here, or at least seems to. The word “rejoice” becomes quite important rather suddenly in verse 4. That became the source of one of those simple repetitive songs* I was taught as a child – “rejoice in the Lord a-al-ways, and again I say rejoice!” or something like that – that had the unfortunate effect of making the verse impossible to think about in any kind of depth as I got older and especially as I got into this particular vocation. Listen to it again: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
*I have to say that it never sounded like that when I was a kid.
Seriously, Paul? Are you looking around at all? It is a statement that resounds with seeming tone deafness at a time like our current time. Rejoice in a pandemic? Rejoice with so much rampant injustice? Rejoice over an increasingly ruined climate spewing deadly weather all over? Rejoice, Paul?
Well, here’s another spot where we need to go back and remember from chapter 1 Paul’s situation as he writes this letter. Remember, he’s in prison. Being in a Roman prison wasn’t a hopeful situation to be in; most who entered a Roman prison didn’t leave alive. Back in that first chapter, Paul had noted how his imprisonment had opened up some new opportunities for witness to the gospel. Here, he seems more concerned to equip the Philippians for whatever kind of difficulty might be coming their way, at least partly so that their own witness in time of conflict or even persecution would be similarly fruitful.
For many readers, the verses that follow directly after verse 4 can seem rather like random bits of counsel being poured out before Paul runs out of parchment or ink. I’d like to suggest, though (hopefully under the prompting of the Holy Spirit), that these following verses are actually pointed towards enabling the Philippians to live up to that exhortation in verse 4? Rejoice? Now? How? Well, Paul says, doing these things will help.
“Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
I can’t help but be reminded of a verse that stood out from that series in the book of Ecclesiastes several weeks ago: 9:17, “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools.” The blustering bullying of a so-called leader obsessed with looking “tough” or “manly” or “strong” really doesn’t impress the world when it comes from one who claims to be a follower of Christ. Gentleness, particularly to those who have been treated by the world with anything but gentleness, is a witness like no other. Living like those who know the Spirit is with us makes all kinds of difference in how the world hears us.
“Do not worry about anything…”
Here’s one where we really need to hear the whole thought: “…but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Living in anxiety does not solve those needs we have, but the rest of the verse doesn’t give us leave to quit caring about those needs once we have offered them to God, nor is it a prompting to break out in the old Bobby McFerrin hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” If our prayers don’t have feet in some way, they’re not worth the oxygen required to breathe them. And it is in this putting our needs before God that we are brought into the peace of God, which the Greek literally says will “stand sentinel over” our hearts and minds. What we don’t put before God cannot be guarded with the peace of God, and our ability to rejoice is cut short.
This list of virtues in verse 8 is perhaps one of the most well-known passages in the book, even if it can be challenging to keep them in your memory in the right order. One of the remarkable things about this list is that it is not necessarily distinctly “Christian” in its origin. Any ethicist of the Greco-Roman realm would have almost reflexively put forth these virtues as those that their students should learn and emulate.
Further, thinking on these things – things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy – requires more than just thinking happy thoughts. This isn’t about some kind of Norman Vincent Peale positive thinking business, nor is it an excuse to break into a different song – “Accentuate the Positive” in this case. No, this is about a process of training and shaping our minds to know and recognize these virtues in ourselves and one another and the world around us. Other epistles, such as Galatians and Colossians, use the metaphor of clothing to make the same point – applied here, Paul might have said “clothe yourselves in what is true, honorable” and so forth, with the idea that in this case clothes really do make the wearer. Study these things, contemplate them deeply, reflect on them; these habits in turn make these virtues basic to your own thinking and reflecting on the world around you – both to spot the presence of these virtures and their absence. Paul then follows in verse 9 by again offering himself as an example, and again invoking that in doing these things “the God of peace will be with you.”
In short, these exhortations are about being made into followers of Christ able to “rejoice in the Lord always,” even in prison or pandemic. To quote Debie Thomas, an Episcopalian Christian educator and contributor to The Christian Century:
So I wonder whether these famous verses from Philippians are not about feeling good so much as they are about cultivating the inner life of the soul. In Paul’s view, peace and joy are not emotions we can conjure up within ourselves. They come from God, and the only way we can receive them is through consistent spiritual practice…
In short, these encouragements are not about simple happy thoughts, but the hard-but-necessary work of soul rehabilitation. Spiritual exercise, if you will. Thomas continues:
In other words, joy requires us to sidestep sentimentality and cynicism alike. It requires that we hold onto two realities at once; the reality of the world’s brokenness in one hand, and the reality of God’s love in the other. Joy is what happens when we daily live into the belief that God can and will bridge the gap between the world we long for and the world we see before our eyes.
This doesn’t happen easily. That trust is hard when the world we see before our eyes is cold and brutal and callous. Joy will shed some tears along the way. Joy won’t sit quietly in the face of injustice of any kind. But it is this cultivated discipline that makes joy – the real stuff – possible at all, and that in turn makes our lives able even a little bit to bear witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The serious work of cultivating disciplined joy, practicing fierce gentleness, studying genuine virtue, and bearing real witness is not at all easy. Far from it, no matter how easily Paul seems to toss it off in the final flourishes of this letter. And yet, one more time, this is our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #821, My Life Flows On (How Can I Keep From Singing?); #852, When the Lord Redeems the Very Least