Year A, Pentecost 19 Philippians 4:1-9
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything…” When I read this, my gut reaction was, “Whatever Paul, you aren’t experiencing 2020.” I am not proud of that, but I doubt I am the only one who had that reaction. That said, Paul would never be confused for a Pollyanna. As I mentioned in my last sermon, everything was urgent and of the utmost importance because all things circled back to Jesus Christ crucified for us. While 2020 has been a rough year, I haven’t been beaten, shipwrecked, or imprisoned….not once. Any of you? But Paul experienced all of that after he became a disciple of Christ. He experienced each of those things multiple times. He was writing this letter to the Philippians from prison. Therefore, for him to be able to advise people to “Rejoice in the Lord always…” is rather astounding.
If you look at the word “rejoice” in Greek, which is the language most of the New Testament was originally written in, you will find it is in the plural form. He isn’t telling individuals to rejoice because their individual lives are joyful. He is referring to the collective act of rejoicing. It’s not a personal state of being, but a communal experience. This communal joy doesn’t even come from communal good fortune, it comes because of the faith of the community. This is interesting given that it comes right after he has urged Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind. Given that message and the reference to dissension in previous chapters, there is a clearly some division in the community. It is a concern for Paul, but also an opportunity to a deeper experience of community.
When he tells these two women to be of the same mind, he isn’t telling them that they need to agree on everything. We all know that it is impossible. He is reminding them of what they do agree on. Right after he tells them to be of the same mind, he reminds them and the community that they have struggled beside him in the work of the Gospel. Whatever their differences are, they believe in the same Gospel, the same Jesus Christ. Not only that, but they have given their lives to proclaiming the Gospel, even though it is a struggle. If they can do that, then they can get past these differences.
I think the only thing harder than rejoicing in the time of COVID is Paul’ next request: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God.” Do not worry about anything—except a pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes, murder hornets, a national recession, racial tension and an election more divisive than any other in recent history. Other than that, it’s smooth sailing. It’s so annoying when people tell you not to worry because it feels as though they are downplaying a concern of yours, one that they probably don’t understand. The other thing that irritates me about Paul’s advice, is that he doesn’t seem to be able to follow it. Earlier in this very same letter to the Philippians, he said that he was sending his co-worker and minister so that he (Paul) would be less anxious. But remember, for Paul, it was always about the other. He was worried for them, God’s people, not about his own life. He wasn’t stewing about when he would get out of prison or if he would get out of prison. He was worried for this new Christian community. So he sent his colleague, a fellow Christian who would carry the Gospel, which would in turn alleviate Paul’s worry.
Paul didn’t deny that there were things to be anxious about, he just didn’t want people to dwell on it. He didn’t sit there in prison worrying about his friends. He sent someone, someone he knew would help them and thus alleviate his anxiety and theirs. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” For Paul, as long as the relationship between Christians was strong, as long as the relationship to God was strong, then anxiety would never prevail. It would never be the all-encompassing emotion it can be so often.
The following verse is my favorite part of his letter…the part that comforts me every time I hear it—the part I don’t feel the need to argue with. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” We could try to do all the right things, follow all Paul’s advice and every single commandment. And things could still unravel around us. There is so much in our lives we cannot possibly control.
Yet God’s peace operates beyond our daily life. We often hear people refer to inner peace. I think that’s because people want to hold on to it and claim it as their own. They want it to be something that they can attain. God’s peace, the peace that surpasses all understanding is bigger and bolder than whatever peace we think we can attain and grasp by ourselves.
Paul says that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds. I love that image. I have never thought much about it until I read a commentary explaining it this week. It said that the literal translation is “The peace of God will stand sentry over your hearts and minds.” I read that as I sat on my deck, ½ mile from Norfolk Naval Base as planes flew over my house, so close the pictures hung on my wall are always a little slanted because of the vibrations. I feel safer when I hear those planes and helicopters, knowing that such strength and power is so close and omnipresent. I wish that I, like Paul, felt God’s peace as strongly as I feel the planes that fly overhead. I don’t now, but I believe I can one day, I will one day. That feels more attainable than never worrying or always being happy. The thing about God’s peace is that like so many things Paul discusses, it is best experienced communally. God’s peace doesn’t just guard us…it guards everyone. If we can accept that, then we will know that God’s peace isn’t simply guarding us, it is enfolding us.