The Power of Rejoicing!
Oct 15, 2023
20th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Philippians 4:1-9
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
It has indeed been a challenging week as our TV screens and devices have overflowed with the terrible news of what the newspaper dubbed “the siege in Gaza”. The war began after Hamas militants attacked innocent people in Israeli towns. Now, thousands, who were essentially by-sanders on both sides, have died and the number injured and kidnapped is unknown.
How is it, at such a time, that the words of the Apostle Paul to the people of Philippi, can be meaningful, even to we who are removed from the violence in the Middle East, but face our own conflicts and losses? They just do not seem to “fit”; in fact, I noticed on the ELCA Clergy Facebook page at least one pastor requesting suggestions of replacement scripture for just that reason.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice?” Paul proclaims, and “Do not worry about anything….” Then there’s, “…and the peace of God will be with you.” Do you see what I mean? Such statements do not fit in a time of stress and difficulty.
The interesting thing is, though, that although it was not as extreme as the conflict we observed in the Israel this past week, all was not goodness and light when Paul wrote these now well-known words. Paul was chained in a Roman prison, waiting to see if he would be sentenced to death for his provocative preaching about Jesus. He was writing to a community that was facing economic and social challenges because of their commitment to following Jesus. And they all were experiencing pressure to back off from proclaiming a crucified and risen Messiah.
And if that wasn’t enough, there was conflict in the church at Philippi. It was between two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who evidently were active, prominent members of the church. They were among the core of the congregation, and evidently there had been a falling out; they were at odds with one another. That’s a situation that is risky in a church already under stress. Paul had worked side-by-side with these women in the gospel ministry, and he wanted them to be reconciled with one another.
In the midst all this – his being in prison, the community being challenged and the inner-church conflict - Paul says, “Rejoice!” His focus is not just on those two women, but on his vision of the Christian life. Paul’s goal, it seems, is to offer hope and practical advice – a prescription - to face such difficult circumstances.
He is saying that rejoicing can help end a dispute, that because the Lord is near, they should demonstrate a gentle attitude and pray about the things that bother them most. And, while they are at it, they should ponder and do only that which is commendable and praiseworthy.
Think about it … what Paul is asking them to do in spite of their difficult context; it is more than a bit challenging. As commentator Scott Hoezee notes, “Having a heart that rejoices without ceasing, having a mind that works overtime to ponder only the best and the brightest of subjects, living a life that consistently shows forth our God of peace – all of this is outrageously challenging given the real world in which we live.” (1)
This is yet another reason to be grateful that our faith is founded in grace alone and we live by grace alone. Knowing that we cannot do it perfectly, and yet are forgiven, we strive to follow Paul’s “prescription” for the Christian life, and the context in which he writes the “prescription” suggests that we do so especially when we feel overwhelmed by opposition and anxiety.
Commentator Jane Lancaster Patterson distills Paul’s word in this way:
Rejoice: do not expect joy to arrive on its own but commit yourself to practices of joy every day.
Since no one is at their best during challenging times, be gentle to absolutely everyone.
Jesus is near. Take moments to experience the reality that you are surrounded by transcendent compassion that is larger and deeper than you.
Do not obsess over your worries, but do not brush them under the carpet, either. Share them with God, all the worry and gratitude together.
Know that this conversation with God is a source of peace beyond our capacity to understand.
Commit yourself not to obsess over all that is going wrong, all the evil and destruction you see in the world. Turn your attention to things that really matter, to where you see action that is worthy of respect, to places where justice is being done, to goodness in all its forms. Make a list of them.
Pay attention to the truly remarkable people around you who will show you how to walk this path. (2)
Striving to do all this is possible only because of God’s nearness, Jesus’ grace and the power of the Holy Spirit; the promise is that as we do so, we find hope even in the midst of challenge. Or, as Paul proclaims, keep on doing these things … and the God of peace will be with you. The outcome is not that the difficulties disappear, but that in the midst of it there will be peace in our hearts and minds.
On this final Sunday of our Stewardship Emphasis the theme is gratitude. As we acknowledge the gifts of God – including the options introduced in this passage from Philippians as a pathway to peace even for difficult days – we are thankful. And, as we have noted in recent weeks, our gratitude leads to commitment; commitment to giving of our time, talents and money so that God’s light shines through us and our congregation into people’s lives and the world. That light has transforming power even in, especially in, dark days. We can be, as amazing as it seems, conveyors of peace.
So it is that with gratitude we make commitments to ministry, today and in the days to come, and “rejoice in the Lord always!” AMEN