Joy in Challenging Times -- A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 19A (Philippians 4)
4 1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
This is one of the most cherished passages in Scripture. Even if you’re not a fan of Paul, You have to embrace his encouragement to rejoice in the Lord always. Though it might seem odd to heed the call to be joyful in challenging times, like what has imposed itself on the world in 2020. While there is a place for lamentation, Paul seems to believe that there is also room for joy in difficult times. After all, he’s writing this letter from a jail cell (Phil. 1:7). So, here in the concluding chapter of Paul’s Philippian letter, written from prison to a community facing some form of persecution, Paul invites them to rejoice in the Lord always. In fact, he doubles down on that invitation, declaring “again I will say, Rejoice” (vs. 4). So, because the Lord is near (I take that to mean Jesus’ return in glory), “do not worry about anything, but in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (vs. 6).
It’s clear that things aren’t going perfectly in Philippi. There appears to be some conflict going on, but not, it doesn’t seem, at the same level as what we find present in some of Paul’s other letters. Nevertheless, Paul seems to have reason to be concerned, which is why he keeps encouraging these beloved followers of Jesus who formed a church Paul had founded to keep focused on what is true and honorable. As we’ve seen, Paul wants them to keep focused on Jesus, whose humility can be the foundation for their unity (Phil. 2:5-11). He also offers himself as an example (Phil. 3:17).
Here in this concluding chapter, Paul speaks specifically to two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who appear to be at odds. We don’t know the background or nature of the conflict, but Paul wants them to be of the same mind. Therefore, he not only urges them to come together but also asks his unnamed loyal companion—perhaps Epaphroditus, who is mentioned as Paul’s companion and likely member of the Philippian community (Phil 2:25-30)—to help them resolve their differences. I should note that these two women are recognized by Paul as being coworkers with him for the Gospel, so they are important to him. This reality again reinforces the message that whatever Paul has to say about joy and peace in this passage, it is said in the context of challenging times both for him and for the Philippian congregation.
As noted above, I write this reflection while the world is experiencing its own set of challenges that seem to keep piling on top of each other. First of all, the world is in the midst of a pandemic that has sickened tens of millions and killed hundreds of thousands of those inflicted, with the numbers in the United States outstripping every other country. That same pandemic has forced many of us into forms of isolation we’ve never experienced before. We miss the simple things like going to a restaurant or a movie without fearing the possibility that we might be exposed to the virus. Then there is church, where something as simple and joy-inducing as singing has been put on hold. We are also in the midst of a racial reckoning, that is forcing the nation to wrestle with the implications for our society of the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police (George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others) and vigilantes (Ahmaud Arbery). These deaths have led to months of protests that have yet to let up. We’re also in one of the most contentious and dispiriting election seasons most of us have ever seen. Many Americans fear that we are nearing the end of democracy in this nation. So, how do you find joy in moments like this? Where do you find peace? The answer is certainly not to be found in our cultural context.
Note that Paul invites them to “rejoice in the Lord” and not in their circumstances. He encourages them to exhibit gentleness in their relationships. He tells them not to worry, but to be in prayer. This isn’t Paul’s version of that Bobby McFerrin song: “Don’t worry, Be Happy.” It’s not a call for blissful ignorance, as if there’s nothing to worry about. Instead, it is an encouragement to put one’s trust in God. Let us remember that Paul is writing this from a prison cell. Death is, perhaps, a possibility. There is persecution of some sort going on. Nevertheless, Paul enjoins them to rejoice in the Lord. As Martin Luther declared in a sermon on this passage, “Joy is the natural fruit of faith.” He continues in the sermon, making mention of Paul’s doubling down on the call to rejoice, declaring:
It is essential that we rejoice. Paul, recognizing that we live in the midst of sin and evil, both which things depress, would fortify us with cheer. Thus rejoicing, even if we should sometimes fall into sin, our joy in God will exceed our sorrow in sin. The natural accompaniment of sin truly is fear and a burdened conscience, and we cannot always escape sin. Therefore we should let joy have rule, let Christ be greater than our sins. [Martin Luther].
This invocation of joy is powerful, but trusting God isn’t always easy, even for those whom we are told are paragons of faith. My Bible Study group is reading the stories in Genesis about Abraham. While he’s held up in Hebrews 11 as a paragon of faith, if you read the Abraham story closely, Abraham doesn’t always exhibit faith in God. Consider that even though God has promised to provide Abraham a son through Sarah (Genesis 17 and18), in Genesis 20 he passes her off as his sister. Only God’s intervention prevents disaster. Nevertheless, Paul encourages the Philippians to rejoice and let the peace of God, which surpasses understanding, guard their hearts and minds.
Though Paul encourages them to put their trust in the God who brings peace to their lives, he’s not encouraging them to be passive in their behavior. The reading closes with a call to action. Paul encourages this beloved community to focus their attention on what is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and that which is worthy of praise. From there, he asks that the “keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me” (vs. 9). In other words, while he commended them to look to Jesus for a model of the Christian life (Phil. 2:5-11), he’s not afraid to offer himself up as a role model. All of this begins in prayer so that the God of peace might be with us. Therefore, let us rejoice in the Lord, always!
Image attribution: Longview Christian Church. Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55774 [retrieved October 4, 2020]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8328367@N08/2949605288.