1Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. 2I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and petitions with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will protect your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8Finally, 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, ponder these things. 9Keep 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.
When we gather in person I usually do a quick overview of where we are in the church's year of grace. After today we have 6 (six, a half-dozen) more Sundays and then it will be the First Sunday of Advent and another new year. The current Revised Common Lectionary Year A emphasizes the gospel we received from the community gathered around Matthew. At the start of Matthew an angel instructs Joseph to name the baby "Emmanuel," God-with-us; at the end of Matthew, Jesus promises to be with us forever, "Lo, I am with you always." We know Jesus' promise through Luke of the Holy Spirit of life, of resurrection, of presence the world received in a spectacular manner on the day of Pentecost. John's gospel also brings us God's abiding presence in the Spirit. Today's second reading from the apostle Paul's letter to the church at Philippi assures us of God with us, God among us, God for us.
Philippians is one of the seven genuine or undisputed letters written by the apostle Paul. Although as circular, round-robin documents they probably received some editing by others along the way, writing style, vocabulary, syntax, and theology substantially reflect Paul/Saul of Tarsus. Philippians is the "epistle of Joy," with joy or its cognates occurring at least 16 times. As last week's notes observed, we refer to Philippians as a captivity letter because Paul wrote it while he was incarcerated—possibly in house arrest or in a dungeon. Despite circumstances, he maintains confidence in God's presence along with assurance of his essential identity in Jesus Christ.
4:2 "I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord…" often gets misinterpreted by assuming the two women had been in the midst of a serious disagreement, but instead it's almost definitely a style of writing and discourse called paranaesis (roughly encouragement or exhortation) that was common in that era and that we find elsewhere in writings from Paul, in epistles attributed to him, and in 1 Peter and 2 Peter. In addition, unlike in the Corinthian Church, there's no evidence of any particular conflict at First Church Philippi. 4:9 confirms this when Paul advises them to keep on doing the things they've learned from him, their pastor and teacher.
4:8 is one of Paul's famous lists: true; honorable; just; pure; pleasing; commendable; excellent; praise-worthy…
As a People of the Book – along with Jews and Muslims – Christians accord a high level of authority to the bible and its words inform every aspect of our lives. However, there's something so compelling, inspired, and universally applicable about our scriptures that many people who don't claim any spiritual way use some of its passages to guide them; there's also a Bible as Literature approach you may know about. In addition, even those of us who hear and heed God's call to love and justice, obedience and righteous living to heal creation and transform society, focus on different aspects of The Word at different times.
It's not humanly possibly to spend 365/24/7 responding to God's unmistakable summons to care for the sick, cast out demons, challenge Big Oil, grow and distribute food, worship in gathered assembly. Often we go to the bible for comfort and reassurance.
With southern California counties in different stages of remaining closed and partially reopening, as the USA prepares for a critical presidential election, most of us reasonably thoughtful people have been doing everything possible to care for our neighbors and maintain a semblance of mental and emotional health. But by now, even people who aren't essential or frontline workers need comfort far more than they need another call to action. For sure this passage commands us to rejoice, to be gentle, to let God know our "prayer requests" (not simply praises and thanksgivings!) and not to worry. But most importantly for now, this scripture assures us:
5bThe Lord is near. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will protect your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. … 9bthe God of peace will be with you.
• This passage promises us God is with us; it also commands us "Rejoice in the Lord always."
• If you've sung in choirs, you may know Henry Purcell's extremely famous "Rejoice in the Lord Alway" based on Philippians 4:4-5.
• How can we have joy in spite of everything?
• Philippians, the Letter of Joy commands us to rejoice and it promises God's presence and peace and protection. In addition, it more than suggests:
8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable [famous or renowned – Greek is euphemism], if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, ponder these things.• At this mid-October point when we realize if only we'd started distancing and masking back in January or even February. When we wonder if civil rights legislation, better relating and greater awareness hadn't changed a whole lot of human behaviors and even structures, after all? When we ask if only more individuals and corporations and industries had been more careful with the gifts of creation (David Attenborough says the planet can recover a lot during the next ten years). Amidst all the ugly, disappointing, unsavory, and degraded, how does thinking about good and pleasing things feel?
• In any case, this passage commands us to rejoice and enjoy. A sunrise, a savory salad, a purring cat, a surprise flower finding a way through concrete, a properly distanced conversation, an archived recording of our choir singing a favorite anthem. Have you ever been told or told yourself to "Lighten up?" (As if I need to ask.) What are some of your best and favorite Little Things in life?
Philippians 4:5b The Lord is near. How?
• Short list: In the prayers and presence of people of faith, in the presence of those who care for creation, who advocate for justice. The Lord is near in the words of scripture. As we literally re-member and retell stories of God's faithfulness throughout history and in our own individual lives. The Lord is near as God self-reveals in holy ordinary stuff of creation—water, grain, fruit of the vine.
• What evidence of God's presence do you especially rely on and return to?
• Do you have a favorite scripture for comfort or reassurance? A particular book of the bible?
• Is there a special place or activity that almost always helps you feel better and/or closer to God?