Nevertheless . . . .
18th Sunday after Trinity Philippians 4: 1-9
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.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 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.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, 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. 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.
I wonder what you would like your last words to be? My favourite is Spike Milligan’s epitaph: “I told you I was ill!”
The apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome, in chains and under armed guard. He was shortly to be put on trial for his faith, and Paul knew the death penalty was a real possibility. So, unsurprisingly, Paul chose to write to his loved ones. Not to an individual or to his biological family, but to the Christians in Philippi, a church that Paul himself had founded. In verse 1 of today’s chapter he calls the Philippians his “brothers & sisters”, and his “dear friends”. Paul tells them that he “loves them and longs for them”. They are his “joy” and his “crown”, or as we might put it today, they are his ‘pride and joy’. These are Paul’s last words to his loved ones. Words he most wanted them to hear. Words they should treasure, should they never see him again.
So what was Paul’s parting shot to the Philippians? What were the last words he wanted to leave them with?
Wherever we see the word ‘therefore’ in scripture we need to look to see what it is there for! This “therefore” refers to what he has written about in the previous chapter (remembering that this was one long letter not divided up into chapters). He is talking about running a race, seeing life as an obstacle course. He writes how he runs this race by pressing on to the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. He is urging others to run with him. But in the opening verse of chapter four he tell us to "stand firm". It sounds confusing, are we to run the race or to stand firm. This looks like a very mixed metaphor. One is a picture of extreme effort, the other of immobility. How can we then follow this call to stand and yet keep running?
This is the paradox of the Christian faith. As we are doubtless aware life is like an obstacle race. There are new challenges and demands made upon us all the time. The situation of living in the midst of a Pandemic being quite an example. But the secret of running the race successfully as Paul tells us, is learning how to stand still and take a grip on the unchanging life of Jesus Christ within us. This has been the theme of his entire letter.
Paul is also concerned about relationships within the church. Apparently, there was conflict between Euodia and Syntyche and it was serious enough to be mentioned in a letter that would have been read publicly. We don’t know what the dispute was about, but Paul was pleading with both women that they would put away their differences and be reconciled. This was an important matter for the small church. Not only would the joy between these two women be robbed, but there was a danger that dispute would spill over and disturb the whole church. We would do well to take that on board, our differences with fellow Christians do have a knock on effect if not dealt with.
Paul moves on to his main theme. Rejoice, and just in case we missed it first time he says it again Rejoice. Not just a one off rejoice either but always. Swiftly followed by being told not to worry. These instructions are not easy to follow.
It begs the question – what gives us joy, what causes us to rejoice. It is not the same as being happy, as that can be transient. Joy is something deep within, something lasting. Paul knows the answer, it is finding our joy in Christ within. That unshakable knowledge that we are not alone. Paul had found the answer to worry by handing it all over to God. The trick is to leave it there, the thing we do so often is to pick it up and continue to worry about it. (I know I speak from years of experience!)
If we can manage to rejoice and not worry then Paul promises the peace of God to guard our hearts. If we are honest joy and peace are often elusive. Loneliness, family tensions, unexpected crises, grief and national events make them seem just beyond our grasp. The COVID-19 pandemic has brushed away any sense of normality. Social distancing, quarantine, unemployment, and fear are some of the things we are dealing with. Add that to the fact that 2020 has been a year filled with shocking news of floods, bush fires, protests and stabbings on our streets to name but a few. We are divided and angry about politics in ways that are almost scary and on our TV screens we see people with differing views scream at and talk over one another.
On a personal level, we are probably afraid of catching the virus. We can’t get physically close to one another anymore. We can’t hug or shake hands. We can’t see the full expression on faces due to face masks, and there seems to be no end in sight. This is our present reality how Paul can call us to “Rejoice” in the face of so much worry?
The theologian Karl Barth once called joy a “continually defiant ‘Nevertheless’. I would suggest that this is the kind of joy which Paul is talking about because it isn’t based on circumstances.
He was in a dire situation and he was writing to a church which was experiencing persecution. This joy and peace can’t be bought it can but it can be our reality. It requires a conscious effort on our part to remember who we are. In the face of all our problems and worries – ‘Nevertheless’ we are God’s children, loved by God, bought with a price by Jesus on the cross. Our hope is not just for the here and now, but for eternity. We have the promise of God that he is always with us, even in our darkest hours. As David wrote in the 23rd Psalm ‘even when we pass through the valley of the shadow of death’ God is with us, for to have any shadow there must be some sun.
Paul was at peace. He had no idea what he would be facing tomorrow, but he knew he wouldn't face it alone. We don’t get peace by the bucket full or a lifetime supply. We get enough for the situation we are in. We need to be in constant touch with Christ within to know the joy, and receive his peace.
These were Paul’s final words to his brothers and sisters, his church in Philippi and to us. This is what he wanted them and us to treasure and live by.
Be joyful, be prayerful, be honourable and be at peace.