Take Joy! (Philippians 1:1-18a)
IF YOU DON’T READ ANYTHING ELSE, READ THIS: David Telfort is preaching at Plymouth this weekend (5:30 Saturday Night and 11:00 Sunday morning). Don’t miss it!
Now we return to our regularly scheduled blogging.
What is joy? Where does it come from? Does it ever seem elusive?
In our text for this week, Paul finds joy in a jail cell. If joy is still eluding me, maybe I am going about this in the wrong way.
1Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.
15 Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill.16These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; 17the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. 18What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
As we close in on the end of the program year, the Narrative Lectionary takes a turn into the Epistles. This last section of the New Testament consists of letters –some written to individuals, but most (like this one) to entire church communities.
Since we will spend a couple of weeks with Paul’s letter to the Philippians, it will probably help to know a little about the ways that letters work in the 1st century Greco-Roman setting of Paul’s ministry. Letter writing and letter reading were cherished pursuits in the ancient world. Letter writers were expected to adhere to certain stylistic conventions –which Paul clearly knew, employed and exploited in his own writings. Paul was an itinerant. He would move into a new community, start a new church, stay just long enough to get the fledgling young community on its feet and then set out for the next town. But letters allowed him to keep in touch with his churches after he had moved on.
What I find so interesting about reading this particular letter at this particular point is that Paul is writing to the church in the town where he had a rough go of it –as we heard just two weeks ago. Also: Paul is writing this letter from prison –probably at the end of his life.
He has many good reasons to be bitter, to be anxious, to vent the resentments and grievances that he has nursed these many years.
But Paul’s Letter to the Philippians has one overriding theme: joy! Joy in a jail cell! Joy on death row.
Facing the end of his own life, Paul is just joyful?
I’m not preaching this weekend (DAVID TELFORT IS!), and I’m not really a “three points and a poem” preacher, but I can’t help observing three sources of Paul’s joy in this opening chapter:
- Joy comes from relationships (I thank my God every time I remember you…). Paul remembers the Philippian community with great fondness. And their continued presence in his life serves as a source of joy. When I read this, I am reminded of how much more rewarding it is to invest in my friends and family than Twitter and Facebook. Relationships serve as a source of joy.
- Joy comes from trust. (“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”). Things do not look so good for Paul, with the whole “imprisonment and imminent death” scenario. But the letter reveals his deep trust in the purpose of God. Even if he cannot see how God will make a way, he trusts that God will make a way. And so he has joy. (The disclaimer, of course, is that this could lead us into the tall theological grass of divine providence. This could highjack the blog post so, let me simply say this: I don’t believe that God controls everything or makes everything happen according to a predetermined plan. I do, however, believe that God is one hell of a chess player –that God is infinitely resourceful and always working for the good all around us. Is that enough? Some days, yes.). Joy comes from trusting in God.
- Joy comes from maintaining a sense of perspective. (“…others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. 18What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way…”). I so admire Paul’s incredible generosity of spirit in this text. He has enemies –people out to get him, to mess up his life’s work. Their motives are suspect, their work contrary to his. But Paul doesn’t let any of that bother him. What matters is that Christ is proclaimed. He is taking an incredibly long view here and it serves him well.
I so often act like joy will be mine once I…what? Finish this project. Solve that problem. End this program year. Resolve the current crisis. So joy is always just over the horizon.
But Paul finds joy in a jail cell.
Fra Giovanni said it better than I ever could:
“No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within reach, is joy. Take joy!”