Scripture: Philippians 4:8-13
Over this summer I’ve been talking about a lot of ways that the Church—big C—has its issues. I think there can be a certain comfort in looking back at the early church, which we often idealize, and realizing that to some extent it’s always been that way—that the Church has always been made up of messy, broken, sincere, complicated people who don’t always exemplify the life that Jesus taught every second of every minute of every day.
There is no such thing as a perfect church. From the very beginning of the church, Christians all over the world and in all times have been losing faith and finding it again, excluding certain people or groups of people and telling them they need to change, giving in to the sins and struggles of the surrounding culture, fighting over silly things, fighting over not so silly things, breaking up and getting back together.
But that image of the church is also an incomplete image of the church, which has also, for two thousand years, been feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, struggling for justice, comforting the grieving, sending people into war-torn countries to work for peace, and showing people what abundant life looks like.
There is no such thing as a perfect church. But there are some pretty great churches, and I think while we all might make Jesus facepalm sometimes, we also often make him proud.
Today we make our last stop in the series on Paul’s letters in the little city of Philippi in Macedonia. The church at Philippi, like all the rest, was not a perfect church. They, too, had members who were at odds with each other over God knows what. They, too, struggled to keep the faith in the midst of a hostile world.
The church at Philippi was not a perfect church. But it was a pretty great church.
Of all of the churches Paul writes to, this is one of the most loving, intimate letters we have. “My joy and my crown,” Paul calls them. “My beloved.” He writes in gratitude for their partnership in ministry with him. “I thank God every time I remember you,” he writes, “constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now.”
It’s a known as a letter of joy, mostly because Paul says joy so much.
The Philippians are even great at stewardship—they’ve taken up a collection for Paul, apparently a very generous one. Paul says thank you for this in his very Paul-like way, in the passage we heard: at the end of the letter, and basically telling them, “It’s not like I needed it or anything.” Still, it was a pretty great thing to do.
And still, even with this strong faith making itself evident in their lives, life was not all sunshine and roses for the Philippians.
First of all, the city of Philippi was a Roman city. The people who lived there Italian expats and Roman citizens who enjoyed all the rights that went along with that. They were also Roman loyalists. They worshipped Roman gods, and they worshipped the emperor. Caesar is Lord, they said.
And the Philippian church was a small group of people who dared to say instead, Jesus is Lord.
You can imagine this didn’t make life easy for them. We don’t know exactly what it was the Philippians were up against, but Paul talks about not being intimidated by their opponents (1:28) and how God has “graciously granted [them] the privilege of not only believing in Christ, but suffering for him as well” (1:29).
Second, their leader is in prison. Paul is writing to them from prison, probably in Rome or maybe Ephesus, and he honestly doesn’t know whether he’s going to live or die. And neither do they. What will become of this fledgling movement if they lose their leader?
Harassed, threatened, worried, tired: in circumstances like these, the Philippians have two choices. They can throw in the towel, or they can stand firm in their faith despite it all. They can give in to despair, or they can choose joy.
The joy that rings throughout this letter is not automatic because everything is wonderful. It has to be chosen.
No one knows that better in Paul. Sitting there in prison, not sure what’s going to become of him, he can still write these words: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”
He adds, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Paul, through all of it, has learned to choose joy, and he hopes that his beloved Philippians will, too.
I have to admit that this is a very convicting passage for me.
Joy is not always the choice I make. Granted, I have never been in prison, never seriously felt my life threatened, never seriously harassed or persecuted for my faith. My life, by all accounts, has been easier than that.
And yet there have been times in my life when I wished I had more than I did, that money didn’t seem so tight, that I was in a different place, that I was someone else. There have been times when everything has seemed to go wrong and, for a while, I have given into despair. There have been times in my life when I have doubted my call.
In the worst of some of those moments, I’ve seen people post on Facebook these cute sayings about how life is all about perspective, bloom where you’re planted, all that sort of thing, and I’ve actually gotten angry. Like how you feel is just entirely up to you and it’s your fault if you’re sad. Like happiness is as easy as just telling yourself the glass is half full.
And yet—there is something in me that does believe that joy is a choice.
I had a hard first-ever year of ministry as I got used to new responsibilities and new challenges in a place where I didn’t really have a strong community or a lot of friends yet. My friend Elizabeth had a hard first year of being a lawyer as she got used to fourteen-hour days and no weekends. At some point around the end of that year or the beginning of the next, Elizabeth seemed to get better, though there were still hard times, and not much had changed. “I realized,” she told me, “that I don’t need to have everything I want to be happy.”
It’s good to have friends who can share that kind of wisdom with you. That changed things for me, too.
For Paul, it’s certainly not just a matter of perspective. It’s not a matter of convincing yourself that jail really isn’t so bad, or hunger really isn’t so bad, or that being in need isn’t really so bad. It’s not about convincing yourself that not having a job isn’t so bad, or the job that you do have isn’t so bad, or losing someone isn’t so bad, or being lonely isn’t so bad.
It’s also not a matter of optimism. Paul isn’t getting through this by telling himself that for sure they’re going to let him go and it’s all going to be OK. “It is my hope,” he says, “that…Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (1:20-21.) Maybe the Philippians will suffer similar fates; Paul doesn’t tell them that they won’t, he just tells them to rejoice anyway. Joy doesn’t come from believing things are going to turn out in any particular way; it comes from trusting God no matter how they turn out.
“I’ve learned the secret,” Paul says. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
The joy that rings throughout this letter, through both faith and fear, through both hunger and fullness, through both imprisonment and freedom, is the joy that comes from knowing that God is bigger than all of it. That God loves us and journeys with us and suffers with us through all of it. That Christ gives us the strength to endure all of it, and that in all of it, we have a chance to glorify Christ through how we respond.
It’s funny how that’s a verse—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—you see a lot at races, on the shirts of Christian runners, as if it’s about the ability to achieve a lofty goal. Really, it’s about the ability to give up control over your circumstances, and in any of them, choose joy.
A week or so ago, the country tuned in as Jimmy Carter announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer and that it had spread to his brain. That’s scary news for anyone, even when you’re 90. Who knows what exactly lies ahead or how long you might have?
But most of all, what everyone has been talking about is the grace with which he’s facing whatever comes next.
“I have had a wonderful life,” he said at a press conference last week. “I’m ready for anything and looking forward to a new adventure. It is in the hands of God, whom I worship.”
Last Sunday, he was back teaching Sunday School in Plains, Georgia, just like always.
This same kind of wisdom was echoed recently by a perhaps less likely source: Stephen Colbert. In an interview for GQ he talked some about his Catholic faith and how he lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was just 10.
“It was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said, “and by her example, I am not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no. … It was a very healthy reciprocal awareness of suffering, which does not mean being defeated by suffering. ….’You gotta learn to love the bomb.’ Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. …That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”
Maybe it’s not always possible to love the things that we most wish were not the case. But maybe it is possible, despite those things, to give thanks; maybe it is possible, despite those things, to trust in God’s presence; maybe it is possible, despite those things, to decide we have what we need, and choose joy anyway.
I’m not going to claim I’ve learned the secret, but I hope I’m still learning, little by little
And the people who give us that example: they make me want to be part of the church.
The beautiful church, which for millennia has been excluding, but welcoming; fighting and feeding, tightfisted and generous; inward-looking but opening arms outward; doubting and wavering, and standing strong in faith when it counts, and pointing people out of all this mess toward something bigger, and loving when others wouldn’t have loved, and trusting when others wouldn’t have trusted.
Saints who looked all of life’s problems and sadness in the face, and chose joy, because God was with them, and that was enough.