First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 18

William Loader

Pentecost 18: 12 October  Philippians 4:1-9

Our passage begins with some concrete personal references. Paul has enjoyed shared leadership with women. Gender is not an issue as it would become later where such leadership became a male preserve. Rather his concern is about how they relate to each other - that they find their common bond in Christ and let that determine all else. 4:3 lets us know about other fellow workers. Paul deals with relations among fellow "staff" by doing theology and pointing to the foundation of spirituality. This then introduces his famous words about rejoicing.

The word, "rejoice", is also the word commonly used to conclude letters and could be translated here: "farewell!" There is no doubt: Paul wishes them well and, whether this comes under the influence of the formal ending of the letter or not, Paul wants them to be in positive spirits. Do we need to be told that it is a good thing to be elated, to be glad and happy? Some, who see Christianity as something dour and serious, need to hear it.

In some forms of Christian culture the worry about control and balance has been such an emphasis that anything like joy which is spontaneous is embarrassing. Such people find it much easier to express joy with a heavily structured sphere of discourse, such as in the words of a hymn. Paul is surprisingly strong in his affirmation and expression of emotions. In his day it ran against the grain of those popular philosophers, like the Stoics, who cautioned restraint in all matters regarding feeling as a way of lowering one's vulnerability to bad experiences.

Why do we leave joy to those who compose songs which make happiness sound like pastry and conjure a false image of a "victorious" life of constant highs? Joy need not be something superficial. Sometimes our distaste for excesses leads to a neglect of this very vital human experience. People need to know about joy just as much as they need to know about pain. We have similar mechanisms for avoiding both and for leaving the field to shallow renderings.

Paul's "always"  is not a quantitative assertion of the kind that implies joy in every moment. Joy is never alone. Its companions are pain and fear. At times Paul's letters display more of some than the other. Paul's sense of joy is not the absence of pain or fear, but the presence of Christ, in whom he places his hope and trust. The deep human need to belong, the joy of belonging, is met for Paul in Christ. That unity takes him into pain and death, and, as he often emphasises, leads him over and over again on a journey from death to life, from pain to joy. Sometimes his joy stays alight as a flickering flame amid an oppressive darkness of criticism and downright hate. But it remains and can flare into brightness at relief and change.

What brings it to burn brightly is the knowledge that here and there love breaks through, people are rescued from the negative effects of religion, pagan, Jewish and Christian, and are set free to be loving people. For Paul joy and love belong closely together. For he rejoices at the truth (see 1 Cor 13:6). Here in 4:5 that means he wants the Philippians to let their goodness, their gentleness shine. The focus is outward. For the Lord in whom he wants them to rejoice is the one whose life reached out.

Paul is expecting that Jesus would return soon to this world: "The Lord is near" (4:5). That sounds unreal for us, because we look back over 2000 years and it hasn't happened. It is interesting that Paul does not say this in order to appeal to some spiritually self-interested strategies which people should undertake to make themselves safe. On the contrary, Christ's future coming like his past coming issues in a single invitation: to live in his life in the present.

The exhortation not to worry is interesting, coming from Paul. It hardly means, don't have serious thoughts or don't be anxious. Just look at many of Paul's letters and you will see how involved he was and often how worried he was about what was happening to the people of his churches. It was a quite a burden, as he reminds us in 2 Cor 11:28 (where he uses the same word, "worry"). So Paul is hardly peddling a lifestyle option of the unengaged life of serenity. His spirituality is quite the opposite. But part of his joy is that it keeps him from total despair, the kind of worry that becomes obsessive and self-destructive. An openness to God in prayer keeps him centred - just as it kept Jesus centred in Gethsemane.

When Paul speaks about "peace" in 4:7, we know he is not talking about that favourite religious pastime of learning to be still and happy and finding oneness beyond this world and its uncertainties. When he speaks of this peace keeping people's hearts and minds, he is almost saying: this will keep you sane! It is neither a disengaged serenity nor an intellectually worked out, solution-focused state of having answers to all the problems. Rather it is a peace that goes beyond the repose of rational resolution and cannot really be achieved by it. Ultimately it is the peace of or from God. That sense of the presence of God, the awareness of oneness with the compassionate one who is engaged "up to the neck" in life, is bigger than our imaginations and our solutions. Paradoxically the love which makes itself vulnerable, the joy which both flares and flickers, and the peace which gives no rest as long as there is injustice and need, all belong together inseparably as the fruit of the spirit. As Paul writes to the Galatians, "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace..."  

The positive focus continues in 4:8-9. It again becomes personal as in 4:2-3. Here Paul refers to his own teaching and example. Again Paul integrates theology and practice. Paul is not just advocating the power of positive thinking. This is about more than technique and persuasion. It is about filling one's mind with what Paul sees as the signs of God's life - not so that will feel good, but because this is another way of filling oneself with God's life and so allowing God's life to flow through us to the world around us. This kind of grounded spirituality lies behind Paul's understanding of peace and, ultimately, also of joy.

Gospel  Pentecost 18: 12 October Matthew 22:1-14

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