Paul’s ‘thank you’ letter to the Philippian congregation who has sent him financial support or relief in his imprisonment is coming to an end. We’ve been hearing it over the last four weeks and now we’re close to the end of the letter. What do you say at the end – as a farewell?
What do parents say to their children leaving for school camp for the first time … a spouse to the ‘other half’ off to a new job … to young people going around the world on a gap year … farewelling students at the end of a year … knowing that your death is imminent?
I imagine that there will be two sorts of messages – the last minute advice and a farewell – and if the relationship is a close one – family, good friends – them a comment about the relationship or a summary of it might also be heard – the ‘I love you’. The advice presupposes a relationship – and precisely because it is listened to the speaker wants it to be important and memorable – something to take away when speaker and hearer are no longer together. Because there is life after farewells – whether off to camp, a job, travel, a new year – and for Christians no farewell is ever the end because Jesus’ empty tomb says that this is no end with him – even separation and death will come to an end – but not Jesus or life with him.
What else do you say at endings, departures, and farewells when ‘goodbye’ steals some of the best message as it is a contraction of the phrase ‘God be with ye’?
For the Apostle Paul writing to a congregation he saw begin and who had been a congregation of joy to him – who had supported him and helped him in his current situation – his advice is clear and relationship is clear – we are linked and bonded because Jesus is between us – not as wall but as a bridge – we are linked as branches to a vine or as members of a body with Jesus the head – we are linked organically more than organisationally – we are more family than franchises. Hence the lectionary compilers pick to begin our reading verse 4, ‘Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, rejoice’.
Remember the general distinction – which can get blurred in reality – that adoration is saying to someone ‘you are great’ while praising is telling a person that ‘someone else is great’. Packed into the phrase ‘rejoice in the Lord’ is so much – God’s creative love, God’s redeeming love, action that comes from this love, the fulfilment and focus of this love in the person of Jesus, what Jesus has done for us – think cross and empty tomb as a summary – and people in Christ have now new lives in this world and no longer march to the world’s drumbeat – no wonder Paul had to say it again! Rejoice in this Lord! And that involves behaving and speaking and thinking in certain ways – just as we do when we rejoice and praise anyone else – if it is genuine, then we act in ways consistent with our words.
So Paul goes on to talk about living reasonably in this world – the Greek word has the idea of forbearance – which is about following this Jesus as we live – and that means in the variety of time and place that we are not anxious – we are not alone for God hears our prayers and answers them and we learn thankfulness – for prayers answered as we thought they should be and for prayers answered as God knew best – but prayers are answered and we learn to give thanks – because God shows himself faithful to us. And God’s faithfulness – plus his forgiveness and presence in worship – does bring us peace with him and, in time, within us as we grow and simply get more experience – more years! – that God’s love and faithfulness don’t change.
As people rejoicing in this close and present Lord, followers of Jesus live in this world and Paul again summarises his advice – highlighting values and big picture items – we are to fill in the day to day details – but we live in this world seeking whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. But it’s more than just thinking about truth, honour, justice, purity, loveliness, and what is worthy of commendation and excellence, Paul goes onto say ‘and do it’ – learn from me. And that is very much how we do learn by watching others. Thoughts and deeds are linked and where there may be differing versions of truth, honour, justice and so on, the disciples of Jesus seek Jesus’ version of them. Sometimes the world won’t notice and at other times we will stand out. But in the following of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, there is peace for his followers – not arrogance but seeking to serve with a resolute resilience that Jesus is my Lord.
Can you sense that after every paragraph of this sermon or every section of Paul’s letter his links to Jesus presuppose the Gospel? There’s no point pointing to Jesus if people don’t really know him or deep down are terrified of him – but if there is love there, if Jesus is love – and not a generic love but a love for you – then our daily lives are impacted in all sorts of ways.
Paul now returns to addressing his thanks for their gift. He points out that in his relationship with Jesus – and not everyone was called to follow Jesus the way Paul was – he has learnt contentment with much or little – because Jesus is with him. Of course he is thankful for the funds they’ve said – and appreciative – and rejoicing – he’s just written or dictated a letter – this isn’t a quick tweet or email! – to say ‘thank you’ as he thanks the Lord for them – because they obviously thank the Lord for him!
It’s a small window I admit but it does offer a peek to a lovely scene among the people of God – remember that they are all linked together through Jesus – supporting and helping each other as the needs arise. In 1st Corinthians Paul will talk about the people of God as a body – if one part hurts, the body hurts – think of toothache or ear ache – and if all parts of the body are fit and well then the body is fit and well. And the people of God at a congregational level and synodical and even baptismal level are the Body of Christ – working best when learning contentment over greed and serving over selfishness.
There’s so much to take in and our reading isn’t the whole conclusion of chapter 4 but for now just listen to it. Which passage – phrase – word even – addresses you for the coming week? Where does the Holy Spirit lead you? What of Paul’s advice sticks with you this week? And remember also why you’re even bothering to listen … because the one between me and you, the hidden one who uses words, water, bread and wine to reach us and be close to us – loves and cares for you and will never betray or turn his back on you.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practise these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:4-13 ESV)
- Philippians 4:4 - 13