Have you ever been to a family reunion where there was an undercurrent of dispute between some of the family? Somewhere in the midst of the reunion, it’s time for the family group photo. You all cluster together and face the unerringly honest lens of the camera. “Smile!” the photographer yells. And then there’s a snap or two, and the picture is taken, recording the people and the emotions of the moment. If you take a close look at the finished photograph, you see all sorts of different things going on. Perhaps your five year old is poking his three year old cousin. Perhaps cousin Fred is still refusing to stand next to his sister Eunice, who embarrassed him fifty years ago at a party. There’s Aunt Margery, who always stands off to the side, sure that no one really likes her. When the photographer says “Smile,” everyone may put on a happy face, but when you look at the picture you can always tell whose teeth are gritted and who are genuinely happy. What a difference between that situation and one in which the whole family is truly joyful in the presence of each other…because the result of that presence is that the Lord is present with them.
I rarely preach on the Epistle readings, but I cannot let this exquisite passage from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi go without spending some time with it. The church at Philippi was Paul’s favorite. He viewed it as his most successful church plant, and the warmth he feels shines throughout the letter, and especially in this passage.
It is the closing of the brief letter, and in true Pauline epistolary form, Paul says final farewells to his correspondents and includes some postscripts as well. He urges the followers of Christ in Philippi to support the work of two of their mission leaders, Euodia and Syntyche. Women! Some people have used Paul’s instruction in First Corinthians to say that women should not preach and teach…and yet here Paul is quite clear that he affirms the ministry of these women who have worked beside Paul, as an equal, it would seem, along with others such as Clement. And now there appears to be some disagreement between them, but Paul does not dismiss them from the service of the Lord, he simply encourages others to help them so they can focus on the important work at hand, the work of the Lord. Disagreements should be resolved, either by the parties who disagree or those who care for them, because there is preaching to be done!
Paul instructs the Philippians to “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice!” When Paul says “You rejoice” he is not saying it to an individual: the Greek is plural, the equivalent of our “Y’all.” “You all rejoice.” All of you, the whole community, put aside petty disagreements and coming together singing the praises of the Lord. Joy is incomplete unless it is shared.
Equally important, joy is not the goal – it is an outcome and a sign of the presence of the Lord in the community.
That is what Paul is urging them towards: a group of followers of the Lord who feel the Lord among them, who do not worry, who pray for God’s grace and providence. He knows that if they can reach that goal, they will find peace, the peace that passes all understanding. Not just the temporary peace of having a minor argument put behind them, but the lasting peace of God. Not just standing next to each other with teeth gritted for the obligatory group picture, but in an embrace of true happiness, all together, in communion as well as community.
But this is a hard thing to find, true happiness, true communion, isn’t it? It is so much easier to find the things that separate us than the things that bring us together in Christ. Politics, economics, history, dress, food…there are a thousand ways we can be sorted into little separate groups that look upon others who differ from us as, well, not one of us. Women who wear burkas – they’re bad. Vegetarians – left wing nuts. Republicans – tools of corporate greed. Democrats – big government bleeding hearts. The rich – no concern for the needy. The poor – lazy and unambitious. The list goes on and on, and we find which little group we fit into and talk among ourselves, because heaven forbid we should talk to someone who thinks or looks or believes differently than we do!
But what would happen if we simply paid attention to the things that are really important, really of the Lord?
Paul gives us the guidelines: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 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.”
Whatever is true, not because Glenn Beck or Rachel Maddow said so, but because it comports with what Jesus taught.
Whatever is honorable and just, not because a judge decided it, but because when we are judged, we know that the Lord will judge it as honorable and just.
Whatever is pure, not because Pat Robertson or Jack Spong named it as pure, but because Christ’s light shines through it.
Whatever is pleasing, not because Martha Stewart or Tim Gunn anoint it as pleasing, but because it brings us closer to our God.
Whatever is commendable, not because you’ll get an Oscar or even a Nobel prize for it, but because Jesus will say, “Well done!”
These things that are excellent and praiseworthy – you know what they are. The things, as Paul said, we have already learned from Jesus Christ. Love God. Love one another and care for each other, especially those who are in the greatest need.
That is what takes us away from the confinement of our narrow little likes and dislikes, our petty arguments, our pursuing our own interests above God’s. That is what brings God into our presence, and us into God’s presence, and the beautiful, joyful peace which surpasses all understanding.
Rejoice, all of you, now and always!