given on September 28, 2008
I realized this week that Paul is like a mentor for me. His life may not really compare to mine, but some of his feelings and his thinking does. Last week when I started looking at Philippians, I found a sense of calm in his words. This week I discovered another key reason I like Paul—joy. Not just that sense of fun, life-loving happiness, but Paul expresses a level of joy that can surpass all the worries of this earthly life we live.
When I read these verses, the words joy and peace seemed to be printed in bright bold letters. Even though they were not, that is where my mind connected to the scripture. I also connected when I started studying Paul’s particular circumstances. Here was a man who was surely at one of the lowest points in his life, but not one word in these verses show any complaining or discouragement.
This lead me to dig a little deeper into the background of the letter. One of the resources I found was from the Global Board of Discipleship that is part of the United Methodist Church. In that material I discovered a piece about Philippi that was completely new to me: “Philippi was a retirement village for veterans of the Roman army.” The material goes on to explain the culture in that community: “Issues of authority, respect, and even social rank were prominent . . . Everyone in a Roman colony understood crucifixion to be the most shameful form of execution.”
The fact that a Christian church was growing in this community seems to testify the enormous impact of Paul’s ministry there. These veterans knew about Jesus and his crucifixion, but Paul was able to share the story and the message in a manner that even these toughened soldiers heard and believed. That also makes me think of the soldiers who were assigned to carry out the crucifixion and the ones who were standing guard at the tomb’s entry. The story, which has carried down through the generations, tells us how these men became believers in Christ. I cannot help but wonder if simply witnessing the events of Jesus’ life could cause such a transformation in these soldiers’ lives.
But, details and speculations are carrying me away. The message in Philippians is much more uplifting. The message is one filled with joy. This joy is so rich that it literally could lift Paul up out of his imprisonment and keep him motivated to carry on his ministry even to the soldiers standing at his door.
Paul may have been imprisoned inside a set of walls, but his heart leaped past those closed doors. He used his letter to Philippi to continue his relationship with the Christians in that community. He knew that their faith was strong, but he wanted to assure them that despite the difficulties they faced in a non-Christian community, their faith was important. Thank goodness the guards outside his door were open to listening to his testimony and actually allowed him to continue his ministry through his letters and through meetings with other young Christians.
The circumstances of Paul’s imprisonment may be somewhat unclear. But he did not allow the physical surroundings to diminish his enthusiasm for his mission. The joy he felt for God and for the followers is evident in his letter to the Philippians. I believe joy is a pretty significant emotion for Christians. In my Life Application Bible, the introduction clearly points out that joy and happiness are major features of this letter. In fact, it says that the concept of rejoicing or joy is presented sixteen times in the four chapters.
Additionally, the notes state:
In a life dedicated to serving Christ, Paul had faced excruciating poverty, abundant wealth, and everything in between. He even wrote this joyful letter from prison. Whatever the circumstances, Paul had learned to be content, finding real joy as he focused all of his attention and energy on knowing Christ (3:8) and obeying him (3:12, 13).
I do think we need Paul’s wonderful, peaceful, and joy-filled message even today. These past few weeks we have faced challenges, both personally and as a community and even as a country. It would be easy to start dwelling on the negatives and feel beaten down. It would be easy to blame others, even God, for all the bad things happening. Still, stop and look at Paul. In his letters, he does not spend time on complaining or blaming somebody about his negative circumstances. No. He focuses on the message that Jesus brought to us: love.
The events of the past few weeks that have deeply scarred our families and our communities test us. Yet I have to stop and applaud you. Within these communities, I have witnessed a unified willingness to assist others in need. I observed member supporting member. I hear the pain of one member carried to another member for prayer and solace. I see that the immediate boundaries of a community expand to include members of communities only a few miles away and even hundreds of miles away.
The list of the love examples continues to grow as I return Sunday after Sunday to worship with you. I am so blessed to be included in your tight-knit community. Oddly enough, I somehow feel a bit like Paul. I may not be locked inside a prison or even confined to my own home, but I am limited by my teaching job. Each Sunday as I come in to the church, I find myself feeling peaceful. As I am greeted and as I greet you, I feel such joy knowing that it does not matter which church door I enter, the feeling is the same.
As Paul would say,
“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:3-5)
When Paul continues his letter into the second chapter, he never stops sharing his joy. Why the entire letter is filled with it! You may be able to see why I like this letter so much. As a teacher, I like the method Paul uses to encourage the young church. He frames his instructions with all that praise. His lessons do not get lost, and I strongly suspect that the lessons are even more imprinted in the brain because it is done in such a positive manner. Just look at those verses 1-4 in the second chapter:
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
These words apply just as much today as they did over 2,000 years ago. These words are timeless. These words are so important for our churches and our communities especially in trying times.
I have an activity at school that hopefully causes the students to hear some new ideas and to reflect on them in their own lives; I call them Wise Lites. This week the quote I used said, “No burdens are heavy when everybody lifts.” I think that Paul would agree with that statement. I think that what I witness here in this community exemplifies how well you follow Paul’s advice. You have found the joy in living despite all the challenges in your lives. When we read Paul, let’s remember that Paul is no different than any one of us. We simply must live as Christ would live. We must see this world through God’s eyes. We must allow the Holy Spirit to guide us. When we do, we will have joy and peace in our hearts and our lives will truly be transformed.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share your messages with others. Thank you for allowing me to witness your love in action here in this community. Thank you for sharing Paul’s story and Paul’s guidance in your holy scriptures. Thank you for filling our hearts and souls with the peace and the joy found in your love. –Amen