by Ellen Sims
text: Philippians 4:4-9
Today’s Epistle Reading comes from Paul’s sweetest and most joyful letter – which is all the more touching when we know that he wrote it while he languished in prison in Rome. With palpable affection Paul begins his missive to the church at Philippi with this assurance: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing of the gospel from the first day until now” (1: 3-5). Each Sunday as I now share my weekly sermon “virtually” with you, Open Table, I want to parrot Paul because I, too, thank my God every time I remember you.” Today’s reading is specifically taken from the conclusion of this Pauline letter in what is now labeled as the fourth and final chapter of Philippians. These words were probably the last Paul wrote to the church he founded at Philippi. As he composed the letter, he faced execution, and the Philippian church likewise lived under some threat from the Roman authorities at a time when the Empire was outlawing Christianity.
Hear how Paul’s pastoral letter concludes with a summation of the communal life Paul was prescribing for the church:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, 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 thing that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4: 4-9).
My friends, Paul wanted to make sure that HIS beloved friends knew — during a time of separation and hardship — that they had some control over their thoughts and feelings. When we consider the many things he might have wanted to share with them, he chose to emphasize his love for them, his commitment to the cause of Christ, and his advice that they develop a resilience against adversity by disciplining their thoughts and feelings.
You and I have, during this pandemic, lived more constricted lives in order to stay healthy and keep others safe. During this season we recognize that we have had little power to stop the spread of COVID 19 and no power at all to redirect Hurricane Sally or Hurricane Delta. We have negligible effect on the stock market, and we each get one measly vote and wield only an infinitesimal influence over the November 3rd election. We work against racism and promote creation care, but we know our efforts alone are a drop in the bucket of justice. What we can affect, however, is our own inner life or, as Paul put it, we can “guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” When our world seems out of control, it may be helpful simply to remind ourselves that we do have some control over our thoughts and feelings—or at least how we respond to those thoughts and feelings.
As we grow to adulthood, most of us get better at noticing and owning what we are feeling and thinking and not falling helpless before the onslaught of emotions and a barrage of competing ideas. We learn, to some extent, that we get to create and interrogate our inner world – attending to the movement of the Holy Spirit, making space for the Power of Love, tuning in to what is both truthful and hopeful, refusing to give free reign to bouts of despair or fury or self-indulgence. Our role as Jesus’s disciples is, in part, one of self-discipline, the words disciple and discipline sharing the same root. Yes, the word discipline can have connotations of deprivation, control, and even punishment when discipline is imposed by another. But self-discipline can help disciples cultivate an inner life that strengthens them for the sacred act of self-giving love.
Just as a healthy body makes us better prepared to avoid or recover from physical illness, so, too, the development of spiritual muscles can prepare us for challenges that all of us must face in life. Paul acknowledges that life is hard. And unlike those who preach that false “prosperity gospel” that tells people to send their money to televangelists in exchange for magical financial blessings and medical cures, Paul demonstrates from his prison cell that devotion to Christ is no guarantee of health and wealth. Even in Paul’s day, there were those who “proclaim[ed] Christ out of selfish ambition” (Philippians 1:17), but the genuine Gospel of Christ requires us to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility [as we] regard others as better than [our]selves” (Philppians 2:4) and, as Christ did, as we humble ourselves.
I am no Apostle Paul, but today’s epistle reading resonated especially deeply with me because I prepared this sermon for you from a distance. This sermon is my Epistle to the Mobilians, if you will, sent from Nashville via the internet: a letter to the church in Mobile known as Open Table. And although I have endured nothing like the suffering of the Apostle Paul and likely will be spared the horrific fate that awaited him as he wrote his letters, I do understand his deep love for the church members in Philippi. I share with him a tenderness for my church. I understand Paul’s delight in the Philippians’ “gentleness.” I have prayed for you as I watched weather reports of Hurricane Delta. I know what it is to pray from afar that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Although Paul is confined to prison and awaiting execution, he is buoyed by his love of God and his love for those joyful Philippians. I think I understand what he is feeling.
But his emotions are not ephemeral feelings. Again, his joy is not contingent on happy circumstances; his awareness of God’s presence is not dependent on ideal situations. Paul has disciplined himself to think on THESE things: “Whatever is true . . . honorable . . . just . . . pure” and whatever is “pleasing . . . commendable . . . worthy of praise.” Paul tells his flock to train their minds on the ways of God and, very pragmatically, he urges, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” Which I wish I could say to you, but I am no Paul. So I will instead advise you to “keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen” in the Jesus whom Paul served, and I will serve alongside you (Phil. 4:8-9).
Of course, we need to be honest with ourselves about difficult feelings. But what are we going to dwell on? The things that are true. (We are learning in this election year how rare a commodity truth is.) We must be willing to seek and carefully discern truth. It’s too easy these days to be deceived.
And we will seek “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,” we will “think about these things.”
We can choose what messages to hear, what media to consume, what conversations to engage in, what ideas to promote. We can practice the discipline of discernment.
Paul is telling us across the centuries, as an apostle of Christ Jesus, to GUARD our hearts and minds, to develop a discipline for emotional and intellectual capabilities, to cultivate a resilience for difficult times so that our spirits are strong and loving and wise and joyful.
And in case you’re a little short on joy today, hear Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” recently performed outdoors by the renowned Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.