This is a day of lasts. Not a day of firsts, but of lasts. Today is our last Sunday looking at Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And today is also the last Sunday of the church year. Each year we close out the liturgical calendar, we end the church year with the celebration of the Reign of Christ. Next week a new church year will begin with Advent as we anticipate the birth of Christ and the coming of Christ. But today we close out this past year with a reminder and a celebration of the reign of Christ – the kingship of Christ in our lives, in our church, and in our world.
And what better way to celebrate the reign of Christ – what better way to celebrate the rule of Christ in our lives – than with these three beautiful words: Joy, Gentleness, and Peace. These words aren’t arbitrarily chosen of course. They come from the final passage we are looking at in Philippians. So in a way, Paul is closing out this year for us – he does so with these beautiful words.
First, joy. Paul writes to the Philippian Christians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again. Rejoice.”
Perhaps the first thing we need to say about these words of Paul is that they are kind of unusual. With these words, Paul offers a command – in fact a double command. Paul repeats himself to strengthen the imperative. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again. Rejoice.” But this double imperative is unusual – this double command of Paul may in fact confound us – because we have to ask: Can joy be commanded? Isn’t it the case that you are either joyful or you are not? You are either filled with happiness, or you are not? And if you’re not joyful what is the point in someone commanding you to be joyful? If you’re not happy, what is the point of someone commanding you to be happy? What can that command do for you? The person may as well be commanding you to teleport yourself to another world.
If we think of joy and happiness primarily in terms of our immediate emotions and feelings – then the idea that joy can be commanded won’t make any sense to us. Our immediate emotions and our feelings are in many ways dependent upon our immediate circumstance. And we often can’t control our immediate circumstances.
If I just had knee replacement surgery yesterday – it’s going to be hard to feel happy today.
If I found out yesterday that I didn’t get that promotion I really wanted – it’s going to be pretty hard to rejoice today.
If I’ve just lost a loved one last week – then it’s going to be hard to be cheerful this week.
No command in the world will have the capacity to move me from my sadness or dejection into happiness and joy. From this perspective, it doesn’t make any sense for Paul to command joy or insist on happiness. Happiness and joy simply can’t be commanded.
But perhaps we can push this a little bit further. I think we will all understand that the experience of joy and happiness isn’t only about our immediate experiences and our immediate feelings. We could think about it this way.
I may just have had knee replacement surgery – and I may not be very happy. But at the same time perhaps there is a deeper joy, a deeper happiness, that I am alive in a time and place where such surgery is even possible.
I may not have gotten that promotion I wanted – I may not be very happy about it. But there may be a deeper joy in the fact that I have a job at all – especially against the backdrop of a world in which so many are without work and without even the basics of life.
I may have lost a loved one – and I may be very sad. But I may discover a deeper joy in the remembrance of time shared with someone – there may be a deeper gratitude and joy in the way the other enriched my life.
From our own experiences, we can perhaps appreciate that there is a deeper joy – a joy that isn’t just about my feelings in this moment – a joy that isn’t just about my immediate circumstances.
It is our human capacity for imagination that opens us to the possibility of a deeper joy – even when we aren’t happy in a more immediate or superficial sense. As humans we have a capacity see beyond the immediate – we have a capacity for an enlarged vision that puts things in perspective. And through such an exercise of imagination, and through such an enlarged vision, we can sometimes discover a deeper joy.
Jerry Pillay is a minister of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in South Africa – he is also President within the World Communion of Reformed Churches. Rev. Pillay tells of a time he was walking through Soweto, one of the largest black townships in Johannesburg – this was during the time of Apartheid. And as he walked through Soweto, he saw people laughing and dancing and smiling – and singing mainly gospel songs. He was confused by this – even disturbed by this. And he asked the people he encountered: “How is it that you can do this – how can you dance and sing – in the face of such suffering and oppression?” Jerry Pillay says that their response to him was simple. “We are trusting God to set us free; to help us in our distress. We have no one else to turn to than God himself.”
Paul invites the suffering women and men of Philippi to this kind of imaginative vision. Paul invites the persecuted and marginalized Christians of Philippi to this kind of enlarged vision. The apostle Paul invites you and me to this broader spiritual understanding. Rejoice in the Lord, always. I will say it again rejoice.
See that Christ is risen to new life,
see that his kingdom will have the final word in our world,
see that you are living in his kingdom of goodness, truth, and beauty
and seeing all of this,
live in joy,
Christ is king. And on this Christ the King Sunday. Joy.
We broaden our view now to take in a little more of Paul’s letter. Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Joy, and now gentleness.
The Wisdom of Solomon is a book not included in our Protestant canon of scripture – but the Wisdom of Solomon is a book that is included in the Roman Catholic church’s slightly larger canon of scripture. The Wisdom of Solomon is believed to have been written in the 1st or 2nd century before Christ. And in the second chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon a group of ungodly, evil men is portrayed – and thy are portrayed as plotting against a righteous man. Within the Christian tradition, this righteous man has been interpreted as the messiah, as Jesus. And at one moment in the second chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon, we find the ungodly men saying with reference to the righteous man: “Let us test him with insults and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make a trial of his forbearance.”
Let’s test him – let’s see if he’s really all that gentle.
Life tests us at times. Circumstances test us at times. People test us at times.
In some moment, perhaps we are being gossiped about.
In another moment, perhaps we are being ignored or given the silent treatment.
In another moment, perhaps a family member or friend is being maligned.
In another moment, perhaps we are misrepresented or falsely accused.
In these moments we are being tested and our gentleness is tested. When we face such situations the temptation is always to lash out in anger and hostility – to speak a bitter word – to put up a wall of hostility and defensiveness. The temptation is to be rough and harsh in response to those who are rough and harsh with us.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
When you are tested – especially when you are tested – let your gentleness be known to everybody.
When you are pushed and maligned – especially when you are pushed and maligned – let your gentleness be on display.
When people observe you and speak about you, let them say: “Look how gentle she is with her words. Look how gentle he is with his actions.”
Let’s be clear that gentleness is not opposed to strength or conviction. Gentleness at its best flows precisely out of a deep strength – it flows out of a deep conviction about what it right and what is true and what is beautiful. Indeed, without such strength and conviction, we are perhaps not capable of much more than a disingenuous or treacly niceness.
With Paul our gentleness is rooted in our confidence that God is near. God has embraced us in Christ. We have our identity in Christ. We have our security in God’s love. We have our confidence in the Spirit of God dwelling among us. So we don’t need to get in other people’s faces when they gossip about us or malign us. We don’t need to angrily defend ourselves or attack those who attack us. We are strong in Christ – that is our security and confidence.
Our gentleness is not only rooted in our confidence and faith. Our gentleness is also rooted in a desire that those who malign us or attack us or mistreat us would know the embrace, the love, and the gentleness of Christ. Through our gentleness, we seek the wellbeing of others. Through our gentleness, we point others to the way of gentleness. Through our gentleness, others may discover the gentleness of Christ.
On Christ the King Sunday – Joy.
On Christ the King Sunday – Gentleness.
A third time we broaden out our view – taking in a little more of Paul’s letter.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to all. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guide your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Joy. Gentleness. And, now, peace.
In the same way that there is a joy that runs deep – a joy deeper and more real than our immediate emotions and feelings.
In the same way that there is a gentleness that runs deep – a gentleness deeper and more real than any of the anger or vindictiveness we could muster.
So also there is a peace that runs deep – a peace that surpasses our understanding, a peace that is beyond our rational comprehension. It is a peace which, two thousand years ago, could be experienced by a man who is imprisoned; a man who awaits his fate at the hands of a violent empire. It is a peace which, two thousand years ago, could be experienced by a community of women and men who are marginalized and alienated and under pressure from the community around them.
Where does this peace come from? This peace is rooted in God, and it is rooted in the trust we may place in God. This peace is rooted in the God of love, and it is rooted in the conversations that we can have with this God about our lives. Paul says:
Is there something worrying you, then speak with God about it.
Is there someone in your family who has a real need, then speak with God about it.
there something that leaves you confused, then speak with God about it.
Is there something that is out of your control – then speak with God about it.
Peace doesn’t come from the certainty that God will give us what we ask for. We may not get what we ask for. Peace doesn’t come form the certainty that everything will be ok. Everything may not be ok. Peace comes from a life lived in the presence of God. Peace comes from the assurance that, in an ultimate sense, the God of love holds our lives and our world in his care.
When we speak with God we are reminded that God is.
When we speak with God we are reminded that, in Christ, God is for us.
When we speak with God we are reminded that, by His Spirit, God is near.
In this threefold knowledge, we find peace.
On Christ the King Sunday – Joy.
On Christ the King Sunday – Gentleness.
On Christ the King Sunday – Peace.
Thanks be to God. Amen.