Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.(Php 4:4–9 NABRE)
As I considered passages that might be appropriate for Thanksgiving I ran across Paul’s exhortations to the Christians at Philippi near the end of his letter to the church there.
Those Christians would have been familiar with negativity and anxiety. Scholars have estimated that the Christian church at Philippi was probably about 2% of the population. Very few of the local elites would have been included, and the greater part of the church membership would have been at the lower echelons of a status driven society, consisting mostly of poor Greeks and slaves. Philippi was a Roman colony, awash in the paganism of the Roman Empire, a promiscuous and idol worshipping culture similar to our own. In this letter Paul calls upon the Christians to live in a way that challenges the culture, which he acknowledges they are doing. But obviously, a minority challenge from the lowest level of society to the prevailing darkness would have produced anxiety in the community.
As someone who seeks to live “in Christ,” I identify with the plight of the Philippians. I have long felt that, far from being a Christian nation, the culture of the United States more resembles the paganism of the Hellenistic world than the Kingdom of God. For me, this was made abundantly clear in the political process we had to endure this past several months. I allowed myself to become emotionally involved in the event, forgetting, as Paul reminds us, that “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Php. 3:20)
I think I am not the only one who has been adversely affected by the negativity of the season. I sense there is an air of bitterness and anxiety that was not resolved by the outcome of the election. Angry words are being exchanged, along with accusations and even acts of violence. The election didn’t solve anything. It seems to have deepened the divide.
So Paul’s advice to the Christians at Philippi is relevant to our own situation. He begins by essentially commanding the Philippians to rejoice. He emphasizes the command by repeating it. “I say again, rejoice!” This is not a passive admonition to “don’t worry, be happy.” The verbs in this passage are imperative.
How can Paul seriously expect worried people to respond positively to a command to rejoice? He can because he is not suggesting simply that one will oneself into joy (“lighten up!”). He is issuing a call to action. “Make your kindness known to all,” he tells them. And not to leave them scratching their heads, he follows this call to action with specific instructions.
The first thing they must do is to pray with thanksgiving. He actually prefaces the call to prayer by reminding them that “the Lord is near.” Some interpret this as a reminder of the Parousia, the second coming, but in the context of this call to prayer it more likely points out that Jesus has promised to be with us always (Mt. 28:20). So they (and we) have every reason to be grateful. We can pray with thanksgiving because we know the Lord is near, that he hears us. Our trust in the nearness of Christ in our afflictions and anxieties, if it is real, allows us to live with a peace that surpasses all understanding.
I think that last phrase deserves a little attention, because we are apt to think that Paul is writing in hyperbole. We are used to this, surrounded as we are with overblown descriptions of everything from laundry soap to toothpaste, and so we might dismiss it, as we do most advertising. But Paul didn’t live in a culture soaked in advertising, and when he writes that something surpasses all understanding, he means it. How can one understand a people who live in spiritual peace in the midst of troubled times? Are they daft? Paul assures us later in the letter that “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Php. 4:11 NIV)
How? Paul instructs the Philippians to two counter-cultural actions. The first is to focus their attention on the things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or gracious, in short anything that speaks of the sovereignty of God in a fallen world. It is true that the world is fallen and because of that we are beset by corruption in everything, but at the same time God’s signature is still to be found: in nature, in our loving relations with those close to us, in acts of love and heroism and charity great and small. Paul here suggests that we can train our minds to notice these things first and above all. In other words, to notice God first and above all. That alone is enough to overcome the darkness of the world.
Secondly, and finally, Paul instructs the Philippians to “keep on doing what you have learned and received and seen in me.” To know exactly what Paul means by that we have to look further back in the letter where he writes,
If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Php. 2:1-11 NABRE)
A central theme of all of Paul’s writing is the idea of being “in Christ.” Being in Christ means the abandonment of what he calls the flesh, meaning things of secular life, and adopting the Spirit, which is that our motivation becomes entirely identified with God’s will. And what is God’s will? Is it that we satisfy our worldly desires? Is it that we triumph in politics, accumulate worldly treasures and honors, vanquish those who persecute us? No. It is that we pour ourselves out completely in our service to those around us. Even those who don’t like us, who we may not like very much. Jesus blessed and forgave those who were nailing him to the cross, and then he gave up everything for a world that despised him. That is God’s nature. And if we are in Christ, it is that nature we are being conformed to.
It may seem overwhelming. But we are not alone. The Lord is near. That is the source of our thanksgiving. That allows us to act with charity even in the midst of persecution. That is what gives a sure hope in the future. And that is where we experience the God of Peace.