Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 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 things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. -Philippians 4:1-9 (NRSV)
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! And again I say, rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! And again I say, rejoice!
That Vacation Bible School song sung as a round came to mind when I read this week’s scripture. Especially when sung the customary four times by four groups you’re surrounded with the demand: rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!
That first came to mind, but then came, really? Rejoice always? How’s that even possible? Isn’t that more than we can bear? Maybe such sweetness and light’s possible in a make believe place where purple dinosaurs named Barney live singing, If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gumdrops? Oh what a rain that would be. Standing outside with my mouth open wide. Ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh.
But we don’t live there. Telling someone to rejoice always can be cruel. Who’d say rejoice always to families of Las Vegas’ dead and wounded? Or our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico after two hurricanes, or Houston folks destroyed by three 500-year floods in three years?
I couldn’t say rejoice always several years ago when my to friend’s son committed suicide; I can’t say that you now you after unexpected deaths of two church pillars in a week. Our land’s divided over race or politics in deeply unsettling ways; we seem closer to nuclear war than we’ve been in 55 years. Rejoice always? Seriously? That call seems, well, nuts, and unhinged from reality.
Except, we’re those people who stand under the cross. There, instead of seeing weakness, failure, foolishness and death there, we experience God’s power, victory, wisdom and life. We’re those odd people who hear an odd scripture word and trust it’s still true for us.
And today’s word comes oddly from prison, not from some keys to happiness book written in a cozy study with a warm hearth-side fire. Paul’s life hangs in the balance; he expects he’ll be executed and isn’t sure he’ll ever see the light of day again or his friends’ faces. On top of that, some so-called friends and co-workers are making his life as wretched as possible. This Paul says rejoice always; maybe we should pay attention. He knows something good for us.
When I think about Paul in prison, two other prisons come to mind. One is in 1945 Germany. A young pastor and theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. A prison cell’s been his home for three years because of his part in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Soon the Third Reich will collapse in blood and fire. But on this April morning, direct orders have come from Hitler. This 39 year-old pacifist Christian is ordered from his cell one final time; Bonhoeffer’s stripped of his dignity and clothes, and he’s hanged in a prison courtyard. His final words are simple. “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life.” And I imagine him going to the gallows singing quietly, Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I say, rejoice!
The other prison’s closer to home; Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia, a medium-security prison that’s home to 3,000 souls. For nearly 15 years I’ve had the honor and privilege occasionally to worship there; each time I’ve been stunned and humbled on a Sunday evening by the sheer joy in the Lord expressed by 150 or so brothers in Christ, especially when a song like this is sung: I’m trading my sorrows; I’m trading my shame; I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord. I’m trading my sickness, I’m trading my pain; I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord. When they sing in surrender with delight, Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord; yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord; yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord, Amen!; when they bow in prayer or receive the Lord’s Supper; it’s a holy time and place. Those so-called prisoners are more free in Christ than many of us. We’re locked up by custom or tradition or being proper, afraid to let our guard down or let someone see our weakness or wounds, our fears or failures.
How can they rejoice? How can we? Paul can help. The first thing he says today is, “Therefore.” Our lesson begins as another part of the conversation is ending. A few verses earlier Paul’s written wonderful words of life: our true home is with God; for the baptized our real and full allegiance is not to the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the commonwealth of heaven. That’s how young Pastor Bonhoeffer can go to the scaffold rejoicing; he trusts he’s entering in a new way that commonwealth that death cannot defeat. That commonwealth’s governor is not Terry McAullife; the one who presides and rules that realm is not Adolph Hitler or Donald Trump; our Governor and Lord is Jesus; no one else. Our first and final loyalty is to him; our true home isn’t a prison, but in Christ alone. On the way Paul promises that Christ will transform our lives so they look like Christ’s and mirror his ways, and in the end, all will be well; all creation will be healed and made new; and Christ will be all in all.
We have God’s word on it so now Paul says, “Therefore, stand firm in the Lord in this way.” You know where the world’s going and God’s grand vision for you, so stand firm; build your life on Christ’s life so he is seen in you, in ways both great and small. For example, here Paul urges two women to stop feuding for Christ’s sake; instead of seeking their own way they’re to seek Christ’s way and to make up their minds to be of the same mind in the Lord, to have his attitude and go his way. And all those receiving this letter have a part to play. They’re not to stand idly by or enjoy the fight; they’re to help heal. When we are in Christ, we live in him together; if we live in Christ, we submit to him as head of the household and stay close to one another to stay close to him, even when it’s hard. But with Christ, nothing is impossible.
That’s how we rejoice: we rejoice in the Lord. We don’t rejoice in all that life brings, but in the Lord’s goodness and mercy and grace and love and kindness and forgiveness and life-giving healing power and a thousand other wonders; we rejoice in God’s nearness and promise never to leave us or forsake us, not even behind prison walls. There’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God we’ve seen in Christ Jesus, nothing. Even when terribly awful things happen, God is still at work for our good. So worry and anxiety don’t have to be the final word for us; they don’t have to rule our lives. We can be gentle and generous toward others because God has given us those same good gifts. We trust this same God loves us so fiercely that we can share anything and everything with God and pray for help and guidance and for others with grateful hearts. That’s how we can rejoice, in the Lord, always, always.
Then Paul takes it a step further. We’re promised peace that surpasses understanding as we stand firm in the Lord on a foundation that endures. Paul urges us, “Whatever is true or honorable, whatever is just or pure, whatever is pleasing or commendable, if there is any excellence or anything worthy of praise, fill your mind with those things: not with bitterness or fear or always being right or getting into someone’s business; not with what’s hurtful or mean or glittery or passing away. Focus and frame life on what honors God to draw closer to God’s ways in Christ, and the God of peace will be with you. That’s the promise and the good news.
Bill was so focused; a college student with cancer, he took classes to the end. When he died one of those courses was on Death. He wrote in a textbook, “I don’t know why I’m suffering, or what good can come of my death. But I know God is not my enemy; God loves me and wants only good for me.” And as he died I imagine him singing, Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice. In our living and dying may we learn to sing that song, too.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.