Tag Archive: Philippi


The Peace of God

This was my humble and much wrestled with attempt to speak to the tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut.  May we continue to pray for God’s peace for the families and community affected, as well as for all people and nations.  And may we be peacemakers, sharing the love we have experienced in Christ Jesus with all those we encounter in both our words and our actions.

Today is Gaudate or Joy Sunday.  And the readings we’ve just heard are bursting with praise and joy.  But to be honest, I don’t really feel a whole lot like rejoicing.  I’m still thinking about the horrible shootings of the past week – two in one week.  I’m sad and wondering how this could have happened.  I’m frustrated and I’m angry that once again there have been shootings in our country.

I guess when I think about it more, I’m just tired.  I’m tired of turning on the news and hearing about continuing bloodshed in Syria, or more trouble in Israel and Palestine.  I’m tired of hearing about tragedies happening in movie theaters, temples, malls and in schools.  I’m tired of all the bad news.

And so it seems that these texts for today are horribly out of place given what’s been going on in our world.  But I think just the opposite is true – these texts have a lot to say to us this morning, particularly the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

I really love this letter to the Philippians.  It’s positive and upbeat, it includes the Christ Hymn in the second chapter, and it’s full of these wonderfully written sentences and phrases that I have found incredibly valuable in my own spiritual life.  Not to mention, it’s short and that makes it seem a little bit easier to handle!

But there’s a lot more depth to these four chapters than we might think at first glance.  The Philippians were living in what is now northern Greece along one of the major Roman trade roads of the day – the Via Egnatia.  In addition, the city of Philippi, once a backwater town, had become a sort of retirement community for Roman military personnel who had fought previously with Marc Antony and Octavian against Brutus and Cassius – yes, “Et tu, Brute?”  So the city had a Roman vibe.

Then, in around 50 CE, this guy named Paul had founded a tiny church – the first on European soil.  As a follow-up, Paul writes to the Philippians to share what he’s been up to, to encourage them to stay united in Christ, and to continue in the faith despite opposition.  And he’s not just writing this letter from his cushy home office, he’s sitting in a prison cell, knowing that his life could seriously be in danger.  Prisons in Paul’s day were not places for punishment or reform, but rather places where people would be held until a verdict could be reached.  Paul was waiting to see what would happen.

It is with all this in mind that we hear four verses of Paul’s letter to the community at Philippi.  We hear about rejoicing, about not worrying, and the peace of God.

How on earth is Paul able to write, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice?”  If I were sitting in a dark, dank prison cell, pondering the possibility of my death, as much as I’d like to, I honestly don’t know if I’d be able to write that.  And yet, Paul is not the only prisoner I know who has had this attitude.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis during WWII for various charges, the gist of which was that he wasn’t following the Nazi party line as he should have been.  During Christmas of 1943, sitting in prison, away from his family, friends and fiancée, Bonhoeffer wrote a Morning Prayer included in a collection of “Prayers for Those Also Imprisoned.”  The prayer is rather long, but here’s a portion of it that echoes Paul’s words:

“In me it is dark,
but with you, there is light;
I am lonely, but you don’t leave me;
I am faint-hearted, but with you there is help;
I am disquieted, but with you there is peace;
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I don’t understand your ways, but
You know the way for me…

Lord Jesus Christ
You were poor
And wretched, and imprisoned and abandoned like me.
You know the affliction of all people,
You stay with me,
Even when no person stands with me.
You don’t forget me and you search me out.
You desire that I recognize you,
And that I turn myself towards you.

Lord, I hear your call and follow.
Help me!”

These words help to clarify for me some of what Paul was talking about.

All of the things Paul talks about in these four verses – rejoicing, not being worried, receiving the peace of God – all of these things only happen in the context of what God has done first.  We are able rejoice, but we rejoice “in the Lord.”  We are not concerned or worried about the things we face, because in all things, we can always bring our prayers, requests, and questions before God.  And we receive the peace of God that guards our hearts and minds “in Christ Jesus.”  In God, come down to earth in a fragile, vulnerable baby, we rejoice, we pray, and we know God’s peace.

What is peace? How do we define it? There are two KFC commercials right now that feature the tagline: “find some peace this holiday.”  One shows a man using chicken to quiet two women, who are laughing and gabbing, while the other shows this same man pacifying his fighting children with chicken and chocolate chip cookies.  Is that what peace is?  Quieting down the noise with fried chicken?!

When we say we long for peace or that we’re praying for peace, what is it that we’re actually saying? Are we hoping that people will stop being physically harmful to one another?  Or are we hoping that conflicts will cease?  What does peace mean to you?  What does peace look like and feel like to you?

I think we often have a more limited view of peace.  I think our idea of peace sometimes looks like something that you’d hear in a beauty pageant – “I wish for world peace and for everyone to have a puppy!”  Both awesome things, but a little limited.

God’s peace is far greater than that.  God’s peace is  “shalom” – completeness, soundness, safety, health, prosperity and wholeness.  God’s peace is nothing short of the complete healing and wholeness of an aching world.  Close your eyes for a moment and imagine it.  Wars cease.  Painful conflicts end.  Bitterness between politicians disappears.  Words of love and joy flow from peoples’ lips.  Sharp and hurtful remarks are gone.  Relationships are healed and restored.  People feel and are safe and secure because this peace from God is permanent – it is not temporary or confined like human peace.

This is the peace that Paul and Bonhoeffer knew.  It was in the hope of this peace that they lived and died.  It was in this peace that they waited for Christ’s return, just as we do today.  And it’s not that their lives were free from the pains, tragedies and sufferings we experience.  No – just the opposite!  They had more than enough trials and ordeals.  But they knew that the Lord was near.

They knew that God had come into a violent, worrisome world as a vulnerable child to live life among us.  They knew that God, the holy One of Israel, had lived life as a poor peasant – an outcast.  They knew that this same God, had faced the injustice and violence of the world head on, and had been crucified.  They knew that this God – the God who worked through weakness and the unexpected – was raised from the dead conquering sin and death once and for all.  And they knew that this God had done all of this out of love for God’s beloved children.

They knew that they could take all of their struggles, worries, problems, fears, doubts, questions and joys to God in prayer and supplication.  They knew to give thanks for the good things and to let their requests – all of them, even the most mundane – be made known to God.  Knowing all of this, they lived with the peace of God guarding their hearts and minds.  They were able to rejoice in the goodness and the promises of God even in the midst of persecution, violence and injustice.  In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might, and has become my salvation.”

We catch glimpses of or experience this peace from time to time.  We may feel God’s peace surround us when praying or being prayed for.  We may witness courageous souls stand up against violence and hate in favor of love.  We may see it in little children who go caroling through the neighborhood, lifting a neighbor’s spirits.  God’s peace – God’s kingdom – is breaking in, despite all that we have seen to the contrary.  It has always been this way.

The peace of God is found in expectant hope.  We see the horrors of the world around us and yet we know what God has done for us in Christ.  We watch the news and we pray, knowing that God hears us and is at work, even if we cannot perceive how.  We wait and hope for that day when God’s peace will reign.  We wait and hope for Christ’s coming, knowing that all things will be made right at last.

It will take time to grieve the losses we have experienced this week.  Even if we were not in that Oregon mall or at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we are all grieving.  We are all wondering what the next steps will be.  But God is also grieving.  God is grieved anytime there is suffering in this world.  And God knows the unbearable pain of losing a child.  But God also knows that death does not have the last word.  There is light that the darkness can never overcome.  There is peace that no violence can take away.  There is life that comes forth from death.

I’ll close with the last verse of the hymn we are about to sing: “O God, whose heart compassionate bears ev’ry human pain, redeem this violent, wounding world till gentleness shall reign.  O God of mercy, hear our prayer: bring peace to earth again.”  Amen.

© 2012. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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Sharing in Paul’s Joy

This is the sermon I preached at Trinity Lutheran Church in Greencastle, PA today.

Philippians 3:4b-14:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

As I began preparing for this sermon, I started by reading over the texts for the day. And as I read, I found myself being drawn to the reading from Philippians. So far, so good. But, oddly enough, as I read it again and again, songs kept popping into my head. And not hymns or contemporary Christian music, but a song from Disney’s Hercules movie and a song from the musical Hairspray. Weird. And as I tried to figure why this was happening, I began to think – what would it be like if Paul had put this passage to music?

(to the tune of “Without Love” from Hairspray)
Once I was a Pharisee
Who never broke the rules
Never looked inside myself
But on the outside, I looked good!

Then we met and you made me
The man I am today
Jesus, I will follow you
On your holy way

‘Cause
Without you
I consider all things a loss
Without you
How could I ever bear my cross?

Jesus, I’ll be yours forever
‘Cause
I never wanna be
Without you…
Jesus, you have set me free
No, I ain’t lyin’
You have set me free
Oh, oh, oh!

Perhaps it would have sounded something like that – well, if Paul was influenced by 1960s rock-n-roll and showtunes.

In any case, I think the joyful and upbeat tune conveys Paul’s message to the church in Philippi very well. This passage is a fairly well-known one, but I think that sometimes it’s hard to hear the joy, hope and appreciation in Paul’s voice when he says he considers all things rubbish for the sake of Christ.

Before we get there though, let’s take a look at how Paul arrived at this statement about rubbish. Paul starts by listing his inherited traits, including his Jewish ancestry and the traditions he participated in from his early life – like circumcision on the eighth day. Next, he moves on to describe what he himself had accomplished, saying, “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Now, up until this point, it seems that Paul is almost boasting about his accomplishments. He was a Pharisee, one skilled in interpreting and explaining the Law of Moses. And not only could he interpret and explain it, but he followed it carefully as a way of life – an incredibly admirable endeavor. In addition, to show how devout he was, Paul even mentions his persecution of the church. One can almost see him sort of shaking his head as he admits this to his fellow Christians.

And then comes the twist. Paul says, “yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish…” In fact, Paul’s wording here is very strong – think of the strongest word for rubbish or filth you can find and that’s what Paul is getting at. Yes, Paul has a potty mouth here!

What would this statement sound like in our context? Imagine being born into a good family and then having a wonderful opportunity to go to an Ivy League school where you excel in everything you are doing. You graduate and achieve all you ever wanted – an amazing job, a sweet sports car and all the honor and prestige you could ever desire. Then, you have a life-changing encounter with the living God and tell your friends, “I count all that I had as nothing because of Christ. Actually, everything I’ve ever known and the opportunities I’ve had, have been nothing compared to experiencing Christ. I’ve even lost my six-figure job, my corner office and my amazing house and I consider them all garbage now because I have Jesus in my life.” Anyone who heard you say that would probably think you were in some sort of incredible denial, unwilling to admit that you had failed or fallen from where you were. It’d be a huge shock to hear those words coming out of someone’s mouth today and it was most likely a huge shock for Paul’s readers to hear him describe where he had been and how his life had changed.

Paul does not stop here, however. He says he wants nothing more than to be found in Christ – to be found following Jesus, no matter what the cost. It is at this moment that Paul declares that all his works and blameless adherence to the law don’t mean anything without faith. As he explains, it is through this faith in Christ that he, that is Paul, and we too, have righteousness that comes from God. God does not look at us and see our works, judging whether or not we have been “good enough” or judging whether or not we have measured up. Nor does God look at us and see our sins piling up around us.

This is where the love for God and the joy and hope I was speaking about earlier enter into the picture. Paul’s love for God stems out of his overflowing gratitude for what Christ has done for us on the cross. Because of the cross, when God looks at us, God sees the righteousness of Christ. Instead of the multitude of sins, God sees Christ’s perfection and the loving obedience that brought him to the cross on Calvary. God sees us covered over in mercy and grace. It is through Jesus that we have been made righteous – that we are able to stand before God. That, my friends, is grace. It is that precious gift, freely bestowed by a loving God. It is not something that we attain through clinging tightly to the law or by living perfectly. Otherwise, we wouldn’t make it – we would all be judged under the law and found wanting. As Casey Novak, Assistant District Attorney on the hit television show Law and Order: SVU pointed out, “No one is above the law.” As someone slightly more credible than Ms. Novak, namely Martin Luther, put it “…we let God alone work in us and in all our powers do we do nothing of our own.”

It is with this in mind, that Paul continues his letter passionately, saying that he wants to know Christ, to experience him and the power of the resurrection. It would be easy to see why one would want to experience the resurrection with its redemptive glory and invitation to new life, but Paul also states that part of the experience of knowing Christ is sharing in his sufferings. Here, Paul is saying that he wants to die to sin and experience new and abundant life with Christ. This is what we are to do every day in living out our baptism. Daily, we die to the old person and we are raised again, loved and forgiven to go out and serve.

Lest we become frustrated when we feel like we continue falling short and sinning far too much, Paul assures us that we are to keep on moving forward. We can do so because Christ has made us his own. This phrase “Christ Jesus has made me his own” is interesting because it can be translated as “I have been won by Christ Jesus.” Jesus has won us in the fight against sin, the powers of the world and the Devil – the very things we renounce in baptism. Jesus is with us, strengthening and encouraging us to continue following him. No matter how many times we stumble or fall, Christ has already won us and nothing can remove his victory. The key is to keep trying, no matter how difficult it seems. To keep moving forward, even when it may seem like you’ve done something unforgivable or when you feel there is no hope.

Paul reassures the Philippians and us that he is by no means perfect yet, but that he is also journeying “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” That’s an awful wordy sentence, but I think we can break it down and make it a bit easier to understand.

A few weeks ago, many of us, myself included, were glued to the television watching the Winter Olympics. We cheered for the United States and for those who had overcome so much to make it all the way to the medal podium. We teared up over those touching stories the announcers presented between all the action. We were absorbed in what happened in Vancouver. With all of this in mind, however, I couldn’t help but think about the athletes’ lives after the Olympics finished. They have spent their whole lives straining toward the Olympic prize, trying to beat incredible odds to attain that one glorious, shining moment on the winners’ podium. But what happens when they have achieved that?

In his letter, Paul writes, “not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s goal isn’t an Olympic medal, but rather life in God through Christ. In fact, the Greek phrasing Paul uses can be translated as “the prize of the upward invitation of God in Christ Jesus.” God is inviting us to a whole new life and a new way of thinking. Our goal is not one that we can achieve, like putting a check mark on a to-do list, but the goal is rather the invitation to a whole new way of life. It’s only the beginning of the adventure that lies ahead of us.

Life with Christ is just that – an adventure. It’s dying to our old selves and discovering our new identities as people living in and walking with Jesus. It’s picking up our crosses and following our Lord. It’s failing and falling, and getting back up, knowing that Christ is with us and will not let us go. It’s looking at life through the eyes of Jesus and realizing that, thankfully, we don’t have to be perfect to be loved by God! It’s struggles and joys, fears and hopes, death and resurrection. It is an adventure, but it is one we are by no means traveling through alone. God is with us and will remain with us. Moreover, our brothers and sisters in faith are our companions on the trip.

It is this journey we experience on a smaller scale during the Lenten season. We began on Ash Wednesday, confessing our sins and with the reminder that we are dust and to dust we will return. As we journey, maybe we have given up something or taken up a new spiritual discipline in order to try to focus more on our relationship with God. Next week will be Palm Sunday and then, Holy Week. Good Friday will bring the crucifixion and with it, the reminder of the heavy price Christ paid for us on the cross. But the Easter Vigil and Sunday will once again remind us of the Resurrection and the hope and joy Jesus’ rising brings to us.

I believe it is with this joy that Paul writes. He has come to realize through his encounter with Christ that it is not about him and how well he can uphold the law or obey the rules, but rather about the beautiful and unmerited gift of grace and forgiveness that God gives us. Take a moment. Think about that. That’s freedom. It’s freedom from the frustration and despair that comes from falling short of what we should be. It’s freedom from the exhaustion we feel when we are trying to live up to other peoples’ standards or trying to be all things for all the people around us. It’s freedom in which God says “I have done this for you – rest in this grace and know that I love you.” Paul’s joy is one of liberation and his hope is one of hearing the invitation of God and setting out to join God on the adventure.

Yes, God is with us through it all, sustaining us through the Holy Spirit, and encouraging us by reassuring us that Christ has already made us righteous before God. How amazing to have a God who loves us so much! Thinking of this, let us share in Paul’s joy and hope. And, knowing this love and the freedom and righteousness we have through Christ, how can we keep from singing? Amen.

© 2010. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

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