In today’s New Testament lesson Paul is wrapping up his letter to the church community of Philippi with some final words of encouragement. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Paul is encouraging the church to let joy define their faith and their life. I have said this before but anytime we talk about joy in church, it is always worth mentioning that being joyful and being happy are not the same thing. Happiness is something that comes and goes, is something humans desire for themselves. Joy is something deeper and more meaningful. Happiness may fade, but as Christians we believe joy will always be with us.
Paul lifts up why joy will always be present in our life and faith journey with four simple words. “The Lord is near.” As Christians the cornerstone of our joy is the good news that God’s love for us through Christ endures all things. The joy in our life and faith journey comes from the hope and the good news revealed to us by the cross and the empty tomb that reveal that nothing, life or death, things present or things to come can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Our joy comes from the hope and the promise that there will be a time when Christ comes when he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. We rejoice because “the Lord is near.”
There are some details surrounding the circumstances of Paul’s letter that scholars feel sure about. We know that Paul started this church on one of his missionary journeys so he knows this congregation well. We know that Paul is in prison as he writes this letter of encouragement.
What we do not know are some of the details of the what is exactly happening in the life of the church. We know the two women mentioned, Euodia and Syntyche are people who were right there with Paul as co workers when the church was founded. Time has passed, and in the opening verses of today’s text there is some hint of tension, struggle, and frustration happening in the church. As we read between the lines is it possible that they are struggling with acknowledging the joy that surrounds them? They know their leader Paul is in prison, so as we read between the lines maybe there is uncertainty of what will happen with their church in the days ahead. Maybe all the looming uncertainty is causing tension between its leaders.
Paul seems to have heard something significant that would have led him to write this letter of encouragement from prison, something was happening for him to write the words, “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 passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Joy and Prayer. In his words of encouragement to fellow Christians, Paul is lifting up these two spiritual practices for his friends to participate in as they navigate their community’s struggles. A few months as the pandemic began we talked about the spiritual practice of prayer, a time to talk and communicate with God, and time for God to talk and communicate with us. A powerful spiritual practice that centers us back to our purpose and calling to love and serve God and all of God’s creation. With this spiritual practice many of us try to find time and space to pray. Whether it is before meals and bedtime, or always a certain time of day, or when there is a moment of crisis, or a moment of praise prayer is a spiritual practice we use to center ourselves towards our calling to love and serve the Lord.
I love the fact that Paul is letting it be known that joy is a spiritual practice too. The differences between the spiritual practices of joy and prayer is while prayer is about finding time and a space to live out the practice, the spiritual practice of joy is a mindset or spiritual discipline of perception in how we approach life. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Joy is not something that fades or an emotion that is dependent on worldly things. Joy is divine. If we believe that the cornerstone of joy is the truth and good news that God’s love for us through Christ endures all things, then the spiritual practice of joy is allowing joy to be the lens we view all situations, even the difficult ones.
Maybe we take for granted that the person who wrote the words “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice”, wrote them while sitting in prison, not knowing if he would live or if he would die. Not knowing if he would ever see the church community in Philippi ever again. Yet, he was proclaiming to them to always rejoice because God’s love endures all things. The church of Philippi were disagreeing over which side was right and which side was wrong, they allowed the uncertainty of the times shape their life, yet Paul was reminding them to be of of the same mind in the Lord and to allow their lens of joy guide them in the path forward, not a lens of fear. Joy will center them back to a life defined by love.
Paul’s story and the church in Philippi’s story is a great reminder that just because we have joy does not make us exempt from the wilderness of suffering, illness, grief, and brokenness. This is where the difference between happiness and joy occur the most…in the face of hardship.
Happiness may fade when illness, grief, and uncertainty surround it. Joy in Christ is what will help us through the wilderness of suffering, illness, grief, brokenness, and uncertainty. Joy in Christ is a lens that offers hope and liberation in a broken and fearful world.
While our spiritual practice of joy will help us through our difficult moments in life, Paul is also reminding us that this significant spiritual practice is not something we are to do alone by ourselves, joy is meant to be shared. The proclamation “rejoice” that Paul uses in his letter is written in the plural. Meaning we are being encourage to rejoice together, always. Joy is a spiritual practices that not only defines the church but nurtures and sustains the church.
Sharing joy is what we do real well in church. From our singing to our prayers to our testimonies, joy is shared a lot. The powerful thing about sharing joy in community is that there is a possibility that someone is struggling with their lens of joy because of the wilderness they are experiencing in their life. In our community of faith we are able to lean on others to help remind them of the joy we find in the good news that God’s love through Christ endures all things.
I hope you had a chance to watch our church’s stewardship video that was posted earlier this month on our church’s Youtube channel. Throughout the video there are images and testimonies of how our church community shares together the joy of God’s love for us through Christ that endures all things. We are sharing joy together when we worship together. We are sharing joy when we study and explore scripture together. We are sharing joy together when we live out our mission to love and serve others with acts of gentleness, compassion and justice and point each other towards God’s truth defined by love. By sharing joy together we are shaping and nurturing each others own sense of created purpose and calling. The joy of the good news of God’s love that we share and experience together sustains and nurtures our community of faith.
Over these last few months we have had to adapt the way we nurture and sustain our community of faith and share joy with one another. As I mentioned before the wonderful gift of the spiritual practice of joy is we can use our lens of joy in every situation, even difficult and uncertain ones. We have had to share our joy with one another in creative yet meaningful ways. Phone calls, computers, and socially distant gatherings are the ways we have lived out our calling to rejoice in the Lord always. We have shared joy by picking up the phone and calling and checking in on someone who we know might be in their own wilderness, whether they are sick, isolated, or overwhelmed. We all have shared the joy of the good news as we worship and glorify God together from comforts of our homes, in every time and place. One of my favorite things about how we have worshiped these last few months is the joy I receive when I see another familiar face of our church community on the screen reading scripture and leading us in prayer. A testimony that God’s love through Christ endures all things.
That is the wonderful thing about the joy we find in God’s love for us through Christ, even if we are struggling with brokenness and uncertainty it is always present to offer us hope, comfort, and sustain us as we live out calling to love God and all of God’s creation. We are able to have joy in our hearts because we know and believe that the Lord is near and the God of peace will be with us always. Joy is a lens that offers us a perspective of gratitude. Joy leads us to a life in which we glorify God and enjoy God forever! Alleluia Amen!