A Sermon from Sherborne

Compline Address 5 – Rejoice in the Lord!

On unity, peace of mind, contentment, giving and true joy [4:2-23]: preached by the Revd Lesley McCreadie, Team Vicar on Monday 19th March 2018


And so we come to the final Compline address – where did Lent go and have we made the best use of it?

The final chapter of Philippians contains some real treasures and some very real challenges for us to consider. It is Paul at his best I think: he calls us to settle squabbles; to rejoice; not to worry; he reminds us of virtuous living and of real peace; and challenges us that all our strength and power comes from God who will also meet all our needs.

I love the little cameo about the two women. Fallings out between two people are always difficult; when it happens within the church community it is so much more distressing where the whole ethos ought to be one of mutual love, forgiveness and support. Rather than leaving things to chance Paul engages head on, publically appealing to them to come to an agreement. Paul was taking a chance of course: it could all have backfired spectacularly, sometimes, though, a straight word from someone in authority is enough to bring people to their senses. When I was teaching and some stroppy year 9 years had a falling out I used to tell them I would knock their heads together, safe guarders note, I didn’t actually do that, but some straight talking and boundaries were put in place which usually sorted the problem out. Christian communities are always of course under greater scrutiny when it comes to disagreements. People generally know what it is we stand for and when we fall short they are quick to point the finger. Historically of course we do not have a very good record, but I hope today we do better. We do have a responsibility to make sure that we put our house in order very quickly not doing so lets the gospel down. Letting disagreements fester is not good in any relationship. One of the maxims I hope I have instilled into my family as it was instilled into me is – never let the sun go down on your anger – I commend it to you all.

Now to one of the main messages of this last chapter – rejoice! Not just once but again I say rejoice! This is not “put on a happy face” or “look for the silver lining.” The rejoicing Paul has in mind is not based on outward circumstances. That’s crucial because very often our circumstances are quite depressing. Where was Paul when he wrote these words? In a Roman prison chained to Roman guards 24 hours a day. He was on trial for his life with no certain hope of release. I take it that Paul didn’t “enjoy” being in prison but he found reasons to rejoice even in that difficult circumstance. Do you remember the lovely children’s film Pollyanna? Pollyanna used to play the ‘glad’ game because although life was very tough for her at times she always found something she could be glad about. She even took the local preacher to task for his stern sermons telling him there were at least 800 glad verses in the Bible and that he should try preaching about rejoicing!

Rejoice is not a word which falls very readily from our lips these days, I wonder if joy might be a better way of expressing the meaning. Joy” is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). It is ours from the very first day that we put our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is part of our very being as God’s children. When I was ordained deacon in 2010 I didn’t really know what to expect when the bishop laid his hands on my head but what happened to me in that moment was a great sense of complete joy. It was overwhelming. It consumed my whole being. All the struggles to get to that point were wiped away and an overwhelming sense of the love of God and of this being the right thing for me remained and has remained to this day. Even through some of the most difficult of times, I have been able to remain joyful in the sense that I know, to paraphrase Julian of Norwich, all will be well.  Joy is not the same as happiness. We can enshrine ‘the pursuit of happiness’ in national constitutions, but happiness is not keen to be found. Happiness depends on circumstances – it is illusive: it soon flutters away. Joy or rejoicing in the Lord enables us to rise above our present situation, whatever it may be, and is a constant through all the changes and challenges of life. Joy is that absolute belief in what has been experienced. That is certainly how it was for me as I was ordained and it is so still.

Paul follows up his directive to rejoice with the companion notion about anxiety and worry and his answer is to pray. Sounds simple doesn’t it? So why is it so hard for us to follow this advice? Worry and prayer are opposites—like water and fire. You can worry or you can pray but you can’t do both at the same time. If the Lord is alive and cares for his people- and will come to them again – then there is no real need for anxiety. Whatever the Philippians or we are going through, God can be relied on to care, whatever may befall. Our faith is distinguished by trust rather than anxiety.

Paul has three pieces of advice for worriers:

Pray about everything; in other words there is nothing that we should not share with God; no part of our lives that is off limits to God; no part of our lives where we should think we can go it alone.

Pray with thanksgiving: this is a hard thing to do when you are praying from the point of view of suffering, but even in the depths of despair and I have found this to be so in the last few weeks particularly, there are things to be thankful for; the understanding of a friend, the kind word, the time spent in companionable silence with a loved one; we are never left comfortless.

Pray with expectation; pray expecting God to hear and to respond. The response may not be what you expect but God will never turn you away. In the wonderful film Bruce Almighty, Bruce takes over the job of being God for the day. Prayer is the one thing he cannot cope with: it is incessant. In the end he just presses the ‘yes’ button on the computer and all sorts of calamities begin to happen. Thankfully it is not like that with God. God hears us when we call and responds in the most loving of ways.

Rejoicing and prayer both require a positive decision. You can’t just drift into rejoicing in the Lord, or the prayerful renunciation of anxiety which follows. In the pagan world of Paul’s day, anxiety was a major factor in daily life, to be kept at bay by ceaselessly appeasing the gods. Since the true God is revealed in Jesus, this anxiety can and should be replaced by celebration, but you have to work at it if you want peace which follows on naturally. It is a holistic peace which garrisons our hearts and minds against all that assails us. It speaks of wholeness, wellness, and completeness.

In the same way today we have to work at putting into place all the good things in God’s world and try to ignore the bombardment we receive every day from the media which is often negative. We cannot ‘go with the flow’, that is not what God expects of us and it is also a way which gets us distracted; our focus should be on Christ because in the end that is where we will find the best party.

What you think is what you are, says Paul in the next section of this final chapter. It is a special piece for me because it is what I used to write in the leaving books of students of mine. It seemed to me to be the best possible aspiration for them as they stepped out into the adult world. …. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Much of what Paul writes about ethical virtues has overtones of the work of Aristotle. Aristotle was the first person to investigate the role of friendship in the lives of individuals and communities. Philia or friendship he argued was capable of holding communities together. The wealthy should be benevolent and the poor needed the friendship of others to assist them. Paul, influenced by his Hellenistic background, also regarded friendship as a communion of mutual trust and support which produced strong and lasting ties but for Paul of course, this was held in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the life of Christ. Friendship leads to joy and happiness and allows relationships and communities to flourish. So for Paul there is a clear link between friendship and virtue.

Paul speaks in the language of Philippi that is willing to use both Christian and Roman virtues always filling them with a Christian meaning. The Roman world knew of God and understood good and evil. Their secular authorities know how to punish evil and reward good.   Paul sees truth therefore as a universal phenomenon. The example of Christ of course adds distinctiveness to the virtues. In the Roman world virtues were largely a matter of exercising moderation in all things and consideration in relationships: the virtues extolled would be those such as prudence, temperance, fairmindedness, courage, integrity. They were seen as being achieved by being in harmony with nature and conscience. But for Paul virtue or even a better word goodness, is a likeness to Christ or to God and is made possible by the help of the Holy Spirit. The making of the Christian character is first and foremost the work of God in the believer producing the fruit of godliness.

Paul calls on his hearers or readers to reflect or focus on what is true and honourable, just, pure, excellent or worthy of praise. To fill their minds with noble thoughts not only that, they are to learn how they themselves are to become truthful, trustworthy, fair-minded, with inner beauty, able to achieve the best, and do things worthy of praise. Of course these things are to be found in God but Paul is asking the followers of Christ to look for these things wherever they may find them- looking for the good in others – Paul’s vision of Christianity is that it is essentially a world transforming not a world denying religion.

The church is the primary place where we can learn Christian virtues; we learn in the manner of a sacred tradition passed down to us through the ages and from the example of each other.

Paul’s Christian virtues offer a dynamic for life; there are always things to strive towards to aim at, and to grow into. Paul wants us all to grow to maturity into the full stature of Christ to have the mind of Christ, to search the depths of Christ. He encourages us to aim at the highest standards of morality and culture known to the world – in doing so we bear witness to the transforming power of faith in Christ with the added bonus that lives are pleasing to those we meet. What a responsibility! But what a transforming way to live out our lives.

In the last few verses Paul is able to give us the best clue about how we can make our lives more Christ like; I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me

Here in this verse is the reason Paul could say, “I know how to get along” in life no matter what the circumstances. He could be poor, rich, imprisoned, or anything else. He was full of joy, relatively free from anxiety, and he had the peace of God. This man had been changed by the power and love of the God, and right here in this verse he shares the secret of how it happened, and like him, we have that potential: we “can do all things through Him who strengthens” you. And if we follow this maxim God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

Just like Paul and the Philippians, we all have many needs and God knows about every one of them. When you meet people or read of those who live their lives relying on God to provide all their needs it is inspiring. I heard the story of a family working overseas for the St Stephen’s Society in Hong Kong who had no food in the house with which to celebrate Christmas. Gradually over a period of some hours people arrived at the house offering the family items of food. By the end of the day they had enough food for a wonderful feast. The believers in the Church at Philippi had given not just one, but several gifts to Paul. He had not asked for them; they just sent them. They gave, not to get anything in return; but instead they gave out of love for Paul. They gave out of their love for Christ. They gave as led by the Holy Spirit. Paul deeply appreciated their love. It demonstrated that their faith in Jesus Christ and their love for Him was genuine.

What an inspiring way to bring our Lenten study to a close. As we turn our hearts and minds to the events of Holy Week and the great 3 days of Easter we can do so with such confidence in a God that loves us so much that no sacrifice is too great and that through his life changing Spirit we are capable of changing to become more like Christ. No wonder Paul calls upon us to rejoice!

The Reverend Lesley McCreadie, Team Vicar 19/03/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne