Making Our Joy Complete – Rev. Amanda Wagner
October 19, 2014 (Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
Exodus 32:1-14, Philippians 4:1-9
It’s that time of year again. The leaves are changing, the air is getting cooler, and the days are getting shorter. In some ways, these beautiful autumn days are a time of beauty and new beginnings. But these are also days that signal the coming bleakness of winter with its long cold nights.
The fire that warmed our hearts at Pentecost happened nineteen weeks ago. The excitement and anticipation of the Advent season is still six weeks away. Sometimes I think maybe bears have the right idea with hibernation.
Yet in the midst of our present circumstances, our scripture reading today from the letter to the Philippians calls for us to rejoice, to retain that Pentecost spirit and carry it through to the season of Advent. Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi is perhaps the most joyful of all his letters. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Well, that’s easy for you to say, Paul.
Except, it wasn’t easy for Paul to say. At the time of this writing, Paul was in prison for preaching the gospel. It had been quite a while since he had seen his friends at Philippi, and he knew that it would be even longer still before he would be reunited with them. This was a church that was facing change. They had started out as a joyful and excited new church start, but without the presence of Paul to keep them going, they had lost direction as a faith community.
Without Paul there, the church had to answer its own question, “Where do we go from here?” As is often the case during times of change, many opinions come to light, and it is not surprising that the two church leaders, Euodia and Syntyche were involved in some kind of dispute.
Paul begins this section by urging the women to “be of the same mind in the Lord.” We don’t know exactly what these two were in disagreement about, but in that one sentence Paul reminds them and us to keep the perspective of why we’re doing what we’re doing. “Be of the same mind in Christ.”
He’s not telling them just to come to some kind of compromise, but to put the will of Christ in the center of their disagreement, to see if that lends some perspective. Like asking the once popular question, “what would Jesus do?” Paul urges them not just to look for the middle ground, but to stand together on the foundation of Christ. In doing so, they might just find that seeking the mind of Christ leads them not closer to each other’s opinions but in an entirely different direction altogether.
Paul then moves on to the closing of his letter, where he gives a list of instructions to the church. He tells them, “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, wherever there is excellence or anything worthy of praise, these are the things with which you should concern yourselves.” And this is much more than a laundry list. Paul tells the church to rejoice, and then he sketches out a road map to a joyful life.
I once had a conversation with a first-time father and I made the mistake of asking him how things were going. I’m pretty sure he was just waiting for me to ask that question, because it gave him the jumping-off point to tell me about all of the exciting things that he was experiencing for the first time with his baby daughter.
And for the next ten minutes or so, I got to hear all about the feedings and the naps, the spit-ups and the diaper changes, and even about the contents of those diapers. Finally, when I was able to get a word in edgewise, I said to him, “You must be a new dad, because I don’t know anyone else who could talk about poop for that long!”
But that’s joy. It’s not a coincidence that we refer to babies as “little bundles of joy.” As strange as it may sound, this young father found joy in changing his daughter’s dirty diapers, because joy is one of those special things that can be found regardless of our present situation.
His joy was in the birth and life of his daughter, and that joy didn’t stop just because he had to change a diaper. Perhaps in some way, the joy that he felt because of the fresh new life of his daughter was made that much more apparent by his joyful willingness to engage in even the less glorious aspects of parenting.
The long season after Pentecost is referred to in the church calendar as “Ordinary Time.” But this is a time that is far from ordinary. Rather than dwelling on the fire of Pentecost or jumping ahead to the preparations of Advent, in Ordinary Time we are reminded that our focus should be on the gift of every Sunday, as a time when we celebrate God’s good creation and the promise of resurrection.
Every Sunday that we are able to gather together as the people of God is a day to celebrate our new life in Christ. That is the joy about which Paul speaks. It is the joy that comes from hope, no matter what our present situation.
We tend to place value on certain “big achievements” in life. Becoming a parent, celebrating an anniversary, getting a job or promotion, buying a house, welcoming new members into the congregation. These can all be times of celebration, times that we are conditioned to refer to as “joyous occasions.” But those sometimes fleeting moments of achievement are not what true joy is about.
We’ve also been conditioned to think of joy as a private feeling. It’s the warm fuzzies we get when those big things happen, or when things are going well. But for Paul, joy is a shared experience, not an individual feeling. It’s a byproduct of a way of life, not the end goal when we decide we’ve done enough or earned enough to have something to celebrate. “Rejoice” is a command for everyday living.
Writing from his prison cell, Paul knows that joy is part of a shared experience. “Make my joy complete,” he writes. “Be of the same mind, having the same love.” Joyful Christian unity is about working together to share and spread the message of the love of God. It’s about working to attain peace and justice. It’s about putting aside our own differences of opinion to be ministers of the gospel message.
While Paul speaks on the grand-scale about peace and justice, the great thing about his list at the end of the letter to the Philippians is that he breaks it down into goals that are achievable. “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.”
Those grand goals of peace and justice in the world are only attainable by making the small-scale changes, one choice at a time, one day at a time. Indeed, what would Jesus do? There’s an old “Peanuts” cartoon where Linus says, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.” And it is much easier to see love, peace, and justice as abstract concepts. We can love humanity and we can pray for peace or justice, but when it comes to working for those goals, we really have no idea of how to go about it.
But that’s what Paul’s list is about: building unity within the church, reaching out in love, working for peace and justice one person or one step at a time. Whenever you reach a fork in the road, Paul says, keep doing the things I’ve taught you. Keep choosing the thing that is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, or praiseworthy. We can learn to love humanity better by better loving the people we encounter each day.
Joy, true joy, is about more than just celebrating those milestones in life. It’s about embracing each day as a gift from God. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. The Lord is near.” Our joy comes from the shared experience of a God who has promised to be with us and not abandon us. It is a joy that Paul embraced even from his prison cell.
As we strive to make that joy complete through Christian unity within the church, let us also reach out to the world, embracing humanity, sharing the love of Christ, one person at a time. Even in this Ordinary Time, with the hastening of winter, we are reminded that the joy of Christ is never out of reach. No matter what our present situation, every day is a gift and cause for joyous celebration. Amen.