Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

We are being assured by those who struggled long before us

October 15, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Philippians 4:1-9

The beautiful, poetic language of Philippians 4:4-9 has become a familiar touchstone for many. But if this passage is separated from the conditions in which the words were first offered as consolation, the meaning can become a shallow assurance of God’s answers to prayer. It is important to remind your congregation that these words were written by a person chained in a Roman prison, wondering whether he will be sentenced to death for his socially provocative Gospel, writing to a community under related social and economic duress. Both are experiencing extreme pressure to back off from their proclamation of the crucified and risen Messiah. This is the kind of message that inspired Martin Luther King Jr.’s own “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” words written to strengthen a community under siege for their proclamation of God’s justice and concern for all people.

In our own time, many people express anxiety about not just their personal well-being, but for large-scale national and global issues. The preacher is confronted with exactly Paul’s concern: how to give their hearers both hope and practical advice for making it through genuine threats with an underlying foundation of joy, peace, and community, grounded in the power of God to bring fullness of life in all circumstances.

4:1 “My joy and crown”

While 4:1 is actually the summation of what comes before it, it also lays important groundwork for what follows. Everything Paul has to say to the Philippians has deep roots in the quality of their relationship, a combination of deep and genuine affection and respect. The Philippian congregation is both a source of personal joy and a sign of the power of the Gospel, and thus the “crown” of Paul’s ministry. Their willingness to offer Paul financial support (4:15-16) and to risk the life of a personal emissary (2:25-30) during Paul’s imprisonment are signs of their mutual regard and compassion.

4:2-3, Practicing the mind of Christ

The practice of the mind of Christ (Christ’s practical wisdom) is spelled out in 2:1-5. It means participating in the uniting love and compassion of Christ, as those qualities spell themselves out in very concrete and diverse patterns of concern for each person in the community. The directionality of concern, as elucidated in 2:5-11, is always toward the most vulnerable, a move from power and status toward those without it.

It should be no surprise that a community under as much pressure as the Philippian church would be experiencing fractures in its leadership. No doubt, there were decisions they needed to make together that were confusing and risky. In 4:2, Paul addresses two leaders of the community, Euodia and Syntyche, who appear to be struggling with how to move forward together faithfully; and Paul appeals to other leaders to come beside them in their conflict, reminding everyone of the history of courageous faithfulness of the two women. Paul doesn’t tell any of them what to do, he only reminds them of the pattern of “the mind of the Lord” and trusts them, once again, to “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling—for it is God who is at work among you” (2:12).

4:4-9, Practicing our faith, as the Lord is near

It is no surprise that 4:4-9 informs the texts of many hymns and songs. It seems clear that these verses were intended as a memorable and inspiring sequence of practices for a community of faith to engage when they feel overwhelmed by opposition and anxiety. It offers preachers today a chance to give the same practical help in an anxious age.

  • Rejoice: Don’t just expect joy to arrive on its own, but commit yourself to practices of godly joy every day (4:4).
  • No one is at their best right now, including you, so be gentle to absolutely everyone (4:5).
  • Christ is near (4:5). Take moments to experience the reality that you are surrounded by transcendent compassion that is larger and deeper than you.
  • Don’t obsess over your worries, but don’t brush them under the carpet, either. Share them with God, all the worry and all the gratitude together (4:6).
  • This conversation with God is a source of peace beyond our capacity to understand (4:7).
  • Commit yourself not to simply obsess over all that is going wrong, all the evil and destruction you  see in the world. Turn your attention to things that really matter, to where you see action that is worthy of respect, to places where justice is being done, to goodness in all its forms. Make a list of them if you have to (4:8, literally “tally up these things,”; New Revised Standard Version, “think on these things”).
  • Paul gives similar wise advice, in simpler wording, in 1 Thessalonians: “Test everything; hold fast to what is good; distance yourselves from every form of evil” (5:21-22). This is excellent advice for times when we feel overwhelmed by negativity and falsehood.
  • Pay attention to the truly remarkable people around you who will show you how to walk this path (4:9).

Philippians 4 is so beautiful, and so important for the times we’re living in right now. 4:1-9 could also inform other parts of your Sunday service, such as the prayers of the people, or an opening or sending prayer, or blessing. Finding ways that the people themselves might say the words during the service could be powerful. There is a sense here in which we are being assured by those who struggled long before us, that they came to know for certain the strengthening nearness and power of God with and through them.

"Clothes," Image by Muhammad Fiji via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Dear Working Preacher:
Ordinary 28A

Read past Dear Working Preacher columns from 2011 – 2020 on the texts for Ordinary 28A (Proper 23A).