Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7
Cinnamon rolls are one of my favorite desserts.
I’m not talking about those out-of-the-can jobs we feed our children before we race out the door to make it to Sunday school in time. I’m talking about those delectable works of art you can only purchase at a bakery.
There’s something heavenly about the way the cream cheese frosting seeps down into the sugary, cinnamon-y crevices to produce that perfect blend of spice, tang, and sweetness; it brings a “hallelujah” to my taste buds.
There’s no wrong way to eat a cinnamon roll, but for my money there is a right way to eat one. Cinnamon rolls are made to be unfurled. You didn’t buy a cinnamon doughnut or a cinnamon cake — you bought a roll, so unroll it! When you start at the outside and slowly, lovingly work your way to that inner sanctum, that succulent holy-of-holies that is the center of the cinnamon roll it feels like Jesus has finally returned and decided to throw a parousia party in your mouth. Okay, maybe that’s a bit much; but you cannot deny that the best bite of a cinnamon roll is without doubt that culminating center bite.
What in the world, you may be wondering, does this have to do with Philippians 4:4-7? I believe that the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary, in choosing separate the lection the way they have, have given us the center bite of the Philippian cinnamon roll.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Yes. Rejoicing in light of the Lord’s goodness is good and right. “Amen,” we say.
Let your gentleness be evident to all. Who among us does not wish we could embody this instruction, leading lives that reflect the tender kindness of Jesus? Again we say, “Let it be so!”
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Oh that these words were tattooed on our hearts!
Our world produces anxiety. At every corner there is some new fear to haunt our dreams and burden our days. To exacerbate the situation, advertisers and news commentators do their best to keep our anxiety levels at code orange so that we will buy the latest gadget, imbibe the newest pharmaceutical wonder drug, or begin that new workout fad with a word like insanity or extreme in the title.
Paul’s words offer sweet, sweet relief for modern persons. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Wow! What I wouldn’t give for a taste of this peace. In all honesty, I don’t really know what this would feel like — peace transcending understanding, guarding both my heart and mind. In my own spiritual journey I have had glimpses of such peace, fleeting glances that tease me with the hope of something more. Oh to abide in such peace!
When you read through the scholarly literature in preparation to preach this pericope you will find that nearly every commentator will treat this lection as a proper division (sandwiched between verses 2-3 on the one hand and verses 8-9 on the other). This creates a haphazard lection of “miscellaneous exhortations” and “aphoristic dicta.”1
Why, you may wonder is the lection broken up this way? I argue it is because, not unlike myself, Bible scholars love cinnamon rolls. Verses 4-7 taste like that warm, gooey center that we crave. The themes of joy, gentleness, trust, and peace gush with theological sweetness. And this is how the text is usually preached, sending our folks home licking their fingers, savoring that small taste of tranquility.
But might we read this passage another way? Commentators argue that the imperative, Rejoice! (chairete) in verse 4, even as it is the theme of the letter (cf. 2:8; 3:1) seams to break with verse 3, which states that the names of Paul’s coworkers (synergon) are written in the book of life. Why? It makes perfect sense to me that this declaration is grounds for celebration.
Moreover, consider Paul’s words in 3:17. Those who have imitated (symmimetai) Paul’s example are freed from the destiny of the reprobate, who are bound for destruction (3:19). For these ones, their god is their belly and they are concerned with earthy things (hoi ta epigeia phronountes). I contend that 4:4-7 is the Christological (“in the Lord”) denouement of Paul’s argument for unity in the fellowship. Perhaps this text ought not be presented as that warm, gooey center that tantalizes the taste buds without providing any real nourishment, save pithy platitudes and utopic vistas.
Part of the allure of the cinnamon roll is the slow, methodical process one takes toward the center; the detour is the right way to experience it. Likewise, we will enjoy indulging in the succulent respite of these verses when we relish the experience of getting there. Paul’s concern is unity in the church, which can only arise once we recognize our redemption as coworkers for the Lord, giving us a spirit of gentleness, and thereby turning our sight from earthly matters that lead to petty squabbles, derision, and anxiety. Only then can we experience the peace that transcends all understanding.
This lection must be held in concert with the preceding verses for only when it is heard amidst the din of inner-congregational conflict and contentious power struggles does its theological resonance ring true: we are in this together; Jesus has redeemed us from petty squabbles and derisive chatter to provide a particular kind of witness to the world. That witness is found in the way we treat one another. That is the core of Paul’s truth to the churches at Philippi and it is at once wholesome and delicious.
1John Reumann, Philippians: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible, vol. 33b (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008), 634.