Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Secret of Joy: Sermon on Philippians 1:1-18a

Scripture can be found here...

We have all been there. The horrible office, the hated workplace. The place where, the idea of going there makes you want to cry, crawl back under the covers, run another three miles—anything, ANYTHING but actually aim your car for that particular destination. We call it our daily grind, speak of going back to the salt-mines, roll our eyes, moan, complain, and watch the minutes ticking sloooooowly by. Every day is the longest day.

And isn’t there always one person who, for some inexplicable reason, is able to let it all roll off them? Whose smiling “hello” is the real thing, who seems not to be affected by the misery of everyone around them?

What’s their secret? Coffee? Meditation? That they did run the extra three miles, and are being carried along by endorphins? What’s the secret of joy?

Our reading this morning is taken from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi—and if you were here last week, you heard some tales of his adventures in that city. This letter was written later in Paul’s travels. Paul traveled much of the Roman Empire, sharing the Way of Jesus with all kinds of people, and often, left new faith-communities in his wake. He was a church-planter, and the church in Philippi was his favorite of the seedlings he’d helped to grow. Maybe that’s why the letter to the Philippians is well-known as Paul’s “epistle of joy”—he uses some variation on the words ‘joy’ or ‘rejoice’ sixteen times in these four short chapters. And this is fascinating when we become aware of the particulars of Paul’s daily grind at this point in his life. Paul is in prison, perhaps in Rome, perhaps at the end of his life. Perhaps awaiting his execution.

Professor Michael Joseph Brown describes the conditions Paul was living under:

Prisons or jails in the Roman world were nothing like our modern institutions. Often no more than a glorified pit meant to keep people for a short period of time, ancient prisons forced prisoners to look outside of their place of bondage to get even their simplest needs met. Food is a great example. Without the assistance of those outside of the prison, the jailed would have starved to death.[i]

Paul is under lock and key, in a glorified pit where he is provided with none of the things necessary to stay alive.

And when he writes to the faith community at Philippi, he can hardly contain his joy.

What is his secret? Where exactly does Paul find all that joy?

Paul opens the letter with a typical greeting: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:1-2).

The first thing we notice is that Paul is not alone. Timothy is one of his companions on this stage of his journey, and it appears that Timothy is also in prison with him. And Paul’s view of his and Timothy’s role and identity is clear: they are servants, really slaves, of Jesus Christ.

Paul goes on: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:3-5).

Paul has a companion in sharing in the gospel in prison with him, and he has companions in sharing the gospel back in Philippi. Which brings me to:

Thesis 1: We have joy when we find friends and companions who share our passions and interests.

I had a tough beginning to my college career. I found my chosen major, biology, to be difficult and, frankly, kind of boring; I missed a lot of the important people in my life; and, though I made new friends at first, I had a falling out them and ended up feeling pretty isolated for a while. I will never forget what happened next. I walked down the hallway of my dorm one day, feeling sorry for myself—maybe I was even crying. And a girl whose name I didn’t know looked at me, and said some magical words.

“Would you like some M & M’s?”

I went into her room, and it turns out she was practicing a couple of monologues for an audition. So I listened to her monologues. (She was very good.) And a little while later, some other people came down the hallway and I met her friends. And that is how I found my people. Beginning with that act of kindness, I met people who would become my lifelong friends, and who would change my life in ways I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

I had found my people.

If you have found your people, you are well on your way to finding your joy.

Paul found people—whether they remained in the villages and cities where he planted churches, or traveled along with him—who shared his deepest passion. Paul’s passion was always, first and foremost, sharing the good news of the love of Jesus.

The next thing I notice about Paul in this passage is that he expresses gratitude.

“I thank God every time I remember you,” he says (Phil 1:3).

“It is right for me to think this way about all of you,” he goes on, “because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil. 1:7).

“Grace” is a word we commonly use to describe prayers of thanksgiving before a meal. Grace is something for which we are thankful. But grace, in a very specific sense, is at the heart of almost all Paul’s writings. It is from Paul that we Protestants of the Reformed tradition take one of our central tenets of Christian faith: God creates us, redeems us, and sustains us, not because we are good and worthy, but because God is good and loving. This doctrine is known as salvation by grace. Meaning, salvation is a free gift, unearned. That is what grace means, in a theological sense.

But grace also means something very practical to Paul. He is in prison, where his jailers provide him with absolutely nothing to keep him alive. That means that food and water and clothing and blankets must be provided for him by people outside the prison. That is the work of the faith community in Philippi. Paul the prisoner is helpless and needy—just like a sinner, face-to-face with God. The provisions given by the saints at Philippi provide Paul a vivid experience of grace: free and life-saving gifts.

Paul lives with a constant sense of gratitude for what he has been given. With gratitude comes joy. Which brings us to:

Thesis 2: We have joy when we give thanks, when we cultivate a sense of gratitude.

Each year at the end of May, little flags appear on the tombstones at cemeteries as we remember those who died while serving in the United States armed forces. It is a sobering thing, to be thankful for someone’s death. But that is, in essence, what Memorial Day is. It is a day of gratitude that someone was willing to die for us. Of course, that’s what Easter is as well. Memorial Day has taken on the character of a celebratory day, a day off, a day for cookouts… and truthfully, that is what many of us do when we are grateful to and for someone. We celebrate. There are other ways to show gratitude as well. In his Memorial Day Proclamation, President Barack Obama states,  “…we can honor the fallen by caring for their loved ones and keeping faith with our veterans and their fellow brothers and sisters in arms.” But his strongest words of how to express our gratitude are these:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Memorial Day, May 26, 2014, as a day of prayer for permanent peace, and I designate the hour beginning in each locality at 11:00 a.m. of that day as a time to unite in prayer.[ii]

Gratitude is more than a feeling. It effects a change in behavior. Those of us who are grateful for the sacrifices of others are invited to honor them with our actions as well as our thoughts and feelings—in this case, caring for those who are left behind, caring for those who return from battle, and praying and working for an end to war so that no one will be required to make this kind of sacrifice again. The knowledge that you are living in a way that is a response to your gratitude is a powerful source of joy.

At the end of our passage Paul shares this news:

I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear [Phil 1:12-14].

Paul has learned that his time in prison has caused the gospel to spread even further. The guards know. Everyone knows. Followers of the Way are speaking out boldly, courageously. Paul’s suffering is not completely senseless but seems to have a purpose to it. Which brings us to:

Thesis 3: We have joy when we believe that our life has meaning, that we are where we are supposed to be.

Back to the miserable office, it could be easy to think this means that, in order to be joyful, we all have to be working in fields that are contributing to society in some specifically lofty way. But the beauty is this: human beings are meaning-makers. We get to determine the meaning of our work, our schooling and our retirement. The weirdly joyful person in the terrible office may have joy because she knows she is taking care of her family. The student may have joy knowing that the work he does now will lead to the career he’s dreamed of, or because he plays ultimate Frisbee or quidditch on the weekends. The retiree may be joyful in knowing that they can take life at their own pace now, fast or slow. They may find joy in caring for a spouse or grandchild, reading all they want, or savoring the turning seasons.

I know this to be true: life can be excruciatingly hard. We can find ourselves in different kinds of ‘prisons.’ But we are meaning-makers. If we can’t find meaning in the things that are filling our days, if we can’t find a glimmer of joy there… we get to make other choices. We keep trying. Joy may be elusive. But joy is possible.

Paul the prisoner gives his testimony. He finds joy in companions who share his passion. He finds joy in gratitude. And he finds joy in knowing he is where he is meant to be—even though he is in prison. Paul’s joy is simple. His joy is in sharing Jesus.

This is my hope and prayer for each of us: that we might find our joy. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i]  Michael Joseph Brown, “Commentary on Philippians 1:1-18a,” Working Preacher Narrative Lectionary, May 25, 2014,
[ii] Pres. Barack H. Obama, “Presidential Proclamation-Prayer for Peace, Memorial Day 2014,”

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