Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is a caring “How are you?” written on paper and sent via messenger to this women-led community of faith that he is clearly so fond of. If you haven’t read the whole of Philippians recently, here is the one paragraph summary of Paul’s message:
“Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for worrying about me while I’m in prison. Please keep being the best church community that you can be. Trust that God is at work through you. Remember that life wasn’t given to you to be easy, but also know that God is in the struggle. Understand that there are those who want to use the name of Jesus for their own gain, so be careful. Support the women who lead you, Euodia and Syntyche. Don’t be discouraged; let the peace of God settle into your hearts.”
Or, an even shorter summary: “How are you? I’m okay, despite everything. Are you okay? Are you taking care of each other and finding strength in your faith?”
From what we read in Paul’s letter, the Philippian church doesn’t appear to be experiencing a particularly aggravating internal struggle or any external persecution. Paul writes as a friend and mentor checking in on the community, just knowing from his own life experiences that sometimes life adds up and builds up to the point of boiling over…and when it does, it helps to hear a friend say, “You’ll be okay, don’t panic. God is here, and God’s grace will outlast this trouble.”
What do you need to hear, what do friends say to you when life hits saturation point? What would it take (what does it take) for you to not panic when life knocks the wind out of you? What would it take, what would you need to know to hold on to just a sliver of breathing room so that you don’t feel constantly maxed out and stretched thin by life?
We could probably rattle off a list of devices and programs that are sold with the promise of improving our journey through life. We could make a long list of our own vices for coping when life presses down harder than we think we can stand. There are whole philosophies about happiness and balance. I know that a number of us learn from meditation practices and we just try to remember to breathe through the moments as they come.
Paul’s response to life’s pressures is “Rejoice always.”
And I don’t know what you think of Paul — I’m generally not his biggest fan — but most definitely Paul is not being glib or theoretical or cliche when he writes this, because Paul has been through some stuff! I give Paul plenty of room to be angry with God for the fact that he’s in prison (again!) for talking about Jesus. I wouldn’t fault him if he decided to take a hiatus from faith and ministry when I remember that, on his first trip to Philippi, Paul was arrested with Timothy for intervening to heal a slave girl; they were stripped down in the public square, beaten and whipped, and thrown in jail…which isn’t a bad time in one’s life to cry out, “What is up with this, God?! Where are you in all of this?” So we can trust that Paul is not being flippant when he encourages the church to rejoice always.
Still it’s a daring thing to say — “Rejoice always” …. and it’s a difficult thing to hear — “Rejoice always? I don’t think so, no thank you, not today.”
But here’s what I think Paul knows:
When I asked earlier, “What do you need to hold on to just a sliver of breathing room so that you don’t feel constantly maxed out and stretched thin by life?”….we see in the letter to the Philippians that Paul holds on to the people who care for him and encourage him, and he is reminded through their care and through their stories of growth that God isn’t done.
What I asked, “What would it take for you to not panic when life knocks the wind out of you?”….for Paul, it takes knowing that God outlasts jail and God outlasts any circumstances that might temporarily bind or limit him.
I asked, “What do you need to hear when life hits saturation point?” …. When Paul’s life is saturated with troubles, he repeats to himself, “This world doesn’t own me. The people who are making my life hell do not own me. My citizenship, my life belong to God who can transform all things. And transformation might come today, transformation might come tomorrow, transformation might not come until after my lifetime, but God is transformative so I am at peace.”
Rejoice always, rejoice!
Rejoice — not because it’s easy but because it’s true.
Rejoice — not because you’re carefree but because God is caring.
Rejoice — because there are people walking beside you, carrying God’s Spirit beside you.
Rejoice — because you don’t know, you don’t know how this one’s gonna play out, which means that there’s plenty of room for God to create a different, a transformative ending.
Rejoice always. Again, I will say, Rejoice! The Lord is near, and God’s grace will outlast this trouble.