This is our final week in the letter from Paul to the church at Philippi. Last week we talked about how God invites us to be motivated by love and not by fear. We are called to follow the example of Jesus who modeled God's righteousness, extending love to all. As we wrap up this letter, we will consider what our life together looks like when put together all these themes of joy, gratitude, unity, humble love, and God's righteousness.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
This is the Word of God for all people.
One of my mentors said to me recently that the gospel is personal but not individual. It affects each one, but it's not only about each one. And that's a really good way to approach this morning's verses. So many times when we read the Bible and it says "you," we think it's talking about us individually, especially if we spend time reading it alone. It's a weird thing about English that the word "you" can be either singular or plural. The only way to tell which is by the context. So let me say once again that the context of these verses is plural. Paul is writing to a church, to a whole church. These letters were read out loud to a gathered people, just like we do here on Sunday mornings. So the question for us this morning is "How do we live out these verses together?" How do we do it corporately, not as a business, but as a body?
Rejoicing corporately, together, as a body, makes sense. We do that when we share joys, we do that when we sing, we do that when we give.
But then it gets a little more challenging. Next Paul says, "Let all y'all's gentleness be evident to everyone. The Lord is near." What does it look like when WE are gentle? I'll give you a hint: it doesn't mean weak. This word gentleness refers to doing the spirit of the law, which actually takes way more strength than doing the letter of the law. When we are gentle, when we do the spirit of the law, when we are not legalistic, we have to think way harder about why we do what we do. We make strict rules for children because they can't think through all the consequences. But as a strong healthy community, we can do more than blindly follow rules. We can embrace the spirit of the law. This is challenging because it means we have to make room for more than one way of doing the spirit of the law. There could be lots of options. This gentleness, this openness, demonstrates that God is near.
Next, "Don't all y'all be anxious about anything." What does it look like when WE are not anxious? Everybody take a moment and imagine what it would feel like if WE weren't anxious about the budget. If WE weren't anxious about this lovely and challenging old building. If WE weren't anxious about attendance. If WE weren't anxious about church growth.
This word anxious in Greek is funny because it can be something negative or something positive. When it's positive, it means appropriately concerned. It means we have effectively distributed our concern, the right amount of attention to the right things. When it's negative, it means anxiety. It means inappropriately concerned, the wrong amount of attention on the wrong things. It's the light side and the dark side of the Force.
And Paul says the way WE stay appropriately concerned instead of anxious is through prayer. The kind of prayer that is balanced with thanksgiving, the word is eucharisto, and supplication. Prayer that is balanced in joys and concerns will keep US from being anxious. Instead of anxiety, we will have peace. And not a namby-pamby weak peace, but a strong peace. A peace surpassing understanding. That word means rationality and often refers to our logic center. What God promises us is a peace that is out of proportion with our circumstances. It means that the peace will come BEFORE the situation changes. We will not be anxious about money BEFORE the giving increases. We will have peace about our future BEFORE we see a lot of new people coming in. This peace comes as we ground ourselves in prayer that is full of gratitude for what we already have AND also asks God for what we think we need.
Now I said this peace is strong because the phrase Paul uses is that it will "guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." That word "guard" is a military term. This peace protects US by surrounding US. It protects OUR hearts or our inner life and intentions, as well as OUR minds, or our thoughts and plans.
And so if WE are not going to be anxious, what are WE going to do? The best way to get our minds off something negative is to get them on something positive. In the final verses, Paul gives us a huge list of things that WE are supposed to think on. This word "think" means to reckon, or to take into account, or to use as a foundation.
Whatever is true. Whatever is reality, whatever cannot be hidden. Whatever we face in the sober light of day. But NOT with pessimism, because remember we are not motivated by fear and we are not anxious. We just need to know how things really stand.
Whatever is noble. Whatever is honorable, whatever has weight or gravitas in the world. Whatever is to be respected.
Whatever is right. Whatever is righteous. Whatever is in line with God's plan for justice and equity and flourishing for all of creation.
Whatever is pure. Whatever is holy, innocent, undefiled. Whatever is sacred.
Whatever is lovely. Whatever our souls recognize and respond to as God's beauty in this world, whatever is worthy of our affection.
Whatever is admirable. Whatever we can speak well about, whatever has a good reputation.
Whatever is excellent. Whatever is virtuous, whatever is gracious, whatever is in line with our values.
Whatever is praiseworthy. Whatever is worthy of our conversation.
These are the things we should be thinking about, taking into account, and using as the foundation of our life together. And Paul says that when we make these things our regular habit, the God of peace will accompany us. Notice how these two sections end: when WE keep OUR anxiety in balance through prayer, the peace of God guards US. When WE build OUR corporate life on all of these wonderful things, the God of peace is known among us.
So what does that mean for US, the people of God gathered at Zion UCC in the summer of 2018? Well, it is clear to me that God is stirring something in us. I know this because you have all told me things that you are thinking and feeling and experiencing. Passion for serving those in needs. Visions of growth. Deeper communion with Jesus. New ways of thinking about God. And I believe it is time that we do something with all of this good stuff that is stirring. So I want to invite anyone who is interested to be part of a renewal team. I want everyone who has ideas of things we can do in worship or in service, everyone who wants to help usher in the next phase of life at Zion, to get together. We will start by praying together about what God wants for us, and then we will just start trying things. This is an opportunity for creativity and generosity. If you have an idea, you're probably the one to lead it, and I will help you. If it takes money, you may be the one to give it. We'll going to be flexible and experiment and evaluate. We're not going to spend forever in discussion. We're going to quickly move to action. We're going to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. If something doesn't work, we're going to learn from it and move on. We are motivated by love, which means we aren't looking at the past, we are focused on the future.
When I first came here, I spent some time looking up Bible verses that reference Zion. This name is used to symbolically refer to God's people, to Jerusalem, and especially to a future time when everything is as it should be. It is often used when prophets are speaking of comfort and restoration. There were two verses that stood out to me. I have been meditating on these verses since September and this morning I want to share them with you. The first one is from Isaiah 35 verses 3 and 4, about when the redeemed people return to Zion: "Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the weak knees; say to those with fearful hearts 'Be strong, do not fear, your God will come.'" I'll read it again.
And the second one is from Zephaniah chapter 3, verses 16 and 17. Hear the word of the Lord, "Do not fear, O Zion; do not let yours hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love."
I believe these are words that we can claim as our own this morning as we begin to think of the future of this church. Amen.