“Rejoice in the Lord always,” “let your gentleness be known to everyone,” “do not be anxious about anything, but pray.” Joy, gentleness, and peace – these are dispositions and qualities that most would agree are important in human relationship. And while it’s true that Christians are not the only ones to value such dispositions and qualities, Paul insists that the Philippians understand these things through the lens of their faith in Christ. Throughout the letter, Paul has made clear that their allegiance to Christ as Lord is no nominal allegiance. All things – all aspects of life – must come under the rule of the gospel and be conformed to the mind Christ. Paul encourages the Philippians to live lives worthy of the gospel: to bear the fruit of unity that comes from being of one mind, from cultivated practices of humility, from emptying themselves of all privilege of status. Living lives worthy of the gospel will (and has) inevitably set the Philippians at odds with the dominant culture whose allegiance is to Rome and the “peace” it imposes.
Both Paul and the Philippians are aware of the suffering that results from living at odds with the dominant culture. Paul himself is writing from prison, where he awaits trial. Though the exact details are lost to us now, the Philippians are also clearly experiencing some kind of adversity on account of their faith in Christ. So, when Paul tells them to “rejoice in the Lord always,” he is not doing so from a place of blind ignorance that refuses to look in the face of the (often) messy complexities of life. The joy that Paul is advocating is not about happiness or agreeableness. It is not about accomplishment or satisfaction. It is not something we conjure up within ourselves, nor is it something that we can pursue. Far from a call to escapism or denialism, the exhortation to “rejoice in the Lord always” is at once a call to recognize that Jesus is both the source and occasion for our joy, and suggests that our capacity for joy is not dependent upon the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
From Paul’s perspective, joy is the response that comes from striving to fit ourselves into the unfolding story of God’s reign and from our recognition of God’s presence and activity in the various circumstances of our present moment. Like the power of an early summer sun that breaks through the dense morning fog, joy comes to us in those moments of clarity when the powerful presence of God breaks through our doubts, uncertainties, and fears. And it comes to us in those moments that we cannot seem to penetrate the heavy and cold isolation of suffering, like the inability of the winter sun to break through the snow-laden clouds. And it comes to us in the variety of circumstances that exist on the spectrum between those kinds of moments.
Since joy is not circumstantial, we must also see in the character of joy a sense of longing for the fullness of the new creation God is bringing to fruition. Paul’s emphasis on rejoicing in all circumstances reminds us that the presence of joy is not an indication that we have somehow arrived, that we have obtained the fullness of our salvation. Joy is not an indication that the work of reconciliation is done. Christian joy is an embodiment of the visceral yearning in the depths of our guts for the world we live in and experience to be conformed to the world that God is creating.
It is joy’s connotation of longing that seems to move Paul’s logic along to “gentleness.” It is unfortunate that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible used this particular word to translate the Greek. It conjures up images of meekness and mild manners. The word is better understood as “forbearance” and it’s meaning is directly tied to the way the world perceives the Philippian church as it responds to the weight of social, political, and economic opposition. Earlier, Paul instructed the Philippians to strive not against their opponents but for the gospel. He now tells them that this striving ought to be characterized by a disposition that seeks to relinquish all notions of self-importance and privilege and to look toward the benefit of others instead. This kind of disposition manifests in the way we chose to exercise power differently than the conventional strategies of the world, strategies that perpetuate the very conditions from which God’s promised salvation will provide just liberation.
Forbearance is not about gritting one’s teeth to bear the discomfort of life’s challenges; rather, forbearance stands as a testimony to our conviction that the God who promises deliverance is faithful. Forbearance stands as a testimony that the God who began a good work in us will see it through to completion; that no matter our circumstances, God is actively present with and among us.
It is joy that fuels forbearance just as it is joy that gives us the perspective to see our anxieties in the context of God’s abiding presence. Paul is not here speaking about depression or disordered anxiety that are the results of imbalanced brain chemistry or learned responses to traumatic experiences. Rather, Paul is speaking to the kinds of anxieties and fears and doubts that living in a world hostile to Christianity produces. He is under no delusion that freedom from these anxieties will come about through self-mastery, or through simple willful ignorance, or through the power of positivity. Freedom from these anxieties “comes only through prayerful, grateful acknowledgment of our dependence upon God” (Fowl).
Only through the cultivated practices of prayer and gratitude can we receive the peace of God. When Paul speaks about this peace that “passes understanding,” he is not suggesting that the peace of God is beyond human comprehension. For Paul, the peace of God is a gift embodied in the Philippian community, demonstrated in their forbearance, and is incomprehensible to those whose ways of perceiving, thinking, and acting are formed by patterns of life that stand in contradiction to the gospel.
The peace of God is not, therefore, a gift that we admire and keep safe up on the shelf. The peace of God is something that we must actively receive and live into. The peace of God is powerful, though it does not come through the imposition of power or will. Rather, it is the result of prayer, and it is capable of countering anxiety because it has the power to guard our hearts and minds, to protect us from that which is destructive to our faith, to give us the perspective to be able to discern what is true, what is pure, what is commendable; to give us the wisdom to know the difference between that which is morally excellent and that which only appears to be so.
In a context of such brokenness that we easily observe, and many of us experience, why is Paul so keen on helping the Philippians to relinquish their anxieties and to think on those things that are true, pure, pleasing, and commendable? Perhaps Paul understood that the very reason we must think on these things in the context of suffering is to nourish our imaginations, to keep forever in the front of our minds a vision of the kind of peace that baffles the logic of convention, so that we might have the capacity to see beyond our present crises, beyond the suffering – not as a means of distraction or denial, but as a way to keep our patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting in alignment with the mind and example of Christ.
Friends, on this third Sunday of Advent, I wonder if we can see this invitation to joy and peace being offered to us. I wonder, if we really took the time to reflect on it, how we might define joy and peace? From where do we seek it? What does their presence, or lack thereof, signify in this community of St Paul’s parish? If joy and peace are not evident in your lives; if we are finding that they are only fleeting experiences in our common life together, can we cry out with the urgency of our collect – “Stir up your power O Lord, and let your great might come among us!” Whatever longing and yearning you bring with you this morning, whatever suffering on account of the gospel you hold in your bodies, let today be a reminder that the joy and peace of God are not something we find within ourselves. Let us today stand in a posture of anticipatory gratitude so that we too might rejoice in the Lord always!
 I’m indebted to Dr. Stephen Fowl, who taught a class on Philippians in the Spring of 2015 at Seattle Pacific Seminary. His commentary on Philippians has been a trusted friend in the years since then.
Fowl, Stephen E. Philippians (Eerdmans, 2005).