All Saints' Day
Reading: Philippians 4:10-23
With our second reading this week, we have come to the end of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Two of the main themes of Philippians are clearly in view in the final chapter of the letter. The first is the theme of ‘joy’. As we have seen, St Paul uses the ‘joy’ word group sixteen times in the letter.
Here, in chapter 4, St Paul writes emphatically:
‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice.’ (Philippians 4:4)
Again, as we have noted previously in this series of sermons on the letter, St Paul’s primary meaning when he speaks of joy and rejoicing isn’t that we should be happy. There will be times when we will be happy as believers. Very often, however, we will be anything but. Happiness by its very nature is an emotion that depends on how we are feeling and on what is happening in our life. Joy is more than a feeling, and rejoicing is something we can do regardless of how we feel. Instead of using the word ‘rejoice’, we could translate what St Paul writes as: ‘celebrate in the Lord’.
This week I got a promotional email from Marks and Spencer, which said ‘celebrate with us’. This is St Paul’s message, only he tells the recipients of his letter to celebrate in the Lord!
To ‘rejoice in the Lord’, then, is to celebrate who we belong to and what he means to us. This is something far more significant than feelings of happiness, which, by their very nature, are transient and circumstantial.
It is because we ‘rejoice in the Lord’, St Paul tells the Philippian believers in chapter four, that we who have faith in Christ do not need to worry. Instead, we are to bring what is troubling us to God and ask him for his help and to give us what we need (Philippians 4:6). It is because we have this confidence in the Lord and know that he will look after us that St Paul can write:
‘And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4:7)
The peace of God guards our hearts and minds whatever happens to us. This, then, brings us to a second theme of the letter. It relates to the ‘mind’ and how believers think. St Paul uses the ‘mind’ word group ten times in the letter.
St Paul has urged to Philippian believers to strive with ‘one mind for the faith of the Gospel’ (Philippians 1:27); he has asked them to make his joy complete by being of ‘the same mind’ (Philippians 2:2). In chapter 4, he specifically asks two of his co-workers who have fallen out with each other to put their differences aside and to be of the same ‘mind’ (Philippians 4:2). In chapter 2, he has already told them and the other Philippian believers that they should have the ‘same mind as that which was in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 2:5). He tells them all that those ‘who are mature should be of the same mind’ as him in ‘forgetting what lies behind and pressing forward’ to what God has ahead for them (Philippians 3:13).
St Paul has told the Philippian believers that they should have the same mind, the same outlook, and the same way of seeing the world as Christ. Now, in chapter four, he tells them actively to replace negative and wrong thoughts with positive and right ones. St Paul encourages the Philippian believers to drive out evil thoughts by thinking good thoughts and filling their minds with what is holy. He writes:
‘Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ (Philippians 4:8)
To rejoice in the Lord is to rejoice in what glorifies the Lord and to reject everything that is contrary to our faith in him.
Finally, in these last verses of chapter four, we come to one of the main reasons for that St Paul has for writing the letter in the first place. The Church at Philippi had sent St Paul a gift of money to support him as part of their partnership with him in the Gospel. The Philippian believers were amongst St Paul’s most faithful supporters. He writes that they have supported him from the very beginning, even when he was in Thessalonica when he first came to Macedonia (Philippians 4:16).
This gift of money has been brought to St Paul by Epaphroditus who nearly lost his life in the process (Philippians 2:27). These last verses of chapter four, then, are St Paul’s ‘thank you’ for the gift they have sent him and his official receipt. To our eyes, it seems a rather complicated way of saying ‘thank you’. Why doesn’t he just come out with it and say, ‘thank you’?
Part of the reason is that he is following the conventions of the day for how to express thanks for a gift. Even today, for example, we have established formats for different types of letters. Another part of the reason is also that he has told the Philippian believers that they should not worry, but make their requests known to God. He has also just told them, in the passage immediately before our reading for this week, that they should follow his example (Philippians 4:9). St Paul needs to be seen to be following his own advice! He doesn’t want the Philippian believers to think that God has failed to provide for him now he is in prison.
Instead, he writes that he sees the Philippian believers’ gift as, above all, an offering that they have made to God and which God has shared with him. (Just as priests shared in the offerings sacrificed to God in the Temple!) St Paul himself has learnt to be content whether he has a lot or a little. He can do all things through God who strengthens him, regardless of his material circumstances. Nevertheless, he is genuinely grateful to the Philippian believers for their concern for him. God will provide for their needs too (Philippians 4:19).
As the Philippian believers show with their gift, however, and as St Paul acknowledges, God does indeed provide, but he provides through his people as they share what they have. We refer in the Apostles’ Creed to the ‘communion of saints’. The ‘communion of saints’ is a real communion of all those who have faith in Christ, both past and present. For those of us in the present, it is not simply a spiritual communion but a practical one as we share what we have with each other in partnership for the Gospel. The Philippian Church’s gift to St Paul showed how they thought and what their outlook and priorities were.
So what can we learn from this?
St Paul makes it very clear in the letter to the Philippian believers that how and what they think is important. What goes on in our mind, matters. We have seen, when we looked at St Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, how St Paul tells the Romans believers that they are not to be ‘conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds’ (Romans 12:2). Our minds as believers need to be constantly renewed. The way we think will determine what we do and how we live.
Firstly, we need to reject a worldview that leads us to think and have attitudes and values that conflict with the Gospel.
Not only do sinful thoughts and attitudes come from within us, the world around us tries to shape the way we think and see things. We are constantly being encouraged to adopt a mindset and outlook that is opposed to God and what it means to be a follower of Christ. We are bombarded with images and ideas designed to lead us away from how God wants us to think and from having the mind of Christ.
The internet, and what it has given rise to, has taken this to a whole new level. The writer, Yuval Noah Harari, who is certainly not sympathetic to those who believe in God, believes the time is coming soon when companies such as Google will know us better than we know ourselves. They will be able to use this knowledge to control us. They are already doing so to a significant extent. For us as believers, this poses a far bigger threat than that posed in the past by hostile governments.
Every moment of every day we are being subjected to ideas and images at a conscious and unconscious level designed to control our minds and thoughts and so to influence our behaviour and actions. It often amuses me that people in the west have so much to say about state control and about regimes which seek to influence how their citizens think, when they themselves are the most thought controlled generation that has ever existed. Influencing how people think and behave is, after all, what capitalism is all about.
The consumer society is built on persuading people to buy things that they don’t need, didn’t know they wanted and, very often, that they will never even use. If you want to see what mind-control looks like, sit on the MTR and count how many people are NOT staring at their phones. It won’t take you very long!
The sheer brilliance of capitalism has been in controlling people’s thoughts and actions, while all the time leaving them thinking that they are free and responsible for their lives and how they live them.
The great achievement of the religion of Self has been convincing people to believe they have the freedom and power to live as they choose and to do what they want. The reality being that they choose what they are told to choose. Left to ourselves, we are powerless to resist and subject to forces beyond our control.
A simple example makes the point. Have you ever had the experience of seeing a picture of yourself taken some years ago and being thoroughly embarrassed by what you were wearing and what you looked like? Many of us have. But, at the time, we thought we were dressing perfectly normally. We were, in fact, just following the fashion. We don’t just follow fashion in what clothes we put on, but also in how we think and behave as a consequence.
In every area of our lives we are subject to unseen forces which exercise a powerful influence over us. But these aren’t just the social, cultural, and economic forces that I have been describing. These are themselves powerful enough. The Bible, however, describes how we are subject to spiritual powers, whether we believe in them or not. These powers exercise their control over us, not least by controlling how we think and by shaping our worldview, ensuring that we conform to this world and, worse still, are obedient to the ruler of this world.
Today, we celebrate All Saints’ Day. The saints are those who having found freedom in Christ went on to have victory over the world through their faith in Him. This is why the world hated them as it hated Christ before them. It is why it hates those today who, like the saints, put their faith in Christ and discover the peace and freedom he brings.
It is surely no coincidence that the world, at the time of year when we are celebrating the victory of the saints, prefers instead to celebrate, not that victory, but images that represent the very forces of darkness that the saints fought against and triumphed over. Of course, I realize that most people do this thinking it all to be harmless fun. What they don’t realize is, that without knowing it, they are celebrating images of the forces that control them. The Devil doesn’t much care whether we believe in him as long as we think and do what he wants.
Secondly, not only are we to reject the worldview of the world, we are to have the ‘mind of Christ’.
This isn’t something that happens automatically but is something that we have to work at. It is something that we consciously have to make an effort to do. It means in the first place having the same attitude and outlook as our Lord. It also means replacing evil thoughts with good ones. It is perhaps worth saying at this point that many believers describe how they have thoughts they cannot help and of which they are ashamed of thinking. This will always be true until these bodies, of which our minds are a part, are themselves redeemed.
Nor are we in this life, able to escape the evil images and words with which we are constantly bombarded. Even more so in the age in which we live than in previous ones. We do, however, need to resist them and their influence upon us. This means not simply avoiding that which is obviously evil, but also, as St Paul tells the Philippian believers, thinking on that which is positive, good, and true. St Paul would urge us to take control of what goes into our minds.
The reason that St Paul is so concerned in chapter 3 about the false teaching of those he calls the ‘dogs’ is that he knows that what we think and believe inevitably affects how we live. He wants the Philippian believers not only to reject false teaching, but to make knowing Christ and having a relationship with him the goal of their lives.
All this can sound all very theoretical, but as St Paul shows it affects every aspect of how we live our lives, not least in our attitude to material goods and money. We are be thankful for what we have, rather than constantly wanting more. Rather than worrying, we are to make our requests known to God, knowing that God will provide for our needs; not necessarily our wants, but certainly our needs. We are to stop competing with others and promoting ourselves, and, instead, we are to seek to work in partnership with each other in proclaiming the Gospel.
All this is hard, but we have the assurance that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. And when we are tempted to give up and despair, we know that God promises that his peace will guard our hearts and minds.
St Paul explains to the Philippian believers that he wants them to be ‘blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation’, in which they ‘shine like stars in the world’ (Philippians 3:15).
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Today is their day, and we thank God for the witness of those in Christ who went before us. They too faced great opposition, but they conquered ‘by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony’ (Revelation 12:11). St John tells us that greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world’ (1 John 4:4). The challenge we face as we seek to live for Christ may seem a daunting one, but the saints show us what can be achieved by those who trust, as they did, in the One who promises, not only to be with us, but in us.
Today, we honour the saints. We give thanks to God for them for their faith and courage. We ask them to pray for us that we too may shine like them and like them overcome through faith in Him who died for us, but whom God has so exalted that, as St Paul tells the Philippian believers, at his name, the name of Jesus:
‘… every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ (Philippians 2:10-11)