Saturday, October 14, 2023

Think On These Things

This is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity.

This is the link to podcast itself:

Think On These Things

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

Philippians 4:1-9

This week at Christ Church, it is our Harvest Festival service. The format of this service does not easily allow for a recorded version of the sermon. I have, therefore, recorded the following version of the sermon for this week’s podcast. This explains why it may sound different to usual!

The reading from St Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi is the last of the readings the lectionary gives us from St Paul's letter to the Philippian believers. Next week, our second reading will be from the (first) letter to the Church at Thessalonica. Thessalonica was the place that Saints Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy visited after they left Philippi on their first visit there to preach the Gospel (Acts 17:1-8). When St Paul refers in his letters to the Macedonian churches, the churches at Philippi and Thessalonica are two of the churches he is referring to.

Of all of his churches, the Macedonian churches seem to have given St Paul the maximum of support and the minimum of trouble. We have seen how at Philippi the main issue seems to have been the all-too-common problem of people not getting on with each other. St Paul refers to a specific example of this in the first few verses of chapter 4.

St Paul directly asks two women, Euodia and Syntyche, to agree in the Lord. He also appeals to another unnamed person to help them to do this. St Paul describes Euodia and Syntyche as having struggled beside him in the work of the Gospel together with someone called Clement and the rest of his co-workers. We know nothing more of Euodia, Syntyche, the unnamed companion, and Clement. This is a good reminder to us that there is so much about St Paul and his ministry that we do not know. What we do know is that, contrary to the way some people think of him, St Paul did not work alone but had many co-workers who worked with him.

Having made this personal appeal, St Paul tells the Philippian believers to rejoice in the Lord always, and to emphasize the importance of what he is telling them to do, he repeats it.

St Paul then tells them that they are not to worry about anything, but instead to pray and make their requests known to God. If they do this, St. Paul writes, the peace of God will guard their hearts and minds. It is the words from this verse that we quote in the blessing at the end of our services.

Finally, St Paul tells them, they are to think good thoughts. They are to think about whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable; anything in which there is excellence and which is worthy of praise. St Paul closes by telling them to take him as their role model and to copy his example.

St Paul packs a lot into just a few verses and unpacking it would take longer than I have. So just a few thoughts about what St Paul writes.

1. Rejoice

Firstly, we too are to rejoice in the Lord, that is, we are to have joy in the Lord. Joy isn't the same as happiness. I do not imagine that St Paul was particularly happy at being in prison. Joy is more than a passive emotion that we experience as a reaction to our situation in life or to something that gives us pleasure in it. It is about the certainty and confidence that comes from actively and consciously putting our trust in the Lord. ‘Joy in the Lord’ enables us to rise above our circumstances and our emotions.

As believers, we do not, or at least we should not, rejoice in ourselves and in our own abilities. We should not put our trust in what we own or any of the outward things that we are told will give us security, purpose, and fulfilment in life. As believers, we rejoice in the Lord, knowing that the Lord is the one who cares for us and who will look after us, whatever our circumstances.

This is why St Paul can write, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’ It is why he personally can rejoice, even though he is in prison not knowing whether he will live or die. It is why he can rejoice despite all the suffering and hardship he has been through and knows he will still have to go through, even if he is released.

Rejoicing in the Lord is not about a superficial sense of well-being. It is not a feeling that can be induced or comes from anything we might do. It is rather a deliberate expression of the assurance we have as believers that whatever may happen to us, good or bad, God is in control and is on our side.

So, even though we may weep, either because of our own pain or in seeing the suffering of others, we can still rejoice in the Lord, knowing that God is with us and, as St Paul writes, that the Lord is near.

2. Pray

Secondly, we are to pray and not worry. It is because we rejoice in the Lord and put our trust in him that we do not need to worry. That does not stop us worrying, of course. We are human after all, and we find ourselves worrying about all sorts of things: about our family, our career, our money, our health; but we also worry about the everyday things in life whether it as mundane as shopping for our families or simply where we should go on holiday.

St Paul, however, does not say that we are not to worry selectively. It is not that it is alright to worry about some things and not about others; St Paul says we are not to worry about anything. This would be unrealistic advice and impossible to follow unless we were able to rejoice in the Lord first and foremost. It is, however, because we can rejoice in the Lord that we can be freed from worry.

Imagine, for example, that you are out on your own somewhere one night and you suspect that someone is following you intent on causing you harm. Then you see someone you know and trust. You rejoice at seeing them. You tell them your worry and fear, and you feel safe as a result.

If we rejoice in the Lord, we will tell him our worries and fears. If we do, St Paul writes, then the peace of God, which is greater than our minds can understand, will protect both our hearts and minds.

This will not, however, just happen. We have in everything, St Paul writes, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving to make our requests known to God. We all know it is good manners to say thank you for something we are given. Normally, however, we say thank you after we have been given it. When we make our requests to God, we are to say thank you even as we ask him for something. We do that because we are sure that the Lord hears us and wants to answer our prayers.

Rejoicing always, not worrying about anything, but praying in everything calls, however, for a different way of thinking to what we are used to and to the way we are taught by the world in which we live.

3. Think

So, thirdly, we are to take care of how we think. Our minds matter. St Paul tells the Philippians in chapter 2 that we are to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus. We are to think the way Jesus thought and to think about things the way he thought of them. We can’t serve God if our minds are always on ourselves. Nor can we serve him if we don't trust him or if our minds are on other things.

We are often distracted or diverted by our thoughts. Distracted, as we have mentioned, by worry and the cares of this life. We are also diverted by thoughts that lead us astray or even which lead us to do things that are wrong. Jesus said:

‘For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.’ (Matthew 15:19)

Thoughts come from within and often they come to us without warning. We might respond to this by saying, ‘I can't help what I think!’ But that is only partly true. We can cultivate damaging thoughts by dwelling on them or by dwelling on what encourages them.

The internet, for example, is a breeding ground for bad thoughts. I'm not suggesting avoiding the internet altogether, that simply is not possible nowadays. We do, however, need to give more thought to what we expose our ourselves to online and what thoughts are stimulated in us as a result.

Young people, for example, are being exposed to some very extreme material online from a very early age. Those who work with young people are reporting how this is affecting young people’s relationships and behaviour towards each other in destructive and at times alarming ways. What is particularly disturbing is how young men are expecting their girlfriends to do things they have seen being performed in hardcore pornography. And it is not just young people who are being negatively affected in this way. We are all affected by it to a significant extent, often more than we realize.

‘Whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable; anything in which there is excellence and which is worthy of praise.’ These are things that St Paul tells us we are to think about. We need to keep this in mind as we browse online and on social media. We need not just to censor ourselves and shut out evil; we need positively to seek out good things to see and to hear, to read and to watch, to concentrate and to dwell on. If evil comes from within us, we need to take care what we allow into us.

Rejoice in the Lord; don’t worry, pray; think good thoughts. It is hard for us to do this; we are novices in the spiritual life. This is why we need role models, people to teach and to guide us. We are, though, very proud, and we don't like to admit our ignorance. We don't like people telling us what to do, even less how to think. We wonder, then, why it is we make so little progress and get into so much trouble. The spiritual life doesn't just happen. We need both to make an effort and to get help from those who are skilled and experienced in it. Pride has no place in spiritual growth.

St Paul urged the Philippian believers to learn from him. We too can learn from mature believers in the Church today. But we also have the example of the saints who gone before us. Some believers reject looking to the saints as guides. It is our loss if we do. We need all the help we can get. It will soon be All Saints’ Sunday. The lives of the saints are a great gift from God to us. We need to look to the saints and learn from them, as we join our prayers with theirs.

May we rejoice in the Lord always, pray in everything, and think about those things worth thinking about!


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