The Work of the Gospel
| Philippians 4:1-9
||Sun, October 13, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” What fine words for Thanksgiving Sunday. A day for rejoicing at all that God has done. Of course, it is Thanksgiving Sunday only in Canada today. Americans wait for many weeks yet. And, as best as I was able to figure it out during our recent travels, Brits marked Harvest Festival on either of the past two Sundays, as each congregation saw fit. Two weeks ago Wendy and I found ourselves in Sherborne Abbey on a Saturday as women from the parish created an incredible display of floral arrangements for their celebration of thanksgiving the next day. Then, last Sunday evening we attended worship at St. Martin’s in the Fields in London expecting evensong. Instead we found a meditation on Harvest Festival. There, deep into our month long sabbath rest I saw the reader open the Bible and heard him begin to read: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice.” Chosen on that occasion as a particularly appropriate reading for harvest festival, we read it today because it is the set lection in the common lectionary - whether or not it is read in countries marking Thanksgiving Sunday today. It is one of those moments of serendipity on the Christian calendar.
Paul says: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” He reminds the community that our life is meant to be a continual turning to God in “supplication with thanksgiving”. Do you hear? This act of thanksgiving in everything, this rejoicing in the Lord always, includes with it a note of need. “Do not worry” says Paul. Then, in the next breath, he calls for prayers of supplication - to “let your requests be made known to God.” It sounds like this community of Philippians does have things to worry about. It sounds as though its thanksgiving and rejoicing is not a simple act of total exuberance. It sounds as though there is also trouble. Listen for it in Paul’s now famous benediction: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Will guard your hearts and minds. Notice that phrase. It does not say “will guard your bodies and homes”. No, the peace of God will guard something far more important - it will protect your hearts and minds. There is trouble afoot. Hearts and minds are in danger of being overcome by forces that warp and twist and turn human beings away from the intentions of God. We know what Paul is talking about. We know what it is to find our hearts and minds overcome by worry and fear, despair and deep doubt ... not to mention by greed or sloth or any one of the seven deadly sins. And not only as individuals. Congregations - even entire denominations of the Christian church - also find that their common heart and common mind can be taken over by troubling spirits that take away any sense that the Lord is near, that kill any reason for exuberant rejoicing and a life rooted in deep gratitude for God’s abundance. Like individuals and families and neighbourhoods, the church can become a stingy and anxious place - singing ancient hymns of gratitude that its contemporary life belies.
Paul longs for a church that is a beacon of light. He proposes little communities that cannot help but rejoice ... groups of people who are not worried, but who bring their troubles to God in gratitude and expectation. He trusts that God’s peace in Christ will guard the hearts and minds of such congregations from cynicism and bitterness. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” says Paul. Imagine a community that meditates on this text ... and practises and practices and practises gentleness with everyone. Paul does. He urges the church to “keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me ... whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable ... think about these things.” Paul calls this “the work of the gospel”. It is a phrase that occurs in various places in the letter to the Philippians. And here it is, early in today’s reading: “help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.” It is a phrase that we have lost from our vocabulary. We have learned to say something else - we speak instead of “the work of the church.” But Paul keeps the focus on the work of living the good news of God’s kingdom come. The work of the church is living the gospel, embodying the daring and profoundly hopeful love that is revealed for all to see in Jesus Christ.
This work of the gospel explains the centrality of this Thanksgiving Table in our life together. Here we rejoice that the Lord is near. At the table we discover that Christ is the unseen host who welcomes us as strangers. At the table Jesus is near as the stranger who is the unexpected Christ in our midst. At the table we who would otherwise be estranged from God bring “everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” before the divine host of the banquet. This is a sanctuary, a place of safety where even the worst trouble can be named openly before God. Here thanksgiving for God’s huge generosity comes mingled with deep longing for God to save the world - and us - from so much that endangers hearts and minds. We bring our grief and our gratitude here, to the table of thanksgiving, rejoicing that the Lord is near a people who are caught up in the work of the gospel.
The work of the gospel is our common work. It is the work of practicing gratitude in the midst of a culture that regularly tempts us to forget the One makes and redeems and sustains the earth. The work of the gospel is joyful work. It is the work of a community that endeavours to practice gentleness with everyone. The work of the gospel is also hard work. It is the work of a people who know the world’s deep ache and who bring that awful pain before God in honest prayers that call forth God’s response in changed, healed living. This would soon all prove to be too much for us if it weren’t for one crucial thing. The work of the gospel is, finally, not our work. In Jesus Christ we discover the good news that the gospel of redeemed lives and a saved world is God’s work in the world. The gospel is what God is up to in us and in others. Our rejoicing and our gratitude, our praying and our living, this table and this community is the handiwork of the Spirit of the Lord. Rejoice. Again I will say, Rejoice!