Written by Pastor Ed
Philippians – The Gospel of Joy
August 24, 2014
Simon and Garfunkel, a 1960’s and 70’s duo, used to sing a song about Richard Cory. Written in 1966 by Paul Simon, it was based on a poem written in 1897 by Edwin Arlington Robinson. It went like this.
They say that Richard Cory owns one-half of this whole town
With political connections to spread his wealth around
Born into society a banker’s only child
He had everything a man could want, power, grace and style.
But I work in his factory, and I curse the life I’m living
and I curse my poverty, and I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be, Oh, I wish that I could be, Richard Cory.
The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes,
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show
And the rumours of his parties and the orgies on his yacht
Oh, he surely must be happy, with all the things he’s got.
He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch
And they were grateful for his patronage, and they thanked him very much,
So my mind is filled with wonder when the evening headlines read,
Richard Cory went home last night, and put a bullet through his head.
We are inundated with advertising, media reports and social media which tells us that all we need to be happy is to gain more stuff, make more money, or look and smell better. Yet, as we also see again and again, having all of that outward success doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness. Appearances can be very deceiving, as the recent tragic death of Robin Williams has shown us.
Now I want to be clear that clinical depression is a very real thing and we should never discount the role it plays in some people’s lives, as it seemingly did in Robin’s case. And I am sure there were those who knew of his struggles with depression, which finally claimed his life.
But for most of us, and for society at large, success, power, wealth and charm are marketed as signs of happiness and joy. And we are taught, as the singer wrote, to want to be like that, to reach the top. Somewhere I read that most people think that if they would just make $10,000 more a year, then things would be better.
But let me tell you about one of the most joyful people I think I have ever known. Her name was Emma and she always had a ready smile when I would visit her. She kept up on current affairs and often had a petition or two for people to sign. She enjoyed keeping up with the activities of her granddaughters. Her room was cheery and bright with big windows and many people came to visit her, as much I think to get a lift from her as to bring her encouragement.
For Emma was confined to her room. She spent her days on a special rocking bed that helped her breath and her nights in an iron lung, for she had contracted polio in 1952 at the age of 32, 10 years after her marriage, and pregnant with her third child. She had, in fact, given birth to her third son while confined to the iron lung, a rather remarkable fact in and of itself. Emma died in 1991 at the age of 71, having lived with polio for almost 40 years.
Emma’s joy did not come from her circumstances, from wealth, power, or social standing. Not even from the myriad of stuffed animals that lined the shelves in her room. Her joy came from an inner peace, from her faith in a loving and caring God, and from her Christian concern for creation and the church. Although we never talked about it, I’m sure she resonated with Paul’s letter to the Philippians for it is above all a letter of joy. Not only Paul’s rejoicing, but also his encouragement to the church to be joyful. “Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.” (3:1)
Was this because things were going so well in the early church? Was it because of prosperity and the social standing of the Christians? As we have seen from Paul’s other letters, that was not the case. There was discord. There was persecution. And Paul is writing from prison! Exactly where, or from which prison is a bit unclear. Traditionally it has been seen as Paul’s final imprisonment in Rome, but some evidence seems to point to an earlier imprisonment at Ephesus.
But it doesn’t really matter where it was, Paul is in prison with an uncertain future and the church was certainly experiencing its own difficulties. As with most churches, there were conflicts between some church members. There were the seemingly ever present persons trying to subvert the gospel as it had been preached by Paul, and there was mounting opposition to this new religion from the outside as well.
Philippi was probably not a particularly friendly environment for the church. At the time of Paul’s visit there, his first stop after his vision to go to Europe and preach, it was primarily a Roman outpost, most famous for the battle between Antony and Octavian against Brutus and Cassius, the murderers of Julius Ceasar in 42 BC. (If you know your Roman history or Shakespeare) It became a home for retired soldiers and officers and was known for its gardens, and particularly for the roses that were grown there. It was also on the main road, the Via Egnatia, from Asia to the West.
We read about Paul’s visit to Philippi in Acts 16. You may remember that this was where Lydia and her household were the first converts, and where Paul and Silas ended up spending the night in jail, singing until an earthquake opened the doors, which led to the conversion of the jailor and his family as well. And after that uproar, the city fathers asked them to leave. So the church there had started with an uproar and conflict.
Paul knew the church at Philippi well, having visited it twice more in his journeys. As his first congregation, he probably had a soft spot in his heart for the people there, and Philippians is the most personal of his letters, filled with greetings and admonitions to individuals whom he names. He knows there circumstances. And yet, Paul’s encouragement is for the Philippians to rejoice.
But this is a joy that comes from within, from recognizing and following the example of Jesus. Paul uses what is generally recognized as an early hymn to talk about the example that Jesus gave.
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus, who had everything, gave it all up to become like one of us humans, experiencing even that most human of experiences, death, in order to be obedient to God, and thus found true joy and success.
Joy in humbleness and obedience to God – not the stuff of today’s advertising campaigns where happiness and joy are portrayed as something we deserve because we’re worth it. And it can be achieved simply by driving the right car, or wearing the right perfume, or underwear, or even using the right toothpaste. And if you can’t get it through your own effort, then just buy a lottery ticket and perhaps you’ll be one of the lucky ones.
But all of those things, as we know so well, are fleeting. And Paul suggests that having all those things, the right name, education and background- all of which he had, are not the things that make for a fulfilled and joyful life.
“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” (3:7) and later he calls them “rubbish,” a rather polite translation. True joy, says Paul, comes from “knowing Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection.” (3:10) I recall talking with an elderly person one time who talked about the fact that so many things were now gone for them – their job, much of their family, their eyesight – and yet just knowing that God loved them was enough to give them joy and purpose in life.
One of the reasons I have often given for taking trips into the wilderness is that they remind me of how little we actually make do with, if we choose. That’s not to say that we need to feel guilty about what we have, or that we shouldn’t have it. But it is to recognize that we need to hold lightly to those things and recognize that our true joy does not come from our possessions, our good name, our position or status, but from being on the journey with Jesus.
With Paul we press on to make the goal of becoming like Jesus our own, because Jesus has made us his own and claimed us for God.