To his friends, Paul is praying for them with joy in his heart knowing that they share the gospel - the redemptive love of God - just like we do. Even though we are not together in the physical sense, we are always together in Christ. Because we have Christ, we always have a reason to rejoice with one another.
Having only three letters, ‘Joy’ is a pretty big word. It’s the catalyst to countless loves songs and poems. It’s the one emotion that drives us to work harder, encourages us to love better, and motivates us to look beyond ourselves. Many of you find joy being with your kids or grandkids. Or spending a sunny day at the beach. Or curling up in bed with a good book.
For me, it’s hearing the laughter of my children playing together; enjoying a delicious meal with good friends; and of course, cranking up my guitar amp and stomping on the distortion pedal until the walls of our house shutter and shake.
The problem with finding joy in earthly things is while they might make us feel good, the effect is often temporary. I know my kids will find something to fight about. That good meal will come to end and we’ll have to say goodbye to our friends. Like a good book or a perfect day, we want our joys to last. But no matter how good we have it, or how badly we want it life always seems to find a way to kick the joy out of us.
Paul knew this well. As we heard from our reading, he wrote this intimate letter, not from a tropical beach or a private golf resort, but from dark and dank prison. I’ve watched enough episodes of Game of Thrones and Orange Is the New Black to know how hard it is to find joy behind bars. But if the Apostle Paul can find it in a dreary cell, then what’s stopping us from finding it in our own pit of despair?
Unlike happiness, joy is not contingent upon our circumstances. Regardless of our situation, Paul reminds us that we can rejoice. Yes, when we receive bad news, we can find joy in it. When things don’t turn out the way you intended them to, you can still rejoice.
Long before the U.S. government eased travel restrictions to Cuba, I snuck into Havana for a few days. There I saw first hand how badly the embargo had hurt the people. Buildings were crumbling and cars cobbled together with whatever parts they could find. Food was scarce. And yet, despite their severe poverty there was a sense of richness among them; a Spirit of joy filled them.
I could feel it in the air, and see it on their faces as it flowed out of them through music, laughter, and dancing. They had nothing, but yet had everything they needed to rejoice. Like Paul, they focused on what was good in their lives and what brought them true joy.
Henri Nouwen said, “Joy doesn’t simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it everyday.” We have to wake up every morning and choose to live as God has called us to live – as little Christs in the world – rejoicing in the glory of God’s love and grace in all that we do.
Paul tells the Philippians that true joy is not found in earthly things. Nor is it found in power, or prestige or having many possessions. True joy, the kind that never fades or leaves you, is found in a person. Can you guess who that is? Jesus Christ.
In Christ, God's abundant joy is made manifest for us. It’s how we see and feel God’s glory even when the world seems grim and gloomy. As the ancient psalmist wrote, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy…” (Ps. 16:11). You see, we don’t find joy because life is happy and good, we find joy because God is great – meeting us where we are to heal us, and comfort us, and to love and care for us no matter what.
In Christ, God’s greatest joy is given freely to us. This joy was not born in a palace of plenty, but in a dirty stable to poor family in need. This joy was not always revered but often rejected, even to the point of death. But as it was revealed to us on that first Easter morning, this is what we know. God’s joy is eternal. It does not die. It faces the most dire situation and comes out victorious.
We must never forget that whatever difficult situation we’re facing nothing is too difficult for God. And no matter how tough our circumstances may be God is tougher. As the pandemic and unrest in our country wear us down, the joy of Christ Jesus fills us back up. When everyday life kicks the joy out of us, God kicks it back in. Sometimes its hard to see this while we’re suffering the aches and pains of life.
Thus, Jesus tells not to give up. To keep doing what we are called to do. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have have kept my father’s commandments and remain in his love. I tell you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
Given the uncertainty we’re facing these days, it’s imperative that everyone who take the name of Christ must remain faithful to the mission of Christ. We must remain obedient to our call to love God and each other. If we do that, Jesus said our joy will be complete. And not just our joy, but the joy for the world around us.
If you’ve ever been in a room full of giggling kids, you know how contagious laughter can be. The same is true with joy. So this is what I hope you will do today. Rejoice. Share your love and joy. Maybe it’s a little bit, or a whole heck of a lot, but let it be seen. Let it be felt. Share it.
Jesus taught us that when we give of ourselves to others, to ensure that no one is without, our joy will be complete. Whenever we seek justice, promote peace, walk humbly – sharing the gospel with our words and deeds, we can rejoice because this is God’s joy in us overflowing upon the world. When we share our joy with others, those feelings grow and expand across time and space.
This is the power God has given to us through Christ, God’s greatest joy. When we come together, as one people and one body, to break bread and share in this holy meal we find our joy knowing that God is with us and in us and all around us.
Therefore let us rejoice, with all the saints before us, knowing what God has done for us through Christ Jesus. In remembrance of him, and for the sacrifice made on our behalf, it is my great joy to welcome you to the table of God’s blessing.
Together, with the churches all around the world, we gather to celebrate and rejoice in remembrance of all that is good and holy. Whether you are filled with faith or with doubt, you are invited to share this meal with us. This is God’s table, and no one will be turned away.
All we ask is that you to come with an open heart and open hands to receive God’s blessing through the One whom all blessings flow.
A revised version of a sermon previously given on April 3, 2016.
Bible. Philippians 1:1-11 (NRSV).
Holladay, Tom. Philippians: The Eight Places Joy Is Won or Lost. El Toro: Saddleback Church, 2014.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”