Tag Archives: proper 23a

Fixed (idiot) smiles?

There’s a rather heavy feeling around at the moment. When Covid started, we thought a few weeks would see the worst of it done – but almost 6 months later, we are heading into worsening statistics. There are no promises of a quick letup. Beyond that, and little mentioned, is the economic recession that follows – tighten your belts. If your pension is safe, it is unlikely to rise much.

So when we read Philippians 4:1-9, there is a danger that the words fail to be understood. Worse, that we take them as irrelevant, even insulting. What does Paul mean, “Rejoice”? How are we supposed to, without being unsympathetic, even crass? – Well, let me tell you, because it is important.

What I said about the situation we’re in is true. There are lots of problems, and not a lot to be happy about. That was probably true of life in Philippi, too. Paul writes the letter while in chains in prison (1:13). He knows that “some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry” (1:15). He has had to ask the Philippians to remember the example of Christ – reading between the lines, we wonder if conceit or ambition (2:3) were a problem there. He has to remind them (2:14) “do everything without grumbling or arguing”, and to ask for help getting Euodia and Syntyche to make up their argument (4:2). Philippi is like any other church – less than perfect, with a number of “issues”. Yet Paul says Rejoice!

How?

Why?

The first clue is in the word. He says “Rejoice”, not “Be happy” or “have a party anyhow” (just as well, because lockdown restrictions, which you should be observing, don’t allow that). There’s a big difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is a reaction to everything going well. Joy is a gift of God’s Holy Spirit, and we’ll talk a little more about what powers it, making it possible even in hard times.

The second clue is the next phrase. “Rejoice in the Lord always”. When our life is hard, God is still good, his love and faithfulness are dependable, and God is in control. That is something to rejoice in! It doesn’t mean our life will be easy, but it does bring a sense of confidence that whatever the conditions, whatever disasters threaten or come our way, God will not be overcome, God’s purposes will not be prevented. That does need an element of faith. I don’t know what will happen in the next year, 5 years. But I have faith that God can and will be in it all, working good for those who will face life with faith.

And we could say there is a 3rd clue in what follows:
“Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” It is because the Lord is near we don’t have to be angry, we don’t have to worry and irritate. “Do not be anxious about anything,” because, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, God knows, and with God you can find a way – no, better than that, the best way forward.

At every eucharist (the Communion Service, in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and often Methodist and Presbyterian services) the leader says “Lift up your hearts”. It is so old and widespread it has a Latin name “Sursum Corda”. The answer is not a muttered “We lift them to the Lord”, but an act of faith, a choice to see the world, not as it favours us, but as we look for God at work, and find joy in that.

We can’t all be happy all the time. We shan’t all be happy all of the time. Sometimes your brothers and sisters in Christ will need your sympathy and support. But we can be joyful, and respond to the call to rejoice. Even if it’s as hard as doing press-ups, I will lift my heart to God, to enjoy what God is like, and what God is doing, because it is good, and worth enjoying and celebrating.

Invitation needs answering!

From time to time, people say the New Testament is useless to us because it is totally out of our culture. A half truth, which ignores the fact that human needs, and sin, don’t vary a great deal from age to age. Take today’s parable. [Matthew 22:1-14]  Unique to Matthew in this form (Luke 14 makes a different point in a story also about refused invitations), it does need some untangling and thought.

The first 7 verses tell of an invitation to a feast – refused, with the servant messengers ignored or ill-treated. This is clearly a reference to God’s invitation in Jesus (the marriage is of a Son). The destroying of the city may be a reference to the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD.

Verses 8 to 14 seem rather different – the feast is full, but someone without a wedding garment is thrown out. This could be a problem – how is someone off the street expected to get one? Some suggest they were given out by host. Thus the refusal to wear it becomes a deliberate insult. (Documented at Mari, Mesopotamia). Others say clean clothes were expected, as a compliment, and a third group point out that clothes in scripture often symbolise character.

The detail is obscure, but the point is clear: the invitation is free – your great good luck is to get one you might never have expected. But you do have to do something; first of all, go! Even when you get in and are enjoying yourself, respect the host.

Is there anything here for us? I don’t think we’d have much difficulty understanding how unwelcome is a wedding guest who gets drunk while telling stories against bride and groom; or who arrives in dirty overalls smelling to high heaven!  Part of this story is about the consequences of our actions. In terms of our faith, how do our actions affect our relationship to God, and to other people? You can’t earn a place in heaven, but you can lose it by failing to take the invitation, and following-up appropriately.

Or you could say that those who depend on His hospitality need to remember to honour God. If you hope for heaven, then start behaving like it! Not sometime when you get round to it, or if you feel like it. More and more our twenty first century culture wants to tell God how to run the universe. We believe in heaven, not in hell. We believe in being forgiven, but not in forgiving. We believe that someone else ought to deal with young people, the financial crisis, illness and death – so that we are free to do what we want.

And God says, “Once there was a king who prepared a wedding feast . .” Listen to the story. Think it through and take is seriously.

  • There’s good news – a free invitation.
  • There’s reality – you need to do something about it, and in time.
  • There’s a warning – what you do will have consequences.