Consider the finale of the epistle lesson today; I’m sure you heard this before -- it’s definitely one of those refrigerator magnet verses.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Now the thing is, I’m not much of a to-do list person. I mean, if I have a few tasks that I want to get done in a certain order, I might jot them down real quick, but beyond that, I’m never derived much benefit from grand organization plans which require writing stuff down. I didn’t take notes in college or seminary, which always stood in stark contrast to my wife whose binders and daily planner system rivaled the complexity and detail of a Swiss watch.
So when I come across this famous list from Paul at the end of his Letter to the Philippians, a part of me senses a real challenge. It combines two things that, in my experience, are often mutually exclusive: peace and intentional thought. The effort to think about truth, honor, justice, purity, about that which is pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise is difficult. Not to mention the struggle of trying to keep up the imitation of Christ and his saints, “to keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen.” Oftentimes, peace is the last thing that I feel in the midst of these endeavors. It looks like another to-do list.
And then there’s Paul’s list of commands in the preceding paragraph of today’s epistle, one of which is “do not worry about anything.” Again, it feels like the duty to fulfill all these things is nothing but a source of worry. It feels as though there stands between me and the God of peace a chasm that I cannot span, because even the means by which one is to attain peace seem just as inaccessible as the God who bestows them.
But what if this is to have it all wrong? We are told to think about that which is “true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise.” What does that actually mean? As I’ve described, it could mean that we’re supposed to enter into a morbid introspection, constantly evaluating our piety to ensure maximum purity. Or, it could mean drawing up detailed lists of all the things that you can think of that fall under these various descriptions, and then try really hard to keep all that stuff in mind. And of course, eschewing everything that doesn’t. The problem there is that this could very likely lead you into a kind of prudish legalism which ends up shunning anything that’s not immediately nice, respectable, and sentimental. How many profound and worthwhile films, books, and music have Christians refused themselves because of a superficial reading of this passage?
But this famous verse serves as the finale of Philippians, so it’s worth going back to understand the rest of the book so as to really get what Paul is saying. Because before Paul reaches today’s epistle lesson, he sketches out a vision of the unity of the church and an account of how that theology informs our communal life together. Only then can we properly attend to all those realities of truth, honor, justice, etc.
In the beginning of the letter, Paul reminds the Philippians that “I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers of my grace.” Yes, I quote the KJV here because its ordering of the sentence makes it clear that insofar as the Philippians contribute to the defense and confirmation of the gospel, they are partakers not only of Paul’s suffering, but also of Paul’s grace. I like how this translation emphasizes the possessiveness of “my grace” -- it sets up the communal reality of sharing at the heart of the Church’s life. Because it’s only if we understand this that we can then properly understand Paul’s instruction that we “be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” Our single-mindedness and single love are a function of the fact that we partake of the same grace in the proclamation of the gospel. And that unity is so strong that even the suffering of specific members is also shared spiritually throughout the entire Body.
So what is it that Paul sees as the opposite of this sharing? What inhibits our unity, like-mindedness, one love? The enemies of the cross of Christ, Paul says, are those whose “god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” And unlike these enemies, Paul and the Philippians have their citizenship in heaven, not among earthly things, “and it is from there that we are
expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” That last part is key: the power that conforms us to the glory of Christ is the same power that subjects all things to Christ. So the distinction comes into view. There is the way of like-mindedness and partaking of one love which issues forth in a partaking of things together in common; and then there is the way of isolating oneself away from that one mind, focusing on what satisfies the belly and on earthly things. This latter way, the way that opposes the cross of Christ, resists the subjection of all things under Christ because it requires us to relinquish our own false dominion over them.
It is because all things have indeed be subjected under Christ that Paul can direct our minds to “whatever” it is that embodies truth, honor, justice, purity, etc. Paul is opening us up to the fullness of life and an expectation that goodness, truth, and beauty can be found almost anywhere, because anywhere you find yourself is a place that can be brought into the one mind and one love of the Body of Christ. The last thing this passage is about is crafting some “approved reading list” for life. Rather, it’s about the discernment that comes from rejoicing in the Lord always.
Again, joy precedes discernment. This shifts the focus away from the things themselves and onto the quality of our perception towards things. What Paul seems to be saying here is that when we are at peace in the Lord that is near, rejoicing in him, we will find ourselves in the state in which we can contemplate the things that are true, honorable, and just. Thus, we come to what is probably my broken record refrain, which is that the Christian life is not one of neutrality. It is about conforming ourselves to this form of life, the form of Christ, as opposed to all other forms. Rejoicing in the Lord is not some generic “yay” that we perform like a forced smile. It is the recognition that we are never not receiving a pure gift from God, which is the gift of existence. Contemplation of that gift conditions a specific kind of life, which is the life of peace.
And speaking of gift, the practice that we call Christian stewardship is one of the ways that we rejoice in the Lord. And the kind of joy that induces our stewardship is as primary in life as it is in this passage from Philippians. Once we situate the handling of our possessions in the midst of the constant act of rejoicing in God, then the rest of the exhortations from Philippians which follow come into a new light. To set a foundation of joy at the root of all your endeavors yields a sort of gentleness -- the word here is rendered in other translations as “moderation” or “reasonableness” either of which I actually prefer in this case. The point is not gentleness as a kind of generic niceness, but rather stability, clarity, balance. Rejoicing in the Lord liberates us from instinctive reactivity by which we define ourselves in light of the things around us rather than defining the things themselves in light of their place in the life with God.
I’ll close with the words with which Paul closes his letter to the Philippians, which really sums all of this up:
I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.