December 13, 2017

Gospel Exhortations

PeaceToday’s guest post is by Chaplain Mike Mercer.

For Michael & Denise.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 4.4-7, NRSV)

How do exhortation passages in the Bible function as a living Word that truly speaks to us and works in us in a Gospel-oriented way?

Too many times in the past I have taken a text like the one above from Philippians and have preached or taught it as if it represented God’s laws for living a good and godly life. You know the drill. We might title this passage, “Living the rejoicing life,” or “How to overcome anxiety,” or “How to experience God’s peace.” We then give a series of “steps” or “principles” that, if followed, will yield the kind of life that “pleases God.”

I even remember taking a clever suggestion from a professor and writing this text on a small piece of paper, then giving it to a parishioner I was visiting as a “prescription” for her to “take” daily so that she might find help for the worry that was crippling her. She may have been helped, I don’t know. But what I do know is that I missed a chance to give her the Gospel by treating this text like good advice.

How can we hear this “practical” text as Gospel and not just as wise counsel?

– We hear it as God’s family in Christ, not just as individuals with needs.

Most of the exhortations in the epistles are addressed to the church, not to individual Christians. We often miss this in our English translations, because our language doesn’t have a pronoun that distinguishes between “you” (singular) and “you” (plural). Perhaps we need to adopt the southern-style approach and translate the Greek as “you,” “y’all,” and “all y’all” to make clear who is being addressed!

In Philippians, Paul is addressing a church family, talking about the concerns and problems they face together, and encouraging them to deal with those issues as a family. When he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord…don’t worry about anything…” etc., he is saying, in essence, “God has made you a family in Jesus, and here is how God leads his family as they face life together. Trust him and get in the flow of what God is doing and wants to do among you.”

One aspect of the Good News in this passage is that God addresses us as his family. As an individual, I am part of something bigger than myself, something that God created in Christ, something he is overseeing. Of course there are individual implications to this, but I am never on my own and addressed as though it’s all up to me. The resources that the Father puts at our disposal, the comfort of having brothers and sisters beside me, the examples and traditions that have been passed down which define our heritage and the family’s character, the Spirit we have received through having been born of God, all these Gospel blessings support and inspire us to practice his ways.

– We hear God’s imperatives in the light of the Gospel indicatives.

This text contains several imperatives or commands: rejoice in the Lord, don’t worry about anything, let your requests be made known to God. When we read a list of instructions like this, we are tempted to take it and turn it into a series of “steps” or “principles” or “rules” to be followed in order to achieve a desired result. The onus thus falls on us to do what it takes in order to experience God’s “peace.”

It is easy to miss the one small indicative statement in this passage: “The Lord is near.” Tucked in among the exhortations, this word of established Gospel fact changes the entire nature of the text and makes all the difference in how we understand it.

What does it mean? There are two primary possibilities: (1) the Lord’s return is imminent, or (2) the Lord is near at hand (present to help). Both are Gospel.

If the first meaning is intended, then Paul is encouraging his Philippian friends to remember that Christ’s return is sure, the consummation of history is at hand, and their vindication and deliverance from the troubles of life in a fallen world will certainly happen soon. Therefore — they can rejoice, not worry, pray with thanksgiving, and thus experience the peace of God surrounding and protecting them.

If we take the second meaning, Paul may be alluding to Psalm 145:18 — “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” This leads naturally into the call to prayer that follows. Because of the Gospel truth that God is graciously present and available to his people, therefore — they can rejoice, not worry, pray, know God’s peace.

Either way (or maybe both elements are included in an intentionally ambiguous statement), this indicative sentence grounds all the imperatives of this passage in Gospel proclamation. The way to encourage God’s family to live as God’s family is to remind them of what they have as members of God’s family. Any exhortation or instruction we give as Christians must be preceded by a “therefore” which points back to Jesus and grounds the works we are being commanded to do in his finished work.

– How then, to preach or teach this passage?

With these things in mind, here’s how I would approach sharing this passage (in short-form):

The Lord be with you. (And also with you.)

As Paul prepares to conclude this letter we call Philippians, a warm personal epistle to his friends in Philippi, the apostle gives them several instructions about how to live as God’s family. He talks to them about finding their joy in the Lord, about being gentle, forbearing, and generous people, about not worrying but turning to God in prayer. It is this lifestyle that will enable them to experience God’s peace in their church family, a peace that will keep them with a deep sense of security in Christ.

But it would not be wrong for us to ask him, “Paul, how can we cultivate this kind of lifestyle?” For if we are honest, we will acknowledge that none of these virtues and practices come naturally to us. We don’t find it easy to rejoice when things get tough. When people treat us unkindly, responding with gentleness and a generous spirit is not our reflex. We worry. Our minds get too distracted to pray, much less pray with thanksgiving. So, how can we possibly discover the peace that Paul says will guard our minds and hearts in Christ?

Let’s look away from these exhortations for a moment, because, tucked in this list of instructions is a wonderful statement of God’s Good News that we need to hear first and most clearly.

It’s right there at the end of verse 5: “The Lord is near.”

Here is this Philippian church, in danger of being torn by dissension, threatened by false teachers and others who oppose them and the Gospel, strained by selfish attitudes and various struggles. Paul knows that what they need to hear most is this: “The Lord is near.” It’s not enough for him to give them a list of things to do. He knows that, on our own, there is no series of steps or principles that we can follow to find God’s peace. So, right in the middle of the instructions, Paul steps back and reminds them of this fundamental fact.

He assures his friends by saying, “The Lord is near” — ”Friends, God is with us. The Lord is near. He is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble. He is near to all who call upon him. He has not abandoned us, even though we are going through this rough patch in our walk with him. There is nothing in all creation that can ever separate us from his love. He is present, available; his arms will surround us, his Spirit will strengthen and uphold us, his words will speak comfort to our hearts, his angels hold us up, he sends his messengers of love to minister to us.

There may be a second aspect to this affirmation as well. Not only is he near to us now, but his coming again is near as well.

“The Lord is near” means that Christ will return and vindicate his people. He will deliver us from all our fears, and from all the trials that trip us up and trouble us in this world. He will complete his work of transforming us from sinners to saints and finally save us from the very presence of sin, evil, and death. He will make all things new. The Lord is near!

Because he is with us, and because his coming is imminent, we have reason to rejoice. We can be gentle and generous toward everyone. We can put aside worry and turn to God in prayer, thanking him for all he gives us in Christ. We can rest in his peace.

All that God requires of us, he himself provides in this word of Good News: “The Lord is near.”

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

As you read this post today, feel welcome to comment either on the concept of Gospel-oriented exhortations, or on the text from Philippians itself and what it teaches. I hope both aspects of what I’ve written will bless and encourage you.

Comments

  1. The richness and depth of the Word is such that although the words are spoken to a group, each individual is right to embrace the message as if it was directed personally to the hearer. The verse quoted comes after an amazing statement , “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus”, The exhortation you refer to from the4th chapter is essential to this.
    Mike, I am not sure you were in error at all teaching this as good advice. It is the best advice I ever got, please don’t take it away!

  2. Thanks, willoh. Of course, in a profound sense it is the best advice. But it is cruel if it is presented only as good advice without the Gospel indicative and family context, for that would assume that simply by following these “steps” we can experience God’s peace.

    • Wonderful restatement of your main points here, both the pre-eminence of the gospel (both the desire and the ability to do as we ought) AND the family/community context that works as God’s means of grace so often. These are both life giving controls on what we preach and how we preach it. This is truly a theme that can’t be overstated or worn out, IMO.

      Pax on you and yours
      Greg R

  3. Your point about the difference in singular and plural pronouns needs to be emphasized over and over. We American Christians tend to make almost everything refer to the individual. Then, we lament the “It’s all about me” attitude that permeates our churches.

    • Since iMonk is from Kentucky, maybe we could get him on the translation team to introduce the “y’alls” where they need to be!

      • Living in North Carolina, I was told y’all is singular and you-all is plural. In Philadelphia, it’s you and youse.

        • Louis Winthrop says:

          In Texas, “y’all” (and “you all,” for which it is a contraction) is plural. I’ve never heard “all y’all.”

          Anybody for the revival of thee / thou / thy, and you / ye / however it goes?

          • Y’all can be plural or singular here in Arkansas… “all ya’ll” isn’t that uncommon.

            I couldn’t agree more with the point about American Christianity being all about the individual. I’m saved… my personal savior… to love God and neighbor, I must first love myself…

          • In Ireland, depending on location (and hence variants in pronunciation), it’s “yeh” (singular), “ye” (plural) and “all a’ yiz” (collective).

            Dublin speakers tend more to “youse” than “ye” or “yiz”, but that’s jackeens for you 🙂

        • In Michigan, it’s “you” and “you guys.” Possesives? “Yours” and “your guys’s”

          • Possessives here are “yer” (singular) and “yeer” (plural), so for the translation of St. Paul’s exhortation “Let your gentleness be known to everyone”, if addressed to one person, it would be “Let yer gentleness be known to everyone”; addressing several persons or the group as a whole “Let yeer gentleness be known to everyone”.

            We might need translations of the translations! 😉

  4. I am a grieving Christian who has been hurt by the lack of corporate expression of grief in the evangelical church (specifically my church). I think these scriptures, and the exhortations for joy in the scripture, have encouraged an attitude of “happy Christians” who don’t feel the need to mourn with those who are mourning, but want to make the mourning rejoice as they are. I also think this “lifestyle of joy” has neutered darker emotions that are healthy and necessary to live authentically and biblically in this point in time when Christ has not yet returned.

    So, what do you think is the corporate responsibility to mourn with those who are mourning? How do those who are broken or grieving fit in to a church family when every Sunday is celebration Sunday? How do you think a church should balance the call to rejoice with the call to mourn. Jesus was also described as a man of sorrow.

    Thanks!

    • First of all, I could not agree with you more. Lament and mutual sorrow-sharing is a missing element in many churches. If you search this site, I think you will find a boatload of support for that point of view.

      Second, every service should not just be celebration but should include space for confession, silent meditation, prayers for the hurting, and so on. The Catholic practice of being able to light a candle for those we are concerned about, the Episcopal church I recently visited that had extra kneelers near the altar where the hurting were encouraged to come and receiving anointing and prayer, allowing space during the Prayers of the People for the congregation to speak the names of those who are suffering, all these and a hundred other practices should be encouraged.

      When it comes to a passage like this one from Philippians, I contend that it is not shallowly upbeat but utterly realistic. If we focus on the indicative, “The Lord is near,” then our use of it will touch people in all different situations. In addition, acknowledging our struggles with joy, our tendencies to worry, our inability to pray at times, our lack of peace should let everyone know that we are not promoting some kind of “name it and claim it” happy-style Christianity.

      Find the indicative and you will find the Good News. And, you will find that the Good News always meets us in our brokenness.

      • There’s an Irish proverb “Is deise cabhair Dé ná an doras”, meaning “God’s help is nearer than the door”.

        I take what St. Paul is saying not to be a guarantee that we’ll never have any sorrow, suffering or disappointment in our lives, but that as you say “The Lord is near”. There is Someone to help, Someone who is there near to us. So do not fret yourselves in useless worrying, but cast your cares on the Lord.

        I suppose I should count myself lucky that I’ve never heard prescriptive sermons on texts like this because we’re not nearly organised enough in Irish Catholicism to have “Steps for – ” or “Principles of – ” 🙂

        It would be dreadful to have an insistance on always being smiling, happy, cheerful, victorious when you are going through hard times. But “God’s help is nearer than the door”.

      • Emily, I, too, have had an unfortunate “experience” of something “forced” as though the words “get over yourself” could in fact make me do that. That comment presented in various ways in various circles and messages encouraged me to do what I already knew how to do well…put on a happy face, cover up, wear a mask. Somehow Christ and the blessed reality of the Good News were somehow lost to me personally.
        Mike, when I think Gospel, for myself, when I think Christ, when I think about the Good News of Him on the tree for me, that He is near, with me in trouble, understanding the struggles I have “between my ears”….that news really changes the way I think and see. It ushers in a joy that is not explainable. It is not forced or pretense. Don’t know how but it just does. “The Lord is near” is truly Gospel. I never thought about passages like that being “Gospel” but of course they are. That’s why they have the effect they do. They minister! They are just what the Dr ordered. Thank you, Mike, for your sweet post and have a most blessed Christmas. I have been blessed this morning by what you wrote and know full well that the News of Christ truly does meet us wherever we are.
        Emily, if you have not heard Dr Rosenbladt’s message on “The Gospel for those broken by the Church” it is one I so heartily recommend.

    • Tuesday night the Prayer Shawl ministry came to our house.

      They knit, and pray, for a specific individual who is undergoing some type of grief, or stress.

      They then ask if they can come over and give the shawl to the individual, and then listen and pray with that person as they deliver it.

      My mother in law knit and prayed with them for the past four years.

      It was a great gift to receive from them – their memories, their prayers, and the prayer shawl that they took turns knitting and praying for with the death of my mother in law. We laughed, we cried, we prayed.

  5. Recently I was reading a book and came across the phrase “Our minds are limited, and “right theology” will never lead us to a direct experience of the living God. Only through our failures, our sorrows, our loves and our joys- the places we are most vulnerable- can the shell of our selves be cracked enough to allow us to experience God’s grace directly.”

    I’ve been meditating a lot on my own failures, and also on the losses in my life, and also on the general insecurity of the world. I work and strive to build a solid foundation in my life for myself and my family, but all of that is easily undone by future calamity. It is unfathomable to me that there can be reason in this, but I think our hearts and souls leap out to bridge the gap between God and what we can understand or know- and I think God’s grace is what reaches out and meets us there. That experience of seeing the illusions I have of myself torn down, and experiencing that anxiety and pain, and then seeing, gradually, that I am still held in God’s love- the notion of the blessed fool really rings true to me now. God’s love is much sweeter now to me than any time before.

    I think mourning is so crucial, because it is so honest. As my cousin (who recently lost her husband and then her mother) says- loss just sucks. There is no way around it. It comforts somewhat that God meets us there, and walks us through it.

    • Powerful words and you expressed my life as well. When my masks and my real self finally began to be exposed, and God did not “give me the boot” because I wasn’t “good”, it is where God’s grace for sinners finally began to turn on a light in my soul. Would love to know the book you refer to. Thank you for your candor.

  6. I know this is off topic but I only have to time to come by here every few days for a short “visit.” Has there been any information disclosed about Michael S.? I mean, I ‘m concerned about his health and there is no information that I can find about the mystery. I don’t have time to go back and read all the posts since his absence so maybe this has been discussed.

    Just a concerned . . . not nosey . . . brother.

    • I’m wondering that myself, because I’ve just seen over on Mark Shea’s “Catholic and Enjoying It!” blog a prayer request for Michael, saying that he’s been diagnosed with cancer.

      Any news on that? Is it true? How can we help?

      I’ve been keeping him in mind when saying the Rosary lately, so I’ll light a candle for him as well, but let him know we’re all thinking of him!

    • Facebook was a little bit more helpful and I understand that they don’t know much yet. I was just a little confused by the cloak and dagger approach.

      I was diagnosed once with a terminal cancer, Multiple Myeloma. I wanted everyone who knew how to pray to know the details. Must have worked. Eventually (after a bone marrow bx) was re-diagnosed as MUGUS (a precursor). But I didn’t want my kids or mom know anything about it until the dx was final. Maybe that’s where he’s at.

      • I don’t think there’s any “cloak and dagger.” I am finding out as guest moderator for this blog just how much work it is and how much energy it takes, all day long everyday. Michael simply hasn’t felt good enough to do it lately and he has had to travel, undergo medical tests, etc. Facebook and Twitter are easier and quicker ways of getting out a brief update.

        In my work I have learned to respect the fact that each individual handles health problems and the unknown differently. Michael will give information and details when he is ready and feels like it would be appropriate.

        • I’m not questioning how he is handling it. I’ve seen many times in the real world where people at church or other people pull away when they are in crisis. As Mike’s virtual friends I hope that he knows that we are here through thick and thin pulling for him.

        • Christiane says:

          Very wise remarks, Chaplain Mike.

        • with the illness and death of my mother in law, we found Caringbridge.com to be a wonderful resource for keeping everyone up to date.

          You could just type it once for everyone, and it gave a chance for people to post back

          • Caringbridge is excellent. A very close friend of mine, Terry, had leukemia and how has passed away. I followed his progress daily as his daughter kept us up to date on the ups and downs. We all rode the roller coaster together. It was a great way to communicate with the family as well.

            I wish I knew how Michael is doing. There is nothing on Twitter and Facebook drops the “cancer” word. For us medical providers, “cancer” is very ambiguous. But I wish I could pass along some words of encouragement.

            I guess I’ll check back now and then and see what we know. We are praying for you Michael if you are reading this.

          • As far as I know, it’s ambiguous for Michael right now, too. I’m sure he will communicate clearly once he has more clarity himself.

  7. Chaplain Mike,
    A wonderful Gospel message!
    Amen.

  8. I suppose I should count myself lucky that I’ve never heard prescriptive sermons on texts like this because we’re not nearly organised enough in Irish Catholicism to have “Steps for. This is quite insightful, i also came across this, and its worth sharing, gave me a quick kick! check it out.

    http://youthforjesus.com/2009/12/the-wrath-of-god-is-coming-are-you-ready/

  9. In western PA the plural of you is yins

  10. That ‘d be “hey yuns guys” – Pittsburghese

  11. alpineflower says:

    I’ve been reading The Peacemaker by Ken Sande (and participating in a study on it), who addresses these verses in the context of the whole section (Phil 4:2-9) – that the rejoicing exhortation is directly tied to the conflict referenced in the first paragraph between Euodia and Syntyche. After all, how often during conflict is our instinct to rejoice, or think about things that are pure, lovely, etc.? Sande’s point is that by doing these things, we place the conflict in perspective and turn to the Gospel to provide the peace we desire.

  12. It appears that the facebook link doesn’t work or the the Michael Spencer page is now blank. The twitter still has no information. Is there a place to sign up to be informed how Mike is doing when the information is available? Thanks.