Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Dr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
October 11, 2020
Joy is one of the central features of our Christian faith. We express this joy through the greetings that we share during the two biggest celebrations of the year – “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Easter.” And we can witness the joy everywhere in our public worship and private devotions – in our hymns, in our prayers, and in our liturgy. The Psalms are filled with joyful praise to God, and, in the Gospels, including today’s reading, the Kingdom of Heaven is pictured as a banquet – a joyful and festive celebration. The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis used the phrase, “surprised by joy,” to describe his conversion from atheism to faith, and it’s the title of his autobiography, which some of you may have read. Joy is, indeed, a part of our Christian DNA.
In today’s Epistle reading from Philippians, the Apostle Paul focuses on this key Christian virtue of joy when he says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Joy is one of the main themes throughout the entire letter to the Philippian Church. Paul begins the epistle by saying that he is “constantly praying with joy” (1:4). Later, he speaks of “joy in faith” (1:25) and how he wants the Philippians to “make my joy complete” by having the same intent and mind (2:2). And he calls the beloved Philippian community his “joy and crown” (4:1).
What is ironic about Paul’s emphasis on joy in his letter to the Philippians is that he is writing from a dark, gloomy, rat-infested Roman prison. And this is not the first time that Paul is in prison. The Bible records at least three times when he was arrested and thrown into jail, and ultimately, he will be executed under the Emperor Nero. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul presents a long litany of all his sufferings:
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked (II Corinthians 11:24-27).
If anyone had cause to complain and be bitter, it was Paul the Apostle. His great missionary journeys to spread the Gospel around the Mediterranean world came at a huge cost to his personal life. How can a man who suffered so much be so joyful?
Paul’s joy springs from his faith in Jesus Christ. As he says in his letter, his joy is in the Lord. It is not a superficial emotion that he is conjuring up to keep a stiff upper lip; it is a deep and abiding sense of peace and delight, rooted in the experience of divine presence and love. He knows that no matter what the situation, God is there with him, and that even in death, he has nothing to fear because Christ has conquered death and redeemed us to eternal life. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... [Nothing can] separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).
Grounded in the knowledge of God’s constant presence, Paul rejoices at all times. And whenever he finds himself in a tough situation, he taps into this deep and abiding reservoir of joy through prayer and song. In the Acts of the Apostles, we have the story of Paul and his fellow missionary Silas being arrested, flogged, and imprisoned for causing a public disturbance with their preaching. We are told that while in prison, Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises unto God. They did not let the beating and imprisonment get them down. They rejoiced in the Lord through prayer and song.
Another way that we see Paul tapping into the joy of his faith is through expression of love for his fellow believers. While in prison, he writes letters to the beloved communities that he founded, recalling joyful memories and reminding himself of their love and support. In the letter to the Philippians, he calls the community “my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown” (4:1). Paul experiences joy as he pictures in his mind those whom he loves and who love him.
We may not be languishing in a dark prison cell like the Apostle Paul, but we, too, face our trials and tribulations. For some of us, this pandemic has created both physical and psychological confinement and isolation, where we experience despair and depression. And the social and political turbulence raging around us in our nation has created anxiety and fear. We may wonder when the doom and gloom will ever end.
But, as people of faith, we are called to rejoice even in our darkest moments. Let the Apostle Paul be your inspiration and model. He prayed, sang, and loved to bring the light of God’s joy into his prison cell. Dear friends, no matter what our situation may be, God is there with us. So the next time you find yourself in a tough situation, pray, sing, think of the love of your family and friends. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
 Christian A. Eberhart, “Commentary on Philippians 4:1-9,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2148.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!