Philippians 4:4-9: The Peace of a Thankful Heart
Those of you who worship regularly at Butner Presbyterian Church know that I occasionally ask the congregation to participate in the sermon. I don’t think I’ve ever asked folks to do anything particularly difficult, but it does take a little practice. Folks—especially we Presbyterians who sometimes refer to ourselves as God’s “frozen chosen”—are not generally accustomed to talking back or getting up and moving around or speaking to the person sitting beside them in the middle of a sermon. The way I was raised, proper behavior during a sermon was to sit still and be quiet.
But in a little bit, I’m going to ask y’all to talk to each other and then to talk back to me, and so . . . we’re going to practice. We’ll start with something easy [that the children just modeled for you]: Thanksgiving traditions. I’ll ask a question and y’all just call out your answers when you feel the Spirit move you. Assuming I can hear you, I’ll echo your answers so everyone can hear.
What are some of your Thanksgiving traditions concerning
where you gather,
time of day when you gather,
who you gather with,
things you always do or always say,
what you put on the table,
who plays different roles, such as host, cook, carver, or prayer;
and, perhaps most centrally, what you eat: ham or turkey? roasted, fried, or smoked? rice, Irish potatoes, or sweet potatoes? dressing or stuffing? green beans or collards? biscuits or yeast rolls? jelled, whole-berry, or some mixture of Jello and cranberry sauce? or something entirely different?
Sound easy enough? OK! What are some of your Thanksgiving traditions? Go!
[Give folks 2-3 minutes to share]
Awesome! You have mastered Congregational Participation 101. I think y’all are ready to move on to 201.
The thing I love about these kinds of holiday traditions is that they help to bind us together across generations. My children still ask for the oyster dressing that my grandmother used to make at Thanksgiving. And it hardly seems like Christmas unless someone makes the coconut cake recipe that has been handed down for four generations. These recipes are now beginning to be served on the same heirloom cake stands, consumed with the same handed-down silverware, and enjoyed over the same family stories told over and over around the table. Same stories, same recipes, same traditions are among the things that make us family.
Which brings me to Paul and the Philippians: of all the relationships with churches he founded, the one with the church at Philippi [phil- IP-ai] probably comes closest to what we mean when we talk about “church family.” He writes of their fellowship in the Spirit and their fellowship in the gospel. He reminds them that they struggle together in faith for the gospel. And he encourages them to be like-souled, to think the same thing, to have the same love. The spirit of togetherness and mutuality pervades Paul’s words to the Philippians. They struggle together, rejoice together, are formed together, receive together, share together, and are yoked together. He refers frequently to fellow-workers, fellow-soldiers, fellow-souls, fellow-imitators of Christ.
At the end of our scripture reading for this evening, Paul says to the Philippians in verse 9,
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.
Faith, like family traditions, is handed down: “keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” Of all the “things” Paul encourages the Philippians to “keep doing,” it might be the things they have “received” that are most important. And it might be the things they have “received” that are most overlooked and most needed today.
Paul speaks of faith as being “learned . . . and heard and seen.”
Faith that is “learned” is a head faith, the faith of intellectual assent, the kind of faith we mean when we recite creeds together: “I believe in the God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.”
Faith that is “heard” is a second-hand faith, the kind of faith that we inherit from our forebears who bear witness to us: “Faith of our fathers, living still In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword; O how our hearts beat high with joy Whene’er we hear that glorious word!”
Faith that is “seen” is a first-hand faith, the kind of faith that we ourselves witness at work in the world: “O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder Consider all the worlds thy hand hath made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy pow’r throughout the universe displayed.”
We learn with our minds. We hear with our ears. We see with our eyes. But we receive with our bodies. We receive with our hands, our arms, our hearts. A received faith is a faith that is internalized, embodied, incarnate. It gets in our blood and sinks into our bones. It permeates our skin and presses our muscles into action. It quickens our pulse and raises our hands and voices: “Here I am, Lord! Send me!” A received faith is entirely ours. Nothing external to us—nothing we see, nothing we hear, and nothing anyone else thinks—can shake it.
How do we internalize our faith? How do we receive our faith into our bodies so that it sinks into our bones and becomes part of our marrow, our very life blood? Paul tells us how in verse 8—and I’m using some of my own translations here and some from the King James Version to bring out the power of the words:
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honest, whatever is just, whatever is [holy], whatever [leads to kindness], whatever is of good report, whatever is virtuous or praiseworthy, think about these things.
Truth, honesty, justice, holiness, kindness, good words, virtue, praiseworthiness. Paul here is asking the Philippians to give more than just a passing thought to these things. We think in flashes. Our thoughts are fleeting. In the span of one minute, our minds can think close to 50 thoughts. That’s about 70,000 thoughts a day. But when Paul tells the Philippians to think about truth, honesty, justice, holiness, kindness, good words, virtue, and praiseworthiness, he uses the word legizomai, which means to meditate on, to deliberate, to reckon with, to ponder until the truth of it sinks in. To legizomai is not to think in a speculative way, but to meditate in a way that helps us see reality.
Which brings me to Congregational Participation 201.
I’m going to give you some instructions, and then I’m going to talk you through it step by step:
I want you to pair up with someone sitting close to you and decide on who is person 1 and who is person 2.
I want person 1 to spend two minutes naming all the things you are thankful for. For example, “I’m thankful for . . .” When the two minutes are up, a bell will sound.
Then I want person 2 to do the same thing: name all the things you are thankful for, as many as you can in 2 minutes.
After that I want you to close your eyes and notice how you feel: how you feel in your mind, how you feel in your heart, how you feel in your body.
Finally, I’m going to ask you to call out how you feel. In as much as I can hear you, I’ll echo your answers so everyone can hear.
[Do the exercise.]
Paul says to the Philippians in verses 6 and 7:
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.
“With thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
As I hope you’ve all just experienced, thanksgiving does a lot for us:
It helps us realize how resourceful we are. Have you noticed how often Jesus sends those whom he heals away to tell others about their healing? Sending people to tell their stories and to show gratitude is Jesus’ way of empowering people. He never leaves people dependent on him. He sends them out to tell their stories because that is how they learn that their resourcefulness is not external to them.
Thanksgiving is what stops our prayer lives from becoming a pity party. When I was writing SS curriculum for middle schoolers, we taught them the acronym ACTS—A-C-T-S—to help them learn our order of worship:
Thanksgiving gives us a healthy, resourceful context for supplication. When we pray from a position of thanksgiving, we see the abundance and the giftedness of our lives. We become more likely to direct our prayers to the benefit of others. We become less likely to feel sorry for ourselves.
The resourcefulness of thanksgiving guards our hearts and minds from the things that constrict us and lead us to live out of a narrow, false sense of reality: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy. The resourcefulness of thanksgiving brings forth the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness. self-control.
Thanksgiving helps us live out of a generous, abundant, expansive sense of reality so that we have fellowship in the Spirit and fellowship in the gospel. So that we struggle together in faith for the gospel. So that we become like-souled with our brothers and sisters, to think the same thing, to have the same love. So that the spirit of togetherness and mutuality pervades our lives as we struggle together, rejoice together, are formed together, receive together, share together, and are yoked together with our fellow-workers, fellow-soldiers, fellow-souls, fellow-imitators of Christ.
Thanksgiving helps us internalize our faith. “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). Inside each of us are all the resources we need to live whole and grateful lives. We touch those resources when we show thanksgiving. We feel them in our hearts, in our minds, in our bellies and bones.
So “Rejoice in the Lord always,” as Paul writes. “Again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” As near as the very breath with which we say “Thank you!”
Let us pray: Give us thankful hearts, Lord. Teach us to practice thanksgiving so that we know deep in our hearts, in our minds, and in our bodies that you are near. And the peace which surpasses all understanding guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.