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Lectionary Reflection
Year A, Proper 23, New Testament Reading

Philippians 4:4-7

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.

Reflection on Philippians 4:4-7
by John Gibbs, PhD

From Thanksgiving to Peace

From a prisoner in a jail somewhere comes something you might least expect from that setting.  What comes is the Word of the Lord.  Let us pay attention:

"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."

There is a road that leads to peace, and its name is "thanksgiving."  That is the message we receive today from the Apostle Paul in his prison cell.  You might say that this text links together Thanksgiving and Christmas, for the message from on high at Christmas conjoins glory to God with "on earth peace."  We begin with "peace."

Paul's letter started there, where he was living:  "Grace to you and peace."  Grace and peace-- that is what filled his prison cell, his mind and heart as well.   Reminder of that reality was the first gift he sent by letter to Christian friends in a distant city.  They had to listen and pay attention, for what he told them came out of his own experience.

The tone of this Philippian letter does not reflect its author's loss of freedom.  It does not focus on imprisonment and the frustrations of involuntary confinement.  In a way that "passes all understanding" the atmosphere of his letter is, to the contrary, filled with God's kind of peace.

It's the kind of peace that steels the mind of an athlete and focuses attention, so that  ".forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal." (3:13)  Something has been standing guard over and within this man's emotions and thoughts, and that something he knows to be "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding."    Claimed by God's own state of well-being, which we call "peace," the apostle's vision pierced through the bars of his cell and projected a lifelong foot-race toward heaven, for it's there and only there, he said, that our ultimate "citizenship" belongs.

It is on that foot-race that  we discover the road to "peace," and know that it is the road called "thanksgiving."  The original runner of this race started out not only with "grace and peace," but also with the very next thing he wrote: "I thank my God every time I remember you.."  That's the tone of this prison epistle:  thankful expectation of a "harvest of righteousness" in his church,  thanks that "all of you share in God's grace with me" (1:11,7).  Or again: "Rejoice in the Lord at all times!  Once more I say it: rejoice!" (4:4, tr. by Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Philippians, p. 120; SCM, 1962)  He even thanks God that he is in jail, for there the imperial guard had discovered "that my imprisonment is for Christ" (1:13).

The importance of giving thanks to God is this:  it prepares us to receive God's own state of well-being, which we call "peace."  In this short 4-page letter we find 9 times the word "rejoice" and 5 times the word "joy."  By that rejoicing gratitude we, no less than Paul,  can "look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others" (2:4).  By such joyful thanksgiving (2:18) people learn to live not for their own bottom line, but rather, as Paul put it, to "shine like stars in the world" (2:15).

One such person at age 86, and in pain within days of her death,  somehow persisted in giving thanks.  Her 11-year-old grand-daughter was in the hospital room with her.  The grand-daughter, who knew that her Grandma had spent a lifetime teaching music, had brought her violin on the airplane so that she could play for her grandmother there in her private room.  So she did, much to the delight and thanks and encouragement of her Grandma.  Then at the grandmother's suggestion, the two of them concluded by singing together: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." At that moment thanksgiving and peace were too close for us to sense movement between them..  13 hours after we last saw her my mother died peacefully in her sleep.

Thanksgiving and the peace it brings helps us sense "the marvelous dimension" that poet Kate Daniels describes. (The Christian Century , Oct. 21, 1998, p. 970)  She takes us, for one instance, to the 1989 earthquake that caused a freeway in San Francisco to collapse onto another that ran beneath it.  People were killed, others trapped alive.  One man was trapped behind his shattered windshield. He had one undamaged eye.  With that one good eye he saw through broken glass and wreckage a distant windowsill petunia.  He found himself loving that petunia "for all it is worth."  Through that exact thanksgiving the marvelous dimension of God's peace stood guard over his thoughts and emotions until a rescue team freed him.

For early Christians, for my mother, for the man trapped on the freeway, for all of us, there is a road that leads to peace, and its name is "Thanksgiving."  Sometimes the road is so short as to cover no distance at all.

Copyright Statement


John Gibbs, PhD, a retired theologian, attends Trinity Episcopal Church, Park Rapids, MN.   He originally wrote
this reflection in 1998.  John and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments or additional reflections to John Gibbs or any MEESC member, or mail them to:
 
MEESC
c/o C. Morello
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The MEESC assumes that all correspondence received is for publication on this web site. If your comments are not for publication, please so note on your correspondence. The MEESC reserves the right to decide which items are included on the web site.


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