By Wes Hill

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

There’s an old rhyme, often (mis?)attributed to John Bunyan, the author of the Pilgrim’s Progress allegory, that goes like this:

Run, John, run, the law commands
But gives us neither feet nor hands,
Far better news the gospel brings:
It bids us fly and gives us wings.

Notice the contrast Bunyan draws in this little poem. The law—God’s law, the holy expression of his own holy character—demands our obedience. “Run!” the law says to us. “Run in the way of God’s commandments!” On the other hand, the gospel—the good news of God’s action in Jesus Christ on our behalf—promises us God’s grace.

There’s been a lot of talk about that contrast — this year especially, because it’s the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, which eventually led to an entire theology premised on this contrast between the law and the gospel. God’s law, Luther insisted, was holy, just, and good. It announces to us the moral perfection that God’s own moral purity demands of everyone who would be in relationship with him. But the law cannot enable what it demands. In the terms of Bunyan’s rhyme, it is like an indifferent coach who shouts through a megaphone, “Run! Run!” to a player whose broken legs are in casts that have rendered her totally immobile.

But in contrast to this, Luther equally insisted, the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection announces the happy news (not the demand) that God has forgiven our sins and promised us a future of love and wholeness. Again, in the imagery of the poem, the gospel is like a miracle that gives that broken-legged player wings so that she can fulfill — times one thousand! — the demands her coach has given her. The gospel unites us to Christ, who is himself our wings. We fly only because he holds us. And thereby he triumphs over the law’s condemnation.

I bring all this up this morning because our epistle reading from St. Paul appears, at first glance, to be all law. Depending on how you tally things up, there are nine commands given in the space of a mere nine verses, and some of the commands sound crushingly impossible to perform.

“Stand firm in the Lord,” Paul says, and I immediately think of my friends who have tried, for years, to stand firm in their faith, and then depression or cynicism or worldly passion overtakes them and knocks them down.

“I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord,” Paul says of two women in the Philippian congregation who were apparently at odds, and I think of all the broken friendships I’ve known which the estranged parties have tried — and failed — to mend.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice,” Paul says, and I find myself wondering if he’s ever really spent time with a social worker or a clear-eyed journalist. When you’re working with two-year-old foster children whose bones have been broken through drunken abuse, or when you’re writing about statistics like 40% of Puerto Rico still being without running water, how are you supposed to rejoice? Paul’s words sound almost cruel. We may picture him shouting to a recently bereaved spouse, “Stop your crying and be happy!” In North America these days, as a friend of mine complained recently on her blog, “we’re constantly surrounded by capitalists and Christians with unnecessarily intense dentistry, all yelling at us that We Have a Duty to Our Joy.”

“Do not worry about anything,” Paul goes on, and he finishes this portion of the epistle by saying that we are only to think about what is true and honorable and excellent, apparently forgetting that for some of us that’s pretty much impossible. We have to wake up every day and think about the unraveling marriage we’re in, or the recently evicted clients we’re trying to help land on their feet, or the animal abuse story we have to cover for the local newspaper, or the industry mogul who figured out a way to deny benefits to struggling employees that we have to investigate. In short, much of this reading from Paul does not sound doable, let alone like good news.

But I want to point out something that it may be all too easy for us to overlook at this juncture, and it’s this: Paul is writing these words to people who are already assured of God’s unconditional fatherly love and commitment to them and to the world. Paul is giving these commands, in other words, not to people whose futures hang precariously in the balance. Quite the opposite: Paul is speaking to those who are lodged firmly and securely in the heart of God apart from anything they’ve done, good or bad. He is writing to those who have his promise that the whole world will be remade. And he is inviting his hearers — he is inviting us this morning — to open our eyes to that reality and to enjoy its privileges and to begin, however haltingly, to live in the light of it.

We can see this reality in that little phrase “in the Lord” which Paul repeats three times in this section of Philippians: “Stand firm in the Lord.” “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” “Rejoice in the Lord always.” It’s related to one of Paul’s favorite expressions: we believers are “in Christ.” It’s as though Christ is a safe, welcoming house, and we have taken up residence in him and are sheltered by him. It’s an entirely different matter when you hear a command like “stand firm” in that setting than if you were outside. Standing firm isn’t so overwhelming, it doesn’t sound so demoralizing and depressing, if you realize it more or less means, “Sit down and breathe deeply and close your eyes and remember that you already are standing firm because you’re inside the home of Christ’s love and the wind outside, no matter how fiercely it blows, cannot topple you over.” Rejoicing isn’t perhaps so threatening a posture if we realize we’re not being asked to put on a big toothy grin in the face of loss and heartache but rather to remember, even in the middle of the loss and the heartache, that we are still in the grip of Love himself.

And that brings me to the second indication in our passage that Paul doesn’t want us to hear condemnation this morning. In addition to saying “in the Lord” three times, Paul also gives us three promises in this portion of Philippians. “The Lord is near,” Paul says first. What he means is that the Lord Jesus is standing ready, awaiting the moment of his return to us, when all the things that we rightly grieve over — our own sin and hardheartedness, the awful pain of earthquakes and forest fires and cancer and sexual assault and on and on — will be finally vanquished. As he put it in the two verses immediately prior to our reading for today, “But our citizenship is in heaven, 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 time of our transformation is nearer now, Paul means, than when we first believed.

The second promise Paul offers is this: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” That future tense is important to notice: “the peace of God… will guard your hearts and your minds…” Paul is well aware that he is writing to people — people like us — whose present circumstances are not what they hope for. Perhaps Paul felt a shooting pain in the damaged nerve endings of his own back (which back was pocked and gnarled with scars from the floggings he’d received) as he wrote these words. Paul knew the brokenness of the world in his bones and in his skin. He knew that no joy, no reconciliation and purity of thought, would ever be possible without God’s promise to mend the world. Without that promise, any call to joy can only be a call to close your eyes to the world’s miseries. God, whose life is perfect peace, promises that he will open a future for us in which all wrongs will be righted, all tears will be dried, all wounds will be healed, and all injustices will be overturned. And it is only in the light of that future that Paul dares to say to us, “Rejoice!”

But ultimately, Paul concludes with a third promise that is slightly different than the second: “the God of peace will be with you.” All of Paul’s commands — stand firm, be reconciled, rejoice, don’t worry, think on holy things — are enclosed, so to speak, within God’s promise not only that he will mend the world in the future but also that he will be present with his people even now. God grants us foretastes of the ultimate, universal peace that enable us to go on hoping and rejoicing and working for justice in defiance of the illness and trauma and abuse and inequality we see in our present experience every day. The future peace that God promises — the future peace that God is — is, in a very real sense, with us right now, already, in advance of the Lord’s coming. And it is only in view of that reality that we can do what Paul commands us to do: to be joyful, to give up worrying, to pray, to give thanks, to meditate on holy things.

Only as Christ bears us up, with our broken legs and all, on eagles’ wings, does he bid us smile and look at the horizon toward which we’re flying. The sun is shining on that horizon, and the darkness is being dispelled even now.

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

The Rev. Dr. Wes Hill is assistant professor of Biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry. This sermon was preached at St. Aidan’s Anglican Church, Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, on October 15, 2017.