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Proper 20A, Tr 1 (13 Trinity, 18.09.2011)
Exod 16.2-15:  the feeding with manna
Ps 105.1-6, 37-45: God’a care in the wilderness
Phil. 1.21-30: do not lose heart now I am not with you
Matt 20.1-16: Grace is abundant; all shall have a fair share, the first and the last (11th hour labourers) (817)

Almighty God, you search us and know us: may we rely on you in strength and rest on you in weakness, now and in all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(We, like the Philippians, are called to joy, not happiness.)  

          We have just had the 10th anniversary observances of the events of 9/11 in which 2,977 lives were lost.  And today we are starting to read the letter to the Philippians.  Both the 9/11 commemorations and the letter to the Philippians have one concern in common, namely, how do we handle the death of a loved one.

          Today I want to tell you a story.  I personally am convinced that it is a true story, but certainly not all scholars would agree with me.   

          Let us begin by assuming that you are a leader in a Christian community.  What would you do if you received a report that the person who had brought you and your fellow Christians to joyous life in Christ had been put to death by the authorities?  How would you handle the shock of it, knowing how deeply it was going to hit the members of your community?

          As we know from the Book of Acts, Paul had been taken to Rome and held in house arrest.  About AD 64 Paul was killed in Rome and about the same time Peter was as well.  When the report of Paul’s death reached Philippi , the local leader, one of Paul’s very close associates, wrote a letter in Paul’s name, writing what he believed Paul himself would have written in this situation if he had been able to do so.  This, I am convinced, is the letter to the Philippians.

          There are many reasons, of a statistical or stylistic nature, or even of contents, for concluding that Philippians is not written by Paul himself, and I won’t go into those now, but pseudonymity, that is, writing in another person’s name, is a well-attested phenomenon in the first century AD. 

          The author writes as though he were Paul during his imprisonment in Rome.  Let’s start with chapter 1, v. 20, just one verse before today’s reading.

          ‘It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.  For to me living is Christ and dying is gain.  If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer.  I am hard pressed between the two; my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.’ (1.20-24).

          In those words you can hear Paul’s desire to die and be with the Lord but not to desert the Philippians.  In the face of this, if there is one word which characterises this letter, it is ‘joy’.  Paul is joyful and rejoices.  The Philippians are called to rejoice and to rejoice together with Paul.  The word ‘joy’, chara, occurs five times; ‘to rejoice’, chairein, occurs seven times, and ‘to rejoice together’, sunchairein, is used two times, once of Paul rejoicing together with the Philippians and once of the Philippians being called to rejoice together with Paul.

          In the midst of all the advice and encouragement in the letter, the mood of the letter is summed up in one verse: ‘rejoice in the Lord always, And again I say rejoice’ (4.1).  We are called, as were the Philippians, to always rejoice in the Lord, no matter what happens.  This is what is happening in Zimbabwe, where the Anglicans are being persecuted, evicted from their churches, etc., by Mugabe’s henchmen, and yet people are flocking to become Christians in the face of this.

          There are those who say that on the basis of present statistical trends the Church of England will have disappeared in another twenty years, that is, it will have died.  We certainly are in a period of retrenchment and the Church of England is hard pushed to maintain the ancient parochial system.  We see this for ourselves in now being in a united benefice where from today Edward Street and St John’s are merging to form a new St Michael and St John’s. 

          In the midst of this uncertainty we hear Philippians calling us to rejoice.  As far as I am concerned, there is a qualitative difference between happiness and joy.  Happiness is when everything is going along nicely.  Joy on the other hand and at its deepest level, may be felt in the midst of sorrow, pain and tragedy when we are able to support one another deeply in the midst of all of it.  In short to use Paul’s own words, ‘Bear one another’s burden and thereby fulfil the law of Christ’.  And let us rejoice that held by God’s love in Christ we are able to do so.

          Quite simply, you and I are called, like the Philippians, to joy, not happiness.  The ultimate outcome we leave to God.