God Matters (October 3-9)

Sunday, October 9
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
God Matters

Weekly Prayer
God of Aaron, Miriam, and Moses, you stayed the hand of your wrath when we fell into idolatry and discord; and when we forgot our deliverance, your love for us remained unchanging. Transform us and our world into a place of justice, love, and peace. Welcome us to your wedding feast where all are invited to be gathered in. Amen.

Focus Reading
Philippians 4:1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

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.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 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.

All Readings For This Sunday
Exodus 32:1-14 with Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or
Isaiah 25:1-9 with Psalm 23 and
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Focus Questions

1. What’s the difference between “joy” and “happiness”?

2. Do you think Paul’s advice to the feuding church women would work today? Were early Christians so different from us?

3. What is at the center of your life?

4. Have you ever thought of yourself as a “mystic”? Why or why not?

5. When have you felt “the God of peace” near at hand?

by Kate Huey

We take a little break from our many weeks with the Israelites out there in the wilderness, on the way to the Promised Land, and spend some time with the Apostle Paul, in prison, writing about joy. However, even though we’re fast-forwarding to the New Testament, there’s a connection between Paul’s writing and the story of the Israelites on their long journey with God. The tender love and care, the deep wisdom and many gifts that guided Israel in the desert and nurtured the young church in Philippi, have been passed on to us today to strengthen and guide the church on its way, two thousand years later.

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is soaringly beautiful. Our spirits are lifted by Paul’s elegant love letter to a church for which he obviously cares deeply. The challenge of Bible study is to capture a sense of the joyful spirit, the message of the whole letter, from one short passage. In the case of Philippians, it’s worth our time to sit down and read Paul’s message from beginning to end (Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message is particularly helpful with this.). Our passage comes from the last chapter, but there are many parts of the letter that will sound familiar, including the magnificent hymn that ends with “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:10-11).

Leading up to this week’s passage, after listing his many achievements and qualifications as a righteous man of faith, Paul declares, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (3:7). All he really wants now is to know Christ, to draw on the power of Christ’s resurrection, to share in his sufferings and to become more like him. In our achievement-oriented society, in business, academics, and public life, there’s much discussion of qualifications and experience, much evaluation, and lively (if not always good-spirited) conversation in our political life, for example, about the things a person brings to their job, presumably for the greater good and not just their own. That kind of striving fills our lives, from our first accomplishments in nursery school to the most recent achievements on our resumes. Perhaps we feel our accomplishments prove our worth. Perhaps we feel more secure if we can look back on what we’ve done to earn the rewards we enjoy, including the financial ones. Perhaps we enjoy the esteem that comes with achievements. It would be hard to count all this as “rubbish,” and yet Paul does exactly that. Even more than humility, such a movement of the heart requires tremendous trust in God, who, Paul says, “is at work in you” (2:13a).

The letter is full of love, but also joy: “make my joy complete,” Paul writes: “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). This week’s passage describes what that might look like, how to achieve such unity, beginning with encouragement to “stand firm,” to be reconciled when we disagree, and always, always, to rejoice. After all, “the Lord is near,” so we don’t have to worry about anything. This powerful theme runs through Scripture: don’t be afraid, and don’t worry. God is with us, close at hand, and “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,” will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (4:7). Concentrate, Paul says, on the very best things, the true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy things, the “matters” of God that show that God matters to us. Keep up the good work, he says: keep the faith. 

A joy-filled letter

Eugene Peterson calls this “Paul’s happiest letter. And the happiness is infectious.” But here’s the irony underneath that claim: Paul is writing this letter from prison, as he faces death for preaching the gospel, for disrupting the empire and its values. He’s not writing it on an especially good day, when things are going well and he’s surrounded by friends. No, he writes from an even deeper joy, springing from his knowledge of, and relationship with, Jesus Christ. Peterson describes the source of Paul’s joy, and ours, too: “Christ is, among much else, the revelation that God cannot be contained or hoarded. It is this ‘spilling out’ quality of Christ’s life that accounts for the happiness of Christians, for joy is life in excess, the overflow of what cannot be contained within any one person” (The Message).

“Joy is life in excess.” What an interesting way to describe joy! Paul, like any joyful person, does seem to overflow with a powerful need to share what he has, even in the face of prison and deprivation. Isn’t that what generosity, and evangelism, and warm hospitality are about: sharing an overflowing joy, “life in excess”? Peterson’s translation of Paul’s words conveys this so well: “Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life” (The Message).

The first part of this passage, unfortunately, is poignantly familiar: from a distance, Paul tries to resolve a church fight. (The saying goes that no one wins a church fight.) Two women, esteemed church leaders and workers, need to resolve their differences (which Paul doesn’t specify, interestingly, perhaps because he doesn’t want to get that involved). It would be interesting to hear the reaction of modern experts in conflict resolution who hear Paul’s exhortation to “be of the same mind in the Lord.” That brief reference leaves us hungry for more information, and more help, in our own painful church conflicts and personal relationships.

Grand goals and everyday choices

After urging the feuding women to reconcile, Paul begins to bring his letter to a close with a litany of exhortations. This is more than a laundry list of instructions; it’s a sketch of what it looks like to become more like Jesus. Earl Palmer contrasts small, everyday choices and the “large, grand goals, such as peace and justice,” which “are easy to embrace and admire with the rhetoric of abstract beauty and perfection.” He remembers an excellent Peanuts cartoon from many years ago, in which Linus says, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.” Paul’s list, Palmer writes, might help us to “practice these virtues just as we practice an athletic skill in order to make it a regular and natural part of our daily lives.” In that way, things like peace and justice and love and healing “become reality in a human life on the basis of the day-to-day, small-scale choices that we make in supermarkets, on the freeway, in crowded workstations, at home, and in a thousand other forks in the road where we make the real choices that either express or diminish the grand goals….” Perhaps we can learn to love “humankind” better by better loving the people we encounter each day.

None of this is possible without the Holy Spirit. Many years ago, I studied the work of the great Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner. Geffrey B. Kelly has provided commentary (and much-needed explanation; Rahner is difficult reading!) on a collection of Rahner’s thought, including something called “the fundamental option.” “God’s grace,” as Kelly describes Rahner’s thought, “is an inspiriting of the world of God’s making, stirring in people a restless drive to be fulfilled in their humanity through a variety of options and movements, all subsumed in the one fundamental option, the choice to accept and act out their orientation to the Holy Mystery of God.” Paul’s letter and his striving to leave everything else behind as he yearns to be more like Christ, reminds me of the way Rahner describes this work of God’s Spirit moving “the human person to be more Godlike.” Kelly says that this striving, this movement, this regular spiritual practice, “becomes, in a way, a mysticism of everyday life” (you can read more in his book, Karl Rahner: Selected Texts). Few of us would claim to be mystics, and yet this is our invitation to mysticism in the everyday choices we make.

The challenge of the church today

Remembering that Paul writes from a prison cell may affect how we hear his words, as he encourages the little flock there in its shared life of faith. The words he uses apply just as well to churches today, especially if they’re feeling small and overpowered by the various forms of “empire” around them, pressured by a culture that preaches a very different message from the gospel, discouraged or confused about what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ. That description could fit many of us, and many of our churches, at one time or another. We may feel intimidated by mega-churches that preach a gospel of prosperity, or worried about the financial or physical challenges facing our own congregation. Paul writes words that are both stirring and gentle: “Rejoice…do not worry about anything…pray…the peace of God will guard your hearts…keep on doing the things you have learned and received….”

What are the challenges your church faces, and the questions that arise about God’s call and direction in the life you share as a community of faith? What are the “true,” “honorable,” “just,” “pure,” “pleasing,” and “commendable” things that you think about, together? What are the “guides” for your congregation that give you direction and vision? How often do you think long-term and big-picture about these values? Do the everyday, month-to-month, and year-to-year activities and programs sometimes lose this focus? What have been those moments when you could feel “the God of peace” in your midst, in both recent history and in the shared story of your congregation? How can you tap into that source of peace as a means of hearing God’s voice, still speaking to your church today, through these words of Paul addressed to a small, struggling, counter-cultural church long ago?

For Further Reflection

Mother Teresa, 20th century
Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.

Richard Wagner, 19th century
Joy is not in things; it is in us.

C.S. Lewis, 20th century
I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.

Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
The sun does not shine for a few trees and flowers, but for the wide world’s joy.

Helen Keller, 20th century
Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.

Joseph Campbell, 20th century
Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.