This morning, we’re beginning a series through the book of Philippians called, Finding a Deeper Joy. The book of Philippians, which is a brief letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, teaches us deeply about joy and how it is found in a life of faith. Today, we begin at the beginning, chapter one. Listen for the word of God.
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
So, let’s begin with a disappointment. The third season of Ted Lasso is not coming out this fall and that has reduced my joy – or at least my happiness. Turns out, we have to wait until spring.
If you watched season two, you remember the Dani who comes to the soccer team as a young, uber-talented, and delightfully joyful foil to Roy, the aging star who is working to come to terms with his changing body and soul.
In one scene you may remember, Dani is meeting in the press room with Keeley, who is a friend of the team, a girlfriend to Roy, and a model with a knack for marketing who has agreed to help the players find corporate sponsorships.
“What are you interested in Dani?” she asks.
With a huge smile across his face, he says: “Joy!”
(Writing on the pad) Keeley says, “Right, the product you’d most like to get into business with is joy.”
“Si! Mucho, mucho joy!”
“I don’t know if I can get you paid for that, though, Dani.”
He looks at her with a face of delight and says, “I like to give away joy for free!”
Keeley makes a couple of more notes and sends Dani away. Now, it’s funny, but if we pull this brief dialogue apart it shows us something true about joy. Take Keeley.
She is trying to get Dani a corporate sponsorship, a product he can endorse and sell. If he had said sneakers or snacks, relaxation or razor blades, she could have navigated him into a commercial product relationship. But not joy.
Joy resists commercialization and commodification. You can buy a t-shirt with Dani’s quote on it: “I want to give away joy for free.” But you can’t buy Dani’s joy.
Dani, on the other hand – in his childlike wonder and delight – knows something about joy that is true. Joy can only be given and received. “I want to give away joy for free!” Dani said. That’s the only way it works.
In the letter to the Philippians, Paul returns many times to the theme of joy and so will we. This morning I want to look at the reason for Paul’s joy – the seeds of his joy.
It’s very important first to understand the context of this letter, specifically where Paul is and the circumstances of his writing. He’s joyful, but he’s not on a beach, there is no margherita or beer in his hand. He is not on a porch overlooking a fall mountain view, or sitting beside a trout stream. There is nothing “gram-worthy” about Paul’s circumstances. Paul is in a Roman prison.
Roman prisons were different than our prisons. They were only used for holding prisoners awaiting trial, and after the trial a person was either acquitted, punished, or executed. Paul was awaiting trial for proclaiming Christ, which caused trouble for the empire. He was proclaiming a different source of authority than Caesar and preaching a different set of values and hopes than the surrounding culture. So, they arrested him for trial.
In a Roman prison, the government provided nothing. Food, water, blankets, fresh clothes, had to be sent by friends or you would freeze and starve. That is what the Philippians did for Paul. They sent him a person of their community named Epaphroditus, to live in the town where Paul was in prison and provide for his needs while he waited. In this way, they shared his struggle. They sent him help, they prayed for him, they watched for a messenger, and some part of themselves was there in prison with him.
So Paul writes, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” That verse is printed in your bulletin. You might take it out and underline the words joy and sharing.
Paul’s constant prayers were marked by a deep joy. That does not mean he was always happy, or optimistic about his circumstances. He was not always feeling positive or confident within himself. Paul had times of great wrestling inside himself. He was often anxious about his life and his work, he felt anguish about his failures and his future and his legacy. What would become of these churches when he was gone? He was in prison and might be executed! But he was joyful.
Joy does not always look the same in every season. Especially in times of difficulty or suffering or grief, our joy adapts – but it endures. Sometimes, in dark times, joy is only a solitary light that is born out the trust that we are infinitely loved, and God is faithful. This is the deeper joy that Paul has found.
Paul writes that he prays with joy because they shared in the gospel with him. The word translated share is a word we have been using as a congregation recently. It’s the word “koinonia,” as in our koinonia small groups, which are meeting twice a month this year.
Koinonia defies translation into English. Sometimes it’s called fellowship, but it’s much more than that. To us, fellowship is standing around chatting with a cup of lemonade and a cookie. But this word is usually translated according to what is shared: money is sharing, work is co-laboring, suffering is suffering with, prayer is praying for, grace is giving and receiving. Koinonia is doing life together in Christ, in whatever circumstances life brings, being the body of Christ together. This the seed of Paul’s joy.
This sharing is why the Philippians sent Epaphroditus to provide for Paul in prison, and his presence recalled all the other things they had shared: the songs, the prayers, the meals, the projects, the life they spent together. And Paul’s heart overflowed with joy.
As Guy Sayles said last week in his sermon, we long for this kind of joy. Many of us feel like we are still languishing as we come out of the pandemic. We are slowly getting back to the motions of life, but we have yet to find the joy of life. We have tried to buy it, we have traveled to find it, we have made room for it on the calendar, and we have moments of happiness. But we are still longing for joy.
We see the glossy pictures of the gram-worthy life others are living – all smiles and blues skies – and we’re stuck in the kitchen, in front of the computer, going to the doctor. We long to feel a deeper joy, to find a joy that can burn like a flame even in the dark.
Dani had it right: joy resists being bought and sold. Joy, real joy, is only found in sharing.
How do we share the life of Christ? We must find ways to connect our lives to others. One is through worship, just as we are doing now. We make time to gather and sing and pray our faith with one voice, to lift each other up, and be nourished by word and font and table. Another is through serving together, finding a way to be side-by-side, to work for something larger than ourselves that touches our deepest values. Another is just playing together, as we did at the church retreat two weeks ago.
In this season of stewardship, it’s important to see that we also share in the gospel through our mutual giving. When we give to the church, it is more than giving to a non-profit (which we are) or to a good cause (which this is). We are profoundly sharing in the gospel. We are sharing in the community and calling of the body of Christ in this place, the place where we find our hands and hearts, where our resources are united in faith.
And as important as all of that is, the most fundamental way we share the life of Christ is by joining each other in our suffering. When we walk together, and pray for one another, we meet each other at a point of need, at a point of suffering, we share our lives in the most holy space available to us. Christ showed us that strength is made perfect in weakness, that power is found in vulnerability, that God is revealed on a cross. The fellowship of Christ is in the fellowship of sufferings, strength concealed in weakness, the seeds joy buried in sorrow. When we pray for each other, our lives and hearts are knit together in the Christ who died for us, rose for us, reigns for us, and prays for us.
The joy we seek cannot be bought or sold. It is only found in sharing.
A few years ago, in a sermon at the Chautauqua Institute, Father Greg Boyle told the story of a Homeboy named Dreamer. Boyle, whom you’ve heard me mention before, is a priest who founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles to help men with criminal records, many of whom were gang-members, to find work and new life.
Dreamer got into trouble in his 20s, and he would get a job and then gravitate to a vague criminality, like selling and using drugs. When Dreamer finally decided to enter recovery, he needed a job and Boyle found him one with Gary, who owned a vending machine company. Dreamer started working there the next day.
Two weeks later, Dreamer was back in Boyle’s office. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a paycheck. “D[arn], G, this paycheck makes me feel proper,” Dreamer said. “You know who I have to thank for this job, don’t you?”
Boyle looked pleased with himself and said, “Who?” “Well, God, of course,” Dreamer said. “You thought I would say you.” He had a dangerous sense of humor. They laughed.
Boyle said, “I was not sitting there as provider, and he was not sitting there as recipient. We had entered mutuality.”
They had discovered koinonia, sharing the gospel. Startled at what God had done in and between all of their doings, they were surprised by laughter.
Find ways to share the life of Christ with others – worship, serve together, giving, walking with one another in suffering, in prayer. Joy is found when we share Christ’s life.
So often, we are like Keeley in Ted Lasso, standing in front of Dani, except we stand in front of God, wondering what I can do for you, God?
And God sits in front of us, smiling, saying, “I want to give you joy for free!”
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina
 Fred Craddock, Philippians, Interpretation Series.