A Sermon from Sherborne

Compline Address 2 – Rejoice in the Lord!

‘What does it matter? [1.12-30]: preached by The Reverend Sister Ann-Marie Stuart FJ on Monday 26 February 2018


‘What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way!’ [118a]

The early Christian church was a hugely inclusive community, and none revealed this better than the church in Philippi. As I think you heard last Monday, we first come across mention of Paul’s life in Philippi in the Acts of the Apostles [16]. When we read about the way in which Paul felt called to work in Macedonia after he saw a man in a dream begging for his help.

In Acts we learn more about Philippi which is important, as it is always unwise to take one section of scripture out of the wider context of the rest. Here we are introduced to three rather different people, firstly the lady Lydia, probably not her actual name, but a dealer in purple cloth, a very expensive and exotic fabric, used by magistrates on official duties, and traditionally by the Kings of Rome to distinguish them from ordinary Romans. Lydia would be the equivalent of a merchant prince.

Secondly, we meet a slave girl, bought by her owners to tell fortunes. In the eyes of the state, a slave was not a real person at all, she would be considered as some kind of living drone. A throw away item.

Lastly, we meet the gaoler, a middle class Roman Citizen, from the civil service. These three could meet within the Christian community in Philippi as absolute equals. It must have been an extremely unorthodox and unique experience for them as Philippi was also cosmopolitan so they would meet a huge mixture of colour, background, and class, both from abroad and at home. A truly egalitarian and entirely innovative situation.

William Barclay the Scottish theologians tells us that Paul grew closer to this church than any of the others in which he worked, he calls them, “My brothers whom I love and long for”. And “my joy and crown in the Lord.” he would because he was writing to them from Rome, as a prisoner living in his own private digs as a Roman citizen should but chained by his wrist day and night to a guard.

Paul had deliberately chosen Philippi because it was the door to a much wider cosmopolitan world than Israel, but now it appeared that his influence would be curtailed. Instead he lets his friends in Philippi know that far from that, his opportunity to preach Christ was much greater in Rome, from there his horizons were much extended and the Gospel could reach a far wider audience.

Then too he realised that his friends in Philippi might work all the harder to make Christ known to try to make up for his absence. But he fears that some would take advantage of his absence in order to promote themselves, rather than the Living God. Until he remembers the Holy Spirit. All Paul cares about is that one way or another the Gospel of the Living God should be preached. Paul is so convinced that all we have to do to please God is to make His name known to others.

In verses 15-18 we learn something rather vital about our shared ministry, of preaching the Gospel. N.B. our shared ministry yours and mine. Paul has no time for those who see ministry as some kind of competition, seeking to be better than others at preaching the Gospel or working for the church better than others.

Paul believes that all that matters is that the Gospel of the Risen Jesus is preached, bad tempered he might have been from time to time, but petty he was not, for he cared not who received credit for the work, he believed that spreading the Good news of the Risen Jesus should be lifted above all personality clashes.

And God has a plan, he says. “To gather everything together in the fullness of time.” You have to remember here that Paul wasn’t taught about God by anyone else, Paul met God in that unique encounter on the Damascus Road. He met the living God face to face, and that is his fixed place. You may feel perhaps that this gave Paul an advantage, but actually don’t we all have our fixed place whenever we delve deeply within our hearts into that place where the Living God dwells?

So not to worry, there is a plan Paul says in 1 and 2 Corinthians, and also in 1 and2 Thessalonians, for an ingathering, the Parousia when we shall all be gathered together as one harmonious community, like the one gathered here, where there will be no male or female, no Greek nor Jew, no protestant or catholic, no man-made divisions between religious factions. And this brings together both good Jewish teaching and good Christian teaching for it will be through the operation of the Ruah, the Holy Spirit and all of us actively participating with the plan that it will be carried through entirely animated by the Living God.

So what has all this to say to us today so far? Well we live in an increasingly individualistic and divided world, not just of the haves and the have nots, but also of the lefties and the righties, of those who would make war and those who would not. A ridiculously competitive world.

In the religious world as we all know there are divisions between those with an evangelical tendency and those with a more catholic bent, between the theologians and the charismatics. Rather like the Brexit divisions, for most of the time we haven’t a clue what’s going on, and if you’re like me you despair of trying to understand its implications.

But down through the ages, Paul’s strident voice reminds us that there is a plan, and the Ruah, the Holy Spirit is here to assist us to find our way through the maelstrom of modern life. And Paul should know because his situation is even more desperate than ours, he doesn’t know whether he will live or die. But he lives in hope. ‘All my hope on God is founded.’

He doesn’t know what his end will be, but he does know and trusts the plan, that all will be well and all manner of things will be well, regardless of whether he lives or dies, because the Risen Jesus he knows and met will not let him down, and this Jesus has promised him that the Holy Spirit will assist him.

Do we have that kind of faith today I wonder? When we live in fear of the unknown, do we remember to fall back on the presence of the Ruah, the Spirit of God, and let me tell you I so often forget to do so myself, it’s just not that easy. So Paul keeps reminding his friends and us too about the huge power that the Living God has at his disposal, the only type of power that really matters, far above any earthly power.

And Paul uses a very unusual word in this passage. I hope I can pronounce it because it’s really important, its apokaradokia. It’s so unusual that some scholars believe that Paul made the word up, and perhaps he did. Used here it means to turn away from everything else and to fix one’s mind and heart on the object of our desire. In other words to concentrate our hearts and minds upon the Living God.

Paul talks about his possible death as a kind of setting sail towards this fixed point of encounter with the Living God. He wants them, and us to understand that people observing the members of the Christian Community will see that no matter what happens to us good or bad, that we live in the Hope of what the Living God can and will do for us.

Paul trusts where perhaps we would not. He trusts that no matter what happens to him personally, the Living God will be revealed to others in the end as they witness the way in which he faces his fate. We too, all of us are moving towards the same encounter with the Living God at the end of our lives, will others seeing the way we face our death in the here and now observe the amazing wonder of the nearness of the Living God?

So next time life gets on top of you, next time you are anxious, afraid or concerned, or sad, or even glad give apokaradokia a try, fix your mind, fix your heart on the Living God and then summon up the Holy Spirit of God to give you the courage to take part in the plan, to trust in the promise of the ingathering of the egalitarian body of Christ.

Remember the Celtic Circle prayer those of you who have heard me teach Christian Celtic Spirituality. Remember the circle prayer, which you recite as you draw a circle of safely and light around yourself with your index finger. ‘Around me bind the three, the one the Trinity, the Father bind his love, the Son his salvation, the Spirit bind his power, make me a new creation. Around me bind the Three the encircling Trinity.’ When you are alone in your room, give it a go! Amen.

The Reverend Sister Ann-Marie Stuart FJ 26/02/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne