A Sermon on Philippians 4:8-14
Perpetua was a nice girl from a good family. Her parents sent her to all the right schools. She was bright and she was good with words, and by the time she was 22 years old, she was married to a good man, with a new baby boy. And that's when everything went wrong. We don't know how, but in 203AD, Perpetua became a Christian. Maybe that would have been ok if Perpetua had eased into it, if she had been a little more experimental, but Perpetua wasn't the sort to dabble. Before she was even baptized, she decided she wouldn't make any more sacrifices to the Roman gods, or to the Emperor who had adopted the title of a god. Her parents were appalled. "Think of your future," her dad said. "Think of your child's future! Don't make this baby carry the burden of your beliefs." But Perpetua wouldn't budge. Inevitably, she was arrested, this nice girl from a good family was put in prison alongside a slave girl name Felicity and a male Christian named Saturus, and all three of them were sentenced to be torn apart by animals in the gladiator's theater of Carthage. While she waited in prison, Perpetua kept a journal, and when the day came, some of her fellow Christians took that diary and finished it by adding an account of how Perpetua and her friends died. Apart from the New Testament itself, the martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicity and Saturnus is one of the oldest eyewitness accounts we have of Christian persecution. It is miracle enough that we have it at all, and even greater wonder that we have it from a woman's point of view. But what is most amazing is the attitude of the three martyrs in the last hours before they died. The witness begins by describing the last meal that the martyrs ate in prison, among the other prisoners and their jailers, and morbid tourists who had come to mock them.
They spoke to the mob with the same steadfastness, warned them of God's judgement, stressing the joy they would have in their suffering, and ridiculing the curiosity of those that came to see them....Thus everyone would depart from the prison in amazement, and many of them began to believe.
Next, the witness writes,
The day of their victory dawned,
And I've just got to stop there, because, isn't that a strange way to describe the day of someone's execution "the day of their victory dawned"? Let's continue...
The day of their victory dawned, they marched from the prison to the amphitheatre joyfully as though they were going to heaven, [they marched] with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone's stare by her own intense gaze...
They were to be brought into the arena just as they were. Perpetua then began to sing a psalm...
At this the crowds became enraged and demanded that they be scourged before a line of gladiators. And they rejoiced at this that they had obtained a share in the Lord's sufferings...
From there, things keep escalating. After being whipped by gladiators, the martyrs are attacked by wild animals, and finally the soldiers are brought in with swords to finish them off. And as the executioners march toward them, and crowd begins to froth with anger, these three Christians have one final gesture to give to the crowd.
And so the martyrs got up and went to the spot of their own accord as the people wanted them to, and kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace.
And the day of their victory had dawned. That day, everyone in the amphitheatre knew that the gladiator's game was rigged, but only the three martyrs knew who had rigged it. The crowd raged, and the soldiers slashed. Meanwhile, the Christians sang, and rejoiced, and they shared the peace of Christ, and they knew that they could not lose. Around this same time, a Christian bishop named Tertullian wrote that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." The more often that the Christians sang praise in the face of persecution, the more often other people said, "I want a faith that looks like that," and the more the church spread. The praise of the powerless is a problem for the powers that be.
Although, let's be honest here. Joy is kind of a problem for us, too. We don't find it very easy to rejoice when we feel ignored, or put upon. Shoot, we don't just have a hard time being joyful in our trials - sometimes we refuse to be joyful unless everything is absolutely perfect. A friend of mine was teling me about how he'd recently decided to assert "spiritual leadership," in his family. He'd decided that he would start doing his daily devotional in the early evening, so that his young boys and his wife would see him and be inspired by his example. He didn't explain what he was up to, he just started picking up his Bible at the same time each night and sitting quietly with it in the living room. Of course, his young boys didn't get the hint. Small children never really "get the hint," and night after night his frustration grew until finally after about two weeks there came the night that the boys were bouncing off the walls and shouting as they chased each other and finally dad yelled "Esther, would you do something with the kids!? I'm trying to read the dadgum bible." (All names in this story are changed to protect the innocent. Also, the word "dadgum" has been changed to protect the guilty.) Needless to say, no one in the house that day had their heart strangely warmed. No one looked at this dad and thought - he has got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in his heart.
Today, we get the real thing in the book of Philippians - a letter so exuberant that it is often nicknamed "the book of joy." Paul uses the actual word "joy" 16 times in this letter, about four times per chapter, which is all the more astonishing when we find that Paul is writing the book of joy while he is in prison. That's right; the book of joy was written in prison. In the very first chapter, Paul says "I don't know if I am going to live of die, but to live is Christ and to die is gain." It seems as if nothing can shake Paul's joy. Eventually, Paul gets so worked up that in chapter 4, verse four he's practically sputtering on the page. "Rejoice, in the Lord always. Let me say it again, Rejoice!"
Over the last several months as our church has been defining its core values through a series of retreats and prayers and meetings, we said that our church has got to have joy at the very core of who we are. And when we went to define what it means to be joyful we said "we cultivate optimism, happiness, and gratitude based on our relationship with God, and not on circumstance." I love that sentence. I think that sentence has enough depth to it that we could say it every day, and practice it for years on end and not wear it out. And I love it because it draws us to today's scripture, where we find the Apostle Paul living out this very kind of joy and showing us what it looks like.
Our core values say that we have to cultivate joy. Joy doesn't just happen, it has to be prepared for. We cultivate it. Every thing you do and every word you say is like a spade you are sticking in the ground. You can use it to root up someone's joy, or you can use your God-given gifts to pull out the weeds and stones that strangle joy. Cultivation is about preparing the ground. When God plants a reason for joy, are we prepared to receive it, or have we given our hearts over to the weeds and stones? Paul knew by hard experience that joy has to be cultivated.
I was once talking to a woman who asked if I ever watched her favorite cable news anchor. At the time, I didn't have cable so I said "No" and asked her what I was missing. She said, "Oooo, he's so good. Every night he gets me madder than a wet hornet." At first, I thought this woman was stranger than most, for explicitly cultivating her anger. But now, I think she was just more honest. For whatever reason, many of us devote serious amounts of time to cultivating our anger and fear. Paul, however, knew that real trouble isn't something you have to cultivate. You don't have to go looking for hard times. You don't have to cultivate persecution. You don't have to cultivate heartbreak. You don't have to find reasons for anger or fear. When they find you, you'll know. And so Paul says the real task is to cultivate joy:
If anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things.
We have to focus our minds on the things that give joy. We have to practice them. Joy has to be cultivated, that means it must be prepared for.
It also means that joy can't be manufactured. We can't make joy. I, for one, am not a big believer in the power of positive thinking. But I am a believer in God, and our core values say that we cultivate a joy that depends upon God, and not our circumstance.
To put it another way, joy is not a strategy. We can't wish away the truly hard things in our life. Paul doesn't say "I've learned that the secret to being full and rich is to stay positive." Paul says
I've learned to find joy whether I'm full or empty,whether I have everything, or I have nothing. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.
You might know that last verse. It's the second most popular Bible verse to see on banners at sporting events, behind only John 3:16. When I was in school, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes loved to put that verse on the back of their t-shirts, using the NIV translation - "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength." When we read it that way, it makes it sound as if Christ gives us superpowers, as if we might be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Seeing that verse at a sporting event always raised the obvious question - "So what happened at last week's game, when we got the stuffing beat out of us?"
When Paul was writing the book of joy, he wasn't saying that his circumstances were bound to change. Paul wasn't promising that everything would get better if you just stay positive. Paul freely admitted - "I don't know if I will live or die." The only thing that Paul knew was that no matter how his circumstances changed, God would not change. The same Lord who had been with him before was with him still, and would be there with him on the other side of even the worst that could happen. And the Lord would always be worthy of praise, and his presence would always be joy.
We have a saying, an old saying, that we use for those sorts of folks who seem to cultivate resentments and offenses, who have come to think that all the world is against them. We say they are "playing the martyr." And it's true - they are only playing. They are acting a part they don't understand.
Real martyrs are known by their joy, to the very end.