Prepared for and delivered at Westminster Towers chapel.
10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him (Christ) who gives me strength. 14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. (New International Version)
I don’t know about you, but I can’t help watching the Olympics. I remember sitting and watching the Games with my family growing up, watching Bud Greenspan’s documentaries about great athletes, and dreaming about what it would be like. So I have been staying up late watching the London Games the last 10 days. From Michael Phelps and his collection of medals to Oscar Pistorias running on two prosthetic legs to the 39 year old Hungarian gymnast who missed out on the podium for the fourth time, I have been drawn into the amazing strength and perseverance on display since the Olympic cauldron was lit.
I suspect that leading into their arrival at the Olympics, more than a few athletes have clung to the promise we find in verse 13. It is one of those verses that many people memorize:
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
It makes sense, after all, we are made new in Christ. And we know that God grants us strength. Another beloved and oft-quoted passage in Isaiah tells us
“Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
And in Ephesians, we read that the power God displayed in the resurrection of Jesus is the same power made available to us- the resurrection power that transforms us also empowers us to be part of God’s great reconciling mission in the world.
I’ll confess that until a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t really thought much about what Paul was writing about when he made that bold claim to the Philippians. But during a sermon at my home church, the Pastor pointed us back to the surrounding paragraph. Let me read that again so that it is fresh in our ears. (reread passage)
Now, Paul wrote this letter from prison to a church that had been supportive of his ministry. He is writing to encourage them, and to help them understand the power of humility. That sounds a little upside down- the power of humility. This would be as difficult a lesson for them as it is for us because the Roman culture around them valued wealth, status and power above all. And Philippi was home to many retired soldiers, men who had earned their status through power,both physical and political. This was not a community which would readily embrace humility.
It is as Paul draws this letter to a close, in what we note as the fourth chapter, Paul talks about being content. He writes “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” I can do all of this – anything – through Christ.
This statement isn’t about running faster, being stronger or jumping higher. And It’s not about having faith in yourself because Christ has faith in you. This is Paul reminding those of us who are followers of Jesus that we may be called upon to sacrifice comfort, status and even wealth… all for our faith.
Certainly Paul had lost everything after his conversion on the road to Damascus. He’d gone from being the fair-haired boy among the Pharisees, seeking out and stoning heretics, to the one who was persecuted and imprisoned. He had to count on the kindness of others for food and clothing while in jail. He had known privilege as a Roman citizen; now he also knew shame and poverty.
And it was Christ who strengthened him to endure it all… to be content in all circumstances.
We, too, can be content in all circumstances if Christ is at the center of our longings. But this is so difficult to do in a culture that sells and markets a contentment based on consuming more, owning more, amassing more. By its very nature, this contentment based on “more” remains just out of reach and causes us to cling tightly to what we have for fear of loss. We wonder and worry how we might get some more.
The good news is that Christ provides the strength to stand against these messages, to be content in times of plenty and in times of want. To be content in times of sickness and loss and in times of health and healing. In peace and in conflict. In solitude and in crowds. Christ gives me the strength to be content in all things, all places. All those circumstances in which I’d hope to find myself and those I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
But I want widen out our reading even further – to look again at the first and last verses of this passage. They add a whole new layer to explore. Paul starts the reflection on being content in his current circumstance –which is pretty bleak – as he thanks the believers in Philippi for offering help. They had checked to see that he was ok. They reminded him that it wasn’t just Paul and Jesus against the world.
And that is true. In many places, Paul wrote eloquently about the church as the body of Christ. That we are members – parts – of a body that come together in service to one another and to the world. Just as the Philippians did for Paul, we embody Christ for one another and for those not yet re-membered into the body.
Paul was able to do all things through Christ. Christ was strengthening Paul through the scriptures, through time in prayer and through the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Christ was also strengthening Paul through the body of Christ, including the concern and support of the Philippians.
Watching at all those athletes in London this past week, I saw a beautiful display of the diversity of shapes and colors of people… all at the peak condition for their particular sport. For some, that means being lean and lithe. For others, mass and strength are more important. But they all embody the passion and focus an athlete needs to pursue the glory of an Olympic medal.
Look around, do you see that in this room? I do!
With our sisters and brothers around the world, we are part of a beautiful display of the shapes and colors of people God continues to create. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we are at peak condition to love and serve one another. With Christ at the head, we embody the passion and focus needed to glorify God.
You see, contentment in and through Christ is not the same things as complacency. In fact, it is by seeing and meeting the needs of others that we bring the Kingdom of God into view – right here on Earth as it is in heaven. I become content in my circumstances when I realize I have enough to help change someone else’s circumstances. I have enough time to listen. Enough compassion to speak up. Enough change in my pocket to share a cup of coffee. Enough energy to gather other friends to prayer. Enough prayer to lift up this broken world to the God who can transform it.
The story that most captured my imagination so far this Olympics was not Gabby Douglas winning golds in gymnastics or the amazing performances in the swimming competitions. It is Oscar Pistorius, the young double-amputee from South Africa who made it to the semi-finals in the 400 meter run. He could have been content to compete with other disabled athletes in the paraOlympics. Did he strive for too much?
His graciousness and contentment in defeat, his fearlessness on the track required runners to see him differently – not looking at his prosthetics, but at his spirit. After his final race, fellow competitor Kirani James of Grenada turned to Pistorius, hugged him, and then asked to exchange name bibs in a poignant gesture of respect. His number and presence would go on in competition, even as he became one of the spectators.
Like this young man, like Paul, we can be content in all things and do all things through Christ who gives us strength. We are strong because Christ is strong in us, so that we might be strong for one another, bear one another’s burdens, and be reminders of where true contentment is found. All so that God’s glory would be revealed.