For those who read the daily email I send out, you will know that we are reading through the entire New Testament during 2018. This past week, in fact, we read through St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This is one of my favorite books in the entire Bible. It is often called the “Letter of Joy.” The Apostle Paul offers such beautiful practical wisdom on how to live a joyous life. What’s fascinating, though, is that St. Paul wrote this letter while he was languishing in prison, writing to Christians in Philippi who themselves were filled with fear as they faced serious persecution. So, it’s quite astounding to think how a man suffering in prison, writing to people facing persecution, is writing a letter filled with joy! “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he boldly proclaims. “Again I say rejoice” (Phil 4:4).
How can one live a life filled with joy even in the midst of tremendous challenges, dangers, and difficulties? Well, I want to encourage all of you to read the four chapters of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians and discover this extremely important lesson on how to live a life of joy in this world.
I’m using my sermon today to highlight St. Paul’s letter because it even relates well to the Gospel reading of today, which talked about how prayer and fasting can increase our faith so much, that “nothing will be impossible” for us. A faith which changes lives, which transforms lives is possible for each one of us. This is what Christianity is all about.
Please never think of our Orthodox Christian faith as simply some old religion of our forbearers which has little to do with modern times. True faith in Jesus Christ is a LIVING FAITH which changes us, forms us, transforms us, and even transfigures us. This can be one of the messages we get from the great feast which we celebrate tomorrow on August 6th, the Feast of the Holy Transfiguration. I will not go into the details today about this feast, but I will highlight how Jesus the MAN climbs Mount Tabor with three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, and while praying on the mountain, the three disciples see Jesus transfigured, revealing his divinity. Christ shines forth the uncreated, divine light clearly displaying his true identity as the second person in the Holy Trinity, GOD HIMSELF. As we say every Sunday during the Nicene Creed, “Jesus is Light of light, true God of true God.” Jesus transfigured reveals His divine nature!
Yet his transfiguration also reveals to all of us the goal and destination of every human being. We all were created in God’s image and likeness, and our journey through life is supposed to be a journey of transfiguration. We should never be content with who we are or where we are. Life is an exciting journey not only towards a place, the Kingdom of God, but it’s an ongoing journey of change and transformation – we should be growing in the likeness of God. We should become more and more like God each and every day. We are striving to have Jesus Christ formed in us.
Always remember this is what Orthodox Christianity is all about – a never-ending, life-long journey of change; being transfigured by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of God!
So, let’s come back to Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and listen to him describe this exciting journey of faith. He begins by saying “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). He understands that life is all about Jesus Christ and living in Him. We don’t live life for ourselves, but for something greater than ourselves. We live for Jesus. Thus, he exhorts, “Let your conduct be worthy of the Good News of Christ… For to us it has been granted on behalf of Christ to not only believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Phil 1:27,. 29). Yes, suffering and struggles may be a part of life, but we know that any suffering we face can be given meaning when we connect it to our faith in Jesus.
Never forget that life shouldn’t be about self-centered pursuits. It’s not about our ego-centric desires directing our lives. Instead, St. Paul reminds us to “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but … let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Try to put on the mind of Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:3-5).
If we live with the mind of Christ, then we will talk like Him, walk like Him, act like Him, love like Him! When we have the mind of Christ, life is filled with joy, no matter what the exterior circumstances.
And by cultivating the mind of Christ, we will then, “shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life” (Phil 2:15-16).
Now I know that none of us can say that we have been so transformed into the likeness of Christ that our journey is over. We are all a work in process. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve failed countless times. We’ve sinned and turned away from God again and again. Yet we don’t despair.
St. Paul addresses our failures and shortcomings when he says, “Forgetting those things which are behind, we reach forward to those things which are ahead. We press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13,14)
So, don’t let any memory of some failure, mistake, poor choice, or disappointment keep you down. We don’t dwell on past failures, but look forward to the mercy, grace and love of God pressing toward our goal of union with Christ. Our God is a God of second and third and fifth and 50th chances! This is why the Apostle Paul can say, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice” (Phil 4:4).
Nothing can take the joy of the Lord away from us. Of course there will be problems and struggles and challenges in life, yet St. Paul goes on to say, “Don’t be anxious about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God, and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7). We can turn everything we’re worried about over to God and He will fill us with His peace!
And then the great Apostle ends his letter reminding us that if we are walk with God and He is with us, we will learn to be content in any and every circumstance. “I know what it is to have little and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content. For I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:12-13).
Change is possible. In fact, transformational change is expected as a follower of Jesus Christ. As St. Paul shows, we can be people living in Christ, with the mind of Christ, with Jesus dwelling in us, and thus, we can become God’s people filled with joy and contentment at all times.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice!
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Holy Land Pilgrimage 2019