4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
In Scott McKnight’s transformative book on Paul’s letter to the Romans (Reading Romans Backwards) he makes the case that misreadings of the text flow from misunderstanding the context and that the best way to locate the context is to read I backwards. It’s a fascinating practice that really does reformulate the letters concern as it allows us to gain a better perspective on who Paul is speaking ro and why.
In his new commentary on Philippians he applies the same approach, beginning with chapter 4 before moving forward through chapters 1-3. One of the most oft cited passages in the letter comes from chapter 4 and relates to thanksgiving, or more importantly having a posture of thankfulness.
Right before this passage we find an important section of 2 (or 3) verses that often get bypassed on our way to recontextualixing this passage as a word for us today.
2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Here we find the context for the letters emphasis on unity in Christ. Two women leaders (don’t let this fact run by top quickly either) are at odds and Paul is making a plea to this community. “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” (Vs 1) Why? So that they might “help these women”. Doesn’t get more particular, personal and pointed then this.
This frames the ensuing words then regarding thanksgiving not as an inward looking sentiment but rather outwards as a witness which holds the power to heal the divisions in our midst. How easy it is to read this letter as one from Paul to me. How much more power do these words hold when seen as a letter calling a community to live for the sake of another. Thanksgiving is not merely gratitude I express regarding what Christ has done for me but the very real and transformative work of the spirit healing the impossible divides that emerge from our attempts to make sense of this life together with all it messiness and uncertainty. And if Philippians has its way with this ancient community it would find them seeking this first and foremost at the table where Christ’s own witness works to heal the divide in the whole of creation
Happy Thanksgiving. May we find a peace that transcends all understanding in this simple and necessary truth.