"Grace Under Pressure" - Sermon by Joe Ellis on Philippians 4:10-20 - November 28, 2021
In this section of the letter we finally get at one of the main purposes that Paul is writing to the church in Philippi— to say thank you. The Philippians have had a longstanding relationship with Paul, which includes supporting Paul as he began a mission into Europe and began planting churches in Greece. Paul is writing this letter because the church in Philippi has continued to support him, and he has just received a huge gift while in prison. Paul was very relieved to receive this gift — mainly for friendship’s sake. It had been quite a long while since Paul had heard from them. You wonder if that lack of communication caused Paul some anxiety while he was in prison, wondering if their relationship had soured.
When Epaphroditus shows up with that beautiful gift from the church, Paul bursts with joy. Yet Paul’s way of saying thank you sounds pretty odd, you probably noted how quickly he said “but I didn’t need the gift.” To our ears, it sounds as though Paul were saying, “Thanks but no thanks.” In those days there were different types of friendship, some were more noble than others. Paul did not want their relationship to slide to a lower level because of money. We get this, we have all sorts of sayings about the dangers of mixing money and friendship. So, Paul is trying to say thank you without letting their relationship become primarily about money. If that happened, their relationship would deteriorate to what Aristotle calls a “utilitarian friendship’, the lowest level of friendship. That’s why when Paul says, “Thank you,” he is mostly primarily speaking about their relationship with each other, rather than the gift itself. Paul is working to keep their friendship in tact — where they mutually care for each other, and Paul can continue speaking to them as their spiritual father, encouraging, exhorting and praying for them.
All that’s central to understanding the letter, but it’s more distantly related to what we’ll be reflecting on this morning (so, I commented briefly on that aspect of the letter before we move on to the main part of the sermon).
This morning, I’d like to reflect on how we can live with “grace under pressure.” In other words, how to live with grace in very difficult circumstances. Let me tell you about where that saying, “grace under pressure” comes from.
One thing that can sometimes be lovely about family is how uniquely annoying certain family members can be — this is especially true of dads. Many dads can cultivate a quality of being annoying that is unique to being a dad. It’s both enduring and exasperating. Over the past 8 years, I’ve been learning this art.
My dad was an exceptional mentor in this regard. In the art of annoying his kids, one of my dad’s strategies was to repeat certain slogans at inopportune times. That’s where the saying, “grace under pressure” comes in — the idea is that in stressful situations, one should act with tact, poise, calmness, grace. If you know me, you know I’m still learning this lesson. So imagine me as a teenager getting really frustrated because I was late for a movie and my dad was taking forever to get into the car. After repeatedly yelling at dad to hurry up he would simply say: “grace under pressure.” Imagine you are in the kitchen trying to get a meal on the table for some guests showing up and everything has just gone wrong — the meat is burned, the potatoes just boiled over, one of the kids just peed on the floor and the doorbell rang. For my dad, that’d be a perfect time to say, “grace under pressure.” As much as I hate to admit it, I think this is the lesson to be learned from today’s passage.
Among other things, Paul is showing us what it looks like to have “Grace under pressure.” Paul puts “Grace under pressure” this way in Philippians 4:10-12. “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now, at last, you have renewed your concern for me… Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know how to do without, and I know how to cope with plenty. In every possible situation I’ve learned the hidden secret of being full and hungry, of having plenty and going without…”
Paul is showing incredible Grace under pressure. Let’s remind ourselves of the way that Paul is living this out. Remember, Paul is writing from prison. He is actually chained to Caesar’s imperial guards. The Romans don’t attend to the basic needs of their prisoners, so before Epaphroditus arrived with their gift, Paul was very likely getting by on quite little.
Remember how he describes his plight back in the first chapter? He says, “I want you to know that the things I’ve been through have actually helped the Gospel on its way. You see, everybody in the Imperial Guard, and all the rest for that matter, have heard that I am here, chained up, because of the Messiah, the King. My imprisonment has given new confidence to most of the Lord’s family; they are now much more prepared to speak the word boldly and fearlessly.” That’s “Grace under pressure.” Even when Paul is unjustly imprisoned, it’s
“Grace under pressure.” Learning the secret of being content with whatever we have in whichever circumstances — a vital lesson for our times.
I’m actually slightly nervous to preach this message, because I don’t know what’s coming this next year. We live in hugely anxious times. We live in a time of immense uncertainty. Uncertainty that has seemed to redouble as we are hearing about the Omicron Variant. We live in anxious times. Some of us are already feeling like prisoners as a result of being prohibited from entering certain establishments. Some of us have lost our jobs due to vaccine choices. Some of us have had to make choices about who we invite into our homes based on their vaccine status, further straining relationships. Some of us are worried about cash flow issues. Some of us are concerned about whether the immunity from the vaccine can protect us from Omicron. Some of us wonder about having our kids get the vaccine. Some of us are worried about further freedoms that may be taken away. This morning I learned that Israel is controversially taking data from peoples phones in the name of contact tracing. Our world is so very anxious right now, and it's not entirely clear that life will get more stable over this next year. And this is just about Covid.
The Lord knows how many other matters of concern, big and small face each of us individually. In this deeply unstable time, the world needs Christians who have learned the secret of being content with whatever we have — of having “Grace under pressure.”
On a side note, can you see how annoying it is having someone say that to you when you’re actually stressed and going through a hard time? Yet the world needs Christians who have learned this art. The world needs followers of Jesus who have learned to live gracefully in incredibly, difficult, uncertain, and anxious times — even when we are ill-used and treated unjustly.
How do we do this? How do we learn this contentment? How can we foster “Grace under pressure”? Interestingly, this was a value shared by the stoics, a rival philosophy in Paul’s day. We have a general idea of what it means to be stoic — just be strong, unfeeling, steel your will, keep a stiff upper lip, grin and bear it, say “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” The ideas is to be completely self-sufficient. The strength you need is within yourself.
Yet Paul’s secret for living with Grace under pressure isn’t at all stoic. Here’s what Paul says, “I’ve learned the hidden secret of being full and hungry, of having plenty and going without, and it’s this; I have strength for everything in the one who gives me power.”
I have strength for everything in the one who gives me power. A popular paraphrase is “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me”. The God we know in Jesus, gives Paul strength for everything. Everything! Sometimes we can hear this verse and hear it basically as a license to do impossible feats.
Certainly, if you look at Paul’s life he accomplished more in ten years than most people do in a lifetime. Yet listen to the sort of power and strength Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul repeatedly prays for God to remove a thorn in his flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment him, to keep him from being too elated. God answers Paul’s prayer with this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness”. So Paul tells the Corinthians: “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Note the similarities between the Corinthian passage and this one in Philippians. In both passages Paul is talking about being content in incredibly difficult circumstances. In both passages Paul talks about his contentment not coming from his own internal strength and self-sufficiency, but from the strength and power given from God. And in both passages Paul says that the way to seek this grace is through prayer. Through faithful, persistent, and earnest prayer.
Remember what Paul said a few verses earlier in Philippians 4:6-7. “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Prayer! This is the secret to contentment, to Grace under pressure. The grace is a gift from God. The Grace is the peace which surpasses all understanding, that will guard our hearts and our minds. A life of prayer is the secret to living with “Grace under pressure,” — it means we learn to be utterly dependent on the Grace of God in the most difficult circumstances. We earnestly seek the strength God provides and we seek this strength through prayer.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” This verse isn’t just a good bumper sticker! We aren’t simply meant to name it and claim it without actually imitating Paul in the rest of his life. Yet we often do that to this verse, we scoop it out of context and use it as a bumper sticker, as if there is nothing more to seeking God’s strength and receiving God’s peace. When we do that we miss what Paul says just a few verses earlier when he says, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” We need to imitate Paul is seeking this Grace, this gift of God’s strength. We aren’t just passive recipients. There is a paradox here — The peace and joy Paul received in jail was a pure gift from God. Yet Paul also ardently sought these gifts through a devout prayer life. He earnestly sought God’s face, and leaned on God for strength. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me was not a bumper sticker, but a constant reminder for Paul to turn to the one who gave him strength.
Do you think that as Christians we can use that verse like a bumper sticker, and forget to practice the spiritual disciplines that were so important to Paul because they drew him near to the one who gave him strength? And if we treat that verse like a bumper sticker, but don’t turn to the one who gives us strength, it’s no wonder that we’ll end up looking not all that different than the culture around us. It's no wonder we’ll look just as rattled, reactionary, anxious and neurotic as the culture around us. The world doesn’t need more neurotic, anxious Christians. The world needs Christians who repeatedly pray to the one who gives us strength and the only peace that may guard our hearts and our minds.
Yet the world does not just need Christians who are content. The world needs Christians who will act. In this time, we need to act. We need to make choices about what is good, and just, and true, and right. We need to live in light of our convictions — and we, of course, have very different ways of determining what is good, just, true and right. Yet those differences are secondary.
The primary “shaper” of our understanding of what is good, just, true and right must be God himself. The primary ways we are shaped by God is through meditating on Scripture and by prayer. We must not forget prayer. Listen to Paul’s prayer for the Philippians at the beginning of this letter. Paul says, “This is what I’m praying: that your love may overflow still more and more, in knowledge and in all astute wisdom. Then you will be able to tell the difference between good and evil, and be sincere and faultless on the day of the Messiah, filled to overflowing with the fruit of right living, fruit that comes through King Jesus to God’s glory and praise.”
Note what Paul is praying for — he prays that God would give them grace under pressure. Grace is having the wisdom to choose good over evil. This grace is given through prayer. Knowing how to choose what is good is a gift that is given through prayer. Paul is praying that they might have wisdom to choose the good — he doesn’t simply tell them what the good is that they should choose. Paul prays for wisdom and discernment, and so should we.
What happens if as Christians we neglect our life of prayer and we just listen to what others tell us is good and what is evil (even if those others happen to be Christian)? What happens if we neglect our life of prayer and end up just listening to whoever we think we can trust? We will miss out on the gift of wisdom that God has for us — the gift of knowing how to choose the good, and act for the good. We will miss the gift of learning God’s wisdom — the gift of peace — the gift of contentedness — the gift of God’s strength. Perhaps, if we miss God’s peace, we might end up looking like the rest of our culture — rattled, anxious, and neurotic.
This is the strong and urgent call for Christians in this time. We are anxious. We need peace. We must make difficult decisions. We need to act. There is injustice. We need to stand for justice. Let the beginning and end of all these pursuits be found in God’s people who are seeking the Grace of God in times of immense pressure.
I wonder if you’ve noticed the shift in the way I used the word “Grace”. We started with “grace” being a virtue that we cultivate on our own strength. That’s not where we’ve ended up. We ended up with the biblical meaning of Grace — where Grace is a gift from God as we lean on Him for strength. Paul encourages us to keep leaning on God’s strength through an intimate life of prayer. When times are tough, this isn’t so hard. Let’s not lose the lesson that God may have for us in these hard times — that through prayer we meet the only one who can truly be our strength.