Joy and Partnership
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
Joy and Partnership
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On August 14th, 2022
Philippians 1:1-12 and John 15:7-11
Today we continue our summer sermon series on joy—how we express it and experience it and where we can find it in the midst of troubling times in life—by reflecting on the tie between joy and a life of partnership, or community. Our passage for this morning will be from the first chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Notice what Paul tells the Philippians right at the very beginning of the letter—he thanks God when he remembers them, and prays with joy in all of his prayers for them, because of their sharing in the gospel. Listen for how Paul sees them as partners in his work.
Here now God’s word as it comes to us in Philippians:
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.
Whoever first said share a joy and it will double, but sharing halves any trouble was on to something, I think—and not just because it is attributed to the Swedish. The beauty of being in partnership with others, knowing you are not alone as you bear life’s inevitable sorrows and having other people with whom to revel in life’s delights, is what makes the experience of community such a precious thing. Sharing life together doesn’t make hardship disappear, but it allows us to feel that we don’t carry hard times all by ourselves. Partnership, community, magnifies our joy by giving us others with whom to celebrate happy occasions and feelings of well-being. Kool and the Gang understood this—bring your good times, and your laughter, too, we’re going to celebrate and party with you.
Judging by the way the Apostle Paul opens his letter to the church at Philippi, I think he would agree. Share a joy and it will double, but sharing halves any trouble. Paul—who his writing from a prison cell, mind you—tells that early community of faith—the first one he founded on European soil—that he gives thanks for them every time he remembers them. He goes on to say that he prays with joy for them. Why? Because of their sharing in the gospel from the very start. His joy, it seems, is related to their sharing in the gospel.
There is so much to unpack in that phrase sharing in the gospel. In Greek, the koinonia humon tais euangellion. What does koinonia, a word that is variously translated sharing, or partnership, or community, mean? What is the euangellion, the word that is translated as gospel but literally means good news? Well, at the simplest level, koinonia is sharing something in common, being in partnership with one another, despite our natural human diversity. As for what constitutes the good news, people have disagreed about that over the centuries. What is that good news in a world like ours, which, in case you haven’t been paying attention lately, is so full of bad news? What is the good news in a world that is so full of bad news? By the way, it wasn’t exactly full of good news back in the Apostle Paul’s day.
What is the good news of the gospel? Going to high school in the Bible belt, I had friends who claimed it was, “Accept that Jesus died for your sins and you, unlike those other people, get to go to heaven when you die.” But that always seemed like it missed so much of what I’d read about how Jesus actually lived and what he actually taught. That always seemed on one score too reductionist and on another too individualist for me, the way people made good news into something that separated me from others. What is the good news, really?
That’s a question worth pondering as we think about sharing in the gospel together. Ten years ago now, the editors of the magazine the Christian Century, asked a number of theologians and pastors to answer that question—the question of what the good news of the gospel is—and to do it in seven words or less.
Here were some of their answers: Martin Marty said, “God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow.” Donald Shriver put it this way “Divinely persistent, God really loves us.” One of my seminary professors, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, boiled it down to “In Christ, God’s yes defeats our no.” Another professor, Mary Karr, emphasizing the importance of community wrote “We are the Church of Infinite Chances.”
Brian McLaren, who I quoted from last week, said, “In Christ, God calls all to reconciliation.” And Ellen Charry, referring to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians summed it up as “the wall of hostility has come down.” The environmentalist Bill McKibben used ““Love your neighbor as yourself.” I’m kind of partial to that one. My favorite seminary professor, Walter Brueggemann narrowed it down to, “Israel’s God’s bodied love continues world-making.” Brueggemann joked that he used only six words and he rested on the seventh.
If you ask me, the good news of the gospel is summarized in the claim that I make at every funeral service: “God’s embodied love is stronger than death.” And for that matter, God’s embodied love is stronger than sin, and evil, and division. What if we dedicated our lives to providing proof of that proposition, day in and day out, in spite of evidence to the contrary? What if that is what it means to share in the gospel?
I think that is precisely what sharing in the gospel means. That’s where joy is to be found. Real joy, not the schadenfreude that passes for joy when we delight in how maybe, just maybe, the individuals or groups we consider to be enemies are finally going to go down. Because hatred and disdain and reveling in someone else’s pain or embarrassment, a sense that I or we are somehow superior to them, as temporarily satisfying as they may be, none of those things is worthy of being called gospel. None of them are worthy of being called the good news. The good news is bigger than that. We are bigger than that.
The trouble with human beings has always been how small-minded we can be. How carefully, for instance, those of us who have been born on first, second, or third base guard our privileges, to the extent that we even refuse to recognize how we consistently have been given a leg up based on the color of our skin, or our gender, or our sexual orientation. How easily we demonize those with whom we disagree. How quickly we judge other’s behaviors and justify our own. How naturally we group ourselves into cliques, and clans, and tribes. These are our partners, we say. This, this right here, this is our community.
I’d like to believe that the partnership in the gospel that the Apostle Paul is talking about in today’s text is larger than that. I’d like to think that it’s about more than just the feeling of being an insider, a member with privileges. I’d like to know that it’s a good news that understands what a mentor of Brian McLaren’s told him once, that “in a pluralist culture, the true value of religion is seen in the benefits it brings to those who are not its adherents.”
All of that said, there is a joy that comes in the experience of partnership—in working together for the sake of God’s love being embodied in the world. We’ve known that joy at Immanuel for many a year, from this congregation’s very inception. We’ve also known that it doesn’t have to be sectarian.
Consider the working together we did with Temple Rodef Shalom and Lewinsville Presbyterian to create Chesterbrook Residences—and how we continue to work with those communities of faith to bless others.
Consider our interfaith community garden, and the ways our Islamic and Jewish neighbors consistently take part in the Hypothermia Shelter week, which we have during Christmas week, as they come alongside us to provide meals for our guest who are experiencing homelessness.
Consider all of the times and ways you and I have joined forces with one another or with others outside of this particular Immanuel community of faith to do something that benefits someone else. Tell me you don’t have a memory of joy associated with one or more of those activities.
Maybe it was laughing together when we did the time over in the meeting house with Langley Residential Support Services this past month. Maybe it was working with one of our Dreamers. Share a joy and it will double, but sharing halves any trouble. It’s true, you know. It really is true.
Think about the best times you’ve had in laugh and consider whether or not you did those things with a partner. Some of my favorite memories from high school involved playing in the marching band. Then in college it was singing with the a cappella choir, joining our voices together making beautiful music in harmony, and watching our director at some point during every concert, breaking down in tears because he was so moved. I might have learned that from him.
Think about sports teams you’ve been on and other joint efforts you’ve been a part of—at your work, or when you served in the military. Think about all of the times that partnership—community—really brought joy.
A man named Stendahl, not Krister Stendahl the famous 20th century theologian and seminary professor, but another Stendahl, wrote:
“One can acquire everything in solitude except character.”
(this is from Five Short Novels of Stendhal)
Stanley Hauerwas wrote: “Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God.”
What both of those individuals were talking about is the power of community and how it might even bring joy.
Today is a celebration of partnership in the gospel. I don’t know what year it was when Liz Pruchnicki first came to Immanuel. 2013, 2014, 2015? Liz will tell us. Billy Kluttz brought Liz to her first evening service—and from that moment on, we have celebrated partnership in the gospel. Partnership in the good news of God’s love that is stronger than anything that would divide us. Sometimes Liz has had to remind us that God’s love is stronger than anything that would divide us. She’s reminded us to the point, by the way, that in the lovely, wonderful Moment for Young Disciples that Pat Gleason led today, I couldn’t help but want to sing not just, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” but also “She’s Got the Whole World in Her Hands.” We had a little duet up here.
Partnership in the gospel of God’s love. How that brings joy! What a great thing to reflect on today, because I don’t know if there is anything that brings more joy than listening to Liz Pruchnicki laugh.
Bill Clegg wrote a novel called, Did You Ever Have a Family:
“Rough as life can be, I know in my bones we are supposed to stick
around and play our part. Even if that part is coughing to death from
cigarettes, or being blown up young in a house with your mother
watching. And even if it’s to be that mother. Someone down the line might need to know you got through it. Or maybe someone you won’t see coming will need you. Like a kid who asks you to help him clean motel rooms. Or some ghost who drifts your way, hungry. And good people might even ask you to marry them. And it might be you never know the part you played, what it meant to someone to watch you make your way each day. Maybe someone or something is watching us all make our way. I don’t think we get to know why. It is, as Ben would say about most of what I used to worry about, none of my business.”
But it is about community. And today I give thanks for the power of community, the power of partnership, and the work we do together. In Jesus’ name. Amen.