Joyfully Together

We begin our theme year “Joyfully Together” with a study of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. This church in Philippi was near and dear to Paul’s heart. His letter to them has been called the most positive of all of the New Testament epistles. The Philippians were a faithful, generous, and mostly unified congregation, and Paul sought to deepen these core qualities that made their ministry so effective.

It is important to notice that some form of the word “joy” is used no less than 19 times in this letter. Though Paul wrote his letter from prison where he may have even been facing his death, he encourages the church that joy in Jesus Christ can be ever-present, even in the midst of hostility and tribulation. Paul wants his beloved congregation to know that joy and gratitude can be lived even in the midst of serious challenges. Every congregation and every individual has some mixture of joy and pain in their life. Spiritual maturity involves learning to live with joy even in the midst of pain.

Joy’s meaning is deeper than “happiness”. Happiness depends upon our circumstances. Joy abides, even as circumstances inevitably change. Paul encourages the Philippian congregation to know the joy of Jesus Christ and to seek to live joyful lives of faithful discipleship, even when persecuted. This joy that Paul shares originates in Jesus Christ, and it is his love, the love of Jesus, which makes a person strong, even or especially in the face of adversity. Our text for today illustrates Paul’s deep appreciation for the congregation at Philippi and his confidence in the power of the love of Jesus Christ.

“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 in 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.” (Phil. 1:1-11 )

Dear members and friends of Decatur Presbyterian Church,
Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Do you know that I thank my God every time I remember you?
Every time I consider the ministry of this congregation, I find myself grateful.
I am grateful for you and for the evidence of God’s Spirit at work among you.
The last several weeks of worship have been particularly meaningful.
Perhaps it is the hope and promise of a new year,
or the clear meaning of the Beatitudes in the midst of cultural confusion,
or perhaps the life transition that my family is going through as we become empty-nesters,
but, whatever the case, worship has been helpful and joyful.

Last Sunday, Lollie Newsome’s flute solo during communion and the chancel choir’s powerful anthem, and Alex’s warm way of engaging us with her sermon made for what was my most meaningful hour of the week. Many of us remarked to each other in person and on facebook how glad we were that we had been here. We felt different after worship than we had when we arrived. Yes, I thank my God for you! for your sharing in the Gospel! in the good news of Jesus Christ.

I thank my God for you as I look back at the theme logos from the past five years. We have printed them in the bulletin as a reminder for us all. I remember with gratitude the teaching ministry of Ken Hughes, who designed that first logo for “Together in Christ”. I remember with gratitude our many interns when I consider the flaming dove logo. One of talented and creative interns, Lucy Baum, drew that logo for the “Ignited by Grace” year. And over the course of that year, we were often ignited by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. I remember Rebekah Abel Lamar’s encouragement for us to walk through the Bible as a congregation in the “God’s Story, Our Story” year, and how so many of you were reading the biblical texts for worship from week to week. I remember Vernon Gramling’s willingness to wrestle with the theology of Shirley Guthrie’s Christian Doctrine as the Faith in Real Life groups began to take root among us, as we all joined together in “Seeking the Source”. And I am grateful, during this past year, for how often I witnessed the words and actions of this faith community as a true reflection of our theme “Led by Love”.

Today, I thank my God as I look around. I am so grateful for our wonderful staff and for all who love and support them. From Matt and Lori in our music ministry to Kathy and Denise and Ann in administration, to our new pastors, Alex and Jamie, and the work they are doing to encourage our adult and children’s ministries. I am grateful when I consider Allysen and Keith’s ministry among us with youth and how I am certain that the youth kickoff tonight will be a living illustration of this year’s theme “Joyfully Together.”

I thank my God when I look around at all of our many volunteers. God is working in and through this congregation. You are sharing the gospel through your words and deeds, and this congregation and this community are stronger because you are giving your time and your talent.

I am grateful when I look forward. We have a lot to look forward to this year. Have you seen the Master Plan Conceptual drawings? The schematic drawings have been in the fellowship hall today and will continue to be available for you to review. I encourage you to look at them carefully. They represent not simply bricks and mortar, but an architectural attempt to enliven the Christian hospitality of our congregation, to deepen the impact of our youth and children’s ministries, to seek excellence not only in the staff and volunteers who work with our children, but also in the physical environment in which they work. The plans that have been made represent our attempt to be faithful caretakers of God’s house in this place as we approach our 200th year, to prepare our physical space for ministry for the next two hundred years.

I am confident of this – that God who began a good work in this congregation 190 years ago will continue this work for generations to come as we respond to God’s grace in Jesus Christ with faith, hope and love.

You may have heard churches talk often about the three “B’s.” The three “B’s” are budgets, buildings and bottoms. Churches tend to spend a lot of time being concerned over how many bottoms are in the pews, about what the building upkeep or renovation will cost, about how is this year’s budget doing. Those numbers of money and membership and maintenance are important, and they can be helpful indicators, but they are not our primary focus. They are often by-products, but they are not, in and of themselves, the fruit or the goal.

The goal is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. As our mission statement declares: to share Jesus Christ’s love for the world. And as we do so, through living a Christian life together, and worshiping God together, and building up a congregation, and ministering joyfully together in the community, the abiding fruit that results is the overflowing love of Jesus Christ.

Notice Paul’s prayer in his opening statement to the church in Philippi. “This is my prayer for you,” he writes, “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best.” Our prayer is not for buildings, nor for budgets, nor simply for bottoms. Our prayer is that the love and joy of Jesus Christ will overflow more and more among us, with knowledge of God and insight into God’s will, so that we may discern together joyfully what is good and acceptable and pleasing to God.

In recognition of the beginning of our theme year, we have created a small gift for you. During the singing of the affirmation of faith, our ushers will hand out a laminated copy of our theme logo for the coming school year. This small gift is meant to become a symbol for you, a reminder. We hope that you will place this tag somewhere where it will remind you daily of the good news of the overflowing love of Jesus Christ that we share. For those whose backpacks have been blessed today, it can readily be attached to a zipper, or it can be attached to a laptop case or a purse. Some may want to remove the metal piece and put the card in your wallet or your pocket.

In the logo, the arms raised in praise remind us of Paul’s encouragement from prison: “Rejoice in the Lord, always. Again I say, rejoice!” We can always find some reason to be thankful, always find something that spurs our praise and gratitude to God. Did you notice the “t” of “together”? At the heart of the joyful celebration is the cross of Jesus. The cross reminds us of both the pain and suffering of human life, but also the joy of the hope and promise of life with Christ. And did you notice the subtle diversity of those singing praise to God with upraised arms? Some are tall, others are short. They are a variety of colors. Like the human family, they are not all the same. We are not the same – physically, generationally, theologically, or otherwise – and so our theme logo reminds us of the unity of all in praise before the cross of Jesus Christ.

What will it mean for this congregation to live, worship and serve “Joyfully Together” in the coming year? For now, we can only imagine what this coming year may hold. At least one thing that our theme will mean is that whatever may threaten individuals or families or congregations in today’s social and political climate, we affirm that “Togetherness” in Jesus Christ will not only be joyful, but also will be far more important than anything that could threaten to divide.

Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “I am not ashamed of the gospel (this good news of Jesus Christ); it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”

To God be the glory as we live, serve, and worship “Joyfully Together.” Amen.

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
August 14, 2016