"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
I'm thinking the apostle Paul is not imagining we're going to defy the gene pool, thinking lumpy, pasty, men are going to pole vault 20 feet through Christ, or thinking a student in college is going to get an A in quantum physics without ever cracking a book. But the apostle Paul is clearly thinking of some serious things we can do in Christ, who strengthens us, that pass by every person who is outside of Christ.
Illustration: G. K. Chesterton once said this: "Christians ought not to be better than other people ought to be. But they ought to be better than other people are." Why? Because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
I want to share with you some of the staggering things I feel quite sure the apostle Paul imagines we can do through Christ who strengthens us. This little verse is a piece of a larger section of verses in a letter Paul wrote to a gathering of Christians for whom he was particularly fond. Listen to another piece of that letter and see if you can pick up the things he thinks you can do through Christ who strengthens you:
I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to get along in the Lord. And I urge you, their brothers and sisters, to help these women, for they have struggled with me in the gospel along with Clement and the others who have their names written in the Book of Life.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice! Let everyone know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety 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 passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, my beloved brothers and sisters, if there is anything true, if there is anything honorable, if there is anything just, if there is anything pure or pleasing or commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. And whatever you have seen and heard and learned from me, do. And the God of peace will be with you.
I rejoice greatly that at long last you have revived your concern for me. You were concerned for me, but you had no opportunity to show it. And it's not as though I am complaining of want, for I have learned the secret of contentment. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I know how to be well fed and how to be hungry, how to have much and how to have nothing. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
What is it the apostle Paul thinks you can do through Christ who strengthens you? Here are four modest proposals.
Through Christ we can love across our differences
It is possible that a democrat might be rooming with a republican this year. It is possible that somebody who gets off on the Indigo Girls will have to room with someone who loves U2. It's going to happen that differences will rise among us.
"I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to get along in the Lord. And I want you, their brothers and sisters, to help these dear women, because they've struggled with me in the gospel." We're not told what it is Euodia and Syntyche had against each other. Maybe it was some small word spoken between them they never could quite unpack, and it built larger and larger walls until finally they couldn't speak; and everybody in Philippi was scandalized by the differences between these two dear sisters; and it was an embarrassment to the gospel.
But Paul believed they could love across their differences. He believed they could do as Jesus taught: Pray for those who persecute you and love your enemies. He believed they could forbear one another. And if one had a complaint against another, they could forgive each other as Christ had forgiven them.
In Jesus Christ, you can love across your differences. And you will have differences.
We don't know for sure what the problem was between Euodia and Syntyche, and we don't know for sure how Paul envisioned them coming back together. But we have a clue in the names of the women. Euodia means "beautiful words," and Syntyche means "coming together." I wonder if Paul was saying: Sisters, come together and speak beautiful words to one another. Tell one another you were made in the image of God. Say to one another, "God knew you before you were formed in your mother's womb." Bless one another and do not curse. We in Christ have the capacity to love across our differences.
Illustration: I love these words by C. S. Lewis in his beautiful essay, "The Weight of Glory":
It is an awesome thing to live in a world of potential gods and goddesses. The weight, the load, the burden of my neighbor's future glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that the backs of the proud would be broken and only the humble could carry it. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, art, civilizations: these are mortal, and their life compared to ours is as that of a gnat. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, nothing is holier than your neighbor.
We can love across our differences. That's the first thing Paul thinks we can do in Christ.
Through Christ we can live through anxiety
We can live our way through our anxieties. I say this to you advisedly and eagerly. Advisedly, because that is exactly what the apostle Paul says: "Have no anxiety about anything, but by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
There are a thousand different things that can raise our blood pressure and give us great anxiety. But in Christ, the one who said, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," our anxieties can be leashed, and we can move through them.
I say that advisedly, because it's true. And I say it eagerly, because I saw anxiety in the faces of some folks yesterday. How does it feel to leave your student behind? I'm thinking now of a father who spoke to me with tears in his eyes. He's from New York, and he's got to get in his car, buckle his seatbelt, and head back today. He said to me, "I can be here if she needs me, but it will take me 15 hours to burn the highway."
"Have no anxiety about anything."
I happen to know there are at least two single moms who are leaving their only child behind today.
"Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God."
And there are some kids here who wonder if somebody's going to like them. There is going to be somebody who likes you, and it's Jesus.
"Have no anxiety about anything." In everything, through Christ, we can live through our anxieties.
Through Christ we can join our thinking with our doing
Through Christ we can join our thinking with our doing and show the world a whole other way to do God's will.
Hope College exists to train people like you and me to think deeply and complexly about a wide range of concerns. You will be asked to spend long hours in the lab. You will be asked to write and rewrite and write again until you finally get it right. And you will be asked to play the piano or the cello or the flute late into the night. You will be asked to think about things that are true and honorable and just and pure and pleasing and commendable until you don't want to think anymore. But you must never forget that thinking must never trump doing, that thought life is never to be privileged over morality.
The apostle Paul doesn't end with that long list of true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy. He goes on to say, "And whatever you've learned and seen and heard in me, do these things."
You will be asked to think harder than you've ever thought before. There is a reason students in college are not called 13th graders. This is not high school. But in your thinking you will be asked to join your doing, until justice and mercy kiss one another and until the world sees a new kind of people rising up, unsatisfied that they should know joy and peace while someone somewhere else doesn't.
Think and do joined together. This is why Jesus said, "If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them."
I love thee. I love thee. I love thee, my God. I love thee. I love thee. I love thee, my Lord. I love thee, my Master, and that thou must know. But how much I love thee my actions will show.
Think and do. Through Christ you can do it.
Through Christ we can learn contentment
Through Christ we can love across our differences, we can live through our anxieties, we can join our thinking and our doing, and we can learn contentment to live well wherever we're called to live.
Contentment, a sense of well being, is a learned behavior. It may well be that you were blessed with a wonderful context in which to grow up. You were well loved and well fed and well cared for, and life seems rosy. But through Christ you can learn to live contented regardless of your circumstances.
I'm thinking of a beautiful young woman named Gadier, who was a Palestinian Christian. She attended Hope College, and then she went home to live in the West Bank, living every day in the fear that a MIRC or a Nighthawk will blow her village to kingdom come. But she has learned the secret of contentment, and we can too.
Another student is in Kazakhstan, another is in the Dominican Republic, still another is in the Bronx, still another, still another, still another. All are learning to live contentedly.
Through Christ you can live with contentment wherever you're called to live. I learned this from the pages of the apostle Paul and from a person whom I admired a great deal.
Illustration: I've been around college students a long time, and you can't help but have your favorites. One of my favorites was a kid named Tim Vanderveen from Spring Lake, Michigan. Tall, broad shouldered, curly hair, smile as broad as the dawn, as handsome as they came. He was a great student. Graduated from Hope in the early '90s. Took a job at Prince Corporation, now Johnson Controls. Scurried up the ladder of success about as quickly as anyone can. That is, until a rawboned, November afternoon.
I was sitting in my office and my secretary told me Tim Vanderveen was on the line. He's a friend, so I was eager to talk to him. I said, "Hey, Tim, how you doing?" A weak, trembling voice said, "I'm not doing so good." I said, "What's up with you?" He said, "I'm in the hospital in Grand Rapids. I got the flu or something. My folks are out of the country." I said, "I'm going to be in Grand Rapids later today. Maybe I can stop by and see you. Would that be okay?" He said, "I'd like that a lot."
By the time I got to Tim, the doctors had already gotten to him. It wasn't the flu. It was leukemia. And that began a , arduous battle that he would loseor win, maybe.
Now come with me to Room 5255, Butterworth Hospital. They call it Spectrum Health now. I walked into the room. His mother was sitting in the corner crying. You can't blame her. Tim was lying on his side. They had positioned the pillows between his skinny little legs. His hair wasn't curly anymore. There wasn't enough energy for him to look at me, so I got down on one knee so I could look him eyeball to eyeball. I said, "Hi, Tim." He said, "Hi, Tim." There was this long, awkward pause. I'd been a pastor for 20 years, and I still didn't know what to say. He broke the silence.
He said, "I've learned something." Now I know this much at least: you don't trifle with the words of a person who is about to die; you just listen carefully. So I said, "Tell me, partner, what have you learned?" He said, "I have learned that life is not like a vcr." Now I didn't get it then any more than you're getting it now. So I said, "I don't get it. What do you mean?" He said, "It's not like a vcr; you can't fast forward the bad parts." Long pause. I'm thinking to myself, Where does he get this stuff? Then he interrupts the silence again to say, "But I have learned that Jesus Christ is in every frame, and right now that's just enough."
It was just enough when his parents rocked that little baby at the waters of baptism that Jesus Christ should be in the frame. It was just enough when he toddled off to first grade that Jesus Christ should be in the frame. It was just enough when he turned his tassel toward an uncertain future at Hope College that Jesus Christ should be in that frame. And it was just enough when he breathed his last here and his first there that Jesus Christ should be in the frame.
"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Believe this gospel and live in its peace.
Tim Brown is professor of preaching at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.