When Otto Ntshanyana, senior pastor of the Rosebank Methodist Church asked me to conduct a Bible Study on Friday morning in the home of one the members of his congregation, I said to myself: “How could I refuse?”. Otto had been called to conduct a funeral in the Eastern Cape. Since he had opened the doors of the Church to “make HOP (Hymns of Praise) happen” at Rosebank on Sunday afternoon, I gladly said “Yes!”.
What a treat! Joan our hostess (who incidentally completed her PhD in Medical Science in her mid fifties), is (now thirty years later) still as bright as ever. I loved her keen mind, probing questions, humility and practical engagement with the faith we have in Christ. Her steadfastness, evidenced in a commitment to the long haul of regular Bible Study which started at the Rosebank Manse during the ministry of Tim Attwell. Accepting the reality of all of us growing older I told widowed Joan that: “Life begins at 70 … and that she was still a Teenager!”. We rejoiced.
Working from a prepared set of questions we tried to unravel our collective understanding of one of Paul’s most personal letters. This group was working through St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We brought brought to mind Lydia, the merchant lady who sold purple cloth; the slave girl whose healing by the missionaries brought fierce opposition; and the distraught jailer with all the accompanying miraculous events Our focus was on the first chapter. Three good reasons to rejoice stood out for us as participants. They are worth paraphrasing:
1. I am confident that he who began the good work in you will carry it through to completion.
2. I have/hold a special place for you in my heart.
3. This love, knowledge and depth of insight comes through Christ. My prayer is that it will grow and be filled with the fruit of righteousness.
I have always been fascinated by the vision of Paul seeing a man standing and begging him to “come over to Macedonia”. Luke the Historian (the writer of the Book of Acts and the Gospel bearing his name) came from Philippi. This was his home town. The centre also had a college of medicine, where the “beloved Physician” probably acquired his skills. In 42 BC Anthony defeated Julius Caesar’s assassins Brutus and Cassius in the “Battle of Philippi”. Significantly Philippi was the first European city to receive a Christian missionary. The Church at Philippi represents the first major advance of the Gospel into Gentile Territory. Paul saw in the Gentiles the real future of the Church. They were poor, but always willing to help with fundraising and assistance.
Paul was extremely grateful for the gift of funds and clothing which Epaphroditus (otherwise known as Epaphras) brought to him in prison. Epaphroditus (means “lovely”) was the messenger delegated by the Church in Philippi. So the letter to the Philippians has a special touch of gratitude, clearly discernible between the lines. The main emphasis is joy; the concept “rejoice” appears no less than 16 times in the letter.
Rejoice gets lost in life’s daily demands. We lurch from one crisis to another. We endure round after round of responsibility, scarcely finding time to draw breath and reflect on the reasons we have to give thanks. If we are not careful, we end up brooding on all that is missing. We get sucked into a vicious circle of self pity, feeling oh so sorry for ourselves. When we rejoice, we are inadvertently making time to “count our blessings!”. Far from feeling sorry for ourselves, we are opening doors and windows when we rejoice.
Come to think of it, there is something so vital in the teaching of Jesus. Repeatedly, it is the same story: you shall have, you shall know, you shall find – the blind shall see, the lame, walk, the imprisoned set free, the pure in heart see God, the hungry and thirsty be satisfied. It’s all about the possibilities which the love of Christ opens up; about the sheer potential of life. That’s why we rejoice!