Joy and Unity in God's Word

Resources for a Series on Philippians

In summertime, the energy level in churches often drops a bit. There are no major liturgical celebrations; families go on vacation; programs take a break. At this time of year, most of us wouldn’t think of an eight-week series on one of Paul’s prison letters as a way to breathe joyful life into a congregation, but that’s exactly what happened at one church.

The worship planning team of Monroe Community Church, a church plant in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, planned this series with the hope that it would revitalize our hearing of God’s Word. We wanted to introduce some people to this text for the first time, to connect God’s story to our stories, and to dwell as a community with this powerful book.

Throughout our planning we engaged the text as we hoped to encourage others to do. We discussed themes and images that seemed prominent through our own reading of the text as well as through other commentaries, including Dwelling with Philippians (Eerdmans, 2010). From these reflections, two primary themes emerged: joy and unity.

We wondered how we could make our physical space reflect these two themes. We worship in a warehouse with mostly concrete walls. Chairs are arranged so that they face one corner from which the music is led and the sermon is preached. For this series, however, we transformed our space. For the first time, worship was led from the center. Chairs circled the sanctuary in rows. As we worshiped, we couldn’t help but make eye contact with each other. The new seating arrangement allowed us to feel more unified.

Our unity, within our community and with other believers everywhere, comes from God. So the text of Philippians was spread around the entire worship space. Scripture surrounded us and supported us. At various points around the space, colorful cloth banners looped upward from key verses in Philippians toward the middle platform, where they came together just as all the themes from the text of Philippians come together in joy. We added a row of plain white paper beneath the Scripture to help worshipers relate this text to their own lives. Worshipers were invited to write, draw, or bring in art of various kinds to place near the verse it reflected, thereby connecting people in twenty-first-century downtown Grand Rapids with worshipers in Philippi hundreds of years ago.

The space wasn’t the only thing that changed, though. Our community normally celebrates communion every four weeks. This was a perfect opportunity to increase that practice, so for this series we celebrated communion every week, paying particular attention to that week’s theme.

We also varied the way we partook. For example, when our service focused on joy and humility, worshipers came forward and knelt to receive the elements. When the theme was joy and unity, we gathered in circles and passed the elements to each other; when it was joy and contentment, we gathered around tables with generous baskets of bread. Drawing the themes through our celebration of communion reminded worshipers of the rich theology surrounding communion, both through spoken words and practices enacted.

Each of the seven weeks of this series focused on a different theme and Scripture passage from Philippians. Our songs, chosen to reflect the theme of the week, included old and new favorites. We praised and thanked God; we asked for God’s help for ourselves and others around the world. We offered our gifts, tithes, and talents. We heard and read Scripture. Sermons challenged us to live joyfully and reminded us of God’s faithfulness to Paul and the Philippians—and to us. Throughout the series, we talked to God, and God talked to us.

One of the challenges of a theme-based worship series based on a book of the Bible is helping worshipers grasp the context of the themes. It is tempting to focus on the “amazing” verses, but we wanted worshipers to have a sense of how the book is woven together. To encourage this, we challenged the congregation to read the whole book of Philippians at home each week. As the series progressed, we began to wonder how our congregation could experience the entire book of Philippians. In response to that question, the final service (week 8 in our series) began to take shape.

For the final service, the entire text of Philippians was read from beginning to end, interspersed with short teaching moments, songs, art, and prayer. Nearly every demographic of our congregation was involved in some way. The youngest Sunday school class created stars to shine while they led us in “Rejoice in the Lord Always” during Philippians 4:4. Readers included children and teens as well as various ages of adult readers. Some readings took the form of slightly longer narratives, some were arranged as dramatic readings, and some were proclaimed from memory. Following the hymn in Philippians 2 about Christ’s death and resurrection, we shared communion. Not only did this service provide a context for the themes of weeks 1-7, but proclaiming God’s Word in this manner “made it come alive in a whole new way,” in the words of one worshiper. (An outline of this service is posted at http://worship.calvin.edu/go/monroe/.)

In the end, what most energized this summer series was dwelling with and soaking up God’s Word in fresh and vibrant ways, guided by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Themes in Philippians

Week 1: Joy and Thanksgiving (Phil. 1:3-11)
Week 2: Joy and Humility (Phil. 2:1-11)
Week 3: Joy and Obedience (Phil. 2:12-13 and 4:4-13)
Week 4: Joy and Suffering (Phil. 1:12-18)
Week 5: Joy and Contentment (Phil. 4:11-13)
Week 6: Joy and Unity (Phil. 1:27-28, 2:1-4, and 4:2-3)
Week 7: Joy and Eternity (Phil. 3:17-21)

Week 1

Joy and Thanksgiving

Communion Liturgy

Reader 1: On the night when he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus begins this meal by giving thanks.

Reader 2: This is the joyful feast of the people of God. With joy we remember that God rescued us from sin by sending Jesus Christ into the world to become human, like us, but without sin. With gratitude we remember that through his death and resurrection we have been set free from sin and death to share the glorious freedom of children of God. With thanksgiving we rejoice that Jesus’ resurrection enables us to live each day with God’s power. May we know the risen Christ and rejoice in the unity he gives us.

Please join in the reading of a psalm used to express thanksgiving by Christians around the world:

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.

Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.

Generous God, we praise you for showing your love for us by sending your Son, who lives to pray for us forever. Thank you that Jesus has taken away the sin that separates us from you and has joined us with you and with one another. We are filled with gratitude to you for bringing us to this table, to strengthen us by his love. For these gifts of love, we give you thanks and praise. . . .

Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his, we are his people, the sheep of his pastures.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.

Loving God, we rejoice in your creation—this marvelous world created for us to enjoy. Thank you for taking care of us and providing for all our needs, for the love and support we experience together, for those who partner with us in ministry, for the work we can do for your kingdom. For all your gifts of creation and providence, we give you thanks and praise. . . .

For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;

his faithfulness continues through all generations.

We praise you for the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, in our church, and in our community. Thank you that your faithfulness continues to sustain us. Send your Holy Spirit among us now as we share this bread and cup so that our love for you and for each other may grow more and more. In the unity of the Holy Spirit, we pray. Amen.

Our gracious God invites everyone who loves him and trust in him alone for salvation to this table. Come in joyful remembrance that Jesus died and rose for you. Let us keep the feast with thanksgiving.

[Congregation comes forward, forms a circle around the center, and passes the bread and cup to each other, saying, “The body and blood of Christ given for you.”]

Week 2

Joy and Humility

The text of the entire book of Philippians surrounded the worship space. Underneath the text was plain white paper. Worshipers were invited to draw or write something that connected the Scripture to their lives, doing so either before, during, or after the service.

Week 3

Joy and Obedience

Introduction to the Sermon

The sermon began with an interview of an elementary school child, using the following questions:

  • Do your parents ever tell you to obey?
  • What do they tell you to do? What do they tell you not to do?
  • Do you usually obey them happily?
  • What happens if your parents leave the room? Do you still obey them?
  • How old do you think you’ll be when you don’t have to listen to your parents anymore?

It is tempting to think of obedience as something just kids have to do—something that doesn’t relate to grown-ups any more. Adults tell kids what to do, and adults don’t usually get too excited about being toldwhat to do. But the apostle Paul is addressing the adults (and kids too) in the church of Philippi. What we have here is a general call to obedience.

Week 4

Joy and Suffering

Rachel Hyde, a member at MCC, created a series of drawings, each an interpretation of the theme using lines and circles. In this particular image, the chasm in the middle represents suffering as separation from God and others, and things that are good. The image for each week was also projected; we used variations of it as background slides for the text of songs. These slides are available for download at http://worship.calvin.edu/go/monroe/.

Week 5

Joy and Contentment

A Litany Including Children

This litany was introduced to the children, ages 3 through grade 2, before our usual children’s blessing and dismissal to children’s church. The leader talked to the children about where contentment comes from and then invited them to help lead the congregation in worship with the response “And be content.”

Reader 1: Brothers and sisters, whatever is true . . .

Reader 2: I had cereal for breakfast? Being honest on my taxes? Life after death?

Reader 3: Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God, my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.

Reader 4: Think on these things.

Children: And be content.

Reader 1: Whatever is noble . . .

Reader 2: World peace? Complimenting the work of others?
 Standing up for justice?

Reader 3: You, whose name is the Lord—you alone are the Most High over all the earth.

Reader 4: Think on these things.

Children: And be content.

Reader 1: Whatever is right . . .

Reader 2: 2 + 2 = 4? Keeping my promises even when it’s hard? Admitting when I’m wrong?

Reader 3: The word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.

Reader 4: Think on these things.

Children: And be content.

Reader 1: Whatever is pure . . .

Reader 2: A newborn baby? Honoring God with my body?
Forgiveness of sins?

Reader 3: The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.

Reader 4: Think on these things.

Children: And be content.

Reader 1: Whatever is lovely . . .

Reader 2: A sunset? A first love? A community that accepts us and loves us?

Reader 3: How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!

Reader 4: Think on these things.

Children: And be content.

Reader 1: Whatever is admirable . . .

Reader 2: Giving my best at a thankless job? Wisdom that comes with old age? Sacrifice for the common good?

Reader 3: Many, O Lord our God, are the wonders you have done. The things you planned for us no one can recount to you; were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.

Reader 4: Think on these things.

Children: And be content.

Reader 1: If anything is excellent or worthy of praise . . .

Reader 2: Getting a hard-earned “A” on a test? Sharing my time and talents to do God’s work?

Reader 3: Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.

Reader 4: Think on these things.

Children: And be content.

Reader 1: Whatever is true,

Reader 2: Whatever is noble,

Reader 1: Whatever is right,

Reader 2: Whatever is pure,

Reader 1: Whatever is lovely,

Reader 2: Whatever is admirable—

Reader 3: If anything is excellent or worthy of praise . . .

Reader 4: Think on these things

Children: And be content.

Reader 3: I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation,

Reader 4: In any and every situation,

Reader 1: In any and every situation,

Reader 2: I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.

Reader 3: I know what it is to be in need.

[Build in intensity]

Reader 1: The secret of being content.

Reader 4: And I know what it is to have plenty.

Reader 1: The secret of being content.

Reader 3: I know what it is to be well fed.

Reader 1: The secret of being content.

Reader 4: I know what it is to be hungry.

Reader 1: The secret of being content.

Reader 3: I know what it is to live in plenty.

Reader 1: The secret of being content.

Reader 4: I know what it is to be in want.

Reader 1: I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.

All: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Reader 3: Think on these things

Children: And be content.

Carrie Steenwyk (cls24@calvin.edu) is the Coordinator of Special Projects at the CEP.