What Really Matters

January 16, 2022

What Really Matters


These are bad days for the faith and practice of Christianity in the United States. There has been a precipitous decline in church membership, allegiance, and attendance.

Half of the white evangelical community has run off with Donald Trump.  Catholics are divided for and against Pope Francis.  The Reformed Church of America formally divided this week, and the United Methodist Church is not far behind; our own denomination is itself only 30 years old.  The abuse of money, sex, and power is rampant within the Christian community.  Many life-long practicing adults are watching their children drift further and further from Jesus Christ.  Churches are closing every week. Data for 2019, before the pandemic, tells us that 4500 churches closed and only 3000 new churches opened. Some estimate that within the next decade 30% of the churches will close their doors.  These are bad days for the faith community that seeks to worship and follow Jesus Christ as Lord.

Here is my question: what really matters?  What really matters in your life? What really matters in our little congregation? What really matters in the United States? What really matters in the world? What really matters?

There are many things that can occupy our minds, command our attention, engage our resources, but what really matters?  There is much that appeals to our affections and some that can pull us into addiction, but what really matters? This is the question I put to Paul the apostle as I read his short letter to the Christians in Philippi.  He introduces this phrase: what really matters; and I have read and reread this little letter asking the question: what really matters.

I invite you today to ask that question: of yourself, of Paul the Apostle, of our Lord Jesus Christ. Together we can seek an answer so that we might live pure and blameless lives until the appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.


There are three things that weave all the way through this letter, that create the pattern than makes this little epistle so delightful, so attractive, so powerful in our lives. There are other things, other colors, other textures here as well, and I will name some of these.

Prayer is one. Paul repeatedly mentions his own prayer and calls the Philippians to prayer.  Generosity is another. I spoke about that last week, as you call. The gospel work of Paul flourished because these believers in Philippi were faithful and generous and cheerful in their giving.  Friendships play an important part in the Philippian drama. Paul was close friends with some who lived there.  He was closer friends with some whom he sent there, to carry this letter, to report the news, and to deliver back to him their offerings.

I read a book this week by my friend and great theologian Curtis Freeman. He directs the Baptist House at Duke Divinity School. He published a little book called Pilgrim Letters. It takes Hebrew 6:1 as its starting point, that place where the writer mentions six foundational things: repentance, faith, baptism, laying on of hands, resurrection and eternity. These are things that are confessed, and believed, and taught by everyone, everywhere, and at all times, to quote the famous maximum of St. Vincent of Lerins.

But the letter to the Philippians gives scant attention to any of these Christian ideas. They may not rise to the level of What Really Matters. There is no reference in the letter to baptism, or ordination, or Calvinism, or any type of organization.

But we have a clue to what really matters tucked away in this good book. On page 70, Dr. Freeman quotes the late, great theologian John Prine. “I look below, I look above, I am surrounded by your boundless love.” It is the song Boundless Love, on his last CD "The Tree of Forgiveness."

Yes, love is an idea that Dr. Freeman pulls into his exposition of Hebrews 6:1. But it is an idea at the very center of this sweet little letter.  God knows how much I love you, he writes in verse 11 of chapter one. You have a special place in my heart.  Then in chapter two, he writes: Make me truly happy by loving one another.  In chapter three he addresses them as Dear brothers and sisters.  In chapter four, he writes, I love you and long to see you.

Throughout the letter he mentions their kindness, their concern, their generosity, their attention to his needs. These are the marks of love. These are the marks of Jesus. In this way, people could tell they had been with Jesus.  Jesus said, Love one another.

In answer to a question posed by a seeker, “Of all the commandments, of all the scriptures, of all the obligations of our religion, what matters most?” Jesus said, Love God and Love you neighbor.  He never mentioned doctrine, or sacraments, or authority, or buildings, or committees, or a person’s standing in life and society.  Love God and love one another.

Love is one of three things in this letter that we can say: this s what really matters.

How do we love each other? Let us count the ways.  We love when we hear somebody complaining and we forgive them. We love when we see somebody struggling and we come to their assistance. We love when we give up something precious to us to supply the need of another. We love when we sing the song they prefer instead of the one we desire. We love when we defend someone to another when it would be easy to join in the criticism. We love when we take food to somebody’s house in response to a crisis. We love when we hold the hand of somebody who is crying. We love when we spend more energy understanding what a person is feeling and thinking and saying rather than explaining what we think. We love when we forgive somebody before they even know they have wronged us.  We love when we do for another what we wish they would do for us.

Who has loved you this week?  Maybe the best way to spend our worship hour is to recount the ways somebody has loved us this week. Maybe we need a testimonial time where we give thanks for the way somebody, sometime, this week loved us. A word. A card. A hug. A gift. A small kindness. A sweet smile. A forgotten slight. A forgiven curse.  Who loved you this week?  Give thanks to God. God so loved you that God sent Jesus to be your friend, your guide, your inspiration, your teacher, your savior, your risen Lord. Love is what really matters.


Love is one thing that really matters. Joy is another. If love is an attitude and an action directed toward one person, joy is a spirit a emanates from your self, your soul, your inner most being out into the world in all directions. I envision it as rays of sunshine going out in all directions, touching every person, lighting up every square inch of creation. Joy overflows from your spirit into the spirit of everything everywhere.

I chose this book to read, study, and inspire my preaching because of this theme. Sing for joy. Dance with joy. Work with joy. Share with joy. Speak with joy. Laugh with joy. Pray with all joy.

It is the superstructure of Paul’s desire for the Philippians. Rejoice. Again, I say Rejoice!  Be joyful.  Count it all joy.  You are my joy.  Rejoice in the Lord.

Joy is not a matter of intelligence or personality or the circumstances of life.  It is a gift of the spirit of Jesus. Jesus was a joyful person: not dour, or sad, or negative, or complaining, or criticizing, or whining, or giving up. To be full of the Spirit is to be full of joy.

I received a periodic email newsletter from a friend in Virginia. At the bottom of his email, as part of his signature is the wonderful reminder, Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.  I like that affirmation. I like to be with joyful people, sing with joyful people, work with joyful people.

People have problems, I know. I have problems. You have problems. Even the people on both sides of this letter had problems. Paul was in jail! The Philippians were a small, struggling, marginalized group with external opposition and internal dissension. Paul’s antidote to those troubles? Joy!!

Wednesday night during Deeper, I asked: what brings you joy? What nurtures joy in your life? Here are some answers:

Music: playing music, singing music, hearing music.

Food: preparing food, eating food, sharing food. We don’t know much about Jesus and music, but we know that food was at the center of the life and ministry of Jesus.

Friends: Jesus said, I have called you friends. The television sitcom Cheers had the best theme song, Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came, you want to be where you can see our troubles are all the name. You want to be where everybody knows your name.

Paul, in this little letter, writes about his friends: Timothy, and Clement, and Epaphroditus.

What brings me joy: Books, and sunshine, and flowers, and victory, and phone calls, and poetry.

What brings me joy: Laughter. Hearing people laugh. Some of the best videos on the internet are soundtracks of people laughing, especially small children and babies. Laughter is the best medicine. He who has a merry heart has a continual feast. Proverbs 15:15. It is the only text of scripture that has hung in a frame in my home for decades.

What brings you joy? Cultivate it. Seize it. Treasure it. Make some joy this week. Ask God to give you an extra supply of joy this week and share it with those around you.

Invite the joyful Jesus into the inner recesses of your soul today.  Open up your heart and mind and attitude to the holy spirit of joy.

Joyful, joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of glory, lord of life!!  


Love is what matters. Joy is what matters.  But at the top of the hierarchy of needs and desires, of gifts and graces is this name: Jesus Christ the Lord. Jesus Christ the Lord. That is the central feature of this letter.

52 times Jesus is mentioned by name or title, and many other times by pronoun. Paul mentions Jesus more often than we normally do in an hour of our worship.

Jesus was in his heart and on his lips.  We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us: Philippians 3:3  We are slaves of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:1  I will continue to be bold for Christ. 1:20.    Live pure and blameless until the day of Christ’s return. 1:10  For me, living means living for Christ. 1:21  Rejoice in the Lord. 3:1  I become righteous through faith in Christ. 3:9  I want to know Christ. 3:10  God’s peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. 4:7

Paul knew the Bible, but Jesus was on his mind.  Paul understood the history, and the doctrines, but it was Jesus he wrote about.  Paul practiced all the habits and rituals of our religion, but it was Jesus Christ the Lord that was in his soul and mind and heart, that was on his lips and in his pen, that dominated his advice and his direction to the Philippians.

I suspect any religion that is not full of Jesus.  I want the version of Christianity that speaks about Jesus Christ; that sings about Jesus our Lord; that testifies to what Jesus was, and is; that looks to Jesus Christ for inspiration. There are versions of Christianity, both formal and informal, that relegate Jesus to the back room, to second place, to merely illustrative roles in how we live, and move, and have our being. That’s not for me.

As a teenager, I heard the call of God on my life: not to be a preacher, or teacher, or pastor; but to be a person, a human, a member of the global family. I heard God say to me, if you want to be all I have designed for you, be like Jesus. Love like Jesus. Work like Jesus. Speak like Jesus.

I can do all things through Christ, Paul wrote to us, to me, in this short letter. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. And I need strength today. This week. This year.  Don’t you?


I began this message with a litany of loss for the Christian community in the United States, in Hendersonville, here in Providence. I have read this biblical letter over and over again, asking the question: how shall we live? what shall we do? what is it that matters most?

The answer I get, again and again, is not: change your worship, or clarify your doctrine, or join a new network, or remove the pews from the sanctuary, or broadcast on Facebook, or any other organizational gimmick.  No, it is this: love the ones you are with, the ones around you, the ones you see day by day: neighbors, children, students, clerks, employees, members, visitors, strangers.  No, it is this: live with joy, sing for joy, walk with joy, laugh with joy, pray with joy all the time, in all circumstances, with all people. Rejoice. Again I say to you, Rejoice.  

No, it is this: Jesus Christ our Lord. Who was born of the virgin Mary. Who went about doing good. Who healed the sick, listened to the confused, fed the hungry, and touched the outcast. Who was crucified and buried after a sham of a trial driven by false witnesses. Who suffered for you and for me. This Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, who ever lives to make intercession for us, who will come again some day, to redeem us all and renew the world. This Jesus, the one we love and worship and follow. You belong to the Lord Jesus. We press on, don’t we, to possess that for which Christ Jesus first possessed us.

Thanks be to God.

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