St Michael’s, 12th December 2010
Reading – Philippians 4:2-9
In the parish where I served my curacy there were two churches, a traditional Victorian church on top of the hill, and a modern church plant in the middle of a housing estate. In keeping with tradition every year the Victorian church held a flower festival. For many years it had been run by a committed team of ladies who knew exactly to lay out the church in a certain way. But then another lady who was used to organising things decided she wanted to get involved. What happened next is hard to describe … except if you have the idea that organising a flower festival is a nice peaceful activity, then forget it. This was war at its bloodiest and most bitter, and the position of every vase and every arrangement became a strategic point in the battle ground. And did I mention that in the middle of it all a worthy gentleman rang up insisting that his daughter be married on the very weekend of the festival, threatening dire consequences if his wishes were not granted?
Now I used to think that Christians weren’t meant to disagree, and that I should do anything at any cost to avoid an argument. After all, we’re meant to love each other, aren’t we, and doesn’t that mean smiling sweetly at those around you, even if on the inside you would like to gently throttle them in the Lord? But the more I have gone on as a vicar, the more I have realised that sometimes it is OK to disagree. Because the church is at its best made up of people from a whole variety of backgrounds, experiences, temperaments and personalities – just look around this morning if you want to see what I mean. So there are going to be times when we disagree, when we have our misunderstandings. The real issue is not whether we are going to disagree, but how we are going to handle our disagreements when the issue arises.
In the church at Philippi there were two women called Euodia and Syntyche and for some reason they didn’t get on. We don’t know what they were arguing about, although it doesn’t seem to be on the basics of the faith, or else Paul would have taken a side. It was more likely they were quarrelling over a major issue like whose turn it was to make the tea, or something similarly earth shattering. Nor do we know anything else about them except they had a track record, as Paul says, in verse 3 of contending for the faith. So clearly they were experienced Christians who both knew and loved the Lord, yet they have gone down in history as the two women who argued. Isn’t that terribly sad?
Of course you might ask why this argument between Euodia and Syntyche was such a big deal. After all, there are always points of friction in church – it’s only natural. And I’m sure there are some people here who find some things about me that wind them up. Surely we just have to recognise there are differences, and get on with it, don’t we? Well, yes and no. Yes, because this side of the Lord’s return there will never be a perfect church, or at least if one does exist, don’t join it, because you’ll only spoil it. But no, because if the issues are left unresolved, if the tension is allowed to build up and bubble over, then what starts out as a niggle between two people eventually affects the whole church. And as we saw last week if we are serious about living out our Christian faith, then nothing is more important than having a united team, focused on the hope of Christ’s return.
So it is important to know how to address our disagreements in a healthy and constructive fashion. And I would go further and say that if we are serious about working through our differences, then actually we may well find the church itself becomes stronger and more united. Sometimes the Lord has to knock a few rough bits off the stones before they fit together in His purposes. The stones may not enjoy the chiselling, but the end result is a building that is far more likely to stay together and witness to the glory of God. And indeed if you study the history of the church, you will find that so often revival has come when folk have had the humility and God-given conviction to say sorry to each other, and to openly confess their sins against one another.
Now if you take any notice of the paragraph headings in the NIV you will see that this section is headed Exhortations as if Paul was simply jotting down a few final commands before he sent off his letter. But I believe there is rather more of a structure and a unity to these verses than might at first glance appear, and if we take them in their context, we will find they will teach us exactly how we can work through the disagreements that crop up from time to time in church.
First of all, rejoice in the good news that unites you. I expect Philippians chapter 4, verse 4 is a very familiar verse to many of you, and indeed you have probably sung it a hundred times, even in a slightly different version to the one here. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Now of course there are so many different reasons why we should rejoice in the Lord, and I expect if I were to ask you why you should rejoice, I’d get as many different answers as there are people here. But we mustn’t forget that verse 4 follows, as you might expect, verse 3, and so I suggest there must be some kind of connection between Paul’s command to rejoice and his appeal to Euodia and Syntyche. And surely the connection is this: that if we remember the good news we have in common, if we both have the wonderful joy of knowing Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, doesn’t that cut our disagreements down to their proper size?
The problem with so many of our arguments is that they are quite literally blown up out of all proportion. With the result that churches split over the most ridiculous things like vestments, and music, as if they were the most important things that mattered, rather than the cross of Christ. Of course sometimes it is necessary for churches to split when the message of the cross is compromised, but that’s a different issue for a different time. Paul’s point is that when two believers in the Lord disagree they should both remember the amazing gospel message that has brought them together. If we could all see each other as precious, unique people for whom Christ died, wouldn’t that completely change the atmosphere of the church?
OK, you say, I can see the connection between verse 3 and verse 4. But what about the connection between verse 4 and verse 5? How does Paul get from rejoice in the Lord always to let your gentleness be evident to all? I think Paul here is reminding us what rejoicing is all about. It’s not in the first instance jumping around shouting “Hallelujah” or, as I like doing, listening to hard rock versions of your favourite worship songs. It’s about having a quiet, but unshakable confidence that, no matter what happens, as Paul goes on to say, the Lord is near. Because if we know the presence of the Lord with us, if the presence of the Holy Spirit is a daily reality in our lives, then again we see the hassles and stresses and inconveniences of living with our fellow believers in their proper light. You may even find that although, for example, you don’t like the form of service, or the particular songs that are being sung, the Lord is blessing you in spite of yourself as you sense Him moving among His people. But again, if we limit the work of the Lord to only the things we like, then I know from my own experience we can run the real risk of quenching the Spirit and failing to hear His voice.
But just in case anyone is misunderstanding what I am saying, I am not claiming in a roundabout way that the worship here is perfect, and you have to put up with what goes on here at St Michael’s. All of us, myself included, have so much to learn from the Lord about going deeper in worship and praise, and if my preferences as a vicar ever get in the way of the cross of Christ, then tell me, and I’ll move over. Paul’s command is to rejoice in the Lord, rather than rejoice because everything is being done the way I like it. And that’s something I believe that’s a command for everyone, especially and including church leaders.
So rejoice in the good news that unites you.
Secondly, learn to pray about everything
Now again verses 6 and 7 are rightly famous verses from Philippians which I expect many of us have claimed for ourselves in many a difficult situation: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. But I would like once more to try and link these verses back to the situation between Euodia and Syntyche. How is it that two experienced believers, believers who contended with Paul and whose names were written in the book of life, had ended up at each other’s throats? We simply don’t know. But here’s my suggestion. When the issue which ended up dividing them – let’s say, whose turn it was on the tea rota –first appeared and they began to get a bit anxious and uptight about the matter, for whatever reason they failed to pray about it.
Of course my suggestion could be wrong. But it is my observation from many years’ experience that churches tend to divide their activities into two categories: the spiritual ones like caring for one another, and mission and services, and the practical ones like clearing out the drains, and making the tea, and putting on a meal. Naturally we pray about the spiritual ones because there is an obvious need for prayer, but we tend to go ahead with the practical ones without necessarily committing them to the Lord. And I think this division is a false one. After all, if we believe Jesus is Lord over all, then presumably his Lordship has to extend over every part of our lives. Yet something deep down inside us keeps telling us that Jesus is only interested in the spiritual bits of our lives, that He doesn’t really have anything to say about the nitty-gritty of daily church life.
At St Barnabas, as I am sure some of you are aware, we’ve recently had much debate about the position of the chairs in the church. At one level you might think it’s only a few chairs, what is all the fuss about? Actually as we’ve talked and prayed together, we’ve started to realise that the layout of the church is linked with all kinds of other issues, such as our style of worship, and the welcome we give newcomers, and the way we include children in the life of the church. It would be nice to say we’ve reached a complete agreement on the issue and everyone is happy. We haven’t – but I think that through our discussions and prayer we have all become a little bit clearer about what the Lord is calling us to do and we have remain united on gospel issues.
I think the lesson of all of us need to learn is that it’s more important to believe the church is walking in obedience to Jesus than doing things exactly as I want it. In this regard, we must never fall into the trap of believing that this verse in Philippians suggests, if we pray with petitions and thanksgiving, God will grant our requests. In point of fact, Paul simply says present your requests to God. And it might just be that God will hear our prayer by changing us and conforming us more closely to His will. So, yes, pray about the issues that threaten to disrupt the church and break up the team. But don’t just pray that the Lord will change the other person and make them see your point of view. If you really want to claim the promise of verse 7 that the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus then you have to deal with God on His terms. And who knows? Maybe this was the very lesson that Euodia and Syntyche had forgotten.
This leads on to the third point, that we should learn to see things from God’s point of view. I don’t know if you ever ask your family what they are watching on TV and they reply, “Oh, I don’t know, some rubbish”. The problem with the rubbish on TV – and let me stress, not all TV is rubbish – is that it can in all kinds of subtle ways influence the way we think and behave. It’s all very fine and wonderful for Paul to write in verse 8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. But when we read this verse we have to recognise that day by day, hour by hour, we are surrounded by images and talk and chatter which is not true, not noble, not right etc. etc. The danger is, we pick up these attitudes and these become the ones that shape and influence our walk with the Lord, and our life as a church. After all, there is nothing more unattractive or less appealing that a church which turns into a club with essentially worldly attitudes, where the members voice the same opinions as the pub-goers down the road, or have the same social rules as the golf-club outside of town.
So how do we think about these things that Paul mentions here? I suggest there is a kind of logical sequence to Paul’s points here. First of all, we think about and rejoice in the good news of Jesus Christ. We can do that in all kinds of ways, through sharing with each in church, through watching an inspirational DVD, perhaps, or using a season like Christmas to really focus in on the wonder and mystery of Jesus’ birth for us. And then as we focus on the good news of Jesus Christ, we present our requests to God …by prayer and petition with thanksgiving. Not just on our own, but together in small groups, such as our fortnightly GIFT group, or in a prayer triplet, honestly and openly, being real with one another. And as we come before the Lord, we allow Him to move among us by His Holy Spirit so that as Paul says in Romans 12, verse 2: you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Now it might be you are not used to engaging with the message of Jesus Christ in this way. It might be that you have never thought of praying like this. The point I made last week, and which comes up again here, is that when it comes to putting your faith in practice you are not on your own. There are other wiser, more experienced Christians in the church who can help you develop this pattern of praise and prayer, and godly thinking. Talk with them; listen to them and learn from them. Just as in the same way at the end of this passage Paul says: Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And while he was addressing the whole Philippian church at this point, I do wonder if he had Euodia and Syntyche particularly at mind as they quarrelled once again over the vexed question of the tea rota. They had seen Paul in action. They had worked alongside him. But for whatever reason they had forgotten so much of the good example that Paul had set them, and they had begun to adopt the ways of the world as they argued over who got to hold the teapot.
Soon we will sharing the good news of Jesus’ birth. We will once again be celebrating the gift of God’s Son, Emmanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace. The sad thing is, though, that to so many people these wonderful titles we give Jesus are just that – words which have no real meaning. Paul’s advice to the Philippian church is so important because it shows us how to know that the Lord is near (verse 4) and to claim for ourselves the peace of God (verse 7) and the God of peace (verse 9). Rejoice in the gospel truth that unites us; pray about everything; learn to see things from God’s point of view and you will find that the message of Jesus Christ born for you becomes a living, daily reality that will transform your life, and the life of this church.