Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 15, 2017

Philippians 4:1-9 Commentary

I imagine they blushed a fairly deep shade of magenta.  I imagine them sitting there as part of the Sunday worship service, surrounded by the rest of the congregation.  On this particular Lord’s day, in addition to the usual components of the liturgy, they had the added special blessing of hearing a letter from their beloved apostle Paul.  It had been decided that the pastor would read this letter aloud in place of the weekly sermon and so at the appointed time in the worship service the pastor began reading this epistle. “Paul and Timothy . . . to the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi along with the elders and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Well, the reading of the letter went along nicely with encouraging words as to how Paul was faring in prison, with a beautiful recitation of a well-loved Christian hymn about Christ-like humility, and with some soaring words about the importance of Jesus’ cross for our salvation.  It was all pretty doctrinal, theological, and thus typical until, suddenly, it got personal as the pastor read the words, “Now I beg Euodia and I beg Syntyche to end their quarrel, to make up, and to come to an understanding.  And I urge the rest of you to help them do just that.”

And you can only imagine that Euodia and Syntyche, after briefly blanching white at the startle of hearing their names from the pulpit, then blushed in abject embarrassment.  Where should they look?  Where could they look without finding a pair of eyes trained on them by their fellow parishioners?  Perhaps there was some awkward shifting of weight in the pews.  Perhaps a few people stifled a laugh even as others looked down at their feet in a kind of collateral embarrassment.  Poor Euodia and Syntyche!  Paul had just aired their dirty laundry in the full view of every last Christian in Philippi!

Would any pastor today get away with such a thing from the pulpit?  Name names, call people out in public for their quarrels?  Were any of us preachers to try such a thing, we would likely get excoriated by our leadership for an unwise move and a breach of pastoral etiquette.  Yet Paul does exactly this.  Curiously, however, the specifics of this quarrel lead Paul directly into one of the most moving passages of all his writings where he will make clear that you cannot be a Christian deep in your heart but not on the surface of your daily living.  If you are going to be a disciple of Jesus, then the working out of that discipleship is going to get just this specific, just this nitty-gritty.  Pondering discipleship must inevitably bring us not into rarified realms up in some pious stratosphere but will instead bring us right down to the street level realities of the Euodias and Syntyches of our own lives.

Clearly that’s what Paul is doing in Philippians 4.  Of course, we no longer have a clue as to who Euodia and Syntyche were, but it seems likely they were prominent, active members of the church.  Perhaps they were deacons, perhaps they were the founders of the Women’s Bible Study program, perhaps they were the chairpersons of the Philippian inner-city soup kitchen.  Whoever they were, they were among the core of the congregation but lately they’d had a falling out.  Maybe it was doctrinal, maybe it was personal.  Maybe they’d disagreed over the best way to run the soup kitchen, maybe one of them had insulted the other’s child-rearing techniques.  Whatever the dispute was, it soon became known that these two sisters were at odds.

Paul clearly loved these two women and had worked side-by-side with them in the gospel ministry.  Paul is so pained at their dispute that he takes the risk of singling them out by name in his epistle.  The short version of Paul’s advice is that he wants to them make up.  But the long version encompasses a broad and glorious vision of the Christian life.  Because of the paragraph breaks that were imposed on the text by translators, it’s easy to read verses 4-9 in isolation from verses 2 and 3.  We chop up Philippians 4, severing Paul’s words about rejoicing from their true context: namely, Paul’s attempt to end an argument!  Indeed, I would contend that the best way to get a handle on the meaning of Paul’s admonition to rejoice is precisely to remember that when these words were first read aloud in that Philippian worship service, Paul’s command to rejoice came while Euodia and Syntyche’s faces were still red!

So in that light, Paul’s command to rejoice comes as something of a surprise.  If in the course of a Council or Session or Church Board meeting an elder and deacon started to get a bit hot under the collar in their disagreement over some proposal, you would be surprised if the Council president were suddenly to say, “All right, people, let’s rejoice!”  If a teacher on playground duty sees two young boys rolling around on the ground in a fight, you can’t imagine that, upon prying the two young men apart, the teacher then saying, “OK now, you two: rejoice!”

Yet Paul does exactly this: he says that somehow rejoicing can help to end this dispute.  Then, before you know it, Paul is hurtling straight into the very heart of the Christian life.  First he reminds the Philippians to recall that because “the Lord is near,” they should demonstrate a gentle, generous attitude in all their living.  He then dives briefly into the center of Christian piety by urging Euodia and Syntyche and all believers to pray about the things that trouble them most.  No sooner does Paul say that and he flies off into a soaring sentence about pondering and doing only that which is lovely and excellent and praiseworthy.  In Greek this is all one long, rambling, complex, and yet finally glorious sentence that whisks readers to the heights of spiritual glory and peace.

In remarkably swift strokes Paul catches up our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions.  In other words, Paul sums up the whole scope of human life.  But how did we get from one little argument between two women to the grandeur of God?  How did two people’s squabbling get us to the entire sweep of a Christian attitude toward life?  Well, we got from point A to point B because in Paul’s mind the general must always be in the specific; the grandeur of God has direct bearing on the nitty-gritty of how we treat each other.  The whole gospel should be contained in a nutshell every time we have interactions with one another.

Could any challenge ever be greater?

Paul tells us to go at life with a hunger for goodness.  Paul recommends that we have the contagious curiosity of children–a wide-eyed, eager searching for what’s lovely.  Yet how easily we can be reduced instead to a state where we have eyes narrowed into slits of cynicism, scanning our brothers and sisters here not for whatever is excellent or praiseworthy but with an eye to detecting whatever is annoying or nettlesome.

After a time, that’s simply how we go at life in the congregation.  We don’t bring such things to God in prayer because we’ve become so accustomed to feeling this way we scarcely notice it anymore.  It’s just become our habit to sit in a certain pew because we know it will be far away from where that other person usually sits.  We now know where to park the car to avoid encounters.  And we’ve long since gotten used to crossing over to the other side of the mall should we see certain individuals coming our way.

I could be wrong, but I doubt very much that Euodia and Syntyche were sitting next to each other when Philippians 4 first was read.  More likely they were on opposite sides of the sanctuary (or whatever room they gathered in there in Philippi).  None of this is pretty, none of this is comfortable but so it goes.  As it was in the beginning, is now and probably ever shall be.  Paul knew it was true in the very first Christian congregations the world had ever known and he would not be too surprised to find the same is still true in probably every congregation on the planet.

Taken all by itself, Philippians 4:4 presents a great challenge.  I’m not even sure that I understand exactly what it means to “rejoice in the Lord always.”  On even the best of days most of us would have reason to doubt whether we had really succeeded in rejoicing every moment.  But when you see the true context of this verse–a setting of strife, bickering, and great unhappiness–then the challenge of this ongoing rejoicing becomes acute.  Having a heart that rejoices without ceasing, having a mind that works overtime to ponder only the best and brightest of subjects, living a life that consistently shows forth our God of peace–all of this is outrageously challenging given the real world in which we live.

But give Paul credit for knowing that if we’re going to pull any of this off, then it’s going to have to happen smack in the midst of the street level realities of life together.

The church was founded on grace alone and this side of the kingdom it will continue to depend on grace as well.  We’ll never make it on our own.  But we will make it.  Somehow.  Some way.  By God’s grace in Jesus, we’ll make it as brothers and sisters.  Some days we can see that truth pretty clearly, other days it’s most decidedly something of which we catch but a fleeting glance through a glass darkly.  But by grace we’ve been called into this body of Christ and by grace we’ll remain.  As Paul knew, there is in that little truth more than enough reason to rejoice!  I’ll even say it again: Rejoice!

Illustration Idea

As Kathleen Norris wrote in her book, Amazing Grace, if it is a gathering of like-minded individuals you’re looking for, then you should join a political party, not a church.  Because in a church what you have is a group of wildly diverse people who share in common mostly just their faith.  Such faith may be the most important thing in the world but it’s not always enough to head off the kinds of conflicts and disputes that can so often make life in a congregation difficult.

Norris writes that when at midlife she finally joined a church, she did so for the best possible reason: she had become a Christian.  Alas, the only church available in her small South Dakota town was at that time in the throes of a dreadful series of controversies, most of which had been brought on by the farm crisis of the 1980s.  Within the same fellowship could be found bank officers as well as the farmers on whose farms the bank was foreclosing.  Thus Norris says that upon entering the congregation she found a church in utter turmoil, with its members behaving about as badly as it is possible for grown-ups to behave.  Things were a mess to the point that she knew that the only thing she and the other members could do was pray.  She was a new Christian in need of a church, and this was the only church she had.  And so she prayed and worked and waited.

In the end things leveled off, although not before the pastor who had helped Norris become a Christian was forced out as a kind of scapegoat.  In the long run–in a mystery as profound as the incarnation itself–the church is still the body of Christ, and that’s what helps us to hang on and stick with it.  Somehow grace gets through, somehow worship happens, somehow wonderful ministry gets done for a broken world, and somehow glimmers of the God of all peace shine through the cracks and the fissures of our brokenness.


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