Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 15, 2023
Philippians 4:1-9 Commentary
In a world that knows so little peace, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s references to “the peace of God” [eirene tou Theou]* are very attractive. In fact, preachers may want to comb media reports shortly before they preach on Philippians 4 in order to cull some contemporary examples of that lack of peace. We probably won’t to search too look long for examples of wars, as well as gun violence and other forms of a lack of peace.
In that context, preachers can point out that the apostle, in fact, not once but twice promises God’s dearly beloved people God’s peace – and strongly alludes to it in another place. But wise preachers will also remind our hearers that the peace with about which Paul writes in Philippians 4 has a kind of “rider” attached to it.
However, lest we be accused of heresy, wise preachers will hurry to clarify that last statement. God, of course, through Christ’s saving life, death and resurrection gave peace with himself, not just to people, but also the whole creation. God did everything necessary to turn God’s adopted children from enemies into God’s dearly beloved people. God, in fact, reconciled the whole creation to himself through the saving work of Jesus Christ.
However, Paul suggests that in order to experience the full benefits of that peace, Jesus’ friends must live a cruciform life that’s shaped by the work of the Holy Spirit. Those who wish to know God’s complete peace let the Spirit help them to cultivate certain Christian practices.
The apostle alludes to such discipleship in verses 2-4. There he implies that God’s adopted daughters Euodia and Syntyche aren’t yet reaping the full benefits of the peace that God offers in Jesus Christ. In verse 2, after all, Paul pleads with them to “agree with [auto phronein] each other in the Lord.” He literally begs his co-workers for the sake of the gospel to “be of the ‘same mind’.” The Message paraphrases the apostle as begging his sisters in Christ “to iron out their differences and make up. God doesn’t want his children holding grudges.”
These sisters in Christ have, according to verse 3, “contended [synethlesesan] at [Paul’s] side in the cause of the gospel.” Yet while they seem to have developed a close working relationship with the apostles, something has broken their relationship with each other. Euodia and Syntyche’s “are in the book [biblo] of life [zoes].” However, their names are no longer on each other’s Friends and Family Plan. God’s peace is not extending to peace between Paul’s faithful partners in the work of the gospel.
While Paul doesn’t cite the cause of this rupture, he implies that it’s so serious that they can’t heal it on their own. After all, the apostle begs his unidentified “loyal yokefellow” [gnesie syzige] to “help” [syllambanou] his/her sister in Christ experience the fullness of the peace of God to which human reconciliation contributes.
Such peace of God is always and only a gift of God’s grace. God’s adopted sons and daughters can only receive that reconciliation with our faith in Jesus Christ. But this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson suggests that there are ways to open ourselves to the fullness of that peace. Twice, after all, Paul begins his promise of God’s peace to the Philippians with the word “and [kai].”
Philippians 4’s Paul characterizes God’s peace in three ways. It “transcends all understanding” (7a). This suggests that the peace of God is not easy to fully comprehend. It defies conventional wisdom. The peace of God is literally “superior” to any other peace that God’s dearly beloved people might have.
The peace of God, what’s more, “guards” (7b) our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Here Paul uses military terminology to describe what God’s peace does for Christians’ hearts and minds. It literally stands as a sentinel to protect Jesus’ followers’ hearts and minds. While Paul doesn’t explicitly identify the threat, its proximity to his call not to be “anxious” at least suggests that God’s peace protects God’s people hearts and minds from anxiety about anything.
On top of that, Paul asserts in verse 9, the God of peace will be “with” Jesus’ friends. God’s peace doesn’t just guard us. It also constantly accompanies Christians. In fact, the Greek preposition “with” may even be translated as “behind.” So it’s almost as if Paul uses it here to underline God’s peace’s guarding of our hearts and minds against sneak attacks from behind.
Yet all three of those promises of God’s peace are preceded by calls to certain acts of Christian discipleship. This at least suggests that acts of faithfulness cultivate an openness to God’s peace’s mighty work. “Rejoice [chairete] in the Lord always [pantote].” (4) “Let your gentleness [epielkes] be evident to all” (5). “Do not be anxious [merimnate] about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests [aitemate] to God” (6). “And, the apostle adds in verse 7, the peace of God … will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Two of those summons to discipleship are explicitly theocentric. The third (“Let your gentleness be evident …”) find its model in God in Christ. All three calls strongly suggest that the kind of life that’s open to God’s peace is always oriented toward God and God’s ways. Those who follow Jesus know that both the source of our joy and relief from anxiety is in God alone.
What’s more, the scope of discipleship that opens itself to God’s peace is broad. Jesus’ friends don’t just rejoice in the Lord when circumstances make us happy. We rejoice “always.” God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t just present our requests to God about what others might consider “big” things. “In everything” those who long for God’s peace’s protection bring our prayers to the God who so deeply loves us and longs for our wellness.
In verses 8 and following the apostle continues. “Whatever [hosa] is true [alethe], whatever is noble [semna], whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is admirable … think about such things” (8). “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice” (9a). “And,” he adds in verse 9b, the peace of God will be with you.”
The scope of these calls to discipleship is also vast. Both summons, after all, the Greek word hosa (“whatever”) both introduces and dominates them. Jesus’ friends let the Spirit help them think about whatever is what The Message paraphrases as “true, notable, reputable, authentic, compelling and gracious.” Those who wish for God’s peace to stay with us concentrate on whatever’s “the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise not to curse.”
Paul uses the word hosa again in verse 9. There The Message paraphrases him as telling the Christians in Philippi, “Whatever you’ve learned and heard from as well as saw in me, put into practice.” The apostle invites those who wish for God’s peace to accompany us to keep patterning our lives after not just Jesus, but also the apostle.
*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
In his fine book, Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), N.T. Wright reflects on the relationship between prayer and God’s peace. He notes how “Anxiety was a way of life for many in the ancient pagan world. With so many gods and goddesses, all of them potentially out to get your for some offenses you mightn’t even know about, there was no guarantee against suffering, but there was the certainty that this God was ultimately in control and that he would always hear and answer prayers on any topic, whatever.
“People sometimes say today that you shouldn’t bother God about trivial requests (fine weather for the church picnic, a parking space in a busy street) but, though of course our intercessions should normally focus on serious and major matters, we note that Paul says that we should ask God about every area of life. If it matters to you, it matters to God. Prayer like this will mean that God’s peace – not a Stoic lack of concern, but a deep peace in the middle of life’s problems and storms – will keep guard around your heart and mind, like a squadron of soldiers looking after a treasure chest.”
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