March 19, 2017*
Judy was only half-listening as the reader continued on and on. She knew that the letter they were hearing was important, and that she should be paying better attention, but her mind was elsewhere.
Judy and her good friend Cynthia had been through a lot together. They had been among the first women to join Lydia’s house church when it had formed only a few years before, and Paul himself had trained them for ministry (Acts 16). As the church grew and the good news spread, Judy and Cynthia had made a great team, teaching together and encouraging new believers in their faith.
Maybe it was natural for the two women to grow in different directions as their faith increased. Maybe one woman was maturing faster than the other. Perhaps they should have anticipated that, at some point, through their discussions of scripture and discipleship, they would reach conflicting conclusions.
Judy could live with that. What bothered her, though, and kept her from listening to Paul’s letter with her whole heart, was the nagging suspicion that she had caused a division in the church by arguing with Cynthia in front of the others.
Judy felt like she’d lost her best friend. She wished they could go back to the way things used to be, before the church had grown so large. She longed for the old days, when the few close friends who had begun the church could gather around a simple meal and share the joy of serving Christ Jesus as they served one another.
She wished she and Cynthia could return to those early times, when they had studied scripture together, and discovered a peace that neither of them had ever known before. Not like now, when Cynthia countered every point Judy tried to make with, “yes, but….” Judy could feel the heat rising in her cheeks as the resentment toward her old friend grew in her heart.
Suddenly, Judy heard her own name read aloud. Her attention snapped back to the letter as she heard Cynthia’s name, too. What was Paul saying? How unusual for him to address particular people in his letters to the whole church! And how embarrassing that, in a letter so full of joy and encouragement, the first word of admonition should be addressed directly to her,
in front of all these people!
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4:1-9
In this final chapter of Philippians, Paul urges the members of this church to stand firm in their faith, to be of one mind in Christ Jesus, and to continue to strive for the sake of the gospel. And all these things, Paul tells them, are to be wrapped in joy.
For Paul, joy does not equal happiness. The joy Paul writes about is not dependent on our own emotional state or external factors that affect how good we feel. Real joy comes from knowing Jesus. Real joy sustains us even in our sorrow, and real joy is neither an emotion nor something we can produce on our own. Real joy can only be found by living in close relationship with Christ.
Paul loves these people in Philippi deeply. He calls them “my joy and crown.” He is proud of the way they have worked together to develop a church, and he knows how they have suffered for the sake of the gospel, while remaining faithful to Christ. This is why it pains Paul to learn that two of the leaders in the church, women who have worked alongside him in ministry, are now at odds with each other.
We do not know what the disagreement was between Euodia and Syntyche. It apparently was well known to the whole church, because Paul doesn’t bother to name it. Paul does not take sides in the argument, but urges each woman to be reconciled to the other.
It is important to note that Paul calls these women by name, not because they are enemies of the gospel who need to be reprimanded, but because they have been faithful workers who are his dear friends. In his other letters, Paul generally banishes his opponents to anonymity. Here, he names two people he cherishes, and begs them to be of one mind in the Lord. Then, he does something quite remarkable: he addresses a third individual directly, and asks that person to help these women resolve their differences.
Paul writes, “Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”
Paul not only recognizes the important role Euodia and Syntyche have played in ministry, he knows they cannot be reconciled to one another without a little help. So he asks another dear friend, whose name we don’t know, to help these women. He may not have called it that then, but Paul is encouraging these friends to follow what we now call the Rule of Christ.
Then Paul’s exuberance takes over again. “Rejoice!” he tells them. And once is not enough, either! “Again I say, ‘Rejoice!’” Rejoice in the Lord. Find your joy in Christ, who died to save you, who rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and will come again! Find your joy in that hope! Be joyful!
Smack-dab in the middle of this passage, Paul gives us the reason for our hope, the source of our joy. The Lord is near. Not only is the day of the Lord coming soon, but the Lord is near to you right now, present with you, at your elbow, walking beside you. Your petty disagreements about the best way to live out your faith, make disciples, and even how to worship – they are not worth a hill of beans, as my grandpa used to say. The Lord is NEAR. Be of one mind in the Lord. Rejoice!
It is easy to get distracted by details and lose sight of the greater vision. “Where is the joy?” we might wonder, as we do the hard work of becoming the church Christ calls us to be. When one person’s vision for the future collides with another person’s equally passionate vision, it can take the wind right out of our sails. Instead of moving forward with purpose, it can feel like we are rowing in circles.
It is precisely at this point, when we are striving without success, maybe even squabbling with our brothers and sisters who serve alongside us, that Paul reminds us to “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say it: Rejoice!” Let your gentleness be known to all. Be of one mind in the Lord. Being right doesn’t matter nearly as much as being united in mission.
That mission is spelled out for us at the end of the gospel of Matthew. “Go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all things I have commanded you. And I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Our job is to make disciples. We do that by being witnesses to the joy and peace that can only be experienced through Jesus Christ. We do that by building strong relationships.
In Unbinding Your Heart, Martha Grace Reese introduces us to the “Trinity of Relationships.” After studying 150 mainline churches that are really alive and growing, she discovered something. All of these vibrant churches had a set of three relationships that were very real and healthy:
(1) relationships with God
(2) relationships with people outside the church, and
(3) relationships with each other.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is filled with encouragement to develop a strong relationship with God. This is a joy-filled relationship. Our deep connection to God is developed through reading God’s Word and devoting ourselves to prayer.
We find joy in knowing that the sins we confess to God have been forgiven. We’ve been given a clean slate. Our relationship with God is restored. Only when our relationship with God is renewed like this everyday can we demonstrate to others what a difference following Jesus makes in our lives.
This is why Paul says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone”. Let people outside the church see your softened hearts, so they can desire and find the same joy you have. Then comes the shortest sentence in this passage. For Paul, it is a remarkably short sentence: The Lord is near. Christ is near to us, keeping our relationship with him fresh and whole.
When our relationship with God is fresh and whole we can begin to restore any broken relationship we may have with our fellow disciples. Paul urges Euodia and Syntyche to be of one mind with each other, in the Lord. And he recognizes that they need help doing this, so he appeals to another leader in the church to facilitate their reconciliation.
Paul is eager for these two women, important enough in the Philippian church to be called by name, to become a vibrant picture of forgiven people who forgive each other. He wants them to become tangible evidence of the mercy of God. What greater witness can they give to the grace of Christ, than to extend that grace to each other in Christ’s name?
All of the aspects of the Trinity of Relationships are essential for us to grow as a church. We need real and vibrant relationships with God, with people outside the church, and with each other. But right now let’s focus on our relationships with each other.
Are we real and honest with each other? Or do we smile to each others’ faces, but speak critical words when another’s back is turned? When someone asks if we’re okay, do we tell them the truth? Do we trust each other enough to reveal what’s troubling us when we’re struggling?
Are we forgiving each other? Or do we hold onto our grudges? Are we standing with each other, as Paul’s loyal companion stood with Euodia and Sytyche? Or do we withhold our support when things don’t go the way we want them to go?
I wonder what the community sees when they look at our church? Do they see a place of redemption, a place where people show genuine mercy and love for one another?
Look again at the “Trinity of Relationships.” Which of these three essential relationships needs your attention this week? Let’s take a moment right now to pray about it. This is just between you and God. Let me strongly encourage you to especially consider the relationships you have with other church members.
Is there is something that is not right in your relationship with someone here? Be real with God and with yourself about the need for reconciliation. Close your eyes and exhale slowly. Just listen for a moment. Simply ask God, “Where do you want to work in my relationships?” Ask God for help to make things right again. [Pause for one minute] Amen.
I know of a church that was growing a lot. They had been adding several members a month but that suddenly stopped. Visitors came but they wouldn’t join. The pastor finally asked a visitor to tell him what was keeping them from becoming a part of the church. They confessed, “We like the church, but . . . it’s cold!”
And they were right. The church members talked about being a friendly church, but their behavior toward one another said otherwise. Visitors didn’t have to know all the details. They could sense people were tense. They could tell members were angry with each other. They could feel that forgiveness was being withheld.
The pastor realized his own lack of forgiveness was contributing to the big chill. He and another leader in the church had an ongoing disagreement that was causing ill feelings. The pastor mustered his courage, prayed, and called on the man he was at odds with. The pastor did his part to resolve the issue. Soon after this, 2 people joined the church, and 4 more the next week. The visitors who had complained about the coldness of the church were two of the new members. When the pastor asked why they joined, they said, “It felt right all of a sudden.”
When we stand in God’s love, when we stand together, and when we stand for people who need to know Jesus Christ, it feels right all of a sudden. When we are right with God and right with each other, we can make room for others. But when we refuse to be reconciled to brothers and sisters within the church, we can be the roadblock that prevents those outside the church from knowing Christ.
When we discover that winning an argument isn’t as important as being united in Christ, we can know God’s peace, and let it guard our hearts and minds. Then we are in a position to offer Christ to others. When they see how we love one another, despite our disagreements, it opens the door for them to seek Jesus.
Listen again to the end of Paul’s letter:
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, …
… and the God of peace will be with you.
* This sermon borrows some elements from a sermon by Rev. Dawn Darwin Weaks, as provided through the gracenet.info website. Her sermons are licensed for use, in whole or in part, by purchasers of Unbinding Your Church. However, it seemed to me that the story of Euodia and Syntyche did a better job of describing Christian unity in our congregation’s context than the text Dawn Weaks used for hers (Acts 2). So, we went with Paul this week, instead of Peter. Next week, it’s the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4 … which would have been the gospel lesson for this week, Lent 3A, if we had been following the lectionary…. see you next week!