Reconciliation in the Church

October 15, 2017

Bible Text: Philippians 4:1-9 |

Well, here we are. This is our last week looking at Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. (And if by chance you’re thinking to yourself, “My God, I just can’t get enough of this stuff, then come to the Wednesday night class where we’re going through Philippians much more thoroughly than we can in a short sermon series.)

So, here at the end of the letter, Paul gets very practical. He’s been writing on big, theological themes, but now it’s time to put it into action. And it kicks off with Euodia and Syntyche – these two women in the Philippian church who Paul calls to task right in front of everyone. Can you imagine? I feel so sorry for them. The only thing we know about these women, their only legacy, is that they were having some kind of quarrel in the church and Paul told them to stop it – in a letter that was read in front of everyone! And not only that, in a letter that got copied over and over and spread throughout the Roman empire, and then got included in the canon of scripture and has spread throughout the world and two thousand years later we’re still reading about them in Gig Harbor, Washington. Poor Euodia. Poor Syntyche.

I can just imagine getting to heaven and seeing some woman with a t-shirt on that says, “Yes, I’m that Euodia.” But if heaven’s all it’s cracked up to be, I’m sure she and Syntyche are getting on famously right now.

We don’t know the details of their conflict. But they knew what he was talking about, and so did the whole church. And it’s worth noting that Paul is actually affirming of them: he honors them with the memory of their partnership with him in the early days of the church; he calls them loyal companions; he assures them that their names are written in the book of life. They’re just stuck in some conflict and Paul’s warning is that there is no place for such divisiveness in the church. And pay attention as well, that he’s not just calling these women to task; he makes this public because his exhortation is to the whole church. “Help these women,” he says.

How often is the integrity of a church and its mission torn apart from factions? It might be theological. It might be about money. But whatever justifiable issue is on the surface, below it is usually some grasping after power – of trying to insist that my way is the right way. And I suppose this is to be expected. After all, the church is full of sinners (and I include myself in those ranks). So it’s natural that whatever mess is living inside us is going to manifest itself within the church. Fair enough.

But the call to the Philippian church is the call to all of us: when division happens, the church needs to choose the harder work of reconciliation.

I often say that the hallmark of a good church is the same as a good marriage. When you’re just starting off in marriage, you want to be the perfect spouse: loving and patient and generous and understanding. But it’s impossible to live up to that standard. Of course there are going to be problems. We’re not perfect, so how can we expect a perfect marriage? But a truly good marriage is one that – when there is a problem, when you have been hurt– you tell the other person; if you’re the guilty party, you admit it without being defensive and repent; you forgive, and then you carry on – a little bit stronger than you were before, because now you know you have the ability to navigate through hard times.

It’s the same thing that makes a good church. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to leave a church, than it is a marriage. You walk out the door one Sunday, upset about something. The next Sunday you decide to lie in. A few weeks go by, and then it becomes normal, and that’s it. And rather than learning that these disappointments can be healed and the relationships can become stronger and richer than they ever were before, instead you become increasingly jaded and cynical and join in the world’s contempt of the church and its hypocrisy.

It’s interesting to me that immediately after calling the church to help them, Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always…Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Gentleness. It’s the exact opposite of contention and a striving after power. It’s the opposite of insisting on your own way. When I think about conflicts in relationships that I’ve had over the years, the memories are of this determined insistence that I am right; that my interpretation is the only valid one. What would it mean to choose, instead, a posture of gentleness? A gentle spirit is one that is convinced of a greater, living truth than whatever the present circumstances are threatening.

And then Paul goes on to urge them, not to worry, but in prayer, to let their requests be known to God. And here’s the fascinating thing: he follows this by saying, “and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” He doesn’t say, “and God will answer your prayers.” He says that God will give them peace. And that’s quite a different thing.

So often we treat prayer as a way of convincing God to do what we want done – that if we can just figure out the right technique, and commit ourselves to it diligently with a whole of faith, then we’ll get what we want. But I’ve been taking a different tack on prayer requests lately. It’s kind of along the lines of what Paul says here, “let your requests be known to God.” I’ve just been telling God what I want, without much flourish and without any rationale. Sometimes it feels almost childish, this bald admitting of my desires. But I do it with a completely open posture that expects God to do whatever is best with the information. If God is God – all knowing, all loving – if God knows me and what’s good for me, better than I know myself, then I trust God to do the right thing. And you know, there is a great deal of peace that comes from it. If it doesn’t happen, okay. God is still God, and it’s going to be okay.

I was talking with someone recently who was struggling with truly significant issues that will be around for a long time. And they’re overwhelming and frightening, but by the end of the conversation it came down to, “What do you want today?” And she answered me and said, “If I could just have this happen (and she listed a couple basic things) I could sleep well tonight.” “Okay,” I said, “let’s just tell God what you want. If it’s a peaceful night you get, Amen. And if it’s a wakeful night, amen to that as well. God knows your desires and God is with you.

Finally, beloved, Paul goes on to say, 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.

And this, I think, is very good advice. I don’t know what our problem is as a human species, but we always seem to gravitate towards those things that simply are not good for us – things like gossip. There’s something so delicious about it. I got in the habit of picking up my kids from school and asking them, “Well, what was the dirt at school today?” I loved my daily updates on the drama of middle school life. But one day Kathryn said, “Daddy, how come you always ask us this? You preach about loving your neighbor, but then you seem to enjoy gossip.” Bam! (Shut up, Kathryn!) Well, she was right of course, and I was properly ashamed in front of my children. We love gossip. We love scandals. We’re grotesquely fascinated by all manner of toxicity. In a thousand ways we comfort ourselves with all these things that are steadily eroding our souls.

Paul understands this. And his advice is to be deliberate in choosing to meditate on whatever is true, honorable, and just – whatever is pure and pleasing and commendable. It’s such basic, wise advice. We know it by experience. When we go for a walk in nature, when we watch a movie or read a book that makes us weep for joy or pity at the human condition (rather than to laugh at it or despair), when we watch a child at play, when we hear of someone loving a stranger, our hearts return to that truer place in which we belong.

In these days when despair and division surround us and seep into our souls, Paul’s advice is very timely. Keep returning to whatever it is that speaks truth to your spirit – that reminds you and convinces you of who God is and what is the nature of God’s kingdom and your place within it. Got there. Regularly. Nourish your soul; then step bravely into this world to be the people of God with integrity and purpose and peace. With bravery and gentleness, seek reconciliation in all your relationship, that you may discover the truth of the gospel at work in your life, and become a witness in this world that there is hope and power in the way of Christ, and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

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