Getting sorted - Philippians 4:2-9
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
St John's Newland 24 July 2011 a.m.
'Get Sorted' Philippians 4: 2-9
80 or 90 years ago many folk would start the day with a sparkling glass of mildly radioactive 'Radium Water'
People believed that this new fangled radioactivity and Christ rays had such wonderful properties that radioactive material was incorporated into everything from toothpaste to suppositories.
Of course now with the devastating after effects of radiation exposure at Chernobyl and Hiroshima we know the dangers of ingesting radioactive materials, even at low levels, and adverts like this have long since been banned.
And really even then I guess anyone with a mite of common sense should have realised that the good people of Buxton were just as prone to these complaints as anyone else. Yes claims for healing powers as wide as this were just too good to be true. Nevertheless there have of course been huge benefits from the proper medical use of Christ rays and radioactivity
It's a bit like that with the church – we hear much emphasis on the 'church family', and indeed there are times when being with them genuinely does seem like a 'taste of heaven'. We have inspiring teaching from the bible promoting the blessings of the Christian life, about belonging to the church, with the timeless truths about our wonderful saviour, yet if we're honest the reality sometimes doesn't always seem to match the expectation – and it all seems too good to be true.
As one wag put it
"To live above with saints in love, O that will be the glory.
But to live below with saints we know, That's quite a different story!"
And let's face it, many of us in the past have been hurt in church conflicts along the way, perhaps partly because we have had such high expectations of one another. So let's come right down to earth in this wonderful letter from Paul, where we find that he is absolutely up front about the serious relational issues that were causing major problems in the church at Philippi.
Isn't it refreshing that the bible is open about such issues and deals with life as it really is and makes no false claims?
1. This letter must have been one of the most difficult Paul wrote, and the verses we are opening up today are really the crux of the entire letter – not an afterthought or closing remarks – in a way the whole letter has been building up to chapter 4 so do open your bibles at p1180 and let's see why:
a) We need to understand that Paul was very close to these folk – we read in Acts 16 that he'd first visited Philipi on his second great missionary journey and had an extraordinary time there: he caused a riot, was arrested, beaten and thrown in prison, was miraculously released, seen the jailer and family converted and seen the start of the church right there in Lydia's home. He had followed the church as it grow, he'd worked alongside these folk, they were his partners in the gospel – he knew them well. In practice there was that real bonding that takes place when you go through trials together.
b) But now he was far away - letter writing and sending messengers were the only way of maintaining communication in the world of the New Testament. Some of Paul’s letters are preserved for us, some are 'round robins' to a group of churches, others give personal guidance – this one ironically was written from gaol where Paul as friend and pastor must have been deeply troubled by the news of division and strife trickling through from Philipi.
So here we have a carefully crafted missive to deal with the situation from afar, it starts with greetings and a reminder of old times together, then Paul's assurance of the special place they have in his heart, followed by encouragement and teaching on living the Christian life, a wonderful confession of faith - together with his own up to date testimony of devotion to his Saviour despite the most trying of circumstances.
Having been through all this, only then is he in a position to tackle the actual problem here in chapter 4.
In our day of instant e mail responses which so easily convey inappropriate attitudes, or hasty thinking, we might do well to learn from Paul's careful approach. For example I personally try to leave emails which disturb me for at least 24 hours before responding, just to avoid saying something I might later regret.
2) So what can we glean from the text about this problem in Philippi? Very little - it doesn't actually tell us what it was, and as you will see as we go on, the detail is not really that relevant. What we do know is that two women, Euodia and Syntyche were seriously at odds with each other. These were not ordinary women, they were front line gospel workers with Clement and the others. They were right at the centre, probably leaders, the sort of people whose behaviour influenced others.
And just as in any church where key people are at odds with each other, the whole body is inevitably affected. Whether it's the ministers, the leadership team, the diaconate, the youth team, the elders, or even the PCC you can be sure of two things that will happen when there is this sort of strife:1) it can't be hidden, like it or not people will get to know what's going on, and 2) the Holy Spirit is grieved by dissension and his presence is withdrawn – look at Ephesians 4.
No wonder Paul is anxious to write this letter.
And a word to the men here: don't let's be patronising that this was just a 'women’s issue' and therefore doesn't affect us – there is no hint that this problem was gender specific, - if it was just something like a squabble in the crèche or other minor personal issue it would have been dealt with in the normal way by the other leaders.
Over the years I've learned that male church leaders can exhibit just as much childish petulance as the women – sometimes more. Especially when they think their status is being challenged.
Neither is it likely that this issue was about doctrinal or moral matters upon which the scriptural position is quite clear, but much more likely about methods or authority, and had probably blown out of all proportion resulting in a deep personal rift which was now damaging the work.
3) So how does Paul tackle it? From our perspective it was a very unusual high risk approach and very un British!!
Firstly notice that he 'goes public', no separate letter to the two parties involved, no private meeting behind closed doors, on the contrary he was up front, open, and transparent – this was a letter to the whole church, which crucially raised the expectation of every member that the two ladies will get sorted.
In other words by sharing publicly he makes solving the problem a responsibility for the whole church family.
Secondly he does not support either party, instead he entreats them to 'agree in the Lord' whatever that means, and asks his faithful friend – probably Luke – to help them through the process.
It's so easy for us to be judgemental when we hear about a problem, then to take sides and pigeon hole people especially when we only know part of the story. We would do well to follow Paul's example.
4) What then is this 'agreeing in the Lord' - Let's say first what it is not! - It is not seeking a compromise, it is not about apportioning the blame fairly, it is not acquiescence by one party in order to keep the peace, it is not learning how to put on a polite face when meeting the other party, – although it may involve elements of those. All these describe the world's way called diplomacy, a tortuous process which so often fails. The Lords people however are called to an entirely different – and very challenging - way of living.
The key you will see is at the end of verse 3 – we are called to live in the light of eternity, as people whose names are written in the book of life. In fact the English word 'agree' in v2 does not adequately convey the sense – literally it means, 'think the same way' or 'have the same mindset', and that mindset referred to is the Jesus mindset, defined so well in the earlier part of the letter. Paul says clearly in ch2 v5 'Have this mind in you' – and by that he means following the example of the Lord Jesus who in total humility made Himself nothing and died on a cross for the people who rejected Him.
Paul himself demonstrates this same mindset back in Chapter 1 by his whole attitude to imprisonment and rejection, Here again in v 9 he challenges them to watch him and follow his example.
5) The interesting question about this approach is 'does it work?' – Again we don't know the result in Philippi, and maybe we don't need to know either. What we are given is an example of good practice on dealing with a problem in a community situation, together with the foundational principles of the attitude or mindset we should adopt in every setting.
That's because no two situations are identical - for example, all too often we face the scenario where one party is open to dealing with strife in a Godly way, but the other isn't. Paul says in (Rom 12:18) If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men. As individuals we are not called to do the impossible – just to follow the example of our Lord – and His servants like Paul who were prepared to suffer totally unfairly.
Here in the UK today there's another complication: When there's a disagreement in church we have the luxury of being able to move to a different church down the road – quite unlike the situation in Philippi then, or in many parts of the world today, where there is simply no alternative – we point to the argument Paul himself had with Barnabas when they couldn't agree on a ministry trainee to accompany them. Paul & Barnabas we do know had fellowship restored, and here, even if we do move churches, it is vitally important that we also maintain relationship 'in the Lord' – Why do I say that?
Well from my own experience I've been in this sort of situation 3 times in 40 odd years, on each occasion I knew I was technically in the right (then I would say that wouldn't I!) – but now with the privilege of hindsight I can see that I didn't handle the issues very well and that crucially the blessing dried up until I was prepared to 'Agree in the Lord' with the other parties - whether they responded or not.
6) Is all this 'Christian mindset' just for leaders then? – well this specific application is, but remember Paul is also talking to the whole church and encouraging them to follow his example. It's easy to say, but how do we actually go about developing it? Paul's gives us all some very good general practical advice, summarised in v4 – 9 , so succinct that you could almost make them into a bookmark:
1. Keep rejoicing (verse 4) all too often we equate rejoicing with the way we feel – for Paul it's more of something we do. We are to intentionally remind ourselves of our Lords sacrifice on the cross, sing the great truths of our faith and so on
2. Be gentle and reasonable in our dealings with others (verse 5), again this is not an automatic manifestation of the Fruit of the Spirit – when we have a choice to make, sometimes a hard choice, as a Christian we are to choose to be reasonable – even if it costs us in pride or money. The Lord is at hand it says – in other words in all our dealings we are to act as if the Lord Jesus was standing right next to us (which of course He is!!)
I'm reminded of a fairly sharp Christian Businessman I know who generously paid to furnish a flat for a brother in need – who promptly cleared off. I expected him to be furious – his gentle response? 'Viv – it goes with the patch' That is the Christian mindset working out in practice.
3. Pray about everything, a tremendous discipline, but only by this can we have the security and confidence that our lives are in His hands - and then experience the wonderful peace of God as a result (verses 6-7) . Many have mistakenly used this concept of the 'peace' as a sort of stop / go traffic light on guidance – that is not the sense or intention of the verse – don't be misled God expects to guide us through the principles laid out in His word and right use of our brains.
4. Think good in other words force yourself to think positively on the good, the true, and the honourable (verse 8) If we dwell on troubling thoughts, or fill our minds with rubbish it is so difficult to gain victory in Christ when faced with the inevitable problems of life. Remember the old adage 'garbage in – garbage out': if we put garbage in (to our minds) then we get garbage out in our lives!
7) However this morning you may well ask 'Can't we be more specific?'
- Yes I think we can
1. When we pray for our leaders whether ministers, youth leaders, home group leaders or whatever, pray specifically that they will maintain that crucial 'agreement in the Lord'. When we pray for missionaries working out there in multicultural teams pray that they agree in the Lord – even if they don't understand why other team members respond as they do.
2. Be on the lookout to help each other as Luke was called to help Euodia and Syntyche. Be prepared to challenge unhelpful behaviour, I don't mean become a busybody, but there may occasionally be a time when God wants you to take an initiative. I well remember many years ago the knock on our door one night - by a young minister from the other side of town with whom I had no direct connection, who said 'Viv I'm concerned about you and this situation - it's affecting the wider body' - I am so thankful that he cared enough and had enough courage to come and talk to me. Brothers like that are precious and sadly few and far between.
3. Examine ourselves to make sure that good relationships are maintained within our own church. We are coming shortly to gather around the Lords table to remember how Jesus humbled himself for us, how he died a horrible death for us – Elsewhere Paul says 'examine yourself - don't come to the table without discerning the body' in other words if you have outstanding issues with anyone – get them sorted. You may need to go home and write or phone someone, or even get alongside someone right here this morning, perhaps whilst the music is playing or during a hymn and say sorry or even just squeeze their hand! I know it's St John's and we're often not very demonstrative, but I can assure you that making a move like that is absolutely OK!
Pause quietly for a moment to reflect on the lesson of Euodia and Syntyche and how it applies to us individually,
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