Think on These Things

First United Methodist Church, Shelbyville, Tennessee — October 15, 2017

Philippians 4:1–9 (CEB)

Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.

Loved ones, I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord. Yes, and I’m also asking you, loyal friend, to help these women who have struggled together with me in the ministry of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the scroll of life.

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

The apostle Paul, based on a couple of individual verses, is sometimes accused of being a male chauvinist. There’s a passage about not allowing women to speak in church, and there’s a passage about marriage. One of Paul’s statements about marriage is often quoted out of context, without looking at the entire passage, which stresses the responsibilities husbands and wives have to each other. The passage about allowing women to speak in church, some scholars believe, may have been of limited application to certain specific situations with which Paul was dealing in his ministry.

For example, there may have been places where most of the female converts had come directly out of idol worship and had habits or mannerisms that would have been divisive in the context of Christian worship.

Or it may be that, because of the patriarchal society, there were churches where the men had education and were able to read the scriptures, but the women weren’t allowed to be educated and therefore could not read the scriptures. There are good reasons to believe that some of these passages were only meant to apply to specific situations or churches in Paul’s circle of influence, and if that’s true we misuse them when we try to apply them to all women in all times.

One thing is clear. The passages about Paul in the book of Acts, and the writings attributed to Paul in the rest of the New Testament, make frequent reference to women who were leaders in their local churches and who were important to Paul’s ministry. Paul was no misogynist, because he was so obviously in partnership with these women in the work of spreading the gospel.

Here’s one example of that. Modern Biblical scholars agree that Euodia and Syntyche were female names, although there was a period when Bible translations, and the scholars that prepared them, tried to claim that Euodia was really Euodias, a man’s name, and some scholars even speculated that he might have been the Philippian jailer who was converted by Paul, and Syntyche was his wife. Now, though, scholars seem to be in agreement that the best and oldest manuscripts say Euodia, not Euodias, which means we’re talking about two women who were prominent in the church in Philippi.

Philippi had a closer relationship to Rome than other Greek cities, and the Romans had more liberal ideas about the role of women (relatively speaking, of course) than the Greeks did. So women in Philippi had more of a voice than they would have in some other Greek cities, and it seems from the context that Euodia and Syntyche were prominent people in their church. We don’t know whether or not they were leaders in the sense of speaking during worship, but it seems that they were leaders in the larger sense, and that their conflict was a crisis, not just for them, but for the church itself. Euodia and Syntyche were in some sort of disagreement, and it had ramifications for the church as a whole.

Aren’t you glad that we never have disagreements in church today? In our advanced modern society, we’ve all learned to get along and not let things come between us….

It sounds as if some of you don’t think that’s the case.

We don’t know exactly what Euodia and Syntyche were quarreling about. We all know that there can be division in the church over great matters and small.

I suppose in some ways, it’s a good thing that we feel so invested in our church. Our church is a part of our life, a part of who we are, and it’s important to us. We want to protect it. It’s good to be passionate about the church.

But, honestly, some of the things we fight about are just ridiculous.

Garrison Keillor, in his wonderful novel “Lake Wobegon Days,” gives us a somewhat-exaggerated version of his childhood in one branch of the Plymouth Brethren church. He goes through all of the various and sundry issues that caused one branch to separate from another. Here’s a quote:

“Once having tasted the pleasure of being Correct and defending True Doctrine, they kept right on and broke up at every opportunity, until, by the time I came along, there were dozens of tiny Brethren groups, none of which were speaking to any of the others.”

At one point — and this is humorous fiction, but I suspect it’s not quite as exaggerated and we’d like to think — the group that Keillor’s grandparents had been a part of broke away from another group over issues like whether hot baths were immoral and whether you should listen to the radio on Sunday. Eventually, both groups moved past those issues.

“By the time I came along,” wrote Keillor, “we listened to the radio on Sunday and ran the bath hot, and yet we never went back and patched things up with the Birds. Patching up was not a Brethren talent. As my grandpa once said of the Johnson Brethren, ‘Any time they want to come to us and admit their mistake, we’re perfectly happy to sit and listen to them and then come to a decision about accepting them back.’”

The early church was finding its way through what to believe and how to practice those beliefs. There were small disagreements and big ones. Paul acknowledges some of the big disputes elsewhere in his writings. Paul criticizes troublemakers and people who are willfully spreading division in the church, and he urges his followers to deal with them.

But this apparently wasn’t that. Paul doesn’t refer to right and wrong, nor does he appear to take sides. He just notes that these two women, each of them important to the church, are in some sort of disagreement. This wasn’t a matter of heresy, or some issue that was critical to the survival of the church. One gets the sense that this conflict, perhaps, was just one of those things — a clash of personalities. A tempest in a teapot. We’ve all been in that position; some minor issue leads to a major conflict, and that conflict drives apart two people who agree on all of the essentials and who really ought to be working together, on the same side.

One of John Wesley’s close associates early in his career was George Whitefield, who shares credit with Wesley for leading an age of religious revival in England in the 1700s. They were leaders of equal stature, and both are credited with making the Methodist movement possible. It was Whitefield who introduced Wesley to the idea of preaching in the fields when the churches were closed to him — both Wesley and Whitefield were looked upon as dangerous fanatics by some elements of the Church of England.

But they had a theological dispute. Whitefield became a Calvinist, someone who believes that God elects certain people for salvation, and that once God has chosen you you remain chosen, while Wesley was an Arminian, someone who believes each of us has the free will to accept or reject God — and even to accept God at one point but fall away from God later. Each of them saw this as a critical issue. Reluctantly, they stopped working together. Wesley built his organization and Whitefield remained outside of it and preached on his own.

But even though they differed on what each of them thought was a critical issue of theology, they did not demonize each other. They remained friends, and when Whitefield died in 1770, his executors asked John Wesley to preach the funeral, and Wesley readily agreed to do so.

Even Paul himself had such a parting of the ways. Paul originally traveled alongside Barnabas, but as they got ready to leave on a new mission trip, they had a falling-out over what we might call today a personnel issue. A young man named John Mark had traveled with them previously but had abandoned them at a critical moment. Now, John Mark was repentant and wanted to travel with them again. Barnabas was willing to take him back; Paul wasn’t. They disagreed so strongly over the issue that they went their separate ways.

Paul may have been in the wrong, by the way. Nothing is ever certain in the world of historical Bible scholarship, but the common opinion is that the young man John Mark is the same Mark who wrote, or is credited with writing, the second gospel. They also think he may be the same Mark who is praised by Paul in some of his later letters as a fellow worker in spreading the gospel.

Right now, at the denominational level, the United Methodist Church is struggling with critical issues, the intersection of scripture and modern society, that have divided some of us. A special commission is looking at what to do about our disagreements and how we can live our lives in witness to Christ and be faithful to our consciences, while still honoring the concept of unity within the church.

It seems sometimes that in our modern society, we have lost the idea of disagreeing with someone without demonizing them. If you look on social media, you see nothing but sarcasm and slander directed from both ends of the political spectrum. If you don’t agree with me, and my party, and whoever it is that I admire, well then you must just be stupid, or corrupt, or just out-and-out evil. And if you’re any of those things, I don’t have to talk to you or listen to you or try to cooperate or compromise. In fact, if I convince myself that you’re evil, I can be proud of myself for not cooperating or compromising with you. I can wear it as a badge of honor that I didn’t compromise with you.

But the fact of the matter is, whichever side of the political spectrum you fall on, the people on the other side aren’t all evil. Maybe a few of them are evil or corrupt; but then again, maybe a few of the people on your side are evil or corrupt, too. You can take just about any group of people and a few of them will be evil or corrupt.

No, most of the people who disagree with you are good people. They love their country just as much as you do. They see different problems and different solutions. You may disagree with them about who is to blame for a given problem. You may disagree with them about the best ways to solve a given problem. You may disagree with them about which problems need to be given top priority. But the fact of the matter is, you’re probably right about some things, and wrong about some things. And they’re probably right about some things, and wrong about some things.

But it’s easier to re-share some idiotic bumper sticker you saw on Facebook than it is to actually listen to people or have a meaningful conversation. It’s easier to think of the other side as inferior, to push them away, than it is to try to work with them.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” How do we, as followers of Jesus, strive to be peacemakers, whether it’s within the church or in the public square?

Paul asks someone referred to as “my loyal friend” to be a peacemaker, to take a hand in healing the broken relationship between Euodia and Syntyche. We don’t know for certain to whom Paul is referring as this potential peacemaker; it may have been Epaphroditus, the messenger who was carrying Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

After Paul talks about Euodia and Syntyche, he gives this advice to the Philippians:

“Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

“From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.”

This is interesting. Paul tells us to keep our mind focused on positive things, holy things, pure things, lovely things. If we have our mind focused on the things that unite us, rather than the things that divide us, it’s easier to remember that we’re all God’s children.

I know I, personally, fall far short of Paul’s advice on a daily basis. I get caught up in the petty, the hateful, the sarcastic, the self-serving. I don’t always focus my thoughts on the things that are holy, the things that are just, and pure, and lovely and worthy of praise.

Our modern political discourse tries to get us to dehumanize the opposition. God wants us to humanize them. The more we are focused on God, the more that we strive to love all people as God loves them, the more we’ll understand about our disagreements, great and small. If our hearts are attuned to God, we will learn not to sweat the small disagreements. And even when there are big disagreements, disagreements about truly significant issues, God will help us to deal with those in a loving and just manner.

In a couple of weeks, we’ll have some visitors here in Shelbyville with what are, I think I can safely say here, some horrific views, views that I believe God considers repulsive. But while we may be shocked and offended by white supremacy, we have to remember that every person who marches, every person who carries some misspelled, hate-filled, misbegotten sign, is a child of God. God loves each and every one of those marchers. God doesn’t love what they say, or what they stand for, or how they live their lives, but God loves them. Jesus would have died on the cross for just one of those marchers, the same as Jesus would have died on the cross for just you.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I am not suggesting that anyone try to engage with any of the protestors this month. Depending on the situation, that might not be safe, and it might not work out the way you imagine. Please don’t do it. But I am suggesting that we think on the things of God, that we try to turn our hearts to a place of love, that our righteous anger be directed towards hateful ideas but that our righteous compassion help us to understand the people behind them.

We, as Christians, are challenged to find ways to stand up to hateful things, and oppose them, but to do so in a loving manner. We as Christians seek justice, not revenge. We seek restoration, not retribution. We seek unity within the church, within our own congregation and between us and our siblings in Christ with whom me might disagree on some points of theology. Above all, we seek, or should seek, to bring everyone we meet into the kingdom of God.

If we are to be agents of peace, Paul tells us, we have to spend our time thinking about what is good, what is beautiful, what is holy.

Think on these things.

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