Two Bad Examples
Two Bad Examples
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The story behind the sermon (from Mark Buchanan)
This sermon came near the end of a 10-week series on the letter to the Philippians, called I Can Do Everything: Paul, Jesus, and the Philippians. I took the approach that joy is not Philippians' ground theme but a sub-theme arising from the letter's larger concern: life in and through Christ. In other words, Philippians 2:1-11—the imitation of Christ rooted in the experience of Christ's love—is the letter's heart.
Philippians lends itself well to a thematic approach. I broke the letter into broad themes: affection, courage, imitation, et cetera. But that approach runs into two problems: the section at the end of Philippians 2, where Paul extols the examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus; and the section at the start of Philippians 4, where Paul addresses the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche. I decided to deal with those two portions as interludes. The sermon on Timothy and Epaphroditus I called Two Good Examples, and looked at those two men as exemplars of "that which Paul commends" (actually, one of the other pastors preached this sermon). The section on Euodia and Syntyche I treated in the opposite way—two women behaving as counter-examples of "that which Paul commends."
The power of the sermon, I think, is the decision to treat Philippians 4:1-9 as a pericope, or exegetical unit. By tying the section about church conflict to Paul's exhortations to rejoice, be gentle, pray with thanksgiving, think about virtues, and the like, the exhortations connect to the life of the church in real time. When we hear all 9 verses as a unit, the exhortations, rather than free-floating as pious sentiments, become the actual and practical means for resolving the conflict. Paul pleads with the women to agree, invites the "loyal yokefellow" to help, and then lays out the steps for creating shalom. It's a whole theology of peacemaking in a carryout box.
I have used Philippians 4:1-9 for years as a template for helping disputants within the church resolve their conflict and reconcile. It works. So I've field tested the practical value of my exegesis. My primary aim in this sermon was to exhort and to equip. I wanted people to walk out of church that day with the desire and the tools to resolve conflict for themselves or for others. Afterward, many people told me the sermon did just that.
The day I preached it, a woman attended our church for the first time. She was a wreck. Her marriage was a mess, and she was contemplating divorce. The sermon first undid her, then emboldened her. A number of women prayed for her right after the service (loyal yokefellow indeed!). The next week, she brought her husband. They've been coming ever since. They've been receiving counseling from one of our pastors to help them have a great marriage. I saw them last week at a barbecue, holding hands. I think they're going to make it.
One of my favorite Bible stories is the account of Joseph in the Book of Genesis. Joseph's 11 brothers resent him because of the favor he has with men and with God—and because he's a bit too vocal about it all. Their resentment turns to enmity, which turns to malice, which turns to vengeance, which turns to betrayal. They sell Joseph into slavery. Joseph's life becomes a series of hardships and misfortunes, but God keeps intervening in his life and turning misfortune into opportunity. Joseph himself describes it this way: what others intended for evil, God intended for good (Gen. 50:20).
Late in the story, when Joseph has attained great riches and power, he reunites with his brothers and reconciles with them. He forgives them. And he sends his brothers back to Canaan to bring their father, Jacob, with them to Egypt so Joseph can be reunited with him. Joseph has a single request as he sends his brothers on their journey in Genesis 45:24: "Then he sent his brothers away, and as they were leaving he said to them, 'Don't quarrel on the way.'"
That could serve as general marching orders for the people of God: Don't quarrel on the way. Between reconciliation and reunion, settle your differences, drop your weapons, choose peace.
This is virtually the same thing the Apostle Paul says to two women in the church in Philippi. Their names are Euodia and Syntyche. But they could be Betty and Mildred, or Stanley and Wilbur, or any variation thereof. They're two people who forgot that they live between a great reconciliation and a great reunion, and that therefore they were not to quarrel on the way.
Here's what Paul says:
I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
In Philippians 3, Paul talks about the great reconciliation that has been won for us through Christ's death. He considers nothing worth knowing or having except the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. The great reconciliation. And then he talks about the great reunion that awaits us because of Christ's resurrection. He lives in eager expectation of the Christ who will transform us to be like him. The great reunion.
Paul sums it all up in Chapter 4, verse 1: "Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends."
How do brothers and sisters stand firm in the Lord? By holding onto the great reconciliation and the great reunion. And with that, a steadfast refusal to quarrel on the way.
Actually, it's not the first time Paul has used the phrase "stand firm"—stēkō in the Greek—in his letter to the Philippians. He uses it in chapter one. The context specifically has to do with unity. Listen:
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel. (Phil. 1:27)
We live our lives between a great reconciliation and great reunion. But don't quarrel on the way. The contending as one man for the faith of the gospel is destroyed when we contend as two people squabbling over some petty difference.
One of the differences between horses and donkeys shows up in a fight. When horses confront an enemy—a pack of wolves, say—they face each other and kick the enemy. When donkeys confront an enemy, they face the enemy and kick each other. For some reason, the church tends to play the ass and not the stallion. We have an uncanny ability to turn on each other when the pressure's on.
What's so helpful about this portion of Philippians is that Paul goes beyond just admonishing these two women. Embedded here is an entire manual of conflict resolution. He gives step-by-step instructions for restoring peace in the face of animosity and bitterness. In fact, twice in the passage I read, Paul mentions peace—eirene in the Greek—which translates the lovely word shalom from the Hebrew. Paul wants the shalom of God and the God of shalom to rule in this situation of conflict. And he tells the Philippians how to pursue peace.
I want to walk us through Paul's instruction for restoring peace after we've quarreled on the way. It's simple and practical. It's doable and workable. And it puts the boots to the real enemy.
Paul sets the conflict between these two women in the contexts of heaven, the church, and the Lord.
Heaven. Paul has just reminded the church, including Euodia and Syntyche, that they are citizens of heaven and they eagerly await a Savior from there. And then he reminds them their names are written in the Book of Life. What Paul's doing is reorienting them to ultimate reality. It's hard to maintain petty grudges in the face of ultimate reality. Actually, it's impossible. Ultimate reality is this: Christ has redeemed you by his blood and written your name in his book—not by any merit of your own, but purely out of his grace; while you were his enemy, he died in your place so he could make peace with God for you. And Christ has made you a citizen of his kingdom and is coming to transform your lowly body so it is like his glorious body.
Now what was your issue again? Oh, Euodia didn't give you full credit for all you did in the Sunday School ministry? Oh, Syntyche sings more often on the worship team than you do? And you think this matters in light of ultimate reality? Come on. Remember the scene where Jesus' disciples are arguing over who's the greatest, and he sidles up beside them and asks what they're talking about? "Oh, nothing," they say. "Nothing at all." They're shamefaced. To be squabbling about something so petty in the face of the greatness of God is embarrassing. If we mastered the art of getting ultimate reality in focus, we would do much less quarrelling on the way.
The church. Paul calls the church to help here because the conflict between these women is not a private matter. It hurts everyone. It hurts the cause of the gospel. Don't be misled. One Christian's animosity against another is never a private matter. It's not just between two people. It hurts us all. And it damages the credibility of the gospel. It is Paul's express wish that the church would contend "as one man for the faith of the gospel." Contending against one another is a blight on the gospel.
And by the way, restoration is a body work. It's not just the duty of the pastors to broker peace. Paul calls on the members of the church. So if you are aware of strife between fellow Christians, I ask you, loyal yokefellow, to do your part.
The Lord. Paul calls them to agreement, but not with each other. He calls them to unity, but not over the issue at hand, whatever that is. Who knows what their battle was about? Maybe one didn't invited the other to a birthday party. Maybe it was more serious—maybe a spat over how a ministry should be carried out. Whatever the issue, Paul calls them to agree with each other in the Lord. Paul knows that, aside from a few issues of a moral or doctrinal nature, there are few things that can divide us, and nothing that is bigger than the Christ who unites us. The person and work of Jesus in almost every instance trumps our differences of opinion. You lean left politically and you lean right. You like this brand of worship music and you like that brand. You wish we'd talk more about this topic and you wish we'd mention it less. And on and on it goes. Fine and well. We don't have to all be the same. We don't have to agree with each other on all the issues and positions. What's required is to agree in the Lord: who he is, what he's done, that none of us would be here except for his mercy. That's a wide common ground.
So Paul sets this conflict in these three large contexts: the reality of heaven, the life of the church, and the person and work of Jesus.
Paul absolutizes the terms of peacemaking.
Listen to the language he uses: Rejoice always. Let your gentleness be evident to all. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, pray. Whatever is true … . If anything is excellent … . Whatever you have learned from me … . Always, all, anything, everything, whatever.
This is important. The tendency in conflict is to absolutize the terms of war. You never. You always. Animosity often strips us of the capacity to find anything good or noble or admirable in our rival. So Paul pushes this tendency in the opposite direction. He pushes us toward pursuing and embracing absolute joy, absolute gentleness, absolute trust in God, absolute celebration of the good, the right, the true, and the lovely.
Paul lays out practical steps to resolve conflict.
Then Paul gets down to brass tacks. Here's what I've been implying up until now but need to make explicit: what Paul writes in verses 4-9 of Philippians 4 are not random thoughts unrelated to anything else he's said in this letter. We often treat these verses that way. We often cut and paste these verses and make them into mush sentiments for wall plaques: "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!" We put that on greeting cards and send it to cheer someone up.
That's not how these verses function in this letter. Rather, they're Paul's simple and practical counsel on how to help Euodia and Syntyche to "agree with each other in the Lord."
Rejoice in the Lord always. Refuse to let conflict blind you to God or steal your joy in him.
Let your gentleness be evident to all. The operative words in that sentence are gentleness, evident, and all. All of those are weighty words in the Greek. Gentleness means clemency: literally, a refusal to act out the anger or retaliation to which you may be entitled. The word for evident refers not so much to the behavior of the subject as it does to the perception of the object. In other words, the real measure of your gentleness is not if you think you're being gentle, but if the other person sees it, feels it, experiences it. Our self-perception is often skewed. And the word all is, in the Greek, pas anthropos: all humanity. Every living, breathing person. Essentially, Paul denies us venting rights. Except in one instance: with God.
Let your requests be known to God. Pray, Paul says. Actually, Paul uses two related words in verse 5 and 6 that get obscured by the translation I'm using. It's the phrase "let be known." In verse 5, Paul says let your gentleness be known to all humanity. In verse 6, he says let your requests be known to God. The words he uses in these instances are variations of the word gnosis in the Greek. What in essence Paul is saying is: Let God know your problems, but let others know your peace.
This is maybe the hardest thing Paul says here. It is a feat of superhuman endurance not to vent with another human being when we're in a conflict. I find it nearly impossible. Now, to be clear, Paul is not saying we can never address the situation with another human being. He's just saying we need to do that in a gentle way, the way of clemency. And the way you get to that place is to bring the whole thing first to God, and keep bringing it until his peace is guarding your heart and mind.
But here's the thing: if we vent with God, we can be peaceable with others; if we vent with others, we won't have peace anywhere. All that tends to do is stir us up even more. So may I commend the way of prayerfulness? I am guessing some of you here are locked in seemingly irreconcilable conflicts with others, and part of the reason is that you're venting too much and praying too little. Reverse that pattern, and see what happens.
Focus on whatever is true. Paul exhorts us to both positive thinking and critical thinking. Positive thinking, because he wants us to see the good in everything and everyone. There was a day Euodia and Syntyche had no problem seeing the good in one another. That's how they became friends of one another and servants of the gospel. But whatever came between them affected their eyesight, and now they can't see one good thing in the other. Paul asks them to reverse that: practice seeking virtues, not shortcomings. Practice singing each other's praises, not catcalling each other's vices. Confess your own sins, not one another's.
But Paul also, implicitly, invites a certain critical mindedness. By that I mean, he asks us to be discerning. You can't think about what's noble or right or lovely or any of the other virtues Paul names unless you're discerning. It's what Paul prays for the Philippians in 1:9: "And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless." We need depth of insight to discern what is best, especially because we live, as Paul describes it in Philippians 2:15, in a "crooked and depraved generation." Look at the typical offerings on television and in movies and magazines. If you've had a steady diet of this, your thinking and perceiving is warped and stained. It takes a renewal of mind to be able to know what is good and true and right. Paul tells us to renew our minds according to the word of God, discern what is best according to the character of God, and then fill our minds with these things by help of the Spirit of God. Besides being a good thing in itself, it helps us restore peace in the midst of conflict.
Focus on what you have seen, heard, learned, received. This way of life is not finally a mental exercise. It is lived. It is practiced. It is walked out, not just thought out. You don't just ponder it, you do it. You find someone who lives this way, and you copy them. You enact the way of peace to create the way of peace.
In fact, not only will the peace of God guard your hearts and minds, but if you heed all this, the God of peace will be with you. And when you taste and see that, what was the problem again?
For many years a large silver star adorned the top of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. One day in the 1800s, the Roman Catholic Church, which shares a part of the building with a Greek Orthodox Church, decided to take down the silver star and replace it with their own star. But the Greek Orthodox Church refused to let them do that. The Greek Orthodox Church was supported by Russia, and the Roman Catholic Church was supported by France. But Turkey actually ruled over Palestine at that time. When Turkey sided with the Roman Catholic Church, Russia declared war on Turkey. France and England allied themselves with Turkey and fought what history calls the Crimean War, which lasted from 1853 to 1856. At the end of that war the star came down.
Paul says this to the Philippians:
Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life—in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. (Phil. 2:14-16)
That's the star that should shine from our church.
To see an outline of Buchanan's sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.
Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.