Sunday, October 9, 2011

Think About These Things...

I am deeply indebted to the insight of David E. Fredrickson and the writing of Susan Eastman in preparing this sermon. What do you count on for your hope, your peace, your joy, your self-value?

Exodus 32:1-14

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Philippians 4:1-9

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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

There’s a natural tendency to read things into the Scriptures, isn’t there? We make assumptions based on cultural bias, on the power of unrelated words in the passage, and this isn’t just the average Joe or the average Jane that do it. Theologians and commentators and preachers do it all the time as well.

Take, for example, the first part of our Epistle reading, where Paul urges Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Almost without exception, the writers and scholars I have read this week assume that these two women were quarreling. There’s supposition about what the disagreement was over, the suggestion that Paul didn’t go into detail because he didn’t want to appear to be taking sides, speculation about the identity of the “loyal companion” who Paul asks to assist in resolving the conflict, and on and on.

Yet, looked at from another, more careful angle, what we could be seeing in this reading is an enthusiastic endorsement of two individuals who share Paul’s calling to be missionaries for the Gospel, spreading the Good News across the known world.

I confess that I’d never given the matter much thought, but I wonder if this assumption that Paul was addressing a conflict between two women in the Philippian church says more about our culture than it says about the church at Philippi. Is it the fact that Paul names them before talking about rejoicing and being gentle, is it the use of the word “struggle” in the same sentence, or is it a cultural bias that leads us to assume that two women, who are in leadership, will automatically be bickering, even though scholars agree that there is no evidence of the church at Philippi having any internal conflict?

Certainly, part of the issue is that, in our twenty-first century culture, we don’t readily recognize that it was a hallmark of Greco-Roman culture to provide moral encouragement by exhorting individuals and groups to go on doing what they are doing. Further, we read Scripture in our own language, and too often miss the nuances and historically pertinent nuances of the original languages. Take, for example, the phrase we read translated, “loyal companion.” The more accurate translation is “true yokefellow.” Whereas a companion is a friend who joins you on your journey, sits with you in rest, and works with you in labor, a “true yokefellow” is something else entirely.

A yoke is a wooden beam normally used between a pair of oxen or other animals to enable them to pull together on a load when working in pairs. In ancient culture, the yoke was an important symbol of cooperative effort. Friends were yokefellows, as were married couples. In 2 Corinthians 6:14, Paul warns the community against accepting the leadership of Christian missionaries whom Paul disapproves; the church is not to be "misyoked."

When animals are yoked together, they are laboring in the same way toward a common goal, and there’s precious little resting or sitting together to be done.

What thus becomes clear is that Paul is not referring to a given individual who is his messenger to resolve a conflict between two church leaders, but identifying himself as joined with the church at Philippi as a whole in the ongoing work of sharing the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and asking that church to give Euodia and Syntyche the same moral, spiritual, and financial support they had given Paul.

It may seem like this issue of whether or not Euodia and Syntyche were bickering is a minor one, a matter of mild intellectual interest at best. Certainly, the fact that Paul identifies women as fellow leaders, fellow workers, and treats them as equals – co-contenders with him for the Gospel, rather than subordinates – is a powerful testament to the validity of women in pastoral and leadership positions in the church.

But we must remember that, when he wrote to the Philippian church, Paul, was sitting, chained to a guard, in the filth of a Roman jail, awaiting the decision of the Emperor Nero on whether he was to live, and continue working, or die at the hands of the Roman Empire. As far as he knew, these were the last words he would ever write to this church which he worked so hard to found during his missionary journeys. The Philippian church is perhaps the only church that Paul ever points to as an example to other churches, and the only one to stand behind him in times of financial need. I can imagine that Paul had deep spiritual and relational ties to all of the churches in all of the cities and towns he had visited and evangelized, but Philippi was special.

I can imagine Paul, chained to a guard, beginning to rush his words, the writer he’s dictating to struggling to keep up as the light of the day begins to falter. There is so much left to say, and so little time. What is the most important thing he can say, what really needs to be told?

In Euodia and Syntyche, and people like them, Paul is making sure that the Good News continues to spread to all the world.

And what he says next would sound like empty platitudes if it were not for the reality that Paul currently lived in, and the wave of anti-Christian persecution even at that point beginning to roll across the Roman Empire. These words serve as instruction, both for churches which even today exist in countries where Christianity is illegal, and for men and women fighting against the jadedness of a consumerist society, which pressures us to look, talk, and think like everyone else.

Society tells us to derive our happiness from possessions, to place our hope in elected officials of one political party or another, instructs us in what to be angry about and what to treat with apathy, to find our peace in conformity.

In Philippians we read, “rejoice in the Lord always,” and “let your gentleness be known to everyone,” and “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God,” and the beautiful promise, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

And then Paul tells the Philippians, and you and me, to focus our minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise. Keep doing what you know to do, Paul says, keep up the good work.

Is this just an exercise in positive thinking? Is it a Pollyanna denial of reality? How can Paul, in his circumstances or ours, seriously expect us to spend even a moment’s time not concerned about what tomorrow holds? Apart from the resurrection, such would indeed be the case. But since Christ has risen, Paul can hold two realities in view at the same time.

Yes, there is the immediate reality of a world in which human beings are constantly at war somewhere, betraying one another, brutally suppressing each other in order to get ahead, and so forth. This was true of the Roman Empire, and it is true today. The country is at war on two fronts, and hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear of a suicide bombing in this city or that country, or of another foiled plot by terrorists on America’s soil. Even now, on Wall Street and in cities across the nation, including Washington DC, men and women are protesting the corruption, real and perceived, at the highest levels of government, corporations, and Wall Street. This week the Dow is up, this month unemployment drops, but next week the stock market is down and next month unemployment is up. Every day we hear and see a culture that focuses on what is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and shameful. We begin to think that to act hopefully in such a world is unrealistic.

But Paul also sees another reality, and it is this reality that holds the future. That is the reality of God's redemption, already here and still drawing near. Training our minds to think of this reality, and thereby to act with hope, is a daily mental discipline. For such a discipline, we need to experience the true reality of God's rule in the midst of tangible human relationships. Paul offers his own relationship with the Philippians as just such a tangible counterweight to the temptation of despair and futile thinking.

Finally, once again Paul promises that the outcome of these habits of heart and mind is "peace that surpasses all understanding." Written from jail, by a man under threat of capital punishment at the hands of a brutal and corrupt regime, these are extraordinary promises.

But Paul sees a different reality alongside the violence and duplicity of Rome. The small and struggling Christian congregation in the Roman colony of Philippi is an integral part of the Kingdom of God with a more powerful Lord than any Caesar – a King who alone has defeated death. Confident, therefore, in the ultimate victory of the God of peace, he encourages us to have quiet minds and hopeful hearts.

The Peace of God? Without the resurrection, such a thought is ridiculous. Without the indwelling Holy Spirit, it is impossible. But in our new reality, the reality of the Kingdom of God, we have the opportunity to not only rest in the peace of God, but to be the peace of God in the lives of those around us.

And for this we always say, thanks be to God.


  1. Good morning John - thanks for sharing this. It spoke strongly to me this morning. I heard in particular: the women being yoked together in the mutual goal of working for God's kingdom; Paul being yoked to a prison guard and the inherent conflict in that as he writes these words, and the promise that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will GUARD your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Being yoked to / guarded by the peace of God in the midst of the daily mess is truly beyond understanding - thanks be to God!

  2. Thanks so much for the comment, Jill! Very sharp, seeing the connection between being yoked & being chained to the prison guard. That, as they say, will preach!