The letter Paul wrote to the Philippians is one of the most personal letters Paul wrote. It was written from prison, in Rome and it was sent to acknowledge a gift the Philippian church had sent to Paul to help him in his troubles.
The Christians of Phillipi were pretty special to Paul. They were his first Church on European soil and it appears they were a lot less subject to damaging arguments about Christian faith and behaviour than some of the other Churches he had founded.
The early Church was not a place where peace and harmony ruled. This may come as a surprise to you: For quite a while a more romantic picture has been popular around the Church. Especially in the last two centuries. A picture mainly based on what Luke writes in Acts, ignoring the ubiquitous references to conflict and trouble in the epistles as well as in the gospels, and, for whom is prepared to read between the lines, even in Acts. Scholars now agree that Luke was probably painting a far rosier picture than what was actually happening, probably because he had an interest in proving to his audience that the Christians were not the truculent and difficult lot they were made out to be by many of their contemporaries.
From the letters of Paul and other epistles we get a completely different idea: Strife, struggle and competing views of what was important in matters of faith were raging everywhere, with people getting quite nasty in the process. Resolution 84 is not the first divisive argument that is tearing the Church apart!
After Paul has thanked God for all the Christians in Philippi have meant to him and the support they have given him, he talks about his present situation in prison. He is quite positive about that: He feels that he is still able to do a lot of good work for the gospel and for Christ. And what is almost more important: He feels he is growing closer to Christ every day. He cites a beautiful hymn on the example Christ has given them for a life lived in complete surrender to God and emphasises that is what is more important than anything to him. He calls on the Philippians to live in complete concordance with that. Living their lives as shining stars in the world.
But even his beloved in Philippi are not without trouble and dissent. There are "dogs", evil workers, who are enemies of the cross and are intent on destruction. It is not entirely clear from the letter what exactly their differences were but it is very clear that those differences caused deep rifts and were endangering the unity of the congregation.
After all that and a comment about two argumentative women in the congregation causing trouble Paul comes to the passage we have read today:
"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 thanksgivingyoure your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your heartsyoure your minds in Christ Jesus.
Over and against the trouble Paul himself is facing, the troubles the congregation is facing, over and against destruction and violence raging, conflict tearing the young Church apart, argumentative women and malicious enemies Paul places joy, gentleness and the peace of God. The good, the positive and joyful side of faith.
Right now as a Church, we find ourselves once again troubled by deep divisions and passionate and not always very gentle discussions.
At synod, two weeks ago, once again resolution 84, concerning human sexuality, appeared on the agenda. A resolution that some fear may split the Church.
Three highly regarded women suggested that maybe it was time for a time out: Lets not discuss the issue for a while but concentrate on more positive things and hope that in that way we will be able to find each other and grow towards a deeper understanding and acceptance of each other.
A suggestion that was not taken up by synod and only led to more discussion with anxiety levels rising across the meeting: How are we ever going to find a way of dealing with this issue in a way that will satisfy everybody?
Reading Paul this week I suddenly wondered if he was doing a similar thing in a very similar situation. To focus on the positive for a while, to draw away from the conflict and unite in joy, gentleness, prayer to open ourselves up to the peace of God.
Not that it helped much, by the way: by the end of the first century the Church in Philippi had ceased to exist and it would take another couple of hundred years before Christianity would be reintroduced in the area. There is nothing new under the sun!
But that doesnt mean it is not a good suggestion: To concentrate on what is worth rejoicing about in our faith instead of on the negative and contentious. To pray and seek Gods nearness, practice gentleness and leave our worries with God instead of exacerbating them by concentrating on our difficulties.
Of course there are principles worth fighting for and sometimes things need to be argued out to the end.
But it may sometimes help to o replace bitter argument with joy, gentleness and prayer. To bring down our communal anxiety levels by prayer and focus on the positives and open heart will usually find some peace of mind at least.
Think of things that are excellent and worthy of praise and bring them into practice, says Paul. That is the way to peace, that is the way to nurture unity, increase joy and make peace grow.
Conflict, contention have always been part of the Church. And not only of the Church, they are wherever people try to live in community. Unfortunately, they are part of our humanity. What is important however is our attitude towards these difficulties: do we exacerbate them or do we focus on joy, gentleness, prayer and openness to peace instead? Do we get into the argument with abandon or do we focus on more positive and fruitful ways of behaviour?
That is not only a matter for Synod, or even for a congregation in danger of being torn apart by dissent. It is a matter for each and everyone of us as we, in our everyday lives, private and corporate deal with conflict and trouble. When we feel anger and indignation take over and the anxiety levels around us start to rise. What do we do?
Rejoice! again I say: rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone! Do not worry, the Lord is near. And pray, readying yourself to receive the peace of God in Christ Jesus.
Do what is honourable, what is just, what is pure, what is pleasing, what is commendable, things excellent and worthy of praise, and keep those things in mind at all times. And they will replace whatever else is in there with the peace of God beyond understanding. Amen.