Toorak Uniting Church

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A life of praise

Exodus 31: 1 – 14   Philippians 4: 1 – 9
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
12 October 2008

Paul is in prison, he is going through a difficult time and is keeping in contact with the Churches he has established by writing letters and sending friends over to drop in and see them. He can’t visit them, and what is worse: he can’t go anywhere else either.
That must have been really frustrating. On the basis of what we can reconstruct from what he writes here and elsewhere, Paul was probably expecting the return of the Lord fairly soon and convinced that it was necessary to bring as many people as possible to Christ beforehand. He may even have believed that the return of Christ depended on the number of people joining the ranks of the early Church, with God waiting for him and his fellow workers to get on with their work.
Two thousand years later it is very hard to understand the urgency and despair of Paul and his companions, but at the time it must have been very real.
So there was very little to rejoice about and he had every reason to be worried about just about everything.

In that difficult situation the Philippians have sent him a gift. Money to help make his life in prison more comfortable. Money for office supplies to enable him to write his letters and to bribe the odd guard to allow from some extras. Mind you, as a Roman citizen Paul was probably not held in a dungeon but would have lived in a private house under guard where his friends could keep his situation reasonably comfortable.

The gift from Philippi would probably been accompanied by a letter. A letter with their greetings and some news, taken to Paul by someone who would probably been able to share some of the juicier gossip not shared in the more formal letter.

It is to this gift, this letter and this gossip Paul is responding in his letter. And wouldn’t we love to know what they wrote to Paul and even more what the gossip was.
Unfortunately that has all been lost and all we have got are little snippets of indications what was going on in Philippi.

That they didn’t always get on is something we learn towards the end of the letter in chapter 4. When we read the letter back from there it looks like he may have needed to gather some courage to bring this up. He uses an awful lot of words to come to this part and in hindsight they seem to go around in circles a bit.

So what are Euodia and Syntyche fighting about? Money? From our perspective that is often where we seem to differ isn’t it? And even where their budget would have been much smaller than ours, they probably would have had the same struggles. It can’t have been property as they gathered in house churches and didn’t yet own any buildings. Was it about the part taking in public functions and the eating of sacrificial meat at those functions they did not agree upon? Or had they fallen out about how the Church service should be shaped? Was it about the flowers in Church? A donation? The music? The role of children? The seating order of the congregation? The way the Church was advertised to outsiders?
God knows. It could be any of those things! But they were fighting, and seriously enough for Paul to bring it up.

I plead with you to agree with each other in the Lord! And I ask everybody in the congregation to support these women who have provided such wonderful support for me on my life’s journey, along with Clement and other co workers. (Can I draw your attention to how women are a positive part of Paul’s work, life and ministry and how he considers them on an absolutely equal par with his other co workers?) They may not be agreeing, but they are both people who have worked their socks off and have contributed to my personal ministry and the ministry of the Church.
So please, try to help them keep focussed on what is really important!

Has nothing changed? Paul could have written this letter to us, couldn’t he? So boring, so predictable, so ....... Church! We try, we do great things, we fight, we fail, and we start again. And it is forever the money, the worries about the earthly things, status and power that get in the way. And again and again people like Paul are needed to exhort us to keep our minds focussed not on the anxieties and worries that take over and become obsessive and destructive, but on what is noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable.

And then there is this other image. Of Moses on the mountain. Talking to God. What he encounters in deep prayer is not peace beyond all understanding, or the small still voice, but it is a God who is intense, emotional, vulnerable, angry, changeable, and relational. And in his prayer Moses wrestles, like Jacob at the Jabok, with God, pleads with him, plays on God’s ego, tells God to be bigger than the stupidity of his people, to keep his promises, even where his people don’t keep to their side of the covenant. Two friends who can call a spade a spade and know they’ll still be friends after all is said and done.

Paul says: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God".

This is not the easy way out as some may think. It involves close contact with a God who gets affected, who can be hurt, who has a stake in what is going on. Not a nicely detached God who we can put on a pedestal and forget about until the next feast or festival, but a God who chooses to be right in the middle of our life, wanting to be part of it, calling us out to stand with him and be his people in a world that operates on different premises than the ideals he gives us to live by.

We live with a God who sits down with us at the table and gives his everything to make us free. We live with a God who gets emotional and upset when people hurt. A God who gets angry when there is injustice, a God who rejoices when life is good.

The peace Paul describes comes after we have struggled and wrestled with this God, after we have let go of our programs and visions, our ideas about who and what God should be for us and what it is we desire from God.

Paul wrestled with a God who would not let him fly around the Middle East and Southern Europe the spread the gospel while he probably thought that was the most important thing that needed to be done at the time. Instead he wrote letters that still speak to the Church in a situation far beyond his imagination.

Moses went up the mountain to receive guidelines for God’s people to live by. He probably never counted with having to calm down a God who was very upset and change God’s mind before that could happen.

Not to worry and to rejoice in the relationship with a God that is so up close and personal is not always easy, but it is where that deep peace Paul talks about comes from. Not as a cheap easy gloss over of the struggles we are confronted with in life, but as something that is incredibly powerful and strong in the way it is able to inform, support and direct our lives and be with us on our journey. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2008

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