Sunday, October 06, 2019

Philippians 4.4-9

Philippians 4
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, 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. 9 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.

I have a vague memory of a time when every third word was ‘gentle.’

And it usually comes amid a parental word salad, along with ‘no’ and ‘be careful’ and ‘you better let me take this.’ Smashing, ripping, thumping, throwing—all part of the learning process, I suppose—discovering things like cause and effect, or what gets the best reaction. I recall a week when Isaac destroyed both remotes (it was a simpler time) and the VCR itself. Maybe he knew the technology was out of date.

I recall some years ago preparing for worship at a senior’s home, waiting for the staff to roll out the notoriously unreliable sound system for our use. On this day the staff person fiddled and fiddled until they reached the point that they were smashing the amplifier with the microphone and shouting “I don’t know why this thing’s not working!” Excuse me, I think I know.

You gotta be gentle. It works for toddlers, the frustrated—really anyone who thinks that you can smash your way to solving a problem. It generally works when dealing with other people, and it’s even good advice when dealing with ourselves. And it’s something that can be taught, as the smashing, ripping, thumping, and throwing behaviors give way to a new set of behaviours—like constantly asking why.

But that’s another sermon. For today, the advice is simple: You gotta be gentle. And don’t just take my word for it, listen to St. Paul, who begins this section of his letter to the church at Philippi with these simple words: “You gotta be gentle.” Then he says “The Lord is near.” We’ll come back to the second part of the verse in a while, but for now, it’s all about gentleness.

Recognizing that nothing ruins a perfectly adequate sermon like parsing the Greek, I’m going to parse the Greek. But I’m parsing with purpose, because sometimes a word needs to be explored in greater depth, and for this, we need Greek. Gentleness, in Philippians 4.5 comes from epieikos, one of those compound words that only makes sense if you break it down.

So epi- means ‘over’ or ‘in addition to’ and eikos- means ‘to yield’ or ‘to submit.’ You can see why we have Bible translators then, because telling someone to ‘over-yield’ sounds cumbersome and not quite right. So your pew Bible (NIV) gives us ‘gentleness,’ while other translations suggest ‘moderation’ (KJV) or ‘forbearance’ (ERV).

And just because we’re on a bit of a roll here, here is the English poet Matthew Arnold, who had his own swing at epieikos, suggesting it means “sweet-reasonableness.’ This sounds like something we all should strive for, like something you might want to overhear at a party: ‘That Michael—he’s known for his sweet-reasonableness.’

So what’s the context here? Why is St. Paul urging the church at Philippi to embrace sweet-reasonableness for all to see? To get to the request, it might be time to make a list, in this case ten things to know about Paul, his letters, and Philippi.

Paul wrote letters to people he knew, and letter was meant as a substitute for his presence with them.
Paul’s letters address specific issues within the church.
These letters really were meant to be correspondence— maybe shared around, but very much a letter.
A letter from Paul was meant to read aloud in worship, hence all the prayers, blessings, and fragments of hymns.
Paul sees no need to remind the church at Philippi of his authority as an apostle—indicating greater intimacy.
Paul describes the congregation at Philippi as a ‘house church,’ meaning small, and maybe very small.
The combination of a small church and greater intimacy with Paul gives the letter to the Philippians it’s hallmark beauty, simplicity and warmth.*
Immediately before our passage he urges two leaders in the congregation, Euodia and Syntyche (YO-de-ah and SEN-te-key) to try to come to a common mind on some matter.
He doesn’t state the matter because he doesn’t have to— everyone in this small church understood why these two women were at odds, Euodia and Syntyche.
Paul seems intent on overwhelming them with love, something that seems plain from the language of our passage.

I guess I could have simply said two elders were fighting and Paul said ‘be gentle.’ That pretty much sums up the context, but now you also know that Paul knew and loved these people, he was invested in their success—if that’s even the right word. He wanted to convince them of a higher way, and he wanted to do it in the context of worship: praising the author of love through his words to the church.

So that’s the why of the matter, what about the how? How do you foster the sweet-reasonableness needed to move forward as a church? How do you become gentle, or at least mindful that gentleness is needed? Paul has an answer for that too, and he gives the answer in two of the most moving (and familiar) passages in all of Paul. The first is a blessing:

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

You may know this (in part) because it is part of our funeral liturgy, a blessing meant to calm hearts and quiet minds in the midst of suffering. It is Paul’s testimony that only the peace of God, the peace that frail human minds cannot fully comprehend, is the peace that will help us overcome trouble.

In other words, Paul is saying “I don’t know how this works, but it works.” Amazing, really, considering that Paul is Paul: he’s the architect of the Christian Church, and the foundational source of much of our theology, yet still doesn’t know the exact nature of God’s peace. I take great comfort in this—I don’t need to understand how God’s peace with protect my heart and mind, I only need to trust God in Christ Jesus.

And then this:

Finally, brothers and sisters, 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.

Obviously gentleness—the peace of God within you—requires practice, requires intentionality, requires mindfulness. I can’t really say ‘in other words’ at a moment like this, basking in the poetry of divine peace—whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy. Meditate on these and find some peace. Find the sweet-reasonableness that will allow you to live with others, and be a blessing to others.

Today we will share the most gentle of rituals, the sacrament of communion. Bread broken and wine poured—gifts of God for the people of God. Then the salvation history of our people will be recited in prayer, all leading to a single moment in time when Jesus said ‘this is my body, broken for you.’ The sign behind the symbol may be violent and cruel, but the remembrance is nothing but gentle, terror transformed by the peace of God—which transcends all understanding—transforming our hearts and minds through the self-giving love of Christ Jesus.

Worldwide Communion is more than geography and joining together on the same day. Communion, worldwide or otherwise, exists outside of time and joins us with believers back to that house church in Philippi long ago and forward to the church of the future, whatever form it may take.

Most of all, we know that whenever we gather at this table, the Lord is near. The Lord is near because our hearts are joined in this peaceable ritual, drawn together in the sweet-reasonableness that is a life in Christ. Amen.

*Most of the list is suggested by Fred Craddock, Interpretation, p. 1-8.


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