October 09, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
In a seminar on Matthew’s gospel, Tom Long pointed out that in Matthew, it’s never a good thing to be addressed as “friend.” Every time someone is called a friend in Matthew, what follows is not pleasant! Jesus himself was referred to as a “friend” by the religious authorities in Matthew 11 but it was no compliment: they accused Jesus of being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” In the previous chapter from last week’s lection, the master of the vineyard overhears the grumbling and grousing of the 12-hour workers over being paid the same as the 1-hour folks. “I am not being unfair to you, friend” the master says. But there is an edge to that—the grumblers were no friends of the owner! Later in Matthew we find the single most poignant such instance when, having been kissed by the traitor Judas, Jesus asks him, “Friend, what have you come for?”
But a close second to that final devastating use of “friend” may well be here in Matthew 22 when a hapless wedding guest is addressed as “Friend” right before being most definitively thrown out on his ear!
When you preach on Matthew, don’t choose “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” for the service!
The concluding incident in this parable is the second shock of the narrative, the first having come when the king orders the complete annihilation of those who spurned his invitation to dinner. All in all, then, the king of this parable is not someone to be trifled with! Whatever is going on as symbolized by this parable, the stakes are clearly on the high side.
Because the center of this parable displays the reach of God’s gospel to the least likely of people—a theme Matthew has been hammering away at since his opening genealogy and then the appearance of also the Magi—it is fairly easy to see how and why this is finally a parable full of grace. But that grace is nestled in pretty closely to judgment as well. And just here is a tension for us preachers.
All of us like to proclaim grace. Indeed, I would contend it is our #1 task as preachers to do just that. We are not supposed to morph into Oprah or Dr. Phil mode when in the pulpit, dispensing good advice or pithy moral aphorisms meant to inspire people to aspire to greater things in their lives (even though plenty of preachers in recent years seem quite content to do exactly that). Nor is it our first task to preach Bad News sermons of finger-wagging condemnation or in which we Christians are encouraged to take on morally superior airs to all the greasy losers all around us in society. Too many sermons do make it sound as though the difference between the saved and the unsaved is that the former group does better things, generates more moral wattage, and so attracted God’s attention in the first place on account of all the merit points folks had racked up on their own. Too often sermons make it sound like it’s finally up to us either to get saved or to stay saved.
No, no. We preach grace. We preach the supreme merits of Jesus. That is the Gospel. That is what we preachers were ordained to proclaim.
But does that mean we may never talk about the other side of the coin? Does it mean we should not mention the fact that if people spurn the Gospel or refuse grace or refuse to turn from their selfish ways that they may well face a dire fate? There is no question that Jesus exuded grace. There is no question that far from being afraid of him, sinners and those shunned by the religious establishment of the day found Jesus attractive and welcoming. And there is no question that salvation is indeed a free gift such that at the end of the cosmic day—as in this parable—more people and not fewer people will come, and a good many of those who end up at the king’s banquet table may well be those whom religious types had long ago written off.
There will be surprises. But that’s grace for you.
But the same Jesus back to whom all of that can be traced was not adverse to mixing into all that good stuff darker notes of judgment and ultimacy. It is possible in some sense to tell the God of all Grace to take a hike, and if someone does that in one way, shape, or form, the consequences are real and trend toward the dire end of the spectrum. What Jesus came to offer the world was the most precious thing God could offer: a divine sacrifice of such gargantuan dimensions we’ll just possibly never finish plumbing the depths of a love so great. But precisely because of the value and the beauty and the majesty of all that, to have it rejected, spurned, or chalked up as being of no account is no small matter.
Augustine once discussed the idea—current among some critics of Christianity in his day—that the notion of an eternal punishment for sins committed in this temporal world was patently unfair, if not sheer nonsense. How could anything people could manage to do across a few score of years be so bad as to warrant a punishment into eternity? But Augustine countered that we don’t tend to mete out punishments even on this earth based on chronological distinctions. It may take a man no more than four minutes to rape a woman. It takes a matter of seconds to pull a gun, fire it, and take a life. But no judge or jury ever would claim that given the short duration of the crime in question, a sentence of years and years is unjust. It is the monstrosity of the crime, the value of what was lost or taken, that leads to a just punishment.
I’ll not comment here on what we should think about the prospect of eternal punishment but let’s indeed pick up on Augustine’s notion that we properly assess things in life based on what is at stake in a given instance. In the case of Matthew 22, what is at stake is the Gospel, the free invitation of grace to sit at the king’s table of grace. What’s at stake is of infinite, precious value. Yes, you can receive these glorious riches by grace alone but if you cannot be moved by that same grace—if you look at what is proffered and find it less interesting than other things that are occupying your heart and mind and life—then the result cannot be a simple shrug of the divine shoulders. Offer a person a chocolate chip cookie and have him turn it down and it’s no big deal. Offer to donate a kidney that he needs to have his life saved only to have him spurn also that and your eyes widen at such a thing.
Even as preachers, we may well undermine the very beauty and glory of the Gospel if we leave the impression that there are few, if any, severe consequences for rejecting the Christ of God and the invitation to come to the banquet.
Dale Bruner is at his usual trenchant self in commenting on this passage by highlighting for us the interplay in Matthew 22 between the concepts of being “called” (the Greek kaleo, which in many translations is rendered “invited”) and the concept of being “chosen” or “elected” (the Greek elekto as in verse 14 where many are called/invited but only a few are in the end elected). In verse 3, the servants are told to go out and invite those who were invited (literally in the Greek, to call those who had been called). Apparently there was a general invitation issued and when the banquet was ready, those who had been so invited are summoned. But in the end most of those initial invitees declined, revealing that although called, they had not been elected or chosen. But Bruner reminds us to be cautious. Matthew’s use of the concept of election is not the same as the Apostle Paul’s later use of it. For Paul election is the source of a person’s salvation. For Matthew election is the goal or end-result of truly responding to God’s call with a joyful life of gratitude.
Tom Long once related something that, as he himself admitted, may sound like the set-up for a joke but that is actually a real story. He said that one day Barbara Brown Taylor, Fred Craddock, and he all attended an Atlanta Braves baseball game (“Three homileticians walked into a bar and . . .”). Unbeknownst to them and to others in the stands that day, a drunken man several rows ahead of them was apparently causing problems. The next thing they knew, several burly men wearing bright yellow shirts with the word “SECURITY” written across their backs barreled down the aisle, lifted this apparently troublesome man from his seat, and carried him clean out of the stadium. The crowd sat in stunned silence until finally the somewhat high-pitched voice of Fred Craddock piped up to say, “Obviously he didn’t have a wedding garment on!”
Probably to some of the people there at the ballpark that day, the reference to a “wedding garment” seemed to come from out of nowhere and made no sense to them. If you do not know this parable in Matthew 22, then how could you know what Craddock’s wise crack meant? But really, even within this parable, this mention of a wedding garment comes as a bit of a surprise in that such attire had not been mentioned earlier. It’s even a little hard to know what it means or what it stands for.
But at very least it may mean this: the party is finally God’s party and everyone there is there by grace alone. You had to be clothed with grace to be there and no matter what you may think of the wedding garment of grace when it is handed to you, you either put it on or risk getting pitched out of the party. There is no other way to be at the party without wearing the attire the master assigns. Those who think they got there some other way or who think they can do without the clothing of grace everyone else is wearing will soon find out how wrong they are.
Author: Doug Bratt
Almost all of us have experienced our text’s Aaron’s feelings at one time or another. He’s caught, after all, quite literally between a rock and a hard place. Aaron is trapped between a glorious past and an uncertain future.
Israel’s memories of her escape from Egyptian slavery remain as clear as a dry, cool night in the desert. However, Israel’s future is as hazy as the dense cloud that cover’s Sinai with God’s awesome presence.
Aaron is also trapped between God’s unmistakable presence and Israel’s spiritually amnesiac people. Just days after God freed them from Egypt, they mumbled and grumbled at the Lord in the desert of Sin. And just after God graciously and miraculously fed the Israelites with manna in the desert, they quarreled at Rephidim.
Yet that grumbling and mumbling seemed to vanish, along with the pillar of cloud that had been leading them through the desert, at Sinai’s base. For some time, far ahead of them, the Israelites had seen what looked like smoke rising from a stony hill. As they moved ahead, that smoking hill seemed to grow on the horizon.
Within a week that smoky mountain filled the entire southern sky. However, it also seemed to fill the Israelites with new confidence in their God. After all, when they heard God speak to them through Moses, they’d promised, twice, to “do everything the Lord has said.”
However, Israel’s newfound confidence seemed to vanish not long after their leader Moses did. So there stands Exodus 32’s Aaron, surrounded by people who’d promised to do everything the Lord said but who now seem to have forgotten what God had said.
We suspect that initially the complaining voices were the small children’s. Eventually, however, adults’ voices joined the grumpy chorus. “Where’s Moses?” they whined. “When’s he coming back?” Perhaps the adults’ voices eventually bury the children’s under a landslide of anger. The voices that had promised to do everything the Lord said may begin to scream: “Moses! What are you doing up there? Don’t you know that you’ve got important responsibilities down here? You brought us here! Now come back down and help us get out of here!”
Finally a sense of panic seems to suffocate the Israelites’ anger. “He’s dead,” they probably whimper. “Now we’re all alone out here.” Little children probably tremble as their parents groan and cry out loud. “Where is God? Where is Yahweh’s pillar to lead us? Where is the Lord’s right arm now?”
Then, ironically at almost the exact same time as God gives Moses the tables of the law, the Israelites completely lose all patience with both God and their leader. Ominous threats hover in the air as they close in on Aaron. Israel bitterly demands that Aaron provide some visible leadership. To them that means he must take what they call “this fellow” Moses’ place. However it also means that the people who’d just promised to worship only the invisible Lord now demand Aaron produce some gods they can actually see.
Yet we don’t sense that Aaron, at least, actually wants to replace the living Lord. In fact, in the face of rampant Israelite polytheism, he calls for what verse 5 calls “a festival to the Lord.” Later Aaron will also claim that he just threw gold into the fire and a calf miraculously popped out. It’s tempting to suspect he was just trying to soothe the Israelites’ frayed nerves.
But if Aaron really wants only to help the Israelites worship the living God, he does a lousy job of it. After all, when he lifts up the golden calf he shaped from the their jewelry, the voices that had promised to do everything the Lord said scream, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.”
So on that day of the sixth week of their loneliness, the Israelites no longer feel lonely. Getting up early, they sacrifice, laugh and dance to their boisterous songs again. While a divine peace seems to rest on the mountain, restlessness in the valley boils over into a frenzied religious orgy.
However, verses 7 and following report that all this “religious” activity infuriates the real God. Israel has so completely corrupted herself by worshipping false gods that God’s ready to simply destroy her. Because she has knocked down the first two words of the Ten Words that are foundation of the rest of the commandments, God wants nothing more to do with her.
In fact, verse 10 indicates that the Lord decides to simply start over with Moses by making him alone into a great nation, just as God had done with Abraham. God, in fact, proposes to annihilate Israel. In response to Moses’ mediation on stubborn Israel’s behalf, however, God mercifully relents. While the Lord won’t leave the guilty Israelites unpunished, for the sake of God’s covenant with her ancestors God won’t completely destroy them.
The Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday is, in many ways, pivotal in salvation’s story. Israel’s idolatrous disobedience in it causes such a deep rupture between herself and God that it poses a deep threat to Israel’s future. It’s a rupture that will arguably always shadow Israel’s relationship with Yahweh.
After all, in spite of God’s miraculous liberation of her from Egyptian slavery and God’s majestic display at Sinai, Israel stubbornly and repeatedly rebels against God. In fact, instead of being a solitary event, the saga of the golden calf is typical of Israel’s rebellious character. It’s merely one of the stories that show that while God is determined to graciously save God’s people, they’re almost as determined to resist God.
The Apostle Paul uses this and other stories from Israel’s desert wanderings to warn the church not to repeat Israel’s failures. God’s Church, after all, shares many of the spiritual blessings God gave Israel. Israel, however, responded to those blessings by repeatedly caving in to the temptation to worship other gods.
So will the Church repeat Israel’s mistakes? The temptations to idolatry remain strong, after all. So much demands our ultimate loyalty. However, as Paul insists in I Corinthians 10:13, God always provides a way to resist the temptation to worship those other gods.
Yet it may be hard for God’s adopted sons and daughters to understand why God reacts so harshly to Israel’s succumbing to temptation. It may be hard for us to understand why God had the Levites slaughter three thousand people. Christians might think God should have responded more gently than striking the Israelites with a plague for worshipping the golden calf. We might even wish God hadn’t let all the disobedient Israelites die in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land.
Exodus 32’s preachers and teachers risk losing all credibility if we simply ignore those concerns. Yet we can humbly say that God’s punishment of the Israelites unmistakably reminds us that God hates sin. God is, as Reformed Christians confess in the Heidelberg Catechism, “terribly angry about the sin we are born with as well as the sins we personally commit. As a just judge he punishes them now and in eternity.”
There is, however, hope, for both rebellious Israel and God’s sinful Church. The Scriptures as well as the creeds and confessions remind us God is “certainly merciful.” Israel and the church have a future. Yet that future doesn’t hinge on our saintliness. God’s people always have been, are and always will be God’s forgiven and restored people. You and I live in hope and joy because God has made a new covenant based on God’s divine mercy through the work of Jesus Christ.
Thankfully God always puts a mediator between God’s holy self and God’s rebellious people. For Israel, Moses the prophet is also Moses the priest who intercedes before God for his people. He tries to shield Israel from the full force of God’s wrath that he knows so well. He begs God to be merciful to Israel.
But, of course, finally even Moses is a flawed mediator. In fact, eventually his own rebellion against God and God’s good purposes leads to his death just short of, but not in the Promised Land. God’s Old Testament people, then, awaited a mediator who is, as Reformed Christians confess, “truly human and truly divine.”
We need “our Lord Jesus Christ, who was given us to set us completely free and to make us right with God.” His death was the atoning sacrifice that both paid for our sins and earned for us righteousness and life. So even when we dance around our own kinds of golden calves, Christ, our Mediator, “speaks to the Father in our defense.”
In the intriguing book, The Romanovs, Simon Sebag Montefiore writes about Peter the Great’s dissolution of the Russian patriarchate. The tsar transformed the central administration of the Russian Orthodox Church into a department of the Russian state that called itself the “Holy Governing Synod.”
Montefiore notes that in doing so, “The [Romanov] dynasty could present itself almost as a theocracy. The autocracy was consecrated at the moment of anointment, during coronations. That presented the tsar as the transcendent link between God and man (italics added).” In other words, the Russian tsars thought of themselves as and made themselves rather than Jesus Christ or the Church out to be mediators between God and the Russian people.
Psalm 106:1-6; 9-13
Author: Stan Mast
Back in the day, a radio commentator named Paul Harvey became famous for the way he reported the news. He would remind his listeners of a well-known news item and then he would tell “the rest of the story,” the other side of the story that everyone thought they knew. That’s exactly what we have in Psalm 106. Psalm 106 is like the evil twin of Psalm 105. That previous Psalm told the story everyone knew and loved, the story of God’s faithfulness to Israel. Now Psalm 106 reminds Israel of the other side of that story, the story of Israel’s forgetfulness of God. That pattern of faithfulness and forgetfulness forms the narrative spine of Psalm 106.
Why would the anonymous author of Psalm 106 have gone to the trouble of dredging up that bad news? Well, Israel was in trouble, again, and needed God’s help, again, after having forgotten God, again. Verses like 46 and 47 suggest pretty strongly that Psalm 106 is an early post-Exilic Psalm. Some of the exiled Israelites had come back from Babylon, but many more are scattered among the nations.
Here some leader of Israel (the wording of our introductory verses suggests a Levitical priest) intercedes with God for the return of all the exiles. But that deliverance depended on Israel remembering its sin and returning to the God who has always been faithful. To move Israel to genuine repentance, Psalm 106 recites the checkered history that led to the catastrophe of exile.
The Psalm begins, as so many do, with a call to praise Yahweh because he is good and his love endures forever. That is covenantal language. It is designed to stir up in Israel the kind of trust in God that will give them the courage to approach God again. It was John Calvin, I think, who said that we will only return to God if we believe he will take us back. It isn’t the scourge of the Law that drives us to repentance; it is the promise of the Gospel that lures us back to a God we trust to forgive. So the Psalmist begins his grim story of Israel’s sin with a reminder of the goodness of Israel’s God.
But the Psalmist is deeply aware that telling the old, old story is a solemn task. Thus, he asks, “Who can proclaim the mighty acts of Yahweh, or fully declare his praise?” He doesn’t give a direct answer, but the next verse and the theme of the whole Psalm point us in a helpful direction. First, the preacher must be righteous and just. Second, the teller of the story must remember God. The exact relationship between those two things isn’t clear. Must we remember God in order to do right? Or will doing right keep us from forgetting? It is certain that Israel did not do right because they did not remember God.
The Psalmist knows what it takes to be a faithful preacher, but he also knows that he needs the grace of God to be faithful. So, he prays in the next verses that God will remember him in the very way he is going to ask God to remember Israel. “Remember me, O Yahweh, when you show favor to your people, come to my aid when you save them….” This intermingling of the individual and corporate is instructive. Biblical salvation is never merely individual, but it also never only corporate. Yes, God cares about his people as a whole, but he also cares about each individual. To put it into New Testament terms, it’s never just “Jesus and Me;” there is always the Body of Christ. And it is never just the Body of Christ; Jesus loves each member individually. Having a personal relationship with God in Christ is important, but so is being part of the Body. The Psalmist knows that when he prays for them, he is also praying for himself.
Thus, when he utters those first words of repentance in verse 6, he does so in the first person plural—not them, and not just me, but us. “We have sinned….” He uses three strong words to describe the sin of God’s people—sinned, done wrong, and acted wickedly. Genuine confession, the kind of true repentance that brings people back God and God back to his people must be deep and wide, honest with no holds barred. How often in the story of Israel’s sin (and in our own lives) has repentance been superficial and momentary, followed all too quickly by forgetting and faithlessness. I know that I’m bordering on Calvinistic gloom here, but this is where a careful preaching of Psalm 106 takes us. Our sermons on Psalm 106 shouldn’t leave us there, but plumbing the depths is a crucial step on the way to the glory of gracious redemption.
In the rest of our reading today (verses 19-23), we have one particularly egregious example of Israel’s forgetting of God. Having reminded the exiles of how Israel forgot God even after he had delivered them from Egyptian bondage and had begun to lead them through the wilderness to the Promised Land, our author brings us to the foot of the mountain of God, Horeb. Even though Yahweh had defeated the gods of Egypt in those 10 plagues, Israel “made a calf and worshiped an idol cast from metal.” Our preacher underlines the utter horror, not to mention stupidity, of that sin by emphasizing the difference between the true God and that false God. “The exchanged their Glory (another name for Yahweh) for an image of a bull who eats grass.” Imagine the folly! Worshiping a creature that eats grass instead of the glorious creator of everything!
How could they do that? After all that God had done, how on earth could they do that? Here’s a place to make this old story intensely relevant. After all that God has done for us in Christ, how could we do what we have done in erecting our own false gods? After all God has done in his providential involvement in our little lives, how could we sin in all the ways we have? Don’t let yourself and your people wiggle out of this Psalm with any of that “them versus us” talk. It’s “we have sinned!”
How could we? “They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.” They forgot, we forget. Isn’t it the case that whenever God’s people sin, the root cause of that sin is forgetfulness? Maybe it’s willful forgetfulness, deliberately putting God out of our minds in order to pursue a course of action that seems good to us. Or maybe it’s inadvertent, preoccupied, mindless forgetting, where we focus on the seen instead of the Unseen God up there on Mt. Horeb. Out of sight, out of mind.
Whether unintentional or deliberate, our forgetfulness does not please God. Indeed, says Psalm 106, it makes our loving God angry. Now, this won’t preach well. Folks today don’t want to hear about the wrath of God. Too many years of being beaten into guilty submission by the threat of God’s wrath has made contemporary churchgoers dismissive of the very idea of an angry God. Furthermore, hasn’t the sacrifice of Jesus solved the problem of God’s wrath against sin? His death was “propitiation,” wasn’t it? God’s wrath has been satisfied by Christ’s death. Again, many modern Christians don’t want to hear such talk either, because it seems too primitive, too bloody. So, as we preach on Psalm 106, we must be aware of the resistance we’ll encounter in our congregations, and even in our own minds. But the wrath of God and the propitiation of that wrath by the sacrifice of Christ is part of the Gospel. “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Romans 5:9)
And such talk is surely a large part of the story told by Psalm 106, as the author calls Israel to repentance in this powerful prayer of intercession. Indeed, says the last verse in our reading, “So [Yahweh] said he would destroy them—had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him to keep his wrath from destroying them.”
My advice to anyone who dares to preach on this Psalm is that you don’t ignore all the talk about God’s wrath. That would be dishonest to the Psalm. More than that, ignoring this harsh stuff could leave people languishing in their sins and wondering how life got so miserable (like Israel sitting by the rivers of Babylon wondering how on earth they got there). Sin is real and destructive, and God’s anger is a biblical reality. So, don’t ignore this dark stuff in Psalm 106.
But don’t leave your people there either. And don’t make that sin and anger the major focus on your sermon either. For all its strong negative language about the perils of forgetting God, Psalm 106 is centrally and finally about the God who remembers his covenant and forgives his faithless people. Verses 43-45 summarize the story. “Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin. But he took note of their distress when he heard their cry; for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented.”
Highlight those words, “out of his great love.” That’s the Gospel we need to preach. A more important question than “how could we sin the way we do” is the question “how could God keep delivering us?” There is no other explanation than those 5 words, “out of his great love.”
But don’t forget to emphasize those other 5 words, “when he heard their cry.” While God’s love is free and his grace is always prior to our repentance and faith, we must cry for mercy. Indeed, the one prayer God always hears and answers is that of the tax collector in Luke 18. ”God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Does that mean our rescue from exile depends on our prayer? No, it depends on a Mediator. Moses stood in the breach and pleaded with God for Israel’s life. He was God’s chosen one for that very purpose. The Chosen One, the Anointed One, Christ Jesus stood in the breach, hanging between heaven and earth for us and our salvation. We are not saved by our repentance and faith; we are saved by God’s grace in Christ. Our faith is only “the hand of a beggar reaching out to take the riches of a King.”
That’s all we are, in a sense. But in another sense, we are chosen ones, too. Like Moses, we have been chosen to stand in the breach. Like the author of Psalm 106, we are called to intercede for the exiles, for those who are far from God and wondering what happened to them. We don’t do that from a position of superiority. We are, after all, sinners saved by grace. But we are saved not just to enjoy salvation, but also to serve a sinful world by interceding for everyone. “Save us, O Yahweh our God, and gather us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.”
In every church I’ve ever served, there was a table prominently displayed in front of the sanctuary. It was designed by Jesus to keep us from forgetting our invisible Savior and God. He knew very well that when he disappeared from human sight, as Moses did up on Mt. Sinai, his followers would soon be tempted to forget him, in spite of all he said and did for us. So, our merciful Mediator gave us a simple meal to help us remember. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
I imagine they blushed a fairly deep shade of magenta. I imagine them sitting there as part of the Sunday worship service, surrounded by the rest of the congregation. On this particular Lord’s day, in addition to the usual components of the liturgy, they had the added special blessing of hearing a letter from their beloved apostle Paul. It had been decided that the pastor would read this letter aloud in place of the weekly sermon and so at the appointed time in the worship service the pastor began reading this epistle. “Paul and Timothy . . . to the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi along with the elders and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Well, the reading of the letter went along nicely with encouraging words as to how Paul was faring in prison, with a beautiful recitation of a well-loved Christian hymn about Christ-like humility, and with some soaring words about the importance of Jesus’ cross for our salvation. It was all pretty doctrinal, theological, and thus typical until, suddenly, it got personal as the pastor read the words, “Now I beg Euodia and I beg Syntyche to end their quarrel, to make up, and to come to an understanding. And I urge the rest of you to help them do just that.”
And you can only imagine that Euodia and Syntyche, after briefly blanching white at the startle of hearing their names from the pulpit, then blushed in abject embarrassment. Where should they look? Where could they look without finding a pair of eyes trained on them by their fellow parishioners? Perhaps there was some awkward shifting of weight in the pews. Perhaps a few people stifled a laugh even as others looked down at their feet in a kind of collateral embarrassment. Poor Euodia and Syntyche! Paul had just aired their dirty laundry in the full view of every last Christian in Philippi!
Would any pastor today get away with such a thing from the pulpit? Name names, call people out in public for their quarrels? Were any of us preachers to try such a thing, we would likely get excoriated by our leadership for an unwise move and a breach of pastoral etiquette. Yet Paul does exactly this. Curiously, however, the specifics of this quarrel lead Paul directly into one of the most moving passages of all his writings where he will make clear that you cannot be a Christian deep in your heart but not on the surface of your daily living. If you are going to be a disciple of Jesus, then the working out of that discipleship is going to get just this specific, just this nitty-gritty. Pondering discipleship must inevitably bring us not into rarified realms up in some pious stratosphere but will instead bring us right down to the street level realities of the Euodias and Syntyches of our own lives.
Clearly that’s what Paul is doing in Philippians 4. Of course, we no longer have a clue as to who Euodia and Syntyche were, but it seems likely they were prominent, active members of the church. Perhaps they were deacons, perhaps they were the founders of the Women’s Bible Study program, perhaps they were the chairpersons of the Philippian inner-city soup kitchen. Whoever they were, they were among the core of the congregation but lately they’d had a falling out. Maybe it was doctrinal, maybe it was personal. Maybe they’d disagreed over the best way to run the soup kitchen, maybe one of them had insulted the other’s child-rearing techniques. Whatever the dispute was, it soon became known that these two sisters were at odds.
Paul clearly loved these two women and had worked side-by-side with them in the gospel ministry. Paul is so pained at their dispute that he takes the risk of singling them out by name in his epistle. The short version of Paul’s advice is that he wants to them make up. But the long version encompasses a broad and glorious vision of the Christian life. Because of the paragraph breaks that were imposed on the text by translators, it’s easy to read verses 4-9 in isolation from verses 2 and 3. We chop up Philippians 4, severing Paul’s words about rejoicing from their true context: namely, Paul’s attempt to end an argument! Indeed, I would contend that the best way to get a handle on the meaning of Paul’s admonition to rejoice is precisely to remember that when these words were first read aloud in that Philippian worship service, Paul’s command to rejoice came while Euodia and Syntyche’s faces were still red!
So in that light, Paul’s command to rejoice comes as something of a surprise. If in the course of a Council or Session or Church Board meeting an elder and deacon started to get a bit hot under the collar in their disagreement over some proposal, you would be surprised if the Council president were suddenly to say, “All right, people, let’s rejoice!” If a teacher on playground duty sees two young boys rolling around on the ground in a fight, you can’t imagine that, upon prying the two young men apart, the teacher then saying, “OK now, you two: rejoice!”
Yet Paul does exactly this: he says that somehow rejoicing can help to end this dispute. Then, before you know it, Paul is hurtling straight into the very heart of the Christian life. First he reminds the Philippians to recall that because “the Lord is near,” they should demonstrate a gentle, generous attitude in all their living. He then dives briefly into the center of Christian piety by urging Euodia and Syntyche and all believers to pray about the things that trouble them most. No sooner does Paul say that and he flies off into a soaring sentence about pondering and doing only that which is lovely and excellent and praiseworthy. In Greek this is all one long, rambling, complex, and yet finally glorious sentence that whisks readers to the heights of spiritual glory and peace.
In remarkably swift strokes Paul catches up our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions. In other words, Paul sums up the whole scope of human life. But how did we get from one little argument between two women to the grandeur of God? How did two people’s squabbling get us to the entire sweep of a Christian attitude toward life? Well, we got from point A to point B because in Paul’s mind the general must always be in the specific; the grandeur of God has direct bearing on the nitty-gritty of how we treat each other. The whole gospel should be contained in a nutshell every time we have interactions with one another.
Could any challenge ever be greater?
Paul tells us to go at life with a hunger for goodness. Paul recommends that we have the contagious curiosity of children–a wide-eyed, eager searching for what’s lovely. Yet how easily we can be reduced instead to a state where we have eyes narrowed into slits of cynicism, scanning our brothers and sisters here not for whatever is excellent or praiseworthy but with an eye to detecting whatever is annoying or nettlesome.
After a time, that’s simply how we go at life in the congregation. We don’t bring such things to God in prayer because we’ve become so accustomed to feeling this way we scarcely notice it anymore. It’s just become our habit to sit in a certain pew because we know it will be far away from where that other person usually sits. We now know where to park the car to avoid encounters. And we’ve long since gotten used to crossing over to the other side of the mall should we see certain individuals coming our way.
I could be wrong, but I doubt very much that Euodia and Syntyche were sitting next to each other when Philippians 4 first was read. More likely they were on opposite sides of the sanctuary (or whatever room they gathered in there in Philippi). None of this is pretty, none of this is comfortable but so it goes. As it was in the beginning, is now and probably ever shall be. Paul knew it was true in the very first Christian congregations the world had ever known and he would not be too surprised to find the same is still true in probably every congregation on the planet.
Taken all by itself, Philippians 4:4 presents a great challenge. I’m not even sure that I understand exactly what it means to “rejoice in the Lord always.” On even the best of days most of us would have reason to doubt whether we had really succeeded in rejoicing every moment. But when you see the true context of this verse–a setting of strife, bickering, and great unhappiness–then the challenge of this ongoing rejoicing becomes acute. Having a heart that rejoices without ceasing, having a mind that works overtime to ponder only the best and brightest of subjects, living a life that consistently shows forth our God of peace–all of this is outrageously challenging given the real world in which we live.
But give Paul credit for knowing that if we’re going to pull any of this off, then it’s going to have to happen smack in the midst of the street level realities of life together.
The church was founded on grace alone and this side of the kingdom it will continue to depend on grace as well. We’ll never make it on our own. But we will make it. Somehow. Some way. By God’s grace in Jesus, we’ll make it as brothers and sisters. Some days we can see that truth pretty clearly, other days it’s most decidedly something of which we catch but a fleeting glance through a glass darkly. But by grace we’ve been called into this body of Christ and by grace we’ll remain. As Paul knew, there is in that little truth more than enough reason to rejoice! I’ll even say it again: Rejoice!
As Kathleen Norris wrote in her book, Amazing Grace, if it is a gathering of like-minded individuals you’re looking for, then you should join a political party, not a church. Because in a church what you have is a group of wildly diverse people who share in common mostly just their faith. Such faith may be the most important thing in the world but it’s not always enough to head off the kinds of conflicts and disputes that can so often make life in a congregation difficult.
Norris writes that when at midlife she finally joined a church, she did so for the best possible reason: she had become a Christian. Alas, the only church available in her small South Dakota town was at that time in the throes of a dreadful series of controversies, most of which had been brought on by the farm crisis of the 1980s. Within the same fellowship could be found bank officers as well as the farmers on whose farms the bank was foreclosing. Thus Norris says that upon entering the congregation she found a church in utter turmoil, with its members behaving about as badly as it is possible for grown-ups to behave. Things were a mess to the point that she knew that the only thing she and the other members could do was pray. She was a new Christian in need of a church, and this was the only church she had. And so she prayed and worked and waited.
In the end things leveled off, although not before the pastor who had helped Norris become a Christian was forced out as a kind of scapegoat. In the long run–in a mystery as profound as the incarnation itself–the church is still the body of Christ, and that’s what helps us to hang on and stick with it. Somehow grace gets through, somehow worship happens, somehow wonderful ministry gets done for a broken world, and somehow glimmers of the God of all peace shine through the cracks and the fissures of our brokenness.