Bible Readings: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 & Philippians 4:2-9

Rejoicing in Reconciliation

Do you ever have those conversations with someone who always has “just another thing”? You’ve had a pleasant chat and thought you were about to part company and then they come up with “just another thing”? We are coming towards the end of our sermon series on Philippians and Paul is beginning to wind up his letter. Some commentators would even suggest that this evening’s reading is the end of the letter, and the rest has been added later. It seems to me to be more likely that Paul is getting to ready to sign off at the end of this section and then thinks of something else, “just another thing” and sticks that in before finally ending the letter. So, next week, we will be looking at that “just another thing”, but this evening we are thinking about what seems to be a summary and practical application of the things that Paul has been teaching the Philippians about in the rest of the letter.

Just as a quick reminder, we’ve been seeing how joy and rejoicing is Paul’s golden thread through all of his experience of following Jesus, and he wants to remind the Christians in Philippi how this can be a resource in all the challenges that they face.

The church is under pressure from the surrounding culture, from the Roman ways of the army colony, from the persecutions and discrimination that comes with that. What is the church to do? It is to find joy in suffering and perseverance, as Paul and Silas did when they were themselves in prison in Philippi.

The church is under pressure from a rival gospel, there are false teachers around who are preaching a, “Jesus and…” gospel, in this case, “Jesus and circumcision”, “Jesus and the Jewish law”. What is the church to do? It is to find joy in prayer and in evangelism, holding fast to the good news that Paul brought them, discerning it in prayer, and sharing it with others.

The church is under pressure from internal tensions, there is some ambition and pride coming into the ministries of the church. What is the church to do? It is to find joy in humility and in reconciliation.

And how is it to do this? Well, in chapter two we heard about the initial ground work for this, the focus on Jesus, the idea of being of one mind, of having the same attitude of mind as Jesus himself, in humility and gentleness.

Paul returns to these ideas now as he pleads with Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.

We don’t know much about these two women. We do know that they have worked with Paul, contending with him for the gospel. I wonder if they were in that small group of women who used to meet by the river to pray that Paul met when he first came to Philippi?

In a sense I’m glad that we don’t know what they were disagreeing about, because the temptation then might be to say, “Oh well they fell out about “X” and we’ve fallen out about “Y”, so this can’t apply to us”. But, we don’t have that to hide behind, whatever we think differently about, Paul’s pleading to Euodia and Syntyche is a pleading to us. Be of the same mind in the Lord.

But, more than that, we have an obligation as members of the body to help each other to be reconciled, to come to that same mind.

This can be tricky, and take some time. To our shame the church’s history and present is littered with examples of people not disagreeing well, of wounds which mar and scar the body of Christ. These are a grief to God and to us.

This is not to say that Christians should never disagree. At the end of this passage Paul recommends that his listeners should follow his example, and as we know from this letter and others, Paul was not one for shying away from a conflict. If he disagreed with someone, he did not hesitate to put his point strongly and with some heat. Paul was no shrinking violet, avoiding conflict at all costs. He was a passionate and direct contender for the faith and for the gospel of Jesus.

Here’s the thing though, that even at his most scathing it seems to me that you can hear the love and compassion in Paul for the people he is writing to. He is not attacking them or putting them down because of his own agenda or issues, but because of the deep love he has for them and his concern that they live the most fruitful and holy lives possible. His cries are the cries of a parent warning a child not to touch the fire or run out into the road. They are shot through with the desire to be reconciled, to put Christ first, to be poured out for the sake of others.

So, we’re human beings, we see things in different ways, we have different experiences, we are going to disagree. How can we disagree well? How can we maintain that mind of Christ, that mind of humility, that one mind, whilst hearing each other’s different perspectives?

It seems to me that verses 4-9 can give us some clues about this, if we ask the question, what keeps us from disagreeing well?

The first barrier that Paul addresses is that of emotional investment. We are unlikely to fall out about something that we don’t care very much about. The deepest wounds are caused and we are least ready to listen to other perspectives when we are heavily emotionally invested in an issue. When we believe that our happiness and our joy are dependent on our point of view prevailing. Think about the way we talk about situations that we have a stake in. “I’m really unhappy about the decision that has been made, I’m distraught about it, I despair” or on the other side, “I’m so happy that this has happened, I’m overjoyed, over the moon.”

What does Paul say? “Rejoice in the Lord always.” and then he says it again, “Rejoice”. If we look to Jesus for our ultimate emotional security and joy then we are less likely to get so caught up in a particular issue, and are more likely to be able to hear other views and engage in positive conversations.

The second barrier that Paul addresses is that of harshness. Sometimes the words themselves are completely harmless, but the tone that they are delivered in is devastating. There is responsibility on both sides in this, we need to be careful not to be over sensitive, but it seems to me that the primary responsibility is with the speaker. This is particularly true with emails and texts, where body language and tone are so difficult to convey. In my experience emails are rubbish for resolving conflict and just tend to add fuel to the fire, especially if they are copied to different people. Paul had never heard of email, but his answer is spot on. “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” Again, this is not about pretending you think something you don’t. It is about choosing your time to speak, and choosing your words and way you say them carefully. Jesus said, “from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” The best way to cultivate this gentleness of speech towards others is to think gently and generously of them in our hearts.

The next barrier that Paul addresses is that of anxiety. It is difficult to be gentle with others, and to rejoice when we are anxious, when we are fretting and worrying over a situation. We toss and turn at night, and wake up early preoccupied with the thing feeling like we haven’t slept. What does Paul say, “do not be anxious”. And more than that, he gives us something else to do. Bring your requests to God with a heart of gratitude.

I went to see my spiritual director this week and had a particular issue that I wanted to talk over with him that had been troubling me. After we’d talked for a while, he asked me, “have you brought it to God.” And the reality is that I hadn’t really. I hadn’t prayed about it like this, I hadn’t explicitly brought it to God and asked God to help me with it, with thankfulness for the ways in which God has worked in similar situations in the past.

As we do this, as we bring these anxieties to God then what happens? The peace of God, a peace which is not logical and can’t be argued into, creates a defence around our thoughts and feelings that those anxieties can’t pierce, and they lose their hold over us. We are free to live in peace with ourselves and with each other.

Next barrier up is that inclination we have to dwell on our hurts and our anger. We replay conversations in our minds, reread emails or letters, picking the scabs, clinging on to the pain in indignant self-justification. We assume the worst of the other person. We imagine all the things we would have said, would like to say, will definitely say next time we see that person.

What is Paul’s alternative? Choose to think about other things. Focus on the good. See the best in other people. Make generous assumptions about their intentions and motivations. Look for the redeeming features. Seek out the strengths of the other person’s argument. See if you can discern what you can appreciate and support in it. Find something praiseworthy and excellent. If you really cannot find anything then at the very least recognise that the other person is created in the image of God and ask God to show you that image in them.

One of the remarkable findings of modern neuroscience is that our brains are astonishingly plastic. They change a lot over our lifetimes and remain flexible. It is possible to change the way that we think, even to change the physical structure of the brains we think with. It takes discipline and the grace of God, but the more we practice thinking on noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable things, the more we will recognise them when we see them and the more we will think noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable thoughts.

The converse is also true, the more we refuse to think on false, wrong, impure, hateful, ugly things, then the less we will think false, wrong, impure, hateful, ugly thoughts.

This is practical stuff about the TV we watch, the books we read, the music we listen to, the conversations we have, the art we look at. But it’s deeper than the obvious stuff about depictions of sex, violence and swearing that this passage is often quoted about, though that it is important. It is also about the patterns of relating and speaking about each other that we are taught and discipled in by the media we imbibe. Perhaps it would be helpful to ask ourselves, “How is conflict handled in my favourite TV show?” “How do people speak about each other on the radio programmes I listen to?” “What attitudes to people who disagree are evident on my Facebook feed?”

Reconciliation is not just about mending relationships that are already broken, though that is important. It is also about us doing the hard work of reconciling different points of view within the church and maintaining good relationships through that process, and even if the points of view can’t be reconciled. The only way we can do that is to depend on Jesus for our joy, for our gentleness, and for our peace. It is not coincidence that these are some of the fruit of the Spirit that Paul writes about in Galatians, the first of which is, of course, love. Love is the foundation of all that Jesus did for us in reconciling us to the Father, and love is the foundation of our peace and joy in reconciliation.

One Comment

  • Karen Sturmey wrote:

    Love a bit of neuroplasticity, it’s my new favourite subject. I keep showing people at work a video on YouTube – search neuroplasticity sentis. You are so right, we actually need to practice the good and positive thoughts for them to become easy.

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