Fighting, Fellowship & Paul’s Secret
The letter is postmarked almost 2000 years ago, but the message is as modern in some ways as (name 2 current events). The man who writes it is lying in jail somewhere. It’s damp and cold; he’s weary almost to death….and death may come along with breakfast on any morning. A dear friend who has been sent by his favorite church to give him comfort has fallen sick and almost died. The church itself is beset with problems, not the least of which is a civil war between two women, both past presidents, no doubt, of the Board of Deacons. Both from respected families, both always busy in behalf of the church, and now both of them always fighting.
We have no details, so I create my own image of two women sniping at one another in the kitchen while they prepare communion. I play with the irony of these two pillars of the church preparing the bread and wine for others while they refuse to commune with one another. They might as well be dicing carrots. In the deafening silence of their hostility, the click and clank of utensils is magnified ten times over. You’ve noticed, in your house, how when there’s been a quarrel, the silence that follows amplifies all the ordinary noises so that even the refrigerator motor sounds like a freight train. This ancient fuss must have been going on quite a while, long enough for someone to mention it in a letter or in a personal visit to the Apostle.
I’m curious enough to wish I knew what the two were fighting about, but since even in his wildest dreams, Paul could not have imagined that 2000 years later we’d still be reading this very personal note to one of his churches, he doesn’t bother to tell us. He does call the two women by their strange-sounding Greek names, Euodia and Syntyche, since they were well known in their church, but it is totally useless information for us. We’d much rather know whether their quarrel was doctrinal or personal: did Euodia dislike Syntyche because of the way she understood baptism, or was it because Syntyche always tried to hog center stage at the monthly Deacons’ meetings? No need for Paul to explain what the quarrel was about because the church back in Philippi knew well enough, so what he does is write a prescription for settling it….and if the dust has lain for centuries over the women’s names and the reason for a fight that immortalized them in the Bible, Paul’s advice about how to return peace to the church is as relevant as if his letter were postmarked July 20, 1997: learn the art of compromise, ladies; don’t insist stubbornly on your own way. In my imaginary recreation of the fuss and Paul’s response, he says, “Stop all the racket you make fixing communion, you two, and get down on your knees and serve it to one another….for Christ’s sake!”
After all, if a quarrel goes on and on without resolution it may spread and destroy what Paul called koinonia and we call “fellowship.” We have weakened the meaning of that word in modern use. We have a large room to the west which we call “Fellowship Hall,” to which we invite ourselves and our guests on Sunday mornings for a handshake, a cup of coffee, and some conversation. This is a pleasant custom, but to call it “fellowship” is to use the word in a less serious way than Paul used did. Let me give you an example of the the older meaning. I once had the great joy of spending two years in Oxford, where the University is made up of some 30 or more separate colleges, with professors in it who are called “Fellows.” If you walk through one of the gates and into the quad, you may find several of them sitting on benches talking about Pirandello or Graham Greene, or on a particularly nice late Spring morning you might find some of them out on the balcony porch of a place called Head of the River, that marvelous pub at Folly Bridge over the Thames where students and faculty gather for conversation and river watching.
The friendly talk there is what we usually think of as “fellowship,” but that is not at all why those faculty members are called “Fellows.” They are called that because they are bound together in the extremely serious business of teaching at the University. Their fellowship consists of their mutual dedication to the college, and it is proved by their work and sacrifice in behalf of students. Their friendship is one thing; their fellowship is something much more demanding. That kind of fellowship, which is what Paul had in mind, happens in this church not out in the hall of that name at the close of this morning’s ervice, but when we are doing together the serious things which make the life of this church mean more than socializing. It is deeper than friendly talk, it is deeper than friendship itself, it is better than both. It may even occur at times among men and women who do not like each other all that much, but love the church more than their differences.
Please notice that Paul doesn’t despair because there’s been a bitter quarrel in his beloved church. He doesn’t give up on them because they’ve proved to be human. We are either dishonest or terribly naive when we give up on church simply because people in it sometimes quarrel….as if what we then declare to be their hypocrisy is simply too much for our own pure and peaceful souls. “I stopped going to church,” Ben told me years ago, “because they fuss just like everybody else.” I wondered what he expected. Where I live, we have neighbors at odds over a barking dog, and we all know people in the professional and business worlds who have strenous disagreements, and we are not turned into cynics, but we apparently want to think that because people join churches they will never quarrel again. No one ever made such a promise. What is promised is that there is in sacred literaturea strategy for reconciliation, so that those who do fuss can get it over with and go on about the work of the kingdom.
So, as I said, Paul doesn’t despair about these two women, or about the church’s other problems, and mostly — I think — because he has by this time in his life discovered a great secret. Listen to some of the most challenging words in all of Christian writing: “I have learned,” Paul says, “the secret of contentment, in whatever state I find myself. I know how to be poor, and I know how to be rich. I have been through my initiation and I am ready for anything: full stomach or empty stomach, poverty or plenty — there is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength.”
It seems very likely that Paul had been influenced by the Stoic philosophers, who taught that one should accept calmly whatever came — poverty, disease, persecution, even death — secure in the faith that they were stronger than circumstances. The true Stoic was always calm, unmoved by good or bad fortune. If an event were in his own power, he would shape it as he wished; if it were not, he would accept it as the will of God. It was a way of life that gave people control over the ups and downs of life, so that nothing could throw them off balance.
Paul sounds like them when he says, “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content; rich, poor, hungry, full….I know how to manage.” Then he uses a word straight out of Stoic vocabulary. “I have been through my initiation, and now I am ready for anything, anywhere.” Most of the Greek schools of philosophy had an initiation ceremony; Paul says, “I’ve had one myself, and I’ve learned that I do not have to be at the mercy of what happens to me.” This is not the only time Paul uses the vocabulary of Stoic philosophy; he does it often in his letters, and one of his most famous sermons, delivered on the Areopagus in Athens, is Stoic throughout, in both its vocabulary and its logic. There is, however, one huge difference. The Stoic depended upon himself; Paul gladly admitted that he had found power far beyond his own in “Him who strengthens me.” He meant, of course, the power of the life of Christ, which in some mystical way Paul was convinced filled his own life and made it possible for him to be more than just another man.
Often, the person initiated into one of the Greek mystery cults or intellectual societies would be told to keep quiet about the secrets of the group and what one had to do to become a follower. Paul says, however, “I have learned the secret….and I am ready to share it with everybody!” It is the slogan of his life, this little dynamo of a man who traveled so many thousands of miles, on foot, on board ship, to tell a sceptical world that at long last a way of life had been revealed that made all the others seem poor by comparison. Even knowing he may die within 24 hours does not spoil his enthusiasm. He sounds like Archimedes making his great scientific discovery in the bathtub, like Jenner finding the cure for smallpox, like Pasteur discovering the secret of germs, like Salt finding the vaccine for polio, like Oppenheimer standing in reverence before the power of the atom. Except that, in a quiet way, Paul’s discovery may be more important than any of the others: the secret of facing all the ups and downs of a normal human life with a tranquil heart.
I mentioned to you once an awesome storm at sea which I experienced as I came home from France in one of the old Kaiser Victory ships. I was young and impressionable, and I was mightily scared out of my mind, so I still remember every detail more vividly than I recall what I had for breakfast this morning. And among other things, that whole experience sticks in my mind as a paradigm of human life itself — how it is that things can change so radically and without warning, so that the inner life had better be ready, in advance, with a philosophy that can handle it. I recall how we all sprawled ouut on the deck, day after day, in warm sunlight, breathing in the cool salt seawinds, almost delirious with joy that the war was over, that nobody was shouting orders, that there were no screams or stretchers or smell of death. No drug could have given us a high like the one we had on the rolling crests of those bright and dancing waters. And then, overnight, we came into the dark and terrifying violence of a hurricane, a storm so violent that even the crew said it was the worst they had ever faced. We all began to reflect on the irony of having survived the war only to drown in peacetime on the ship that was bringing us home.
It is a pattern of life, isn’t it, to be riding high one moment, with everything seemingly perfect, only to get the sudden phone call, or find out in the doctor’s office what the dizziness really means, or lose a loved one with no warning that anything at all was wrong? If we’re lucky, we get through adolescence with relative calm, but to live a long life is to discover that there is simpoy no way to avoid the extremes of bright sunlight and dark storm. The word Paul has for us is that we do not have to be totally passive, manhandled by fate and accident. “I can,” he says, “do all things…bear all things…. through Him who gives me power.” Paul happens to have been a giant intellect, but this conditioned attitude is not a matter of brainpower. It’s a matter of choice and surrender; Paul’s secret has been shared equally by brilliant philosophers and illiterate peasants.
You could call it a survival technique, because Paul made it through all kinds of setbacks that might have wiped out a lesser man. Doctors are forever amazed at how some survive and others do not under almost identical circumstances. I still remember reading about some schoolkids in Oregon who went out to climb Mt. Hood, got caught in a terrible storm near the summit, and all tried desperately to stay alive. Newspaper and magazine stories hinted that two or three were what we call “survivors” — those with a a little more creativity and imagination and will power, who refuse to give up just a little longer than anyone else. There is mystery in human personality, but Paul read the mystery in his own way: “I have learned the secret of doing all a human being can do with the unpredictable highs and lows of life,” he said, and he gave the credit to the unselfish love he had found in Christ.
I realize how mystical that may sound, too mystical, perhaps, for some of us. Except that there is always someone, somewhere, like that man some years ago in the Potomac after the plane crash (a man I cannot forget) who kept helping other people to safety even when he knew his own life was slipping away. We buy into the notion that survival of self is the strongest instinct we have, but here was a man given strength beyond that by an idea, by some faith in how he ought to act, by some love beyond the love of his own existence.
I have heard men say they resisted the temptation to cheat in business because they thought of their fathers, who had been so deeply vowed to honesty that nothing could have made them cheat. We are molded by the memories of those we love, so that it is not, perhaps, so great a mystery after all, this secret of Paul’s. He had invited a Guest into his heart and mind, and forever after, his life was changed. It has happened, of course, to many of you.
Now, with a touch of regret, I close the letter he wrote, ending this series of sermons with the beautiful sentence that so often ended Paul’s letters: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirits. Amen.”
While Billie and I are on vacation, you will have the pleasure of hearing sermons by Gary Cox, our brand-new Associate Minister. Be sure not to miss his first one, next week, when he will share a very personal journey of faith and how he found in the Congregational way the very thing he had been looking for in religion.
We come to such a place as this, always, Eternal God,
in hope of finding the secret to fuller and stronger life.
May we have had some success on this day, we ask
through Christ our Lord. Amen.