Friends and Foes, Under the Same Roof
It must be quite an experience to be a Senator these days. I watched Democrat John Glenn and Republican Arlen Specter go at it the other evening on campaign finance reform and wondered how they managed to keep from punching one another the moment they came off camera. Even when they tried to be polite for the sake of an audience they verbally bit one another’s heads off at times, and I could only imagine what donnybrooks must go on behind closed doors. It reminded me of the dissension my son sawone Sunday after he preached on a very sensitive issue in his Oklahoma City church. He sent me copy of the sermon and asked for criticism.
We sometimes disagree on handling controversial topics, but I had the pleasure this time of telling him I thought he had done a diplomatic job and could not have been more fair. But one of his church families is split on the issue he discussed, so after the sermon the wife quickly dashed out a side door to avoid having to see him, while her husband made his way deliberately to where Robin stood to shake his hand with special fervor and say, “I loved it! I loved every word of it!” The man and his wife must have had an interesting Sunday lunch! The fact is that if you write a newspaper column, engage in politics, teach school, preach, or do anything else that involves committing yourself on controversial topics you will make both friends and enemies, and there is no honorable way to avoid that. So Paul, in the letter we have been reading on Sunday mornings, gives thanks for the dearest of friends but he also has to deal with some bitter enemies in the same church.
In the affectionate vein he says, “I hope to send Timothy to you soon. I have no one like him who will look out after your welfare like a brother.” This Timothy was a young man whose mother was apparently a Jewish convert to Christianity, but whose father was a pagan. It would be fascinating to know how he met Paul, and why he decided to go along with the apostle on his missionary trips, but Paul doesn’t bother to tell us. There was really no reason why he should. The friends to whom he wrote these letters already knew why, and it never entered his mind that we might be reading the letters two thousand years later and wondering about such things. It was obviously a warm relationship: their names are linked in five different letters. Paul and Timothy, Incorporated…..what a novel it would be if someone had recorded the details of all their adventures, and what they talked about over lunch.
I found myself thinking about Paul’s description of Timothy as one who would look after the new Christians at Philippi like a “brother.” I like that word when it’s descriptive . If a person mentions one of my sons, it’s good music to my ears when the other one says, “That’s my brother.” But when churches turn it into a title it makes me a little uncomfortable. “Brother Brown will now lead us in prayer….Sister White will head up our Vacation Bible School.” I grew up with this custom, but I had come to feel a bit awkward with it long before I found the Congregational church where “Brother” and “Sister” is not part of the program. These words as titles seemed to me to be divorced so often from the reality they were supposed to convey. It occurred to me that I never addressed my own beloved sister that way. I never said, “Hello, Sister Eileen” unless unless I was either joking or slightly irritated. She was my sister, the fact was inescapable; it would have seemed silly to advertise it before others with a title, which used mechanically and constantly loses its profound meaning. But as Paul knew, the church is a second family, and what we owe to our biological brothers and sisters we owe to one another in this relationship. It just hadn’t occurred to Paul to turn the word “brother” into a title. I’m rather glad.
Paul also speaks fondly of another loyal friend who had come to see him in prison but then got terribly sick and almost died. I like to read between the lines because there are revelations there, too, and I notice that this man’s recovery, although Paul thanks God for it, is apparently a slow and natural recovery. There is no miracle performed, despite the fact that Paul would have been desperately eager for this man to survive. Judging from his letters, Paul’s fascination with Christianity had nothing to do with miracles. He never claims to have performed one, nor does he ever refer to Christ as a miracle-worker. The men who wrote the Gospels later made a big thing of that, but not Paul….and I think he was in that respect truer to the personality of Christ than the others were. Paul spoke of his own infirmities without so much as a hint that he hoped for a miracle that would cure him, and although his invaluable partner, Timothy, was frequently ill with some kind of stomach problem, Paul did not tell him to pray for a miracle but to drink some wine occasionally to see if that would help.
Now, after saying that he will send these two good friends to represent him in person at Philippi, Paul seems to close his letter. “And now friends, farewell; I wish you joy in the Lord.” But then immediately, and abruptly, the letter starts off again. Was it a postscript, or was it another letter sent at a different time and only tacked onto this one later by some collector of Paul’s writings? No one knows, and it does not matter much except that the tone of the letter changes so violently at this place. After all the warmth and gratitude for his friends, Paul remembers his enemies and calls them by one of the most vicious epithets anyone could use in that culture: “Beware of those dogs,” he says.
We need a moment of background. Paul was the man who had taken the story of Christ out into the Greek and Roman world in the conviction that it belonged to everybody. But Christ was Jewish, and his new approach to religion began among Jewish people, so some of them felt that since circumcision had symbolized their special relationship with God, any male Gentile converts to Christianity should have the same mark in their flesh. In other words, “You can be baptized and become a Christian, but first you need to have surgery!” This is that dreadful thing called “legalism” in which your character is judged by how many visible rituals you are careful about. How many yards can you walk on the Sabbath day before you make God unhappy? If you rub a head of oats in your hand and eat the kernels on the Sabbath, is that technically “work” and therefore forbidden, even if you happen to be starving?
Paul realizes that if Christianity gets hung up on things like that, it will die, and in his anger at those who would saddle it with nitpicking laws he really loses his temper. Christianity, for him, is a matter of love and compassion, justice and brotherhood — a transformation of the heart, and not a matter of rituals or special days or external marks in the flesh to separate those in favor from those who are not. “What these people want you to do,” he says, “I refuse to call circumcision. I call it mutilation.” We’ve lost all interest in circumcision as a religious ceremony, so it’s hard for us to imagine how insulting it would be to Paul’s adversaries to hear him speak of their time-honored Jewish ritual as “mutilation.” But to call then “dogs” is an incredible personal insult. Dogs were not pets in that world. They were prowling scavengers. And since Gentiles had no kosher diet laws and would presumably eat anything, like dogs at a garbage heap, that is what some Jews called them. And now Paul throws that nasty name against his Jewish-Christian adversaries who want to turn back the clock.
Paul had been a hairsplitting legalist himself before he found an intoxicating freedon in Christ, so legalism rubbed him raw and wore out his patience. He said all those marvelous things about love and patience, but he loses it when he sees Christianity itself at risk. Remember, please, that these are not just misguided friends; these are declared enemies who menace the cause that means more to him than life itself. Surely you know why legalism so often infects religion. It’s easier to take communion in a Protestant church, count beads in a Catholic church, honor Yom Kippur in a Jewish church — easier to do all the rituals — than it is learn gentleness and patience and the kind of love that goes light years beyond the requirements of law.
External ceremony and ritual simply cannot be trusted to prove a loving heart. Ask wives whose husbands fulfill every legal and marital requirement, do all the right things at the right times, but in the final truth do not truly love. And ask other wives whose husbands goof up, forget anniversaries and birthdays, but whose hearts are so given over to love that they are forgiven and loved in return. In religion, it isn’t any secret, so there’s no reason not to admit it, that some of the most vicious people on earth have been regular in church attendance and faithful to observe all the prescribed ceremonies. The late, great Jewish prophets understood this. They knew that surgery performed on the body did not prove the heart was devoted, so they began to talk about what they called “circumcision of the heart” — a kind of metaphorical surgery that really counted, a change in feelings and attitudes.
Legalism isn’t always malicious, but it is often silly. I remember, growing up, how if a convert were baptized and an elbow stuck up out of the water and stayed dry, the legalists among us would insist that the minister do the ceremony again. God, after all, might not accept one into heaven with a dry left elbow. This is legalism….in which failing to dot an “i” could cancel out the purest and best motives in the world. I knew an old man once who was terribly proud of not having missed communion on a Sunday for more than fifty years. He was a stubborn, insensitive man who drove his poor wife nearly into madness but by the very God of heaven he had taken communion every Sunday for half a century — it never occurred to him that this did not make up for a multitude of small cruelties.
Remember the churchmember in the famous parable who spoke to God as legalists always do: “I thank you, God, that I am not like other men….I fast twice a week, I contribute one-tenth of my salary….” I keep the law, I keep the law….I must be good! And the other man, embarrassed about his life, who said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And how the Lord of love Himself said it was that second man who went home with a heart God could enter because it knew that without God’s grace it was nothing. Jesus had noticed how easily minor obedience can blind one to major character flaws. So much easier to drive to church once a week than to treat your employees right the rest of the week. So much easier to read the Bible daily than to warm a cold heart.
Jesus learned quickly that an exterior of a certain kind often means an interior of exactly the opposite kind — how we may publicly polish the outside to hide what we know about hidden rooms. “You Pharisees,” he said, “clean the outside of the cup, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness.” Like his Teacher, Paul knew that rituals easily get confused for the reality to which they point, and finally take the place of that reality. It means that we may become so obsessed with symbols that we forget what they stand for. How easy it is to swell with patriotism if you can punish the extremely rare protester who burns a flag, and in your righteous wrath forget your own greed and bigotry. The flag becomes the state, the symbol becomes the reality, and therefore so long as you protect the flag — which is an easy thing — you can imagine yourself a good citizen — which is a difficult and demanding thing.
To say that in the U. S. Congree at the moment would make some enemies, but there are times when your life is defined as well by your enemies as by your friends. As Paul put it in this very letter, “The fact that you have made certain kinds of people your enemioes is proof that you yourself are in the right camp.” It is, after all, possible to value social harmony more than it deserves. There are situations into which we should not wish to fit, about which we should say, “This is silly or this is wrong, this is cheap, this is unfair to somebody….I want no part of it.”
I sometimes hear people say of someone, “He hasn’t an enemy in the world,” as if that were the highest accolade possible. I always think that if that comment is true, it’s not a tribute but an indictment. No one can be unflinchingly honest or deeply committed without making a few enemies — and Paul, as you have heard, managed to make some. He and his early Christian friends were once hailed as those who “turned the world upside down.” Many of their successors have never upset a teacup. Father Damien crusading for a better understanding of lepers, Albert Schweitzer rebuking our disrespect for life — we sing their praises now but in their own time they rubbed some people raw and made enemies. I like what Robert Louis Stevenson wrote once about why such men may make enemies while more complacent people live placid lives. He said that when some people play the role of St. George confronting the dragon, they don’t assault him, they just tie a pink ribbon around his neck, say “Nice Kitty” to his face, and give him a saucer of warm milk. So, they make no enemies!
If you had known the complex man we’ve been talking about for several Sundays, I don’t know whether you would have loved him or detested him. He could not always have been an easy man to be around. No one ever spoke of love more eloquently, but no one ever understood better than Paul that Christianity always has to mean more than finding friends. It also means knowing clearly who the enemies of the good life are, and that sometimes one must speak bluntly to save the things that are worth saving. Next week, as we conclude this series, we’ll learn a deeper meaning for a word we use constantly, we’ll hear Paul reveal what may well be life’s greatest secret, and we’ll meet a couple of women who hadn’t caught on to it yet. Please come back…and bring someone to share the joy we have found in this place.
(Prayer) If we are too proud about wearing the right face, and too careless about having the right heart, forgive us, Eternal God, and set us on a better way, we ask through Christ our Lord.