July 28, 2013
PEACE THAT PASSES UNDERSTANDING
There are lots of things that I don’t understand. I don’t understand how electricity works. I don’t even understand how to ask how it works. I don’t understand how aspirin works. How does the aspirin know whether you have a headache or a backache? How does it know where to go? I don’t understand how airplanes work. I always expect them to fall to the ground, but they don’t.
Let me try one out on you. How do you pronounce this word? P-O-L-I-S-H. How many of you first thought “polish”, like polishing your car? How many of you first thought “Polish”, like someone from Poland? I don’t understand that.
I don’t understand women. Actually, I do understand women, but I pretend I don’t.
I do not understand how people can be cruel to animals, or children, or even to other people. I do not understand the pictures I see from some foreign countries, with people starving to death in front of the camera. In a world where some governments have paid farmers not to grow food, how can there be starving people – either overseas or here in the United States? I do not understand the pictures I see of homelessness in our own country, or of violence and rioting in other countries. There’s a lot that I don’t understand.
Sometimes when we’re faced with things we don’t understand, we wish that things were simpler. We wish that things were easier. We wish that things were a bit slower paced. We may say, “Wouldn’t it be great if everything was like the good old days. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just turn back the clock to a simpler time when we didn’t have the problems that we have today.”
Of course there is no such time. Back in the 1960’s they didn’t have some of the same problems that we have today, but they had others that we don’t. I suspect in the 1960’s people were saying wouldn’t it be great if everything was like the good old days, before all these hippies, and if everything was simpler, back before we had all these interstates.
In the 1960’s, there were probably people who felt pretty good about the 1920’s. In the 1920’s you could probably find some folks nostalgic for the 1890’s. And in the 1890’s… well, you get the picture. Wherever you are in history, the past can look better and the future can look scarier. The past looks simpler, the future looks harder.
We can understand the past, because we’ve all got 20-20 hindsight. We cannot understand the future, because we don’t really know what it’s going to be. One thing about the future is sure – someday, sometimes, somewhere, somebody will say, “Boy, life was a lot simpler back in 2013.” That’s a little scary, I know, but I am sure that it’s going to happen.
I’ve got some news for you. Back in the good old days there were problems. Let’s take a look at the good old days – let’s go a couple of thousand years back to the early church. What do we find? A problem.
Euodia and Syntyche were not getting along. We don’t know why, we don’t know what the trouble was, but we do know that it was serious because news of the disagreement had reached Paul in prison. And so Paul writes to try to settle things between the two women. Even in the early church, even with people around who had known Jesus Christ personally, even under the discipline of the apostle Paul, there were problems, there were disagreements, and there were misunderstandings.
How did Paul tell these women to deal with their misunderstandings and find peace? How do we deal with the things we don’t understand – not the silly stuff like aspirin but with the things that really trouble us? How do we deal with people that we don’t get along with or that we don’t understand?
There’s one phrase that Paul keeps coming back to in this section of Philippians – one little set of words that he repeats over and over. See if you can spot them. Verse 1 – “So then, how dear you are to me and how I miss you! How happy you make me, and how proud I am of you: – this, dear brothers, is how you should stand firm in your life in the Lord.”
Now verse 2 – “Euodia and Syntyche, please, I beg you, try to agree as sisters in the Lord.” And finally, verse 7 – “May you always be joyful in your union with the Lord. I say it again: rejoice.” A more familiar translation says, “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say rejoice.”
Did you catch the phrase repeated in all three sections? “Stand firm in your life in the Lord.” “Agree as sisters in the Lord.” “Rejoice in the Lord.” In the Lord.
Paul says that it is only in the Lord that we can begin to understand the world around us. It is only in the Lord that we can begin to really love other people. It is only in the Lord that we can begin to deal with the things that we don’t understand.
I listen to talk radio every once in a while, but after a half hour or so, no matter what the political perspective of the host, I become convinced that people simply will never get along. After the anger and the hostility, after hearing people being rude to each other and interrupting each other and putting each other down, after I listen to the disrespect and maybe even the hatred that some of these folks hold for those who disagree with them, I wonder if people can ever really get along, can ever really understand each other.
But then I think about my first congregation as a pastor. The Church of the Brethren is one of the historic peace churches. The Brethren as a denomination teach that all war is sin. Period. The Brethren have taught that Christians do not participate in war. Christians do not serve in the military. Christians do not help prepare for war. That’s the historical teaching of the Brethren – war is sin. Period.
My first congregation as a full-time pastor was the Lower Miami Church of the Brethren, near Dayton, Ohio. The largest single employer of folks at that congregation was the nearby Wright Patterson Air Force base. We also had a couple of people in that congregation who were very public peace activists. Sometimes members of the congregation reporting to work at the base would see other members of the congregation protesting and holding signs outside of it.
Now if those two groups got together on the Rush Limbaugh show, I guarantee that sparks would fly and Rush would fan the flames. But those two groups of people got together every Sunday, right there in the sanctuary, and at Bible studies, and at carry-in dinners, and at weddings and funerals, and no sparks flew. No dirty looks were exchanged. No fingers were pointed.
In fact, those folks did not see themselves as separate and distinct groups. Within the church, they saw themselves as brothers and sisters. They prayed for each other, they laughed with each other, they helped each other, they loved each other. In the church, folks that most people would try to pit against each other worked together. They did not see themselves as separate and distinct groups because they weren’t. They were Christians. They found unity in the Lord.
When we recognize our unity in the Lord we begin to understand each other. We begin to see the things we have in common – our sinfulness, our weakness, our pride. And we begin to see the good things we share in common – our faith, our willingness to serve, our desire to follow God, our concern for others. We can see these things that we share in common, and we begin to understand each other.
When I focus on God, when I live “in the Lord” as Paul would say, there’s one other thing that I begin to understand. I begin to understand that I will never understand. I will never understand why some people and nations choose to do wrong and evil things. I may have some guesses, I may have some insights, I may have some ideas, but I will never completely understand why people willingly choose to do wrong.
I will never understand why some people reject God’s gift of love. If it were a free gift for their birthday, these same people would be ripping the paper off. If it were a coupon for a free meal, they’d be at the restaurant checking the menu. If it were an interest free loan at the bank, they’d be putting together their personal financial statement. But the free gift of grace and forgiveness from God is rejected. The free gift, the free sacrifice of God’s son is not believed. I will never completely understand that rejection.
And I will never completely understand the gift itself. Why God, God who created the heavens and the earth, God who led the Israelites out of Egypt, God who did so much and gave so much and got so little in return, why God would take human form as Jesus and die on a cross I will never understand. Why God offers me love and care and grace and the Spirit I will never completely understand.
But I don’t need to understand to say “yes.” I don’t need to understand to accept the gift. I don’t need to understand to feel forgiveness, to claim God’s mercy and grace and peace. I don’t need to understand to receive Christ into my life.
What I do understand is that when I start to live in the Lord I will be able to love and care for other people that I might never have thought about before. What I do understand is that when I live in the Lord I am a new creation. And I understand that the rest of it passes understanding. May we each one understand God’s call in our lives and how we can respond. May we each understand what it means to live in the Lord. Amen.