Again, there has been a long gap since the last blog post. I had a week off, then had two consecutive Sundays where I led all age services and the material wasn’t suitable for posting here. Also, the situation with my parents’ health remains stressful and time-consuming. However, I am back to regular preaching today, and here is the sermon.
Yesterday, Debbie took Rebekah to the cinema to see the recent film about her (Becky’s, that is) favourite pop group, One Direction. When I was titling the sermons in this series after songs, I thought I would please my daughter by picking the title of a One Direction song for this week: ‘What makes you beautiful.’
In these verses, Paul is telling the Philippians about some attitudes of heart that will make them beautiful in the sight of God and of other people. He seems to have a ragbag collection of thoughts for a motley crew of Christians in Philippi, but the common thought is about the attitudes that make for spiritual beauty.
Firstly, unity makes you beautiful.
I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Verses 2-3)
We don’t know why Euodia and Syntyche had fallen out, but all the various theories about who they are and what they might have argued about assume that they were leading members of the congregation, and that their disagreement was serious. Paul calls them ‘to be of the same mind in the Lord’, which implies that they are to share the same broad Christian aims. Somewhere they had taken their eyes off the ball. They had stopped ‘making the main thing the main thing’.
So here’s the thing for us. We know that in our society when the church fights over something (let’s say, the Anglican agonies over women bishops), it doesn’t look beautiful to the watching world, it looks ugly. There are bound to be certain things where we disagree, but if we are to break fellowship with each other it really only ought to be over something pretty fundamental. If the church stops preaching the Gospel, then divide. If the church denies the historic orthodox teachings about Jesus Christ, then divide. If the church starts calling sin righteousness or vice-versa, then yes, I think it is permissible to split.
But other things – lesser things – are not permissible grounds for schism. When people tried to divide one of my previous churches over styles of music, that was unacceptable in the light of God, I believe. When people don’t get their own way, pick up their ball and stop the game, that’s not on for Christians. Believe me, if I as a minister were to go off in a huff every time a congregation didn’t accept something I passionately believed in, I’d be half way to Antarctica by now.
No – if we are to look beautiful to the world and to God then we need to be committed to holding together on the fundamentals about God and the Gospel. We may need outside help to get beyond our divisions, just as Paul asked his ‘true companion’ to ‘help these women’, but it is a priority for our witness.
Secondly, rejoicing makes you beautiful.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! (Verse 4)
Let me say right away that we should not use this famous verse to promote a certain brand of Christianity that seems to expect the followers of Jesus to engage in pretending to be happy when they are downcast, because on that view the Christian who is not full of joy is a sub-standard believer. This is not about playing games of pretend. This is not about putting on a mask when we are struggling.
But Paul does urge us to rejoice in the Lord. Just as Euodia and Syntyche were to agree ‘in the Lord’, so are we all exhorted to rejoice ‘in the Lord’. What does that mean? I believe it is an encouragement for us when we are down in the dumps. Perhaps the Philippian church was in some way discouraged. I do not believe that Paul would have wanted them to be hypocrites: in other places, he is only too frank about his own experiences of suffering and the struggles that accompanied them.
So I take the view that Paul is giving us a way to find joy even in our darkest hours. We rejoice ‘in the Lord’. When we dwell on who he is and what he has done, then even if the dark clouds remain in our lives, the light of God’s Son shines through and reminds us of his great love for us, the world and all creation. That will give us heart when we are lingering in the shadows.
But this is not just for us in our troubles. The fact that we can have some joy when life is hard is beautiful to others. If you ever get the chance to see or read the testimony of the Australian Nick Vujicic, do so. He was born without any limbs and attempted suicide at the age of eight. He told God he would only come to him when he had an answer to the question, why was he born this way. God’s only reply was a request to trust him.
Yet if you see, hear or read Nick Vujicic you will encounter someone who is full of joy. Why? Because that joy is what Paul here calls ‘in the Lord’. It comes from realising that God has forgiven him, and that he has a purpose for his life. It does not ease his physical difficulties, still less heal him, but Vujicic has learned that true joy is in the Lord and that is what makes him a powerful witness.
Thirdly, gentleness makes you beautiful.
Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. (Verse 5)
I expect you can see immediately that for Christians to display gentleness in an aggressive world is an act of counter-cultural beauty. Yet what we are dealing with here is all that and much more. The word translated ‘gentleness’ in the NIV is a word that carries with it ideas of magnanimity and of sweet reason. It is, if you like, about gentleness in a specific context, when someone can
remain reasonable and unperturbed when confronted by difficult people and to treat them calmly and fairly … it is the opposite of a quarrelsome nature; instead of being irritated by other people, the Christians are to treat difficult people with sweet reasonableness.
Now can you imagine if this is what the world experienced when it encountered Christians? What if the Christians, by virtue of this kind of gentleness, were the ones who were known for their peaceable characteristics and who could be called upon when there was tension to help effect reconciliation? Imagine if the Christians were the ones who could defuse the tensions that arise in a workplace from time to time.
Or more than that: what would we look like to outsiders if this were the attitude we brought every time someone attacked the church or Christian values or beliefs (as happens more these days)? Would we not be thought of more positively than we often are – perhaps even as beautiful?
This kind of gentleness requires walking the way of the Cross as we absorb hatred and anger directed at us and at others. But if we are followers of Jesus Christ, then it must be possible.
Fourthly, prayer makes you beautiful.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Verses 6-7)
We have an epidemic of stress and worry in our society. It affects relationships, the ability to work, the NHS drug budget and many other things. We speak about the invention of labour-saving devices, but all that happens is that we cram more into our lives and wonder when we are going to schedule sleep.
We Christians are not immune to events and circumstances that have the potential to put strain on our lives, either – and I speak as one who inherited a family predisposition towards high blood pressure.
So what if there were a way for Christians to be attractive in such a climate? The answer comes in prayer. But of course many in our culture pray, especially when the pressure is on.
Yet Paul here commends Christian prayer that taps into other values. Prayer can reduce our anxiety, because our lives are in the hands of God and he has good plans for us. That is why we can bring our requests not only with peace (that again!) but also with thanksgiving. We pray from a perspective of gratitude to God. We pray, knowing that he has answered in the past, and that brings a positive attitude to our prayers, even when the petitions we bring are those which have every reason to increase our worries. We do not only pray when we are at panic stations: we pray at all times, and this tunes us in more closely to God’s wavelength. This gives us more of his perspective, and that enables us to find a greater serenity than if we only turn to God when a crisis hits us. It is, perhaps, this on-going commitment to prayer that makes us beautiful.
Fifthly and finally, thinking makes you beautiful.
Did you hear me aright? Yes, thinking makes you beautiful. But don’t some thinkers just become annoying, smug clever clogs? Yes, they do. But according to Paul, thinking makes you beautiful if you direct your thinking appropriately:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Verses 8-9)
The challenge Paul gives us is in how to focus our minds. This is not about being an intellectual, it is about a positive way of conquering sin and becoming more Christ-like. We may not all be academics, but we all have a mind and we can all use our minds for good or for sin. The trick, says Paul, is not to leave your mind vacant. One of the objections I have to the meditation techniques of eastern religions (sometimes found in practices such as yoga) is the tendency to empty your mind. Paul knows that an empty mind is one that is vulnerable to invasion. So instead he urges us to fill our minds, by concentrating them on ‘whatever is true … noble … right … pure … lovely … admirable … excellent or praiseworthy’.
But it isn’t just a problem for those who might be seduced by the unhelpful elements of other religions. It’s a difficulty for us when we choose to fill our minds with trash. While it’s important for us to engage with our culture and understand it – Paul isn’t assuming here that we can exist in a safe Christian bubble where, in the words of one satirical singer, ‘You’ll only drink milk from a Christian cow’ – it is only to easy for us to entertain ourselves with the trivial and the trashy. The late Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to counsel preachers about their reading that they didn’t have time to read good books, they only had time to read the best, and I think the same advice could be passed on to all Christians. By all means read the best literature and engage with the best art and entertainment, but don’t swim with the flotsam and jetsam that our culture offers.
And as well as that, make sure you engage with the best reading that the world of Christian literature can offer you. How can we expect to radiate Christ unless we fill ourselves with his wisdom? It is this that can help us put into practice good Christian living and fill us with the peace of God.
And wouldn’t that above all make us beautiful?