Peace is neither merely the absence of conflict nor simply tolerating each other. Peace in Holy Scripture is cooperative fellowship, a harmonious way of living with God and one another based in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Peace is simultaneously a virtue we already possess and an ideal we need to obtain and live into.
In writing to the Church at Philippi, the Apostle Paul strung together several verbs to make it clear how to achieve peace on the practical level. Six of the verbs are in the imperative form, that is, they are commands. Paul gave these imperatives to the Church because they were in danger of a breakdown in their fellowship. Embedded within Paul’s message is a deep Christian spirituality based in knowing Christ, with an overall message and imperative to keep persevering and not give up on peace or on one another.
Stand firm in the Lord. (Philippians 4:1)
Standing firm in faith is a function of knowing Jesus Christ – an experiential knowledge beyond mere mental acknowledgement (Philippians 3:7-10). Our feet are to be firmly planted and rooted in the soil of Jesus Christ as our highest value and our surpassing greatness over and above anyone or anything else.
This first command is a bedrock imperative. We cannot really move to the other five imperatives until we ensure our foundation is solid. In other words, there will be no peace in our personal lives or in our corporate life together unless we embrace Jesus as our most precious relationship.
If our god is our stomach and we do not take charge and own our Christian walk through spiritual practices that connect us with Jesus, then peace will be elusive. We must patiently, deliberately, and slowly plod along with Jesus and follow him as our highest priority in every sphere of our lives.
Help resolve disagreements. (Philippians 4:2-3)
Euodia and Syntyche were two prominent women leaders in the Philippian Church. Whatever their differences were, Paul made it clear to them that they must agree and be like-minded concerning the issue.
This second imperative goes beyond telling two persons to work out their differences; the church was called upon to help do the work of peacemaking. Because peace characterizes the triune God, and Jesus Christ came to achieve peace on our behalf, God’s people are to be peacemakers.
Many differences are resolved with far fewer disagreements when we abide in Christ. If folks immerse themselves in Scripture and in knowing Christ, instead of taking the stance of being right despite any evidence to the contrary, then a lot less peacemaking would even need to take place.
New Testament scholar D.A. Carson has said, “Personal differences should never become an occasion for advancing your party, for stroking bruised egos, for resorting to cheap triumphalism, for trimming the gospel by appealing to pragmatics. Focus on what unites you: the gospel. Be like-minded; think the same things; agree with one another. Work hard and humbly on these central issues, and in most instances the peripheral matters will take care of themselves. Resolve to pursue like-mindedness with other believers. This will ennoble and strengthen all sides, so that you will never abandon the Christian walk.”
Let your gentleness be evident to all. (Philippians 4:4-5)
The Christian is to have a basic disposition of humility and meekness. There is to be gracious forbearance with others that is publicly observable. Rejoicing in the Lord need not be a command when we are truly pursuing the experiential knowledge of Christ (because joy then just spills out of us). Gentleness is the fruit of a meek and humble spirit, a direct result of knowing the gentle Savior.
A solid building block of conflict intervention and resolution is a humble and gentle spirit – which goes beyond personal holiness. It is being close enough to rub shoulders with others so that the gentleness can be experienced by another. This will sometimes require getting graciously involved in the interpersonal affairs of others.
Getting involved does not mean dipping into other people’s business with unsolicited advice, angry diatribes, nor taking sides. It means, rather, extending basic human kindness in all affairs of group life, being part of the solution instead of adding to the problem.
Do not be anxious about anything. (Philippians 4:6a)
Where disharmony exists, anxiety is not far behind. Worry about the future only obfuscates a way forward. Sometimes anxiety is rooted in our theology. If we fundamentally view God as a stern Being whose chief activity is dispensing disapproval and wrath, then we will likely live with an underlying sense of anxiety and fear of upsetting such a God. Performance-based living comes from trying to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps to placate a hard-to-please God who is always looking over our shoulder to make sure we do not mess up.
On the other hand, if our theology has God as a loving Being who is pained by the damage sin does to the souls of people, then we become open to the gracious mending of broken spirits. In the Christian tradition, the death of Christ is the ultimate act of love in handling the sin issue once for all. God in Christ did for us what we could do for ourselves.
Chronic spiritual anxiety usually arises from the inability to perceive a generous and hospitable God having our backs and working on our behalf. Knowing God, who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, leads to peace and rest. This logically leads to the fifth imperative….
Present your requests to God (Philippians 4:6b-7)
Prayer naturally arises from a heart that knows God is listening. Prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings are all congruent actions stemming from an experiential knowledge of God’s grace.
Having the peace of God which transcends all understanding is a beautiful thing. If our theological view is of God playing games with us, holding out a carrot stick we can never quite reach, then peace will be elusive. Conversely, if we have confidence to present our requests to God and have the discipline to slow down long enough to do it, this inevitably leads to peace.
We are to pray about everything, in all circumstances with all kinds of prayers. Spontaneous prayers, written prayers, heartfelt prayers, silent prayers, and loud prayers are all encouraged. We are to pray without ceasing, praying for everyone – for rulers and all those in authority so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. Pray, then pray some more. If we struggle to pray, perhaps we struggle with our view of God.
Put it into practice (Philippians 4:8-9)
Armed with a vigorous theology, the task of spiritual formation is unlearning harmful theological approaches and discovering new and helpful ways of the Divine. This requires some basic spiritual disciplines of Scripture reading and prayer (both individually and communally), and practices of silence and solitude which put us in a position to connect with God and self.
Healthy spiritual rhythms help us know God and God’s peace. To put the six imperatives into practice, a plan is needed which translates good intentions into good habits. We need a rule of life. God may be opposed to earning salvation but is not opposed to sanctified effort – and effort is necessary for effective spiritual practices.
Do you have a method for being a peacemaker? Are you developing ways for making gentleness evident? Is there a plan in place for avoiding anxiety? What is your agenda for structuring consistent prayer?
Experiencing peace does not spontaneously materialize. Peace occurs through tapping into the spiritual resources we have in Jesus Christ. Realizing practical peace is rolling up our spiritual sleeves and working on the biblical imperatives Paul provided for us. It is everyone’s job, and not only the job of a few.
May you know the peace of Christ this day.
May you experience God as your refuge and strength.
May God hasten the day when wars shall cease, and poverty and pain shall end so that the earth may know and experience the peace of heaven through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Oh, how wonderful, how pleasing it is
when God’s people all come together as one!
It is like the sweet-smelling oil that is poured over the high priest’s head,
that runs down his beard flowing over his robes.
It is like a gentle rain from Mount Hermon falling on Mount Zion.
It is there that the Lord has promised his blessing of eternal life. (ERV)
Unity, solidarity, and harmony are a beautiful blessing. Disunity, division, and fragmentation are an ugly curse. Within all families and faith communities are a diverse bunch of people – which brings the potential of both wonderful fellowship and disagreeing fights.
Today’s reading is a psalm of ascent. It is one of a group of psalms the Israelites would say and sing together as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and ascended the temple mount to worship the Lord. Their common purpose and shared experience led to a blessed unity among all the worshipers.
The metaphors the psalm uses are meant to convey the feeling and impact of a unified people’s blessing as one harmonious bunch. The reference to oil communicates abundance and extravagant blessing beyond expectation. The gentle rain or the dew pictures the giving of life to a parched landscape. The psalm is a celebration of life’s simple pleasures, enjoyed with friends and family.
People created in the image of God are hard-wired for community. Rather than existing in isolation, doing our own thing, and keeping to ourselves, the Lord’s intention for humans is to be close enough to one another to rejoice with those experiencing joy and to weep with those mourning a loss. True community requires unity and harmony.
To live in harmony with one another means we regard everyone the same way by not playing favorites, being condescending, or giving more weight to one group more than another. It is a willingness to interact, work, and play with all kinds of people – not just those whom we like or help us get ahead in life. We are designed by our Creator to live and work together in common purposes. In fact, it takes a great deal of effort.
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace(Ephesians 4:2-3, NIV).
Think about what we have in Christ: the encouragement he has brought us, the comfort of his love, our sharing in his Spirit, and the mercy and kindness he has shown us. If you enjoy these blessings, then do what will make my joy complete: Agree with each other and show your love for each other. Be united in your goals and in the way you think. In whatever you do, do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Be humble, and honor others more than yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but care about the lives of others too (Philippians 2:1-4, ERV).
If we desire the enjoyment of blessed relationships we will engage in genuine conversation, focused listening, and equal dialogue; simply stating opinions at each other will not do the trick.
Yes, we are to work at unity and harmony because we can have a nasty tendency to think better of ourselves than what is true, and of others what is not so good. We might inflate our positive qualities and abilities, especially in comparison to other people. Numerous research studies have revealed the propensity to overestimate ourselves.
For example, when one research study asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, none of the students rated themselves below average. As a matter of fact, 60% of students believed they were in the top 10%; and, 25% rated themselves in the top 1%.
College professors were just as biased about their abilities – 2% rated themselves below average; 10% were average and 63% were above average, while 25% rated themselves as truly exceptional. Of course, this is statistically impossible. One researcher summarized the data this way: “It’s the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person.”
Christian psychologist Mark McMinn contends that this study reveals our pride. He writes, “One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think better of ourselves than we really are, we see our faults in faint black and white rather than in vivid color, and we assume the worst in others while assuming the best in ourselves.”
Where sinful pride rules, disharmony runs amok within a community. The acid test of harmonious love is how we treat the lowly. One of the great preachers in church history, St. John Chrysostom (the fourth century Bishop of Constantinople) had this to say:
“If a poor man comes into your church behave like him and do not put on airs because of your riches. In Christ there is no rich or poor. Do not be ashamed of him because of his outward dress but receive him because of his inward faith. If you see him in sorrow, do not hesitate to comfort him, and if he is prospering, do not feel shy about sharing in his pleasure. If you think you are a great person, then think others are also. If you think they are humble and lowly, then think the same of yourself.”
We cannot function apart from harmony. Consider a tuning fork. It delivers a true pitch by two tines vibrating together. Muffle either side, even a little, and the note disappears. Neither tine individually produces the pure note. Only when both tines vibrate is the correct pitch heard. Harmony is not a matter of give and take and compromise to make each other happy or satisfied. Harmony comes through a common mission and purpose which engages in shared experiences of loving and caring for others.
My Christian convictions and tradition tell me that the Word of God is applied by the Spirit of God through the people of God. We are to embrace community. We are to do life together. We are to view everyone as my brother or sister. After all, we are our brother’s keeper.
So, let us ascend the hill of the Lord together. Let us worship God together with glad and sincere hearts. Let us be mindful of all our brothers and sisters, no matter who they are.
What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.
What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written:
“So that you may be proved right when you speak
and prevail when you judge.”
But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just! (NIV)
Paul’s letter to the Roman church is a hefty sixteen chapters of some dense material and several extended arguments through intense reasoning. Likely, Paul felt compelled to dig in and provide so many words because of the church’s situation.
The Roman Church at the time of Paul’s writing was made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus. Jews and Gentiles have a complicated history together. And the Roman Empire was still firmly in control of Palestine and did not always treat the Jewish people well. In addition, the religious backgrounds of each were as different as you can get. Whereas the Jewish Christians had a long rich history with God and the Old Testament, the Gentile Christians were fresh from centuries of paganism and esoteric rituals. Now, they were together in one place worshiping Jesus and it made for a potentially combustible situation.
Throughout the letter to the Romans, Paul goes back and forth addressing the two groups of Jews and Gentiles. The overarching problem was this: The Jewish believers tended to look down on the Gentile Christians and thought they needed to become Jewish to really be the kind of Christians God was looking for. On the other hand, the Gentile believers tended to dismiss their Jewish brothers and sisters as backward and stuck in tradition. In short, each group thought the other must become like them.
So, Paul, bless his apostolic heart, had a huge mess in the making with these believers. Here, in our New Testament lesson for today, Paul is directing his comments more specifically toward the Gentile Christians. Paul really wanted the Gentile believers to gain some appreciation for the Jewish people. After all, they were chosen by God to become a nation of priests and prophets for the world. Discounting that history would be to neglect and even invalidate their shared salvation.
For Paul, to have two churches, one Jew and the other Gentile, would have been a complete travesty of Christ’s redemption for humanity. Jesus was all about bringing disparate peoples together and not keeping them divided. The cross freed us by eliminating the barriers which separate us. The Roman Church was just going to have to work together at being one people under the lordship of Christ. There was going to be no ethnic, religious, or political one-upmanship on Paul’s watch.
Truth be told, both Jew and Gentile did not always do so well with their respective histories. So, there is no ground for boasting or trying to argue for their own way. In fact, the unfaithfulness of people simply shows the incredible faithfulness of God in greater relief. If there were no sin, grace would not be needed; no cross would have existed. Just because the foulness and degradation of sin brings out the gracious, faithful, and forgiving character of God in Christ, does not mean that sin is okay or that we can flippantly wave it off with uttering some mumbo-jumbo cheap grace which devalues the majesty of God.
For example, when antebellum southern slaveholders in nineteenth-century America argued for their peculiar institution by saying that snatching black Africans from their homes was a good thing so that they could get out of their religious animistic worldview and be exposed to Christianity, I am positively sure that the Apostle Paul rolled over in his grave and begged Jesus to resurrect him early and send him to tackle such an affront to the cross of Christ! Sin is never to be excused through twisted human mental gymnastics.
Paul worked laboriously to unite the churches he established and bring differing people groups together under Christ. What this does not mean is that all cultural and personal distinctions are ignored or erased. What it does mean is that we value one another’s differences and gather around the shared value of knowing Jesus Christ. The Church was neither going to become Jewish nor Gentile but something altogether new – one new people out of the two. Paul framed the matter this way to the Ephesian Church:
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2:11-18, NIV)
Solitary righteousness is an oxymoron. Righteousness can only be truly lived and expressed with other people. Yes, there is freedom in Christ. Yet, that freedom must be continually applied through making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace to seriously lay aside all unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and harmony: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all; so may we be forever all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and love, and with one mind and one mouth glorify Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.