Letter writing and receiving letters has always been important to me. When I was a child in Primary School, I had a penfriend in rural NSW and we wrote to each other for decades, although we only met once. When I first left home to teach in the country and was homesick, letters between my mother and me really mattered. Letters between me and my future husband Ron, written over several years when we lived in different countries, changed the direction of our lives from friendship to a long marriage.
These days, fewer people write real letters, which I find quite sad. Text messages can be great, and I use them all the time, but they are limited. And as for a string of emojis, that is not the same!
In the years immediately after the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, the followers of Jesus were beginning to spread into scattered communities. As new groups of Christians were gathering in places distant from each other, letters became important. The apostle Paul wrote letters to a number of communities and we can still read them in our New Testament. As Paul travelled, he met little groups in places like Rome, so he wrote a letter to the Romans. He visited the Christians in Corinth and later wrote at least two letters to the Corinthians.
This map may be hard to read but if you look closely you will see the locations of other communities who received letters from Paul; there were important letters written to his Christian friends in places like Colossae, Thessalonica, Galatia, and Philippi. Each letter was written to a real community in a real place. I can imagine that when one of these letters arrived, everyone wanted to listen to the messages that Paul had written and that the letters were shared with anyone who wanted to hear what Paul had to say.
One of the most personal of these letters was the letter to his friends in Philippi.
We read about the first time Paul met the believers in Philippi in Acts chapter 16. It is a dramatic, wonderful chapter. Paul was travelling with Timothy and Silas across what is modern-day Turkey and expected to go in one direction. A vision in a dream encouraged him to go a different way and they arrived, after a sea voyage, in Macedonia. They believed that God had called them to this new place. Visiting the Roman colony of Philippi, a place when veteran Roman soldiers had created a city, they met a series of people who responded to the news about Jesus Christ. One was a wealthy business woman Lydia and her family. Another was a slave girl who was tormented by an evil spirit. They healed her but the men who had been using her fortune telling as a fundraiser were angry and had Paul and Silas thrown in jail. Their adventure continued with an earthquake in the night and an encounter with their jailor which ended with the jailor and his whole family asking to be baptised as followers of Jesus. Read the whole of Acts 16 for the full story.
Ever since that first encounter with Paul, the Christian group of believers in Philippi had kept in touch with Paul, through visits and gifts of support. Paul valued them deeply as his friends. When he begins his letter, he writes: ‘Every time I think of you, I thank my God. And whenever I mention you in my prayers, it makes me happy.’ He really hoped to be able to visit them again but was now in jail – again – this time in Rome so planned to send trusted friends with his letter.
Who were these friends in Philippi? We don’t know all their names but we know some who are named in this letter; Lydia and her family, Clement, Epaphroditus, Euodia and Syntyche and someone described as ‘my true partner’. He also refers to ‘the others who have worked with me in spreading the good news. Their names are written in the book of life.’
This was a Christian community loved by Paul. He knew them by name. They were generous, caring and faithful. They were pastoral and sent one of their people, Epaphroditus, to help Paul while he was imprisoned. They came from many different walks of life, from the wealthy business woman to the healed slave girl.
And in this community of believers there was conflict. We don’t know what the problem was. Conflict happens. Strong minds can have different opinions. In the chapter we heard today, Paul speaks directly to two women, Euodia and Syntyche. He writes:
Dear friends, I love you and long to see you. Please keep on being faithful to the Lord. You are my pride and joy. Euodia and Syntyche, you belong to the Lord so I beg you to stop arguing with each other. And, my true partner, I ask you to help them.’
It seems that news of the conflict between the two women had travelled all the way from Philippi to Paul in Rome. We don’t what the issue was that divided these women. We don’t know whether the conflict had spread out to affect their families and friends, but it probably had. Differences of opinion can be very deeply held. We could trivialise it and suggest that it was an argument over the use of the church kitchen.
[Pic 2 Kitchen list] I saw this sign hanging in a church kitchen in Darwin. A joke, I hope! Every rule starts with ‘Do not…’ Everything from ‘Do not drop crumbs’ and ‘Do not lean chopping boards here’ and ‘Do not use other people’s teabags’ and ‘Do not use kitchen scissors for craft’ to ‘Do not even think about it’. A church kitchen, or anywhere else where people meet, can be a place for conflict. [Close kitchen image]
I doubt that the trouble between the two women in Philippi was over which one was responsible for morning tea, or had left the washing up not finished properly. This was something more serious. How do we deal with conflict in our church community and in our broader community? What is the role of the Christian community when there is conflict and division in our wider community?
Today is 15 October 2023 and yesterday was 14 October, the day when our nation was asked to vote on a referendum about a Voice to Parliament.
As I was preparing this message, I had no way of knowing the result. It has been a bit like living in a mystery narrative, with the final chapter when everything is revealed still unknown. Or a fiercely contested sporting event when the result is still undecided until the final whistle. Whatever the result of this referendum, I was sure that there would be mixed emotions today. Opinions have been so divided that today there is sure to be both relief and rage, disappointment and delight, hope for a better future and despair that hopes have been crushed. There are sure to be many feelings. People have been hurt, wounded in the crossfire. This can set us on the track for even more division or we can be intentional about how we live now.
What does this mean for each of us as individual Christians? What does it mean for us as a Christian community, a congregation here in Gungahlin?
Professor Josh Roose, expert on political and religious violence at Deakin University was quoted in article in a weekend newspaper two weeks ago:
‘Polarization has become such a significant issue in Western democracies. There are multiple reasons including social media, the pandemic accelerating developments and rapidly deepening economic inequalities. People aren’t going to church any more. Trade union membership is at 10 per cent. People don’t have the Institutional connections to support them any more. We need to rebuild the bonds of citizenship, of civility, of respect.’
Yes, we DO need to rebuild the bonds of citizenship, of civility, of respect. If nothing else, the past months have shown us that it can be difficult to disagree about something important without things becoming very stressful. It is easy to have a conversation about a contentious subject with people who agree with you. Across our nation, we need to face the question of ‘What happens now? How do we deal with relationships that have been damaged over recent months? What do we have to do, as communities, to continue to work for justice and the common good?’
In that quote from Professor Roose, he said that ‘People don’t have institutional connections to support them any more’ and suggested that ‘People aren’t going to church any more’ as an example. Yes, and no. We are here today. I checked with my daughter Ruth who is my direct line to the research of National Church Life Survey and was told that‘nearly one in five Australians are frequent attenders of religious services. This is still a very large group in Australian society.’I was also told that ‘church attenders have higher levels of wellbeing than the community and they also are much more likely to be volunteers in the community than other Australians.’
When Paul was writing to his friends in Philippi, he knew that there was conflict. Some was attack from outside but it also included conflict between two Christian women who were evidently a significant part of their community of faith. He pleads with the two women directly to work together on resolving their differences. He also calls on someone in that community to try to help them. Paul himself is in prison in Rome so he can’t be there in person. He calls on a person who appears to be local and on the spot in Philippi. Paul describes this person as ‘my true partner’ or ‘my faithful partner’. We don’t know who this person was. A man or a woman? At least I hope that this trusted one was able to help.
As well as hearing from Paul’s letter to the Philippian church today, we also heard, from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 22, another parable told by Jesus, a parable of a feast. When I think about the parables of Jesus, I often find that it helps to imagine whether I fit somewhere in the narrative, and consider how this story speaks to me today. Perhaps this story has something to say to us about where we are at this time in our history.
Jesus tells this story. Where are you in this narrative? The characters in the story are host or guest, staff team or outsiders or an onlooker.
The host has provided a great wedding banquet for his son. Not a small dinner party or a backyard BBQ but involving great preparations of meats and other foods. He has slaughtered and prepared prize calves. This is a costly business. The king makes a generous offer of hospitality. He sends his servants to tell the guests, ‘Everything is ready. Come!’ His invitation is rejected. How do we feel when our invitation is ignored or rejected? Who may be feeling profoundly rejected today?
Guests: the wedding banquet may have been important for the father of the bridegroom but it was not significant to many of his guests. They were busy with their own affairs. Some simply didn’t pay attention – mislaid the invitation, didn’t put it in their diary, just forgot. Some carried on their business as they did on any ordinary day. Others turned on the servant messengers with violence. What began as a generous invitation became a tragic calamity. What does it feel like to be so focussed on ourselves and our own interests that things get out of hand and perhaps we do or say things that we regret? Are there people in our community today who are regretting – or maybe NOT regretting – they way they have behaved, or the things they have said?
The staff team: the servants of the king had been working hard, probably for weeks, to prepare the banquet. When they went to carry the invitation to the guests, at first they were ignored. When they were sent back a second time, they were abused. It became dangerous to be a messenger. How does it feel to be attacked when you are just doing your job? What is it like to be doing your best to convey a message but things turn very nasty and violent? Who in our community is feeling very battered today, just because they have been doing their job?
The unexpected and unlikely guests: the king declared ‘The invited guests don’t deserve to come. 9 Go out to the street corners and tell everyone you meet to come to the banquet.” They went out on the streets and brought in everyone they could find, good and bad alike. And the banquet room was filled with guests.
The parable does not end with complete disaster. The invitation is offered again and this time is so wide that everyone is welcome, the good and the bad alike. The generosity of the king opens the doors to all sorts of people who never expected an invitation. The feast is not wasted. The banquet hall is filled with people enjoying the finest food. How does it feel to be included when you didn’t expect an invitation? Perhaps we may be surprised, in the future, by some unexpected, generous and life-giving movement that will open doors wide in ways that we can’t even imagine.
Perhaps many of us recognise ourselves somewhere in that story. We can continue to ponder it.
To return to Paul and his divided friends in Philippi. What can we learn from that Christian community, living in a world where they were a minority?
First, where there is a painful difference between Christian people, let there be intentional work by the people most closely involved to find a solution. Let us take responsibility for our own difficult issues.
Second, where there is division, let us find someone wise, like Paul’s trusted unnamed partner, to help. We all need help from time to time.
Third, let’s recognise the value and importance of belonging to a Christian community. That commentator who I quoted was noticing that, when people are no longer going to church, they have lost a very valuable support system for times of difficulty. This congregation here in this place and at this time in our history, can be a place where our neighbours can find a place and a home. Last year, an Australian Community Survey run by NCLS Research asked a range of people who are not church goers whether they would try going to church if their family or friends invited them; 4 in 10 said that they would. This can be a place where people are welcome. A place where people belong and are valued, whoever they are and whatever their story. Let’s work to make it so.
Fourth, as well as offering community and care, a church offers hope and a focus of the things that lead to life.
Some of Paul’s instructions to his friends;
Always be glad because of the Lord! I will say it again: Be glad.
Always be gentle with others.
Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything.
Then, because you belong to Christ Jesus, God will bless you with peace that no one can completely understand. And this peace will control the way you think and feel.
[Pic 4] Keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise. (CEV)
[Pic 5] The Message: ‘Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.
Friends, today in whatever challenges are faced by our community, our nation and our world, may our thoughts, our focus and our actions be for healing and wholeness.
And in the words of Paul to his friends at Philippi, God, who gives peace, will be with you.