Paul and Timothy, servants[a] of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers[b] and deacons:[c]
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Maintaining Unity at Christmas
Paul is working with Timothy. Maybe Timothy is writing down the letter to the Philippians for Paul as he is in jail for no other reason than preaching the gospel. It might bring to mind another jail term in Philippi where the jailor and his family became the core of a church, along with a rich merchant woman called Lydia. She had a high-class textile industry. The church at Philippi would have been as diverse a mix as any of our churches or families. Like ours, they had a hard time getting along. In fact a feud was brewing between two members called Euodia and Syntyche. Each must have hoped, as a recipient of Paul’s letter, that Paul would use his apostolic authority to endorse their claims and strike down their opponent.
Paul starts his letter with great humility. He does not mention his official status in the church as an apostle. He humbly recounts his position as a slave or bond-servant of Jesus. Such a person has no rights except those granted by their master. In humbling himself, Paul imitates Jesus and also levels the playing field between the peers in the church. Each is a servant of the other in the church as Jesus led his disciples by washing their feet and dying for them. Many arguments start when a person desires fervently to lay hold of their rights rather than laying them aside.
Secondly, Paul addresses the members of the church as saints. The word is derived from sanctification. To be sanctified is to be set aside by God. A Christian is not set aside for God for a purposeless life of indolence and leisure. Each sanctified person has good works laid aside for them to perform in the power and authority of Christ. Is causing conflict and fighting for rights the purpose God has set aside the members of the church? It can be, if the fight is for the glory of God and the love of others. However, in most conflict the fight is for the glory of self or to protect a frail ego. Again, for a church in conflict this is a great equalizer. Each member should be cooperating and living a life distinct from the unredeemed.
However, Paul does honour overseers and deacons with their esteemed titles. In a time of conflict he emphasizes structure and authority. In America there is a slight love of anarchy (self-rule) which works against authority. The Bible does encourage the Christian to go to God before government, but as 1 Peter and Romans 13 point out, the obedient Christian freely submits to the government institutions that God has allowed. This principle is true both inside and outside of the formal church structure. In mentioning the elders and deacons, Paul intimates that those in conflict need to humble themselves and seek guidance from honoured people of integrity.
The usual greeting at the opening of a letter was just ‘Greetings’ followed by a short prayer to the gods. Paul takes the usual ‘charein’, ‘greetings’, and crafts it into ‘charis’ which means ‘grace’. To grace he adds a Jewish greeting of peace, from the Hebrew ‘shalom’. His wishes for all his recipients are that they would receive and disperse the good things they have received from God. These blessings are not the just reward for hard work. Jesus paid the price of our punishment (mercy), and he also purchased a new life which is walked with God (grace). When we remember the depth of our forgiven depravity (mercy) and we remember the gift of the life we live (grace), we can go beyond foregoing our need for justice (mercy), and we can lavish time and energy on those who are ungrateful, thoughtless and hurtful (grace).
Shalom is the harmony that breaks out when a life or a body of people is attuned with God. They redeem the environment around them. People notice that the smiles are more sincere, the joy more complete, and the floor is polished and the trash is emptied.
So that then leads to us. Are we presently in the position of Paul, needing to advise those who are in conflict? Or, are we in the position of the recipients who have a challenge to our unity in a relationship? In either case we should enter into the discussion in the same way as Paul: with humility and a desire for grace and peace.
As I counsel and am counseled, help me to see what grace others would desire. Help me to be a channel for more than others deserve. Help me to restore the world to a place free from fear or shame. May the dark clouds of depression clear.
- What titles does Paul use for himself? Why?
- To whom does Paul address his letter?
- What does Paul wish for the Philippians?
- How do you need to be like Paul in helping others resolve conflict?
- How can you preserve unity in your church, work, or personal life?