August 28, 2022
Scripture Reading: Philippians 4:1-9
I suppose we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of what it means to live together under covenant. But this will have to do for now. It is almost a foregone conclusion that we would have to consider this frustrating but inevitable notion of conflict in a church trying to live under covenant.
Paul just inserts this vague and rather tantalizing side note in this, his most warm, loving letter of all – a tiny two verse reference to two squabbling women with almost unpronounceable names in the beloved community of Philippi. Euodia and Syntyche. I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 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.
But it makes so much sense that this squabble found its way into a whole book (The Bible) about Covenant! Of course! It is in a squabble in the middle of our life together under Covenant that is where the rubber meets the road! Conflict is the very thing that tests the metal of our covenant and conflict is as common as dirt! We’ve all experienced it, most of us hate it but we’ve all created it and we’ve probably done our fair share of resolving it. And, it just seems that we can never claim the status of
Beloved Community without having plenty of experience with conflict.
I have talked to you somewhat about the difference between living under covenant and living under contract. Because contemporary people are so inclined to operate with a contract mindset, most of us do too, but I believe it wasn’t always so. I believe there was a time when communities were more close knit; people knew and trusted one another more, laws, lawyers, judges, and juries were not so prevalent. And deals were sealed with a handshake and not by signing on a dotted line. We relied on love, respect, honor, and our word. “Our word was our bond.” The bottom line was not law but character and love for one another. It was about a covenant, unspoken perhaps, but covenant none-the-less. It was about what it meant to belong to one another.
When we face conflict in the Beloved Community, we soon see the difference between whether or not our connection is built on rules and regulations and consequences, or whether it is built on a covenant grounded in love. You see, if our foundation is a contract, the minute someone breaks the contract, (the rules as we interpret them), we can too easily wash our hands of the violator and point to the contract and the list of consequences to justify withdrawing from any responsibility for the “sinner.”
For example, if you hire a plumber to come to your house to fix a broken pipe and he does an inadequate, maybe inept job of fixing it, you hope you have signed a contract. If he is unwilling to come back and fix it properly, you take it to some authority, maybe small claims court. They rule that either he fixes it or he loses his license and therefore his livelihood. Hopefully that solves the problem and you declare to never use that plumbing company again. You wipe your hands of the whole outfit and you feel justified in doing so.
In the covenant, it is not so simple. You see, the covenant binds us to PEOPLE and not RULES. When the rules are broken, the people (who are still loved by God), are still God’s people and still our people! And, to make matters more complex and annoying, in the church, we have so little choice about who the people are!
There is a prayer which our hymnal (black) includes in the ritual for the receiving of new members which says: “Confirm us in the power of your covenant that we may live in your Spirit, share regularly in worship, and so love each other that we may have among us the same mind which was in Christ Jesus, to whom be all honor and glory.”
So, when in the Beloved Community, Euodia and Syntyche get into a squabble over something or other, it is not just a matter of a broken contract, where someone will be judged as wrong or bad and made to pay a fine, and then forgotten and excluded. It is a matter which threatens the covenant – that covenant, like the marriage covenant where we promise to: love, honor and keep, in sickness and in health, and be faithful to each other.
You see, covenant is about a person and not just a rule. It is not just a broken law or rule, it is about a bond, a relationship. When brokenness enters a covenant relationship it calls for healing, not punishment. Forgiveness is a frequent visitor in covenant relationships. Forgiveness is based on mercy and not justice. As Jesus was teaching on this topic, Peter came to him and said: “How many times must I forgive one who sins against me? Up to 7 times? Jesus said: How about 70 X 7?”
The father of the lost (prodigal) son had no contract which his son signed as a child! But his son knew he had wounded his father’s heart and he was in danger of breaking a covenant, spoken or not! He was no dummy! He knew there was a covenant and that he had broken it! But his father’s love survived his son’s years of rebellion and finally when his son came to his senses, even afar off, he ran to him and embraced him.
The Bible never tells us what happened to Euodia and Syntyche. We don’t even know what the squabble was all about. Like our planning team, we’d all like to know, wouldn’t we? But Paul never satisfies our curiosity. He just wants to remind us when we squabble we should lift our sights from the thing that divides us and instead, “be of the same mind in the Lord.” We should, by the grace of God, and not just our own strength, forgive and welcome the violator into fellowship again.
It may well be the hardest thing we ever do. But it is the way of Jesus who even forgave those who were crucifying him: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
I don’t know how it all worked out for Euodia and Syntyche, but I do trust that they were able to actually heal and find a way through one of life’s toughest predicaments.