Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!
2 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.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 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.
8 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.
I remember sitting with some friends in Ohio about three years ago, soon after the birth of our second child. Sonya had started back to work, leaving me at home to care for two young children. Our friends had a one-year-old daughter and they were in that difficult time of life where they were trying to figure out how to balance work and parenthood. One of our friends asked me, “Would you say that it is twice as hard to have two children as it was to have one?”
Without hesitation I replied, “It is not twice as difficult. It is exponentially more difficult.”
About ten days later they announced that they were expecting their second child.
That was three years ago, now let’s go back to about three months ago. I’m sitting having coffee with the same female friend that I told life would be exponentially more difficult with two children. She is now employed by a missions agency. She and I went to seminary together and we try to chat from time to time and for some strange reason she seems to appreciate my opinions on certain matters. So she asks me how I see the role of pastor changing over the next few years. I tell her that I believe that the church will continue to go through some major changes, which will affect the role and responsibility of the pastor. I told her that I thought that full-time pastors will soon be a thing of the past and that multi-staffed churches with several full-time ministers will go the way of the dodo bird.
About one month later she announced that she was candidating for a full-time associate pastor job at a church that currently has 10 people on staff.
I don’t think of myself as a negative person. But it would seem that every now and then I say something a bit too negatively and I end up wishing that I could have that one back again. It isn’t that I have changed my mind about what I had said. I still think that the second child was exponentially more difficult for us than the first – in more ways than one! I also think that we are going to continue to see more and more part-time pastors in bi-vocational roles working in small churches. I’m really not sorry that I said those things. I’m sorry for the way that I said them.
I want to spend some time today looking at an overarching theme in the Bible, a theme that any Mennonite has surely heard many times. We are called to be different from the rest of the world. And this isn’t just being different for the sake of being different. It isn’t peculiarity for the sake of peculiarity. But we are to be different as a sign of the kingdom of God which is not only coming, but is already here.
Every good sermon begins in the book of Leviticus. We find some of the strangest, head-scratching teachings in all of the Bible in this book. There are teachings about what a good Hebrew is to eat and not eat. And some of these teachings are quite confusing. It is okay to eat an animal that has a cloven foot that also chews its cud, but not a non-cud-chewing cloven footed animal. Shellfish are forbidden, as are some animals that I would never actually consider putting in my mouth.
There are also laws about what you can and cannot wear as well as certain agricultural practices. You can’t make a shirt out of two different kinds of cloth and don’t plant two different kinds of seed in one field. And when you harvest that field, leave the seed in the corners unharvested. Obviously, these teachings would seem strange to an outsider, just as they seem a bit strange to a 21st-century Mennonite.
These laws are a part of what we call “The Holiness Codes.” I think that we sometimes fail to understand these laws because we don’t quite get what it means to be holy. To be holy does not mean that you are more like God, or really even that you are doing a great job of following God’s teachings. To be holy literally means to be set apart. So if I went into a Mexican restaurant and asked for some guacamole on the side, it would literally be holy guacamole.
So when the Bible calls God holy, it is referring to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as set apart from all other gods. This god, our God, is different from all the rest. And when the Bible calls us to be holy people, we are called to be set apart from the rest of the world.
The Holiness Codes are therefore intended to set the Hebrew people apart from everyone else. Some of these teachings are for the health of the people. There is some speculation that there was a high incidence of trichinosis when the Holiness Codes were given, which is why pork is not to be eaten. The reason for not mixing two kinds of cloth in a garment or seeds in a field have to do with not cheating others by claiming a shirt to be 100% silk when it is really 50-50 silk and rayon. The Hebrew people were not to harvest the corners of the field because that portion was left for the poor to harvest for their own sustenance.
When an outsider looked at a Hebrew person, they probably looked pretty strange with all of their unique practices. But people also would have noticed that the Hebrew people were living longer, they didn’t cheat other people, and that there was nobody in need among them. In this way, they were holy. They were set aside from the rest of society.
When we come to the New Testament, we find a number of the Holiness Codes to be either directly abandoned or simply ignored. In the book of Acts we are told about Peter’s dream where all kinds of animals are being lowered to the earth in a sheet while a voice from heaven instructs him to eat these unclean creatures. At another point in Acts we read about the Jerusalem Council where church leaders gather to discuss whether converts to Christianity need to also become Jews; most importantly if they need to be circumcised. And in these cases, with the leading of the Holy Spirit, the old teaching was found to be unnecessary.
Now don’t hear me wrong. The people were never told that holiness was not important. They were always called to be set apart. 1 Peter 2:9 teaches, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
The church is still supposed to be set apart from the rest of the world as a “holy nation.” This does not necessarily mean that we can’t wear poly-cotton blend shirts or mix seeds in our gardens. But the principles behind those teachings still apply. Don’t cheat people. Care for the poor. Care for each other.
I think that Jesus recognizes that we as human beings are developing. So rather than give us rules like “don’t mix two kinds of cloth,” Jesus gives us guiding principles like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” The Holiness Laws of the New Testament were a lot easier because you knew exactly what it meant to not mix cloths. But who ever said following Jesus was going to be easy?
It is clear that in the New Testament holiness is upheld. The church is not to look like the rest of the world. How that looks is something that we must figure out.
Our scripture for today is from the book of Philippians. We learn a bit about the church in Philippi by once again turning to the book of Acts. The apostle Paul helped start this church on one of his missionary journeys (Acts 16). While in Philippi, Paul and his traveling partners met a woman who dealt purple cloth. Her name was Lydia. Lydia became a Christian that day and began a church in her home.
The book of Philippians is Paul writing to the church that he started with Lydia a number of years back. This is really one of the more encouraging books of the Bible. Paul instructs the Christians to rejoice in the Lord always, and he says it again, rejoice! This isn’t the first time that he told them to rejoice, either. Just one chapter earlier he told them to rejoice. Paul thinks that they are good people, but he also seems to think that they are a little slow.
Paul continues with a number of quick yet powerful reminders: Let your gentleness be known to everyone, the Lord is near (v. 5), do not worry about anything (v.6), let the peace of God guard your hearts and minds (v.7). And then he brings it all to a powerful conclusion in verse 8, “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.”
I know how hard it can be to keep a positive attitude, especially when things around us seem to be falling apart. My level of discouragement with the world is probably at an all-time high. Most everyone agrees that the shootings in South Carolina were a terrible thing, but the reaction of so many people has made it even worse for me. People who would never consider doing an act of violence against another person commit verbal acts of violence every day. Names are called, fingers are pointed, and flags come under scrutiny. Then just over a week ago the Supreme Court made same-gendered marriage legal across all 50 states and battles broke out. For some people this act was among the greatest things to happen in years. Others start to predict that the end times are upon us. One of my wife’s coworkers assured her that the rapture was near. Because as we all know, Jesus said that there would be wars and rumors of wars, and same-sex marriage before he returned.
Regardless of how you feel about same-sex marriage or Confederate flags, whether you are celebrating recent decisions or lamenting them, I encourage you to keep a positive attitude.
There is power in having a positive attitude, and I’m not trying to be like one of those self-help gurus who are all like, “Just visualize that you have already achieved it, and it will be yours.” I mean we are to focus on whatever is good, whatever is lovely, whatever is excellent or praiseworthy. Paul commands it!
I know that I could be accused of being a bit Pollyannaish, as if everything is just “ah, shucks,” and “super-duper.” But Paul was a little Pollyannaish in his letter to the Philippians as well. And it isn’t as if everything was going great for Paul. He likely wrote this letter from a prison cell in Rome. Here is a guy that has been beaten, imprisoned, and persecuted for his faith. And he is saying, “focus on what is good.”
This isn’t to say that we don’t ever talk about what we don’t like in the world. Paul wrote plenty of letters like that. But let’s consider Jesus as a model as well.
Jesus definitely spoke about the negative things that he saw. He said things like, “Don’t be like the scribes and Pharisees.” But more often he phrased his teachings in a positive way. Rather than saying, “don’t do this…” he said, “Love your enemies.” When people wanted to talk about the end times, he redirected them, saying even he didn’t know when the end was coming. Instead, he wanted to talk about the positive things in the near future. Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom of God. This is something to look forward to, something positive to focus on. And Jesus said that the Kingdom of God wasn’t just something to come when the world passes away. He said that the Kingdom of God is already within us and among us.
We just have to make the decision to see it.
Always focusing on what we think is wrong with the world or the church isn’t going to make it better. You probably aren’t going to make someone else change their mind if you are an extremely negative person. In fact, they probably won’t take the time to listen to you because you won’t be pleasant to be around. The only ones who will be affected by your negativity will be you and your loved ones. And that negativity will leach into their hearts and make them a lot less pleasant to be around as well. So it is to your benefit to not be grouchy!
I know that the world around us is full of negativity, and I think I understand in part why. This stuff sells. Turn on the radio to some call-in talk program and you will hear people complaining about the president, complaining about the economy, and complaining about the weather. For some reason we are drawn to big personalities that hold our perspective on certain matters but are willing to say things in a stronger tone than we would. It makes good sound bites and news quotes, but who wants to live or work with someone like that? A friend of mine shared this thought from a popular Christian writer this holiday weekend:
Happy Fourth of July. America is not great. Not anymore. America is a land where babies are murdered, the family is disintegrating, marriage is perverted, and every institution is dominated by nihilists and self-worshiping liberals. That’s America. It has betrayed God, and any true patriot should feel a deep and profound anger, not false confidence in our alleged greatness.
I might even find myself agreeing with a lot that this person says, but his tone and negativity just turn me off. I can’t say for sure if the world is a worse place today than it was 10, 50, or 100 years ago. But I know that there were problems back then, too. Sure, we are dealing with issues today, but when was the world not dealing with issues? Do you think that the racial tensions of today are worse than they were 100 years ago?
What do we do with this idea of holiness. We are called to be a holy nation, set apart from the rest of the world. While the rest of the world is complaining and is filled with negativity, we are called to focus on what is good, what is beautiful, and what is lovely. And time and time again throughout the Bible we are told to not fear.
I come back to the two conversations that I had with my old seminary friend. How could I have communicated to her the struggles that I am experiencing without coming off as an overly-negative person? When she asked if parenting two children was more difficult than just one, I could have said, “No, parenting two children is exponentially more difficult. But the rewards increase exponentially as well.” And when she asked about the future of ministry and the church, what if rather than complaining about big churches with big staffs and bigger payrolls, I would have said, “I believe that the future of the church is to be found in smaller, relationally-driven communities of faith.”
We need to talk about issues of right and wrong. But we need to always do so in a positive way. The Kingdom of God is among us, and we know that in the end God wins and will make this Kingdom known. Therefore, 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 [and talk] about such things.
We have been slow to learn that our attitudes matter. But hey, Paul had to remind the Christians in Philippi three times to rejoice in the Lord. Let’s try to get it right this time.