The text for this sermon is Paul’s letter to the Philippians 4:1-9.
My pastor when I was growing up started every sermon with this line from Philippians 4:7, The peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. This seemed the perfect thing to say before the start of a sermon. It was such a peaceful moment, the lights were dimmed, the place was quiet and I knew soon I would be fast asleep while he preached. This is what church should be like all the time, I thought.
My understanding of Christ’s peace is evolving. I used to think it was something like the quiet, reflective, even sleepy moments in the pews before a sermon began. I still envy peaceful people, who have such a calm, unflappable demeanor about them. The ones who say I will pray for you and you really believe they will. I always identified that as Christ’s peace, and wished I could be peaceful like that too.
Lately, I am not so sure that is what Christ’s peace is all about. Life was not peaceful for Paul or his church in Philippi. At the very moment he is wishing the Philippi church peace, they are in the midst of a struggle between two leaders, the women Eoudia and Syntyche. In chapter three of this letter, he indicates another problem is brewing there too. While Philippi struggles, Paul is writing to them from prison. Since Paul received Christ’s peace, he has been flogged, beaten with rods, stoned, imprisoned, shipwrecked and lowered from the walls of a city in a basket to escape an unpeaceful governor. When you read his letters, too, he doesn’t sound like one of those quiet, peaceful types that I envy. He always sounds a little agitated, passionate, and excited about the next big thing.
I don’t think Paul is thinking of peace, like a Simon Garfunkel song conjures up. I think he means peace with God, literally. We are no longer at war with God because of the reconciling work accomplished in Jesus. The problem for Paul, the church in Philippi, Messiah and other Christians is that much of the world is still at war with God. So, when we receive God’s peace it can be like declaring war on everyone else.
This is surely what happened to Paul that made his life so unpeaceful. He was a Roman citizen, likely from a wealthy family and a leader in his Jewish faith. By declaring peace with God through Jesus, he became at odds with Roman elites and Jewish leaders. Peace brought him into conflict with not just the world, but with his world.
I have come to believe that churches are not meant to be peaceful if they are bearing God’s peace in the world. The moment we receive God’s peace, we are put in conflict with the world around us that is still fighting God’s love that will eventually conquer them, too. The sin of too many churches is that they want to be peaceful. They want to ignore this call to engage the world. Too many churches like things quiet, settled and calm.
This is what we mean when we say at Messiah that we value growing. We don’t mean that we think we should grow into a mega church, start a university on our back lot and power up a fifty thousand kilowatt satellite station to beam our message to the four corners of the universe, although I would really rock my own TV show. By grow, we mean that in all of our ministries, education, preaching, music, servant and fellowship we should be engaging the world, challenging the world and yes even in conflict with the world. We have made peace with God, now go share that peace with all who still fight God’s love.
Together as the church we are a living organism. We grow because we are alive. We stop growing when we die, close our doors and turn our building into a pancake house or something else. This doesn’t mean necessarily more butts in the pew, although as long as there are houses in Reynoldsburg with no butts in any pews, I expect more butts in our pews. Growing is engaging, serving, fighting, caring, loving and all of these are part of enjoying God’s peace. The most peaceful churches are the most chaotic churches because they are engaged in our world.
Believe me I know it would be more peaceful to have a little less peace around this place. When you leave this sanctuary look out, the Welcome Center is full of people passionate about ministries that they intently want you to be passionate about, too. The Bulletin Board and our calendar are full of upcoming Worship, Property, Education, Fellowship and Servant activities that involve 100’s of people in a month. From September until May, there are over a 150 preschool children running around this place. It is rare for me to work in my office and not have a member drop by and say hi as they are moving from one ministry to another. This place is not peaceful, but it is full of God’s peace and growing in every measurable way.
Of course growing causes growing pains. We worry about having enough teachers for all the kids that want to learn about Jesus on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. We worry about having enough rooms for all of the activities we want to sponsor. We worry about having enough leaders to replace the faithful ones that move on to other ministries in the church. We worry about having enough money to do the things we want to do.
When our Joseph’s Coat ministry lost their home this summer we worried. Carefully, we had to assess what to do. We still had a passionate leader in Joann, plus a growing team of leaders that run different parts of the day to day ministry. We were helping nearly 100 people weekly. We had good, solid partners in other area churches. We were engaged in battle with the world that ignores the poor. Did we want to surrender because we needed to raise an extra 2% of our budget to continue? Council said no, even though no one on council, myself included, wanted to disrupt the peace and ask all of you for more money. Surrendering to our worries about money would bring peace, but it would be peace with the world not God.
Paul tells us not to worry because the Lord is near. God has made peace with us in Jesus and we live in God’s camp now. If we honor that peace, share his love with the world, God’s peace will remain with us. If we trust God’s peace we will grow, be alive and relevant in our community. One thing we won’t be is peaceful, but the most peaceful people I know are either asleep or dead and we are not called to do either of those things. Amen