Context makes a big difference doesn’t it?
This morning I looked at a famous passage in one of Paul’s letters, written to a bunch of Christians in a church in Philippi, Greece:
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.
It’s always worth remembering that this was written to a group of Christians (aka a church) not an individual, even though we often individualise and personalise it. If we are to be like that together it seems to assume a strong mutual accountability and closeness of relationship. That becomes clearer when you set this passage in the context of the letter from which it is taken. Immediately prior to writing these inspirational words Paul had to write a section about two women who had fallen out with each other. He asked the church leader (and because this would have been read out to the church, by extension to everyone in the church) to help them sort out their disagreement. And it seems to me that the rejoicing always and focusing on the positive things in life are ways in which we can do that – put the disagreement in the context of all that God has done for us, all the blessings we receive, the positive godly character of the one with whom we have a disagreement.
This is not an autocratic injunction from ‘on high’ but comes from affection and a deep friendship. Paul ‘pleads’ with the two women ‘to be of the same mind in the Lord’. To give us more context it’s worth remembering that the church in Philippi was the first church founded in Europe and Paul seems to have a great affection for the relatively new believers there – read the opening 11 verses of chapter 1 and you’ll see what I mean. It broke his heart to hear how two of his friends, relatively new Christians, had fallen out and he wanted the rest of the church to help them come to a Godly resolution.
What a contrast to how some churches treated ‘discipline’ in the past. If you read records of Baptist Church Meetings from a couple of centuries ago you will read of how people were excluded from membership or receiving communion because (for example) they had been seen coming out of a theatre, or had been drunk in the street. Admittedly there may have been a lot of pastoral care that is unrecorded but the records suggest a harsh, puritanical, judgemental attitude and swift action to ‘expel the immoral brother’. That approach is dis-graceful – removing grace.
I have seen some of these records and while I don’t condone when people have ‘fallen from grace’ I would also want to emphasis grace as a response. Churches should be places of grace, or to use a phrase I came up with a while ago, ‘Grace-rich environments’. And since I started off talking about context, we need to remember that we are all in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, and fresh starts are always available to everyone, so let’s help one another to be free samples of the One who was grace personified.
Be blessed, be a blessing