responding to rivalry

Sibling rivalry – it begins at a pretty early age, doesn’t it.

A couple of weeks ago I watched a documentary on CBC television’s entitled Sibling Rivalry: Near, dear, and dangerous. I watched it again this week on the CBC doc zone website. In every relationship between siblings there is a natural rivalry that comes to expression. In some cases that rivalry might only ever be a very friendly and constructive rivalry. In other cases, the rivalry might be more intense and difficult, but the siblings are able to get beyond the rivalry as they move through adolescence into adulthood. But in some cases the rivalries are or become downright destructive – taking a toll on lives and on families.

In that documentary, Peter Hitchens talks about his relationship with his older brother Christopher Hitchens. And he recounts the story Christopher used to tell of once releasing the brake on his little brother’s stroller at the top of the hill – hoping it might just take his brother away down the hill. Sibling rivalry – it can begin at a pretty early age.  Christopher and Peter had, in fact, a lifelong rivalry – one a celebrated author and atheist, the other a celebrated author and person deep faith in God.

As we think about the beginnings of sibling rivalry, perhaps it’s not too difficult to kind of get inside the head of a child who is about to become an older brother or sister. The older child sees mommy’s tummy growing – she hears about the new baby that’s coming – it’s all very exciting. And then the baby is born, and all of a sudden the older child is stuck with dad all the time. “Hey what about me mom?” Over time the child might get used to this new normal. “Well, mom still pays some attention to me. It’s ok.”

But then after a few months, something changes. “Hey that baby that used to sit in the middle of the floor. Now she’s crawling. Now she’s walking. Hey, what do you think you’re doing in my room? Hey put that toy down – it’s mine.”  And so sibling rivalry begins.

As we turn again this morning to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a letter that we are exploring together through this Fall – we’re going to keep this question of sibling rivalry in mind. Last Sunday we were introduced to this letter and observed that the relationship between Paul and the Christians of Philippi is a deeply personal relationship – it is a relationship of care and affection. And we found that it is a relationship centered on the crucified and risen Jesus – his name, his life, his way, is at the centre of their shared life.

Now as we continue reading on his letter, we find that Paul begins to get into some of the issues that he is dealing with personally – with some of the concerns that he has in his life. And as he begins sharing these things, the whole question of rivalry actually comes up. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that there was rivalry among some of the earliest Christians, since rivalry appears to be a very common, if not normal, human phenomenon. In any case, in his letter Paul refers to a specific rivalry that he is dealing with – a rivalry with other evangelists in the area. It seems that there are other evangelists around and they are preaching a message of Jesus that is somewhat different from how Paul understands that message. And there seems to be a kind of rivalry between these other evangelists and Paul.

One of the challenges we face in reading this letter some 2000 years after it was written, is that we are only getting half of the conversation – as we read this letter, we don’t know exactly what’s been happening in Paul’s life. We don’t know exactly what is happening with the Philippian Christians, or what they have said to Paul. Reading this letter is like listening to only one side of a telephone conversation. At the same time, we do know from other letters of Paul, and from the book of Acts that there were actually some pretty specific conflicts took place in the early church – and they probably relate to what Paul is talking about here.

One of those conflicts in the early church was a conflict over whether non-Jewish followers of Jesus had to adopt Jewish practices like circumcision. Of course the very first Christians were Jewish – and they followed a Jewish Messiah. And it made sense for that question to arise. If you are going to share in the resurrection life of this Jewish messiah, don’t you have to embrace Jewish practices and Jewish rituals? It was a really difficult issue. In fact there was a council held – a meeting of the apostles and leaders in Jerusalem to discuss this very question. And the conclusion of their discussion was ‘No’ – No, Gentiles don’t have to embrace circumcision or purity rituals to share in the resurrection life of Jesus.

So when it comes to this rivalry Paul is experiencing with other evangelists, it is fairly likely that they had different points of view on this question of whether Gentile Christians had to follow Jewish practices. And what seems to suggest is that these other evangelists are now saying : “Ha, Paul is in prison, and so now we have the field to ourselves – his opinions can die with him in prison.”

In that documentary on sibling rivalry – some time was spent looking at a very strong rivalry within a particular family – the Staal family. The Staal family is a family with four sons – four brothers. They are originally from Thunder Bay, Ontario and all four of the Staal brothers are hockey players. The three oldest brothers are playing today in the NHL, and the younger brothers plays in the minor leagues

But back in February of 2011, the Carolina Hurricanes were playing the New York Rangers. The eldest Staal brother, Eric, plays for Hurricanes, The second brother, Marc, plays for the Rangers. And during that game, in the heat and speed of the play, older brother Eric Staal gave his younger brother a very solid check. When Marc Staal landed, his head hit the ice – he suffered a serious concussion and couldn’t play hockey for almost a year because of post-concussion symptoms.

In that CBC documentary, the mother of the Staal brothers is referred to as saying this: “Because they are brothers, the rivalry between them is that much more intense.” One of the brothers add: “We play harder against each other.”

In a way we can perhaps transfer that logic into Paul’s situation in Rome. Within the city of Rome there are some evangelists or preachers sharing the message of Jesus. In a real sense, these evangelists are brothers in the faith to Paul. They share fundamental convictions about Jesus and about the good news of his resurrection life. But these evangelists or preachers also have a slightly different perspective on the truth of Jesus. Which is to say that in some ways this is a family feud. This is a debate within the family of faith. And it seems to me that, in line with what the Staal mother said, there is probably more of a rivalry between Paul and these other evangelists than there is between Paul and the teachers of a whole variety of other religious practices in that ancient Roman context.

But here’s the key. From Paul’s point of view, these other evangelists are letting the rivalry go too far. Paul writes: “Some proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been imprisoned for the defense of the gospel. Others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.” Not only is Paul in prison – cut off from his work and his homeland and his friends. But these other evangelists – these brothers in the faith – seem to be rubbing salt in his wounds. “Ha, Paul is in prison, and so now we have the field to ourselves – let his opinions will die with him in prison.”

it’s a sibling rivalry – but it’s a sibling rivalry that is being taken too far – that is descending into vindictiveness and anger.

So what is Paul’s response? Well, his is probably a very healthy response, both from a personal point of view and from a theological point of view. Here’s what he has to say: “What does it matter? Who cares? This is what matters, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.”

Almost invariably this is the right response when a sibling takes the rivalry too far. The best response to a sibling who is rubbing salt in your wounds, or who is pushing your buttons – the best response is to step back and not engage with it. Of course that’s also the hardest thing to do. The hardest thing to do is to let the other person just be him or herself, let them say what they want – without getting into a back and forth that will end up going nowhere. Or worse – to get into a back and forth that will leave someone hurting. A concussion or worse.

But Paul’s answer is also partly theological. Ultimately, Paul wants to get excited and animated only about things that really matter. They may be rubbing salt in his wounds. They may be adding to his suffering through their words and actions – but what matters to Paul is that the message they are sharing is at its heart the same message that he wants to see proclaimed. That Jesus’ new life, that Jesus’ resurrection life, makes all the difference for our lives and for our world.  “What does it matter what they are doing to me? What does it matter? This matters. That Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in this I rejoice.”

As an aside, this morning, I want to point out that in mainline Protestantism there has been a tendency to set Paul and Jesus at odds with each other. Paul is dogmatic and strict and probably a misogynist. Jesus is loving and kind. Never mind that this ignores a good deal of the hard things that Jesus sometimes says and does. But in any case I really wonder whether you could find a more Christ-like spirit than is expressed here in Paul. Jesus calls us to love our enemies – to embrace the stranger – to turn the other cheek. And here in Paul all of that is on display. Paul is essentially saying, “Let’s worry about the things that matter. If they want to malign me, or take advantage while I’m in prison, or rub salt in my sounds. What does it matter – I’m not going to judge or oppose or attack. I’m going to put my energy into the things that matter.” Paul here shows himself faithful to the way of Jesus and the person of Jesus.

As we turn toward a conclusion this morning, I want to come around finally to my sermon title for this morning – a sermon title that probably feels out of place given what we’ve talked about so far. Dead or Alive. It’s like something from the wildwest – I want them dead or alive. Now there may be those who think about siblings in this way – I don’t care it they’re dead or alive.

But with that sermon title, I’m actually referring to words of Paul that come toward the end of our passage. This is what he has to say: “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way – either on account of these rivals or on account of my imprisonment – but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”

Paul here faces real struggles – he is imprisoned as we have seen. He is maligned by rivals – rivals who have let the rivalry go too far. In fact suffering is going to be some part of this letter all the way through. And as Paul responds to this suffering, and as he responds to this rivalry, Paul manages a real degree of confidence and affection and wisdom. It comes from some place deep in his life and heart.

It seems to me that all of us, as we wrestle with our sibling rivalries – rivalries that can sometimes cause deep pain – as we deal with our own suffering or the suffering that takes place in our families. All of us, as we work through challenging relationships or difficult life decisions. It seems to me that all of us want to find, deep down, that place confidence and affection and wisdom.

In these beautiful verses, written to his friends in Philippi, Paul points to this source in his own life. It is Jesus the Christ. Dead or Alive – his life is rooted in the life of the crucified and risen one. “For me,” he says, “living is Christ and dying is gain.” While he’s still alive, even if he’s in prison, even if his rivals belittle him – Paul has opportunity to live in the new, joyful, resurrection life of Jesus. And if he dies – well, he has a deep assurance that his life is hidden with Christ, in God.

As we saw last week, this letter was first scrawled out on a piece of parchment, and hand delivered to a community some 1600 kilometers away. And after the Philippians received it, they found this letter so meaningful that they copied it and sent it on to other Christian communities. And in time this letter was copied into a bound volume of letters from this Paul.

And in this little passage today we get a taste of why that is so – why this letter was meaningful to them. Paul passes on to them, what he himself has discovered in the Messiah, Yeshua – a life of fulfillment and joy – a deep sense of peace and assurance – a capacity to respond graciously and faithfully in the relationships that are part of his life. It is this life, the life that is the real thing, that Paul passes receives through Jesus and passes on to the Philippians – and it is this life that they pass on to us, through this letter passed down into our hands.

Thanks be to God, through Christ our Lord.


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