Are any of y’all familiar with the phrase “We are what we repeatedly do?” Famously misattributed to Aristotle, this phrase is still a near-perfect distillation of his concept of Virtue ethics, and, paired with the second half of the phrase, “excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit,” is most often seen, not in treatises of moral philosophy, but, in my experience, on the social medias of people who are eager to let you know how well they’re doing in this life. These are folks who want to make it known that they fought and clawed and got all the private jet rides, every bit of physical fitness, all the money and trappings, all the STUFF, on the virtues of their own power and ability, and, for them, success and excellence has become a habit.
Now, just because I personally find that a little cringey and something I don’t like, does not mean those are bad folk or even that they’re, necessarily, doing anything wrong; my purpose in sharing that quote and some of the places it shows up most often is to demonstrate, in some small way, how distorted, for the Christian, virtue can get.
We’ve spent the last few weeks, at some level or another, in the letter to the Philippians, right? Typically when we’re dealing with one of Paul’s letters, we get to see a little bit of drama. Something has gone wrong in a community and Paul is writing back to the them to correct something, out of love and a desire for reconciliation. But Philippians is a little bit different. Yes, they had their problems, we see that in our reading today, Eudoia and Syntyche, two women about whom NOTHING but their names are known, are fighting about something, and Paul encourages them to find common cause and remember who they are to each other. But other than that, Paul is writing this letter out of an overflowing sense of Joy, out of real love for these people, because he misses them. They don’t have the fear and lethargy that plagued the Thessalonican churches or the wild factionalism and rampant immorality that beset the Corinthians; all tolled, the Philippian church was actually doing pretty well!
Paul’s writing to them to tell them that he misses them, he thinks the world of them, and to encourage them in the good work that they’ve already been up to. Not a whole of correction, just a whole lot of exhortation. That’s where we’re at this morning. Here at the end of the letter, Paul is wrapping up and saying some of the most important things he can put on paper for a people that he loves, and what does he tell them?
He tells them to Stand Firm in the faith, encourages them to Remember who they are to one another and not to let the little things destroy the community that God has brought together. He tells them to Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice, and finally, PURSUE THE VIRTUES.
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable.” True, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable. “If there is any EXCELLENCE and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” That word, excellence, can also be translated as “Virtuous.” If there is anything VIRTUOUS, or worthy of praise, think about these things, “keep on doing them.”
In the Zoom Book Club that’s been meeting for the last few weeks on Tuesday nights, we’ve been talking a lot about virtues, clearly a very interesting and popular topic for our modern world. But we’ve talked about what some of them are, what makes a virtue, a virtue, and how we practice virtuousness. [I will grow tired of saying the word “virtue” over and over again, so bear with me.] We’ve talked through the cardinal virtues: Temperance, Courage, Justice, Prudence, and what the author of one of the books we’ve read has called the theological virtues: Hope, Faith, Love. We’ve struggled to define what a virtue is, because there has been a difficulty in our modern age to agree upon a set moral standard, which, truly, is neither here nor there, as my own personal working definition of a virtue is simply, “a verb worth pursuing,” or a “verb worth doing.”
The big idea about virtue ethics, this set of ethics first set down on paper by our good friend Aristotle, the thing that makes it different from a ethical framework that says “if the ends are noble, then the actions taken to meet that end are reasonable,” or one that says “this is the set of rules and standards and we have to act accordingly,”; the thing that’s different is that in the scheme of virtue ethics, we do the right things because we want to become people who do the right things. “We are what we repeatedly do.” We repeatedly act as people who have courage and we become people who have courage. We continually act in faith toward a faithless world, and we become faithful people. Over and over and we act in a loving way as we walk through this life, and we become loving people. This is the whole concept of virtue ethics, and it’s what Paul is handing us on a silver platter this morning, but with the smallest of twists.
Instead of seeing a virtue for its own sake, a good deed as its own reward, Paul is telling us that if and when we practice this way of virtuous living, this way of living excellently in the world, pursuing a true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable way of walking through this life, we don’t just end up as true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable people. Of course, we will end up that way, that’s the entire thesis of virtue, but in addition to that, “the God of peace will be with you.” “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in the knowledge and love of Christ.”
Peace. This is the promise of God for his people today. Acting in a Christlike way, pursuing Christ-like virtues, pursuing the fruits of the spirit of God, somehow, someway brings us peace. And we know that! We feel it, somewhere behind our chest and we know it somewhere behind our face, that acting like this is true, because it is true, changes the way we approach the world! It changes us and who we are, at a core level. It takes what is not natural and makes it habitual, and it takes what is habitual and makes it natural, and it takes what is natural and makes it fundamental to who we are.
The God that died so that we might live did not go to the grave and come back just to make us better people, or to give us an example to follow. He died and came back to give us the chance to become NEW people, to become fundamentally different people, to take dead people and bring us back to life, to make us new and to grant to us the life eternal that is his alone to freely give. From Isaiah this morning, “the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.”
Peace. Abundant, overflowing, generous peace that alone is the Lord’s. The peace that passes all understanding. The peace that makes NO sense, the peace that isn’t logical or rational, but is somehow above all that, the peace that’s somehow, someway REAL. The peace that we instinctively and intuitively know when we’ve walked with the Risen Christ.
This peace, the greek is eirēnē, is not simply a lack of conflict, or a zen attitude when everything goes wrong. That’s part of it, sure, but the closer definitional meaning here, is something like a “harmony that makes and keeps things safe and prosperous.” Peace as a harmony that makes and keeps things safe and prosperous, for all. A peace that makes life safe, safe and prosperous for every person living in the war zone that has become the holy land; safe for every state-fair goer. A Peace that makes sure that everyone in East Fort Worth has enough to eat. Think about how that squares with our own internal definitions of peace, what peace does and should mean to us.
I think, hidden here at the end of Philippians, at the end of a list of virtues that will bring us to it, is the call for us to follow the God of peace, the God who made peace, to follow in making and keeping peace, a harmony that makes and keeps things safe and prosperous, for all.
Safe and Prosperous for all. Now, yes sure, this is about money, or can be about money, it is stewardship season after all, and I did use the word prosperous not 30 seconds ago, but the reality of the situation is that this is about so much more than money, or time or talent, or anything else. This is about the ways that we live our lives, pursing virtues that help us become people that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable; a people of peace. We have the opportunity, given to us by God, to become a people of peace, a people who make peace in a chaotic world that thrives on its lack. That is the call for every Christian in this passage.
By living a life that lets our “gentleness be known to everyone,” by living a life of virtue, we join in the work of God, already inaugurated, in shaping this world into something that it’s not, but something it could be. A world of peace, where, as Isaiah said, “the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people will be taken away from all the earth…and it will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God.” This is our God.
The God who would live and die as one of us to bring us back to himself, and would rise from the grave in the promise of a new life, a new world, for every one of us. This is our God. By becoming what we repeatedly do, pursuing a life of peace and virtue, witnessing to a world of peace, we make the claim that this is our God. By living a life that states, unequivocally, with our time, our talent, our treasure, our families, our work, our hobbies, our communities, our EVERYTHING, that this is our God, we join the work of that God, our God, in making all things new.