Isaiah 45:1-13, Philippians 2:1-13
May 9, 2010
Today we are still in the season of Easter. I know it seems like Easter was a long time ago now, but we’re still in that season. It goes from Easter day through Pentecost. And that’s only two weeks from today. Next week we will be thinking about the Ascension of our Lord, and then the following week is Pentecost Sunday.
As we’ve made our way through this season, I’ve been having us look at some of the more majestic writings in a couple of Paul’s letters – Colossians, and Ephesians. Today I want to continue that by looking at Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This is an amazing letter with many such passages. This is a letter Paul wrote, from prison, to one of his favorite congregations. And it’s filled with wonderful words of love and encouragement. It is truly one of Paul’s greatest writings!
So there are lots of places in Philippians we could look at. But I’ve chosen today a passage that shows some of Paul’s greatest affection and connection with these people. These are wonderful, encouraging words from a “spiritual father” to his beloved children. And they are all about “unity in Christ.” They’re warm and gracious words, which is not bad, coming from a grizzly old Pharisee! (Half the theologians in the world just cringed because I called Paul “grizzly”!)
Now, here’s the way this passage starts. (And it only gets better after this!) “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Isn’t that great? As I’ve said, I love it when Paul gets on a roll!
I pulled out my multiple translation New Testament for this one. I wanted to see what several different translators said there. So, for example, the New English Bible says it this way, “If our life in Christ yields anything to stir the heart…” Isn’t that true? Isn’t our faith really about what stirs the heart? The Jerusalem Bible says it this way. “If the life in Christ means anything to you.” (And by the way, the Jerusalem Bible was first edited by whom? John Ronald Rouel Tolkien!)
So these opening words are all a wonderful way of saying, “If there is anything to any of this, then” here’s what I want you to do. And what is it? Is it, “Do as Christ commands?” Is it, “Do what your faith teaches?” No! Paul makes the personal connection in this. He says, “If any of this makes any sense at all… then make my joy complete.” It’s not just about faith, and learning, and doctrine. It’s not even just about the relationship with God – which you know I’m very big on! It’s about the human relationship, which, if you think about it is a mirror of the divine relationship! This is about this “spiritual father” and his children!
“Complete my joy.” And how were they to complete his joy? “By being of the same mind and the same love and being in full accord.” That’s what would complete Paul’s joy! And of course, that doesn’t mean they were to agree completely on everything, does it!? “Being of one mind” is not about agreement. It’s about unity! And that’s a different thing! We all don’t agree on everything here, do we? But we can be unified! And that’s important! That completes the joy Paul was talking about.
I’m glad Paul said that. I’m glad he made it personal. I think there’s something to that! Why should we be unified and peaceable in Christ? Because God’s wants us to?? Well, yes! As a matter of fact, he does! But! He does because he knows that life is better for us when we do! And he wants what’s best for us!! So, ultimately, God is happy when we are happy. If you understand that, then you understand why parents are joyful when all their children are playing nicely. And you understand why a minister is joyful when all his parishioners are “playing nicely.”
When we were ordained, you officers and I, we were asked if we would pledge ourselves to promote the “peace and unity and purity of the church.” Why? Because when we live together better and more peaceably, that’s what God wants for us. And that’s the reason behind the unity of believers! And then, when we are united in love, it makes for a good witness to the world. The Psalmist writes, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live in unity. It is like the anointing of precious oil…” (Psalm 133:1) That’s what the world will see!
Now, let me ask you this. Do you think there an antithesis to that? Do you think that when we fail to live in peace and unity, God is saddened? (And our witness is hurt?) I hope you understand, that’s a rhetorical question! I hope you understand that God is grieved when we break fellowship with each other! He paid so high a price to heal the fellowship between ourselves and him. And he wants the same fellowship between us. And he wants us to be his example, his ambassadors, the light of his love to the world around us. So the next time you “get your hackles up” about something that happened in the church that bothers you, think about this passage! And know that it is a choice to live in peace and unity. And it is not always an easy choice!!
Fortunately, Paul helps us with that choice. In fact, Paul always helps us with the practical part of what he is saying. And this is what he says. “Do nothing out of selfishness or conceit.” Self-centeredness is one of the most destructive forces in the world, and it is devastating to the Church! When tension does happen in the body of Christ, too often it’s because we are considering only our own point of view. Too often it’s because we don’t want to hear the opinions or views of others!
So here’s Paul’s practical advice. He says, “But, in humility count others better than yourselves.” What does he mean by that? “Count others better than yourself.” Does that mean we are to diminish or degrade ourselves? Does he mean we are to beat ourselves down? I’m no good.” “I’m not worthy.” “Woe is me!” “All those other people are better.” I don’t think so. We are God’s children! We are worthy and valuable! Every one of us! But if we are to count others “better than ourselves” and we aren’t to put ourselves down, what’s the only other alternative? It is to lift others up!
Now, we could stop right there! We could go home with that thought alone! Because this is about “humility.” And ultimately, humility is not self degrading. It’s more a matter of having a healthy sense of self-importance. It’s a matter of considering where the spotlight falls. According to Paul, we are to take the spotlight off of ourselves and put it on others. We think of others first. We try to understand them. We encourage them. We lift them up. So, instead of thinking, “That person isn’t really respecting me, so I’ll drop my level of respect for them,” which is a downward progression! Paul would have us say, “No!” “I’ll raise them up instead – even if they aren’t raising me up.” And that promotes an upward movement! That becomes a positive process! Paul said in another passage, “Outdo one another in showing respect.” “Outdo one another!” That is a choice! That doesn’t happen all by itself! In fact, it can often be a hard choice! It goes against our feelings!
Now, lest we think this is impossible, consider the example God gave us! That’s the next thing Paul tells us. He tells us that Christ Jesus is the example. He said, “He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (or held on to)…” “But he emptied himself…” for us! That’s what Jesus did! And if God himself can show that kind of humility, why can’t we? That is the way to the kind of unity Paul is telling these Philippians about – and us!!
Now, I want you to see how that leads to the final stage of Paul’s thinking. He has told us that this is about relationships. But now he tells us that it’s also about our spiritual lives, too! He says, “Therefore… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…” That’s an odd statement, isn’t it? It sounds a bit like “works righteousness.” It sounds like “working our way into heaven.” But it’s not! That’s not what Paul is getting at here. (That wouldn’t be Paul!) What we do have here is a sense of “Complete the work of your salvation…” or “Let the salvation that is already in you be completed through these outward ways.” There’s almost the sense of “Live out your salvation with fear and trembling.” That might be the simplest way of thinking about this. And when we think “fear and trembling” we also think of “awe and responsibility,” or even “with deep reverence.” That’s how some of the other translators convey this.
I think this is something we miss sometimes. We miss the interrelatedness between our spiritual life, and the rest of our lives, or between our faith and our outward actions. That, even though we follow a savior who said, “How can you love your father in heaven who you can’t see, when you can’t love your brother who you can see.” We forget that it’s all part of the big picture.
So I invite you today to think of the “big picture” of your life. Think about these things Paul wrote to the Philippians. Are you promoting the peace, unity, and purity of the Church? Are you choosing humility? Are you “living out your salvation with fear and trembling? Take those questions with you today.
Eternal God, you have loved us with an everlasting love. You have showered us with your blessings and with your good favor. Help us to live out our faith in you with everything we do. Let the joy we can know through you be a part of the joy of living this life. Help us to seek first your kingdom each day. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.