August 27, 2017
If you remember, Paul visited this city of Philippi during his first “Missionary Journey.” Philippi was a Roman city, a city probably set up as a place for retired Roman army soldiers. So it had many Roman influences.
Philippi was the scene of the “botched jailbreak” from Acts 16. You know, Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown in jail. They were singing and praying, and there was an earthquake which opened the doors and broke the chains – and they didn’t leave! Again, isn’t that the whole point of a jailbreak, to leave the jail? Then when the jailor saw their kindness it changed his life!
This then was the letter written to the church Paul founded in that town. And it was likely the first church he founded in Europe. He had crossed over from Asian Minor, and was now in Macedonia, just north of Greece, in Europe. (Ok, that’s the extent of your geography lesson for today!)
Well, this church in Philippi was one of Paul’s most beloved congregations. This letter to that church is filled with glowing words, and great joy in his association with them. And one of the things that comes out of this letter is Paul’s intense interest in Christian Unity. That is a major theme of this book of Philippians. That’s because Paul saw how crucial it was!
If you think about it, nothing hurts our witness to the world more than how we fail to get along with one another! Yes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” But maybe there should be a verse in that song that says, “But they’ll question our faith if we don’t!” Quarreling in churches is a bad image for those outside. Nobody wants to be a part of that! I think you’ll agree with me on that.
So today I want you to consider our sense of unity. I believe it’s crucial, too! It’s crucial as we strive to be a light to the world around us. And it’s crucial to our being an example of unity in an intensely divided world. I think you’ll agree with me on that, too! Our world is deeply divided! And it’s getting worse!
As you think about all that, let me share with you these words from C. S. Lewis on “kindness.” In his book “The Problem of Pain” Lewis wrote this “The real trouble is that ‘kindness’ is a quality [which is] fatally easy to attribute to ourselves on quite inadequate grounds.” In other words, it’s too easy to attribute kindness to ourselves for shallow reasons. And here’s what he means by that. “Everyone feels [kindness] if nothing happens to be annoying them at the moment.” I love that! And it’s true! He then says, “We think we are kind when we are [really] only happy.” (“The Problem of Pain” C. S. Lewis)
Think about that. It’s too easy to think we are being “kind” when we’re really only being “happy.” Real “kindness,” he goes on to say, comes when we have difficulties with one another, and then we still act kindly! That’s the true part. That’s the difficult part!
It’s the same with the Christian “unity” Paul is writing about here. It’s easy to act kindly towards each other, it’s easy to feel like we are “unified,” when we are in agreement! And it’s easy to mistake unity and agreement, thinking they are the same things, when they are not!
In verse two, Paul says, “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” But does that mean he wants them to agree on everything? I’m sure he would like that. But even more, what he wanted, what would “complete his joy,” was for them to “be one,” no matter what!
I believe that is so important! Remember, we’re Presbyterians. And like I’m sure you’ve heard me say, we believe that “People of good conscience can differ.” That’s one of our “Historic Principles.” You can look that up! “People of good conscience can differ.” But that isn’t easy! It’s much easier if we are part of a faith that simply tells people what to believe and allows is no debate!
That’s how unity in some churches is achieved, you know! They require that people think and believe the same things, and they allow no debate. The funny thing about that is, when I talk with people of those kinds of denominations, they often say, “My faith believes such and such about that, but I don’t practice that part of my faith.” “I’m fine being part of my particular church, but I don’t practice the parts I don’t agree with it.”
Well, we Presby’s are different. We believe that people can differ, and still be “of good conscience.” So there are differences among us. (If you want to be part of a church that tells you what to believe and how to think, you’ve come to the wrong place.) So… the question is, as Presbyterians, when we differ with someone, what do we say to ourselves? Do we say, “Ok, I don’t agree, but that person has a good conscience!” “They think differently than me, but they mean well.”
That’s not easy! And it can be very hard in this world, which I said at the beginning is deeply divided. It can be very hard in a world that doesn’t believe that is necessary, or even preferable! Many people in this world don’t think they have to respect someone who differs. They don’t even have to show civility. In fact, those things are looked down on! If someone doesn’t agree with you, they are the enemy! They are to be defeated! They are not to be shown any respect!
That’s our world! And I believe what Paul is saying here is that there is no place for that in the Church! And when we see it happening in the Church, when we see it happening in us, we need to do something about it. As God’s people, we are not to take on the philosophy of this world, we are not to take on the world’s mindset, we are not to let the world influence our thinking. In fact, God wants us, by our example, to influence the world!
So, as we think about this all of this today, my exhortation to you is this. Don’t be taken in by the world’s philosophy of “being kind to one another when you feel like it.” In fact, don’t be told that you only have to do and to be things – only when you feel like it! Feelings can betray you! True kindness, true “unity,” is kindness and unity when it’s hard to be those things! In fact, all those “gifts of the spirit” can be seen the same way. “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” those are all things we need to strive for even when we don’t feel them. That’s the hard work. That’s what God calls us to do!
Peace! It’s the same thing! You often hear me talk about having peace – no matter what the circumstances of our lives. As Lewis would say, it’s easy to feel peace, when things are peaceful and there is no conflict in our lives. Paul would agree. He told the Hebrews, “Therefore, lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with all people, (Not just with fellow believers!) and strive for holiness without which no one [in the church or outside of it] will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:12-14)
So then, will people see the Lord through our kindness, through our peace, through our unity in the Spirit?
Eternal God, help us to upbuild and support each other, even when we differ. Help us to know your peace, even when in trying times. Help us to be a beacon of hope for the world, a world which so desperately needs your peace. Give us the strength we need to be more like Jesus every day, for we pray in his name, Amen.