The following is a sermon I preached at Seed Church on August 19, 2018. You can listen here.
Jumping back into Paul’s letter to the Philippians church where he wrote while under house arrest and the scholarly consensus seems to be that he wrote from Rome. Paul is going to talk to the Philippian church about unity.
How do we as believers have unity in a culture right now of scorched earth divisiveness? Here are Paul’s words:
Verse 1-2: So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from 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.
At the beginning of chapter 2, Paul is shifting from talking about outside persecution which he addresses as a problem in chapter 1 verse 29 and 30 to talking about unity within the Philippian’s church. The Philippians had taken a united stand against outside adversaries and so Paul smartly hones in on talking about keeping the unity in the church. By the way and style Paul is writing here, this is of utmost importance for the church. There is a vital connection between striving together as a church for the gospel and internal unity of the body of believers.
Encouragement in Christ probably means that the Philippians church should look to Christ and their relationship to Christ above all else. What is interesting is that Paul is calling the Philippians to unity here and Jesus also had this prayer in John 17. Jesus pleads with His Father for the disciples to be unified and to be one. Unity among believers is a huge theme among the center of our faith, Jesus, and the greatest missionary in the world, Paul.
‘Any comfort of love’ speaks to the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in the believers life. Agape love is unconditional love. Paul is building his case with this passage. The key to attaining unity is to be in relationship to Jesus and then experiencing the soul comfort of being unconditionally loved, not only by God, but also by the people in your community.
‘Participation in the Spirit’ is the community of believers all being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Note that this is not an individual Spirit or a party spirit but the Holy Spirit (third member of the Trinity) who commonly possesses the believers in Jesus. Another key to unity is a given community of believers tapping into the Holy Spirit who inspires and convicts believers to focus on commonly important things in their communities.
‘Affection and sympathy’. Would that be strange for someone to write a letter to Seed Church and encourage us to have affection for one another? A little weird and out there? But calls gives more clues to unity by asking that a community of Christians care deeply for one another and remain sympathetic to one another as the hardships of life come. We start to see a picture of the keys to having unity. Sympathy is trying to understand the perspective of someone else. This may even be someone you emphatically disagree with on many things. Taking time to care deeply and consider someone else’s perspective are a part of Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians church.
In the last part of the verse, he makes reference to having the same mind a couple of times. And with that Paul asks them to have the same love (Jesus is the perfect central figure here) and being in full accord.
Verse 3: Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
Humility literally means ‘lowliness of mind.’ biblos.com says, ‘In Scripture, lowliness or humility is an inside-out virtue produced by comparing ourselves to the Lord rather than to others.’
Unity becomes impossible if Christians are out for themselves. Paul says don’t act out of rivalry. Rivalry can be translated ‘selfish ambition’. This word is used for a person pursuing power. They want more power and influence at the expense of others. ‘Conceit’ can be translated as ‘empty glory’. A pointless exhaltation of one’s self. Paul asks us to take on humility and think of others as more important then ourselves.
Here is Paul’s version of dying to live. Love God above all else, but also love our neighbors and consider other people’s needs above our own. And even taking into account this passage, taking into account the needs of the community before our own.
Obviously a tough exhortation to live out in a radically individualistic and materialistic culture like ours. And probably difficult to live out in first century Greco-Roman culture as well.
A consistent Biblical message is that God is for the weak and lowly. In Psalm 17:28, God saves the lowly and humble. God looks upon the lowly in Psalm 112:4-6. God pays attention to the prayers of the lowly in Psalm 101:18. In Isaiah 2:11 and Ezekiel 17:24, God gives grace to the lowly while he opposes the scoffers. Lowliness and humility are celebrated virtues throughout Scripture and that is no different in Paul’s epistles.
Paul will continue on this theme of humility by talking later in chapter 2 about Christ making Himself humble and low. I don’t want to get ahead of the proceedings here but this attribute is vitally important to connecting with God and also, as Paul is stating here, key to unity within a community.
Here is a note from Word Biblical Commentary: ‘In the Qumran community humility was valued as a virtue because it carried within itself the ingredients for unity and love within the fellowship. Repeatedly in the rule of the community the members are told that ‘they shall all be in the community of truth, and virtuous humility and loving charity and scrupulous justice.’ Paul is heir to these ideas, agreeing especially with the Qumran concept of humility in so far as he too holds as indispensable for unity within the community that kind of behavior that is generated by an attitude of humility.’
Paul is going to connect humility directly to Christ Jesus and factor the virtue in as a cornerstone of unity among believers.
Verse 4: Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
This verse can have the translation ‘to look out for’, ‘notice’, ‘keep one’s eyes on’. What are other people’s interests? Paul is challenging his Philippian audience to know others in their community really well to even know that their interests are. The interests of others should be a huge factor in the decisions we make and how we relate to our own community. This is what Paul was asking the Philippians to uphold. A lack of pursuing our interests and desires aggressively first is a value that can promote unity.
The reason why Paul’s instruction to Philippians matters today is what I briefly touched on at the outset. When we read the news, interact on social media or listen to people that we know we sense a deep disunity in our culture and country right now. Pretty much a Grand Canyon of disunity. Of course, nationally is not the only place where we may feel disunity. We can have disunity in personal friendships, our marriages, among business partners or board members in an organization. We can have disunity in the church.
How do we achieve a general sense of unity? What does that look like in our lives? Even as we are all unique people who will realistically disagree on various issues, how do we still maintain a general sense of unity?
The calling of Paul to a transcendent mindset is as true today as it was for the Philippian church. God created us to be in community but we do a predictably great job of royally screwing that up a lot of the time. Selfish ambition and vain conceits come easier to us.
Thesis: By being connected to Jesus, we can seek to be humble as the Spirit guides us toward peace and unity in our relationships.
Human nature, being marred by sin and fallen, leans toward selfish ambition and thereby disunity. Relationships with other people within our different spheres of influence is difficult because we all have our needs, wants, and desires.
In our marriages, we have conflict and disagreements. How do we get to a greater place of unity? There has been lots of ink split suggesting that the top things that married couples argue about is money and sex. Two important things in life to be sure and obviously the chances are high that between two people, the expectations and desires around money and sex may differ in a lot of respects. Those things and other conflicts over kids or jobs can become really major issues that threaten the joy or the oneness of a marriage. It’s easier to pursue selfish ambitions or agenda which are all about us when life is busy. We work forty plus hours a week, come home and take care of kids (if we have them) and after all of those duties, we are exhausted and not really wanting to try and understand someone else’s perspective (demonstrating humility through sympathy). Sure, Paul writes for us to have the same mind, the same love and be in one accord but the circumstances and busyness and distractions often make this hard.
In our businesses or work places, what happens when we disagree with other partners or fellow co-workers? This is obviously less personal then a marriage. We go to work and make money to provide for ourselves and families. How do we solve disputes and conflict in our workplaces when it is easy to justify selfish ambition by just having the mentality that ‘forget everyone else, I just want to make the most amount of money that I can’?
How do we bring the values that Paul wants to instill in this Philippian church to our 21st century American workplaces? Is that even possible when you, your other partners or your boss or fellow employees may all have different values and agendas in being there?
It becomes easy to go with the common flow of our culture and pursue selfish ambition and vainglory. Always working to get a bigger house, nicer things, or that fancy new car to show off. In other words, we can be consumed by our own consumerism in our culture. Humility becomes an after thought when are fallen nature’s and environment send us vastly different messages then the Apostle Paul.
And how about at church. There is never any divisiveness at church is there? Please note my sarcasm. At church, not necessarily Seed but other places, people often get into these doctrinal conflicts (and it is usually stuff that really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things). We major on the minors so to speak. People argue over Calvinism or Arminianism. As Seed Church, we certainly have opinions and leanings in that debate but our natures sometimes tempt us to form like-minded tribes and then divide up into ‘good Christian’ vs ‘bad Christian’ camps or Christians who actually like the Bible vs those who don’t. This causes us to not be of a same mind or a similar accord but to de-evolve into competing tribes who ostracize others who don’t conform to our demands. Is it any wonder that churches tragically, deeply hurt people and some of you here have been wrecked by things that churches have done to you?
On a nation level, I think all of us feel and see a scorched earth level of divisiveness right now. A lot of people are a part of political tribes and they see the other tribe as being an existential threat to the country. When we view others who disagree about policy matters as grave threats or enemies, there is quite obviously not going to be a same mind or people of one accord.
There is a book out called ‘Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations’ by Amy Chua. I have not read the book. It is on my list but I have read some excerpts of it. She has been interviewed by Ezra Klein, who runs the liberal site Vox, and Michael Medved who is a conservative talk show host. She talks about how humanity is tribal based. We always have been. Since the enlightenment is when we started on this radical experiment of individualism which continues on today.
Even with that element of western culture and especially our culture, there is something deeper going on in people. Chua writes in her book, ‘The grand ideals of democracy have a hard time competing with a simpler, more primal need: belonging.’
A review suggests: ‘But tribalism encompasses not only an innate desire for belonging but also a vehement and sometimes violent instinct to exclude. Some groups organize for noble purposes, others because of a common enemy.’ So human beings being tribal and pursuing vain glory and selfish ambition organize these groups and its ‘us against them’. There is a lack of humility because there isn’t much of a listening to another side or people who disagree with you or your group. There is just the categorization of them as the enemy.
Once again, to try and get past these qualities we are battling our innate natures. How do we get beyond these mentalities? More then that, sometimes our groups are dealing with vitally important moral issues and deep convictions. How do we navigate the territory of sometimes having the right convictions and disagreeing? Can we do that in humility and without selfish ambition? What does that look like and how do we accomplish that?
The most vital thing that we must do in order to pursue Paul’s vision of unity is surrendering our lives to Jesus and Lord and Savior. In order to get to a place of unity and peace in our relationships, Paul says we need the characteristic of humility. The beginning of humility is realizing that we have transgressed. That we need help. That we cannot adopt this perspective and embody these characteristics unless we come and give our lives to Jesus. Upon becoming disciples of Jesus, we have the Holy Spirit in our lives and prayerfully this Holy Spirit works against our selfish ambitions to show us the importance of unity, being of one mind and one accord and one love, in our different relationship circles.
Having affection and sympathy involves listening to others and trying to see things from their perspective even if we disagree. Now, there are nuances here. We are a community here at Seed Church. Seed Church stands for certain convictions- based on orthodox Christianity. That there is a loving God in Trinity, that Jesus was God and man, there was a virgin birth and a resurrection. Having humility is not giving up on the vitally important convictions that we hold too. It is still believing those things to your core but it is also relying on Jesus to help us discern what are the hills we will die on and what are more minor issues that we will disagree on but still have a sense of unity in our marriages, churches, and hopefully among different political perspectives.
There is a vital connection between striving together as a church for the gospel and internal unity of the body of believers. All of us being of the same mind on Christ and in one accord regarding believing and embodying the gospel and having that impact the deepest parts of us and impact our actions.
The beautiful thing about the gospel and the prayer for our church is that our doors will always be open for all different kinds of people to come here and hear about Jesus and the gospel. People of all different political beliefs, all different backgrounds and all different races and from all different places in life. Humility is an embrace that we are going to encounter many different kinds of people with all sorts of various views on stuff but that Seed will always stand for Christ, and His Bible and the gospel that is expressed in its pages.
One of the big keys to unity is humility that erodes selfish ambition and vain glory but also having a common foundation to build upon. May I submit to you that the common foundation can be Christ and His gospel. A king and his rule over a transcendent kingdom beyond this world that we can be a part of today. Citizens of that kingdom, living our lives in this fallen and often dark world, trying to bring whatever light we can as the Spirit guides and helps us. Humbling ourselves before that King and His kingdom, may that be what brings unity and like-mindedness and a same, common love.