One of my joys in this series on Philippians – and joy – has been receiving an enthusiastic email from John Morrison telling me he preached a similar series at Wellington Baptist and attaching the annotated (as only John would!) list of jokes he used! Though he added, “I am not sure mothers can get away with telling dad jokes!”
Time to test that!
A man was stranded on an island alone for many years. Finally, he was located, and a rescue mission sent ashore to extract him. But before they took him off the island, he wanted to show them around. He took them to his hut and said, “This is the house I built – just with my own two hands.” He then showed them another building, “This is the church I built – just with my own hands.”
Then someone in the group said, “Hey, what’s that building over there?”
He replied, “Oh, that’s where I used to go to church.”
It’s a little too close to the bone, isn’t it! Steve and I went to a lunch on Wednesday with the regional pastors, those who look after the different NSW/ACT Baptist regions, and one of them mentioned that at any given time 20% of Baptist churches are experiencing difficulties; facing conflicts within or facing conflicts without or needing to make a big decision or change – which can also cause conflict.
And this was the case for the Philippians! They were facing conflicts within (Paul addresses this directly in chapter 4.) They were facing conflicts without (the struggles we heard of last week). And they had big decisions to make; how “to determine what is best/what really matters,” as we read in week one, or how to “live… [lives] worthy of the gospel” (week two), or how to “let the same mind be in [them] that was in Christ Jesus,” (today’s reading). Really, three ways of saying the same thing! What does it mean – how do we go about – life in Christ? And, this is the crux for Paul – how do we go about life in Christ together? It is impossible for Paul to imagine life in Christ unless it is life lived in community.
“Make my joy complete,” he says (Philippians 2:2), “be of the same mind (there is ‘mind’ again – the capacity to discern well), having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind [again!]” In this way you, the Philippian church, will “make my joy complete.”
Throughout church history, however, a resolve to be of the same mind and have the same love, an insistence (is insistence love?) on being in full accord and of the one mind, has often meant those at the top of hierarchies have imposed sameness on others. “Subjugating others into the likeness of the self,” French philosopher Emmanual Levinas says, “Not allowing the other to be the other.” Even verses 6 to 11, which we know as the Christ hymn, a hymn to humility, has been used, many commentators note, to impose control and acceptance of the system, rather than change.
We could read some of this insight into the referendum debates that led up to yesterday’s outcome, and I have also been reflecting on Wednesday’s pastors’ lunch and how uncomfortable I felt there. Apart from the Baptist Care chaplains – thank God for Baptist Care! – I was the only woman in the room. “I think I’m tired,” I said to Aron that night, “of being the token woman.” “Ahh…” he said, “And now – because you hold a different view on same-sex marriage – you are the token scarlet woman!”
But this is not how we in the Baptist tradition understand having the mind of Christ! British Baptist theologian Nigel Wright writes, “Baptists are at the radical end of the Protestant spectrum and represent a markedly different way of being the Church of Jesus Christ. They have broken with the idea that the church was ever called to be an imperial institution exercising sacred power over its members and with the power to command. They came to see it as a free community of the redeemed, of those committed to voluntary and wholehearted commitment to the way of Christ pursued in solidarity and mutual affirmation.”
“Amen!” I think Paul would have said to that. “Amen to the way of Christ pursued in solidarity and mutual affirmation!”
Because that is exactly what Paul starts with here as the ‘how to’ for making his joy complete, the ‘how to’ for the church working out how to live in Christ together!
Firstly, recognise all holds us together! Verse 1: “If there is any…” (‘Since’ is a better word, my commentary says. Paul has no doubt this is reality for the Christians he is addressing.) “[Since] there is…encouragement in Christ.” Does this refer to the prayer Jesus prays for his disciples in John 17, “that they may be one”? Since there is “consolation from love” – the love of Christ. Since there is “sharing in the Spirit” – koinonia – knowing the Holy Spirit working in all of our lives. And finally, since there is “compassion and sympathy” – genuine gut feeling for one another. Since there are all these things, we are able to work out how to live in Christ together.
Paul’s not just saying, “be nice,” or “forget your differences and live in peace,” but makes a four-fold appeal to their new identity and God’s power working in their lives.
I heard a story last week about missiologist and Morling College lecturer Michael Frost, that he was asked (because he attends Seaforth Baptist, another church that has said there can be different ways of understanding same-sex marriage) if he was planning to leave that church. He apparently responded, “Don’t we understand Baptist church membership as a covenant, similar in some way to a covenant in marriage?”
“Yes.” His questioner said.
“Well, my wife also holds a different view on same-sex marriage. Are you suggesting that because we hold different views, I should also leave her?”
Make joy complete, means recognising what holds us together.
Secondly, Paul says, (verse 3 and 4) “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit…. Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Selfish ambition – forming factions that cannot see the good in others tears churches and communities apart. Looking to others – looking for the good even in those who oppose us – holds churches together and builds community. As my commentary puts it, “The good points and qualities in one’s fellow Christians are to be watched for, recognised when they appear and emulated in our lives.”
This is, in my experience, is one of the advantages of being in a community a long time. There are people here I have disagreed with vehemently in the past who have gone on to be my salvation. When I face disagreements now, I often wonder, is it just a matter of time and of ‘looking to their interests’ before this happens again?
Thirdly, and this is perhaps the most significant of Paul’s arguments, (verse 5 and then verses 6 to 11) we are to, “Let the same mind be in [us] that as in Christ Jesus.”
Many many sermons could be preached on these verses, which, as I said earlier, we assume Paul quotes from an early Christian hymn. They have generated vast amounts of discussion about the nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity, his saving work, and its relationship to the Christian life. What impresses itself on me from verses 7 and 8, however, Christ emptying himself and “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness;” humbling himself and becoming “obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross,” is not just that Christ descends from the heights of divinity to the depths of humanity, but that Christ comes near to us. Draws near to us. As we heard at the start of the service, the light of Christ is drawing nearer, drawing nearer. (I love that Steve’s poem, too, revisited that theme of Christ coming – like a baby, like a baby.)
Even in midst of all of this – our broken and heart-broken world, Christ comes near to us. Having the mind of Christ means that we are to come near one another.
Two stories! Firstly, when Grace started kindergarten, for a while, my sister was her teacher, and there was a little boy in the class with a severe intellectual disability. Occasionally, when stressed, he would get very agitated, but my sister reported, when this happened the class, rather than avoiding him, would gather in around him. She didn’t know how they worked it out, but they were drawing near to him, and he would be calm again.
This second story also comes via John Morrison, but originally from Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard about a king who fell in love with a peasant girl. But how, the king wondered, was he to reveal his love to this girl? How could he bridge the chasm between the two of them?
His advisers told him that all he had to do was command her to become his queen, and it would be done. He was, after all, a man of immense power. But power, the king knew, could not command love. He could force her to stay in the palace, but he could not force her to love. Submission was not what he wanted. He wanted oneness of spirit.
He met with his advisers again who suggested he bridge the gap by elevating her, dressing her in purple and silk and having her crowned queen. But, he thought, if she came here to the palace, if she saw all the wealth, pomp, and power, would he ever know if she loved him genuinely – for himself. And would she ever know that he loved her genuinely – would have loved her even if she had remained a peasant?
Every alternative he thought of came to nothing. There was only one way. So, one day the king took off his crown, relinquished his sceptre, laid aside his royal robes, and took up the life of a peasant. He dressed in rags, scratched out a living in the dirt, and lived in peasant home.
He did not just take on the outward appearance of a servant, he became a servant. He became as ragged as the one he loved, Kierkegaard says, so she could be his forever. It was the only way. His raggedness became the very signature of his presence.
God comes near to us in Christ. Christ’s humanity is the very signature of God’s presence. Because, the hymn goes on, by drawing near to us, God is revealed in Christ. Therefore, God gives Christ God’s own name – the unspoken name of God represented by Lord – because in drawing near to humanity – Christ reveals God and the way God is. God is the one who draws near to us.
So finally, Paul says, God drawing near to us gives us the resources, gives us the energy, gives us all we need to work out how to live in Christ together. “Work out your own salvation!” Not our salvation as individuals, but our salvation as the church, as a community of faith, who are empowered to do this together, “for (verse 13) it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
The Philippian church – and this church – all Christian communities of faith – have these guides, these models, this power to work out how to live in Christ together.
- We are to recognise all – all that holds us together – in what God has done and is doing in our lives.
- We are to look to the interests – the good – that is in each other.
- We are to have the mind of Christ – to draw near each other rather than turning away.
- And we are to know that God is working in us.
So we can make God’s joy complete – “enabling us to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
It is not an ancient Christian hymn. It is a more modern one. And it is to me – a very Canberra Baptist one. Can I invite you, as a sign of our commitment to working out how to live in Christ together, to making God’s joy complete, to stand and sing this:
And God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy.
Yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy.