"May I Have This Dance?" - Sermon by Michelle Ellis on Philippians 1:27-2:11 - Oct. 3, 2021
I’d like you to notice together a few things about this passage.
First, let’s look at 1:27 where Paul says, “I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the gospel.” And then in chapter 2:1-2, Paul says, “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” Paul’s speaking to followers of Jesus in Philippi, and he’s encouraging them to contend as one person for the gospel, to be like-minded, to be one in Spirit and purpose.
How do you respond to Paul’s words? If you’re like me, you might be overwhelmed by how impossible a task that seems. I long for this, to be united as followers of Jesus, to know we are all on each other’s side, to be united in gathering around Jesus. But I’ve felt stopped in that. Being like-minded, having one spirit and purpose as followers of Jesus — is that even possible? As I was reflecting on this, I thought, “Boy, Christians in the valley here sure aren’t all of one mind about a lot of things.” Should we all as Christians think the same way? Should we all have the same opinion on the controversial issues of our time? Is that what Paul is saying here?
Is there one Christian way to think? Is there one right, Christian answer to the polarizing questions we have been navigating through? Do we as followers of Jesus vote, NDP, Conservative, Liberal, or Green? Do we wear masks or not? Do we get the Covid vaccine or not? Do I go to my gay friend’s wedding, or not? Is there a right, Christian answer to these questions that if only we could all figure it out, we could finally be of one mind, of one purpose? Do we all need to do the hard work of hashing it all out, embracing in-house debates, try with all our mights to convince others of the right answer to these questions, so that we can finally be of one mind, so we can be unified?
Wouldn’t it be nice and simple if God came out with a contemporary ten commandments for each new generation and its questions? Thou shalt never wear a mask, or thou shalt get the vaccine, or thou shalt vote NDP or thou shalt not have sex before marriage, and this is exactly how far you are allowed to go before marriage. Or, thou shalt always embrace new technologies. It would be a lot easier to be of one mind if God spelled out simply what we should all think and do.
But that’s not what he does. Even when Jesus was living in his times, he would not do this. Jesus engaged with his contemporary world. He was deeply involved with people from all walks of life and engaged intimately with the culture. But when he was pressed to comment on black and white divisive issues that religious leaders tried to trap him in, he never took the bait. He would always turn the question on its head, reveal what was underneath it, subvert the assumptions behind the question. Remember when the Pharisees asked Jesus whether Jews should pay taxes? He didn’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. He said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” He invites us into a deeper and broader way of seeing.
What do you think Jesus would say if we could ask him today about masks? About vaccine passports? About who to vote for? About any controversial either/or, yes/no type question that we debate among ourselves? How would he answer these questions in a way that cuts you to the heart?
I wonder if instead of answering in keeping with party lines, he might challenge us to see what we have been blind to. He would and does guide us, and I believe that God has given us what we need to navigate through the difficult decisions of our world that really matter. I wonder though, if what he has given and what he offers is different from what we think we need.
I want to look back at this letter to the Philippians from Paul. I want you to notice in 1:28 where Paul says, “Don’t be frightened by those that oppose you.” In looking at the divisive questions that face us, first of all Paul says, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be intimidated. This challenge isn’t too big for God.”
I want to look also at 2:2 where Paul says, “Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” The word for ‘like-minded’ here is worth exploring. It does not carry the sense of being of one mind in terms of thinking all the same thoughts or having all the same opinions. It does not mean having identical personalities or lifestyles or thoughts. Instead, it means holding the same values, loves, and goals. Do you see the difference there? Being like-minded means valuing the same things, loving the person, having the same goals and postures. It does not mean thinking the same thoughts or holding the same opinions. Though he doesn’t spell them out, Paul implies in this letter that the Philippians are facing some internal divisions. They’ve got some outside pressures, and they also have some internal friction with each other surrounding disagreements about what it means to be God’s people in Philippi. Paul’s worried that the strong love they have for each other will be eroded by these frictions. In response to this, Paul invites them all to unity. But how are they supposed to get there? Do they all need to listen to the same podcasts or watch the same Youtube videos?
No, Paul says to the church in Philippi, the way to unity is to gather around their first love, the reason they are all there in the first place, to gather around Jesus and to follow in his way of humility. Just like a campfire draws all kinds of people closer in to feel its warmth and enjoy its light, Jesus draws very different people together to himself, not because they are the same but because they love him, they enjoy being around him, and they want to be like him. The first way to unity is to focus in on our shared love, which is Jesus.
The second way to unity is to follow Jesus in the way of humility. Outside of the writings in the New Testament, humility carried a very negative meaning. Humility was considered a shortcoming, a posture associated with slaves. It was not considered a strong thing to be humble.
I’m not sure that things are so different in our world. Is it considered a strength to lay yourself down for another? To change diapers, to sweep up messes, to care for others as though their needs were more important than your own? Are these viewed as postures of strength? In disagreements or debates, who is considered the stronger one? The one who listens to understand, or the one who argues his point with conviction?
Humility is not often viewed as a strength. But it is the way of Jesus. It is the counter-intuitive way of strength. Paul points to Jesus who, though he had every right to power, to status, to have people listen to him, he chose to lay that down, he chose to be obedient to death. It was not taken from him, he laid it down of his own accord because of his strong choice to love. Jesus shows us that the way of dealing with opposition is to love them, even to death. Is this your posture towards those who you disagree with? To love them to death?
What might that look like, to love those who have different opinions from you? It will not mean you must lay down your conviction of what is right. But it may mean that you, like Jesus, decide to lay a few things down, a few of your rights, a piece of what you may be entitled to for the sake of the other person.
Paul says the way to unity is to consider others better than yourselves, not in terms of esteeming others as better than ourselves, but in terms of caring for them, in terms of considering their needs over and above our own. It is not the case that everyone else is more important than you or a better person than you. Paul is not inviting us all into self-flagellation. Instead, Paul is inviting us all into the posture that Jesus had for the other, he invites us into considering others’ needs before our own.
He invites us all to listen as though the other’s need to be heard is more important than our own. He invites us all to change the diapers as though our spouse’s need for a break is more important than our own. He invites us all to generosity with each other, to extend grace and forgiveness as though the other’s need for this is greater than our own. Someone said, ‘Love begins when someone else’s needs are more important than my own.’ What might this look like in our context, in the either/or debates you may find yourself caught up in? What might it look like if as followers of Jesus here in the valley, we were known for being totally united in terms of looking out first for the interest of others? If we were totally united in having the same loves, the same purpose? What might it look like for us to be united in our love for Jesus together?
I don’t want to oversimplify things. I know many of the decisions that face us are complex and have real consequences. But I also don’t hear Paul saying, the way to unity is to debate things until you get the right answer. Or to totally avoid talking about anything controversial. Paul says the way to unity is to be united in taking on the posture of Jesus, who laid himself down for the sake of the other person. It might be worth pursuing that thought as a prayer this coming week, “God, how are you inviting me to lay something of myself down for the sake of the other person? Give me wisdom in what you are calling me to lay down and what you are calling me to hold onto.”
I want to end by sharing a story with a small picture of what living this out looks like. I went to my brother’s wedding last month in Ontario. During the reception I was talking to my uncle Dale who said that they were about to go, but he knew that his wife, my aunt Herma wanted to dance at least once and they hadn’t done that yet. Now my aunt loves to dance. She loves romance and wanted to snuggle up and dance with her husband at the wedding. My uncle is an unassuming guy, a scientist and not who you would picture as the snuggling up and dancing type. My guess, though I don’t know for certain, is that he would not at all be inclined to dance ever, if left to his own devices. At the wedding, music was playing and there was a dance floor, but there was not a soul on it. My aunt heard a song that she liked and my uncle invited her onto the floor to dance. It was just the two of them. No one joined them. It was one of those situations in which a person might feel awkward, on display, or embarrassed. But my uncle led her out there to dance because he knew she would love it. He knew it was important to her. He was laying down his natural way of being, something of his pride, a disinclination to be the centre of attention, all these things he laid down for the sake of my aunt, who was soaking up every moment. And in that moment, I saw a small piece of what it looks like to take on the posture of Jesus. It was lovely and beautiful to see. It made a person feel good to see that. And it’s in practicing these little ways of giving, these small ways of laying oneself down for the sake of the other, that we are molded and shaped and grown in the way of Jesus. Amen.