"Unity in Christ!" Sermon on Philippians 2:1-11 by Joe Ellis — June 20, 2021
The people of the church in Philippi were having some struggles to get along. As you can tell from this passage, it is pretty important for Paul that this church, and all churches, get along with each other. There are a number of reasons why I think Paul believes it is so important for Christians to get along, but I think you’ll find one of the most significant reasons in Ephesians 3. I think that Ephesians 3 might give us the framework for why Paul takes unity so seriously in the passage we just read.
In Ephesians 3, Paul says that God displays his wisdom to the whole spiritual realm by pointing at the diversity of people in his church, all united in Christ. The heart of the Gospel is that Jesus came to bring all people together into one family — Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male, female — and all the rest. Jesus died for the sins of all, so that all might be forgiven, so that all people might unite as one in the family of God. You know what God’s answer would be to a cynical person, or spirit, who might wonder if His plan actually worked? Look at the church! — If God wanted to prove that He has in fact created one new, diverse family through the death and resurrection of His Son, He’d just point to us — His church. He’d say, “Look how famously they’re getting along!” Armed with this knowledge, reading church history can make a person cringe. It’s the story of split after split.
The point of diversity in God’s church is to prove a very particular aspect of God’s wisdom — the wisdom of the Messiah dying for the sins of all people, thereby bringing all people in unity in the Messiah. God points to us, his church, as proof that His plan worked. That’s one of the reasons why it is so utterly important to Paul that His churches get along. That’s why Paul encourages the Philippians to be tender, loving, sympathetic, humble and self-sacrificing with one another. That’s why he gives them this recipe for unity. Do you want unity? Just add half a cup of compassion, two tablespoons of tenderness, a litre of encouragement — mix it together by having the same mind and then bake it at 350 for an hour — presto! You get loving unity.
So why is this so hard? Why do churches have such a history of splitting? Why are so many churches around the world made up of just one type of people? Why are so many churches composed of a single socio-economic status, a single race, or a single political ideology?
The other day I was in a conversation with someone who made a joke about being able to listen to a worship artist because he agreed with the musician’s politics. I started to laugh and then my mind exploded. He was serious! His little joke helps us to see why unity is so difficult, despite the fact that we can all agree that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And we can buy into Paul’s recipe for unity: compassion, tenderness, love and selflessness.
But then, in our diversity, we come together with many different frames of reference, different ways of seeing reality. We might come to the table with different ways of showing compassion. Different ways of being tender. Different ways of being loving. Different expressions of sympathy, or humility. We might feel called to sacrifice ourselves in different ways. This can actually create conflict. So to ease the conflict we create churches where everyone agrees on what it means to be compassionate, loving, and self-sacrificing. It’s not that some churches do it and others don’t. It’s that we have different views on how to do that.
As a case study, let’s look at having a unified response to Covid. This time has called for all of us to make a sacrifice. How do we sacrifice ourselves for one another when we disagree on how we should sacrifice ourselves? Do we sacrifice meeting in person, or do we sacrifice keeping Public Health Orders? Do we sacrifice our own personal health to be with people, or do we sacrifice the risk of spreading infection? I could go on — you get the idea — there are lots of different ways of framing sacrifice in this time.
Paul calls us to have sympathy. How do we have sympathy for one another when we get irritated with each other’s choices? One person might think they’re making a big sacrifice of love and another person might see that as a failure of nerve. Another person thinks they’re acting utterly selflessly, but their brother disagrees and gives them a strong rebuke. Both end up feeling wounded and hurt because they’ve both been misunderstood in their attempt to exercise compassion, mercy, love and sacrifice. Both feel like crying, “I’m just trying my best to be faithful.” Both wish the other person would give them sympathy as we are desperately trying to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition,” as we are trying to show love, compassion and mercy — Yet we have very different ways of living that out in the time of Covid.
We are trying to live into Paul’s challenge to, “Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” But when we try to live for the interests of others in the way we see best, we find our brothers and sisters putting up road blocks. One person says, “I distance out of love for my neighbour.” Another says, “I draw near out of love for my neighbour.”
What’s so heartbreaking about the narrative I’ve just told is we have the same heart! We really do have the same heart. We have the same compassion! We have the same mercy! We have the same love! We are all striving to live selflessly. We are working with the exact same Spirit of Sacrifice — although in our different perspectives, it’s often hard to see each other as practicing the same virtues — but we are! The difference is not our Christian faith commitment. The difference is not our commitment to the Gospel. The difference is not that one person lacks love while the other person has love. The difference is not that one is a coward while the other is courageous. The difference is not that one is selfish while the other is selfless. Our different approaches aren’t because we have different commitments to the Gospel. It’s not that Covid has revealed who among us really loves Jesus.
Instead, Covid has only revealed some different cultural assumptions. It is true that sometimes we use our faith to justify our cultural assumptions — sometimes we use Scripture to back up our perspectives on the government; to back up our attitude toward public health measures; to back up our perspective on the role of medicine. But when we do that, we begin labelling others as good or bad Christians depending on whether they agree with our political ideology. We risk losing our compassion, our tenderness, our love, our affection for our brothers and sisters in Christ who think differently. Then they become the people we don’t act selflessly towards because we think they’re getting in the way of our acting selflessly.
What do we do with this? What’s the secret to practicing these virtues of selfless sacrifice, and love, and compassion, and tenderness in a way that fosters unity among people who can be quite different from one another?
I think the answer lies in taking on what Paul says next — and we wear his words like a garment that we never take off. Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, a servant, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
Look at how Jesus lived with those who disagreed with Him. He became one of them, one of us, yet he remained true to who he is. He entered into relationship. He didn’t run away from the people who were intent on killing him, he journeyed towards them. Luke tells us, “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”
Of course, Jesus did not just agree with everything everyone said — he spoke out with conviction. But he kept journeying towards those very people who disagreed with him to the point of wanting him dead. He did not leave. And as he went, He let go of His power. Being in the very nature God, He let go of his power. He let go of his right to retaliate. He let go of his right to be respected, to have dignity, to be honoured. He became a servant. He became obedient to death, a humiliating death on a cross. He let himself be wronged, He let Himself be criminalized, He let Himself be tortured and pierced. He submitted to death on the cross. And in doing so — Christ made the way to create a new family, a family where the very people who betrayed him might call him brother, might call Him Lord and Saviour. That’s how Paul challenges us to live — with this particular unity of mind in Christ.
For me, this is incredibly, hugely challenging. This challenges me to have tenderness when I want to be angry. This challenges me to have compassion when I want to be judgmental. This challenges me to be sacrificial when I want to be self-righteous. This challenges me to hold lightly to my certainty that I know the best way to navigate through this time. This challenges me to remain in relationship when I want to run away. This also challenges me to speak truth when I want to avoid conversation at all. This time of Covid has given us a small taste of how Christ calls us to live vulnerably. — It involves a whole lot of dying. To die to our sense of betrayal. To die to our sense of being hard done by. To die to our need to be seen as right. In light of Christ’s example, Paul says, “Make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and one purpose.” He says, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look only to your own interests but take an interest in others, too.”
Can we cultivate this heart towards those whom we’ve felt particularly different from this last year? This is vulnerable. Yet this is one small way of practicing the way of the cross. In doing so, we can learn how to be more deeply family with those who are different from us.
We are in a time of opportunity. In a fairly small way we have the opportunity to practice the way of Christ with one another. And as we learn to live this way, perhaps we can persevere and become a community where God points at us and says: “Look! They’re doing it! These are a unified family! They are one!”
Paul concludes his passage saying: “Therefore, God also highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every other name. Jesus has the name above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
From Jesus’ humility and self-sacrifice, God raised him to the highest place, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Now is when we practice for eternity. Together, in our differences, let’s learn to bend our knee and confess, with one voice, that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.