Updated: Mar 24, 2022
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 20th of Third Month, 2022
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: Philippians 2:1–8, NRSV
1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,
2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Good morning, Friends!
Today we’re beginning where we left off last Sunday, in the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. If you were with us then, you might remember that we just read a little part of the passage, the second half, when we were considering the faith of Christ, the faith-full-ness of Christ, as Paul describes it in the last three verses of the passage. This is the “self-emptying” that Christ chose to do, humbling himself to servanthood that led to the cross. Last week I suggested that this “self-emptying” provides the pattern for us to approach faith and faithfulness; that we don’t come into the faith of Christ through our own efforts, but by letting go, by emptying ourselves so that God may work in us to bring forth faithfulness.
Now, many scholars think that this second part of the passage, beginning at v5, may have been a hymn of the early church, perhaps a hymn that was sung at baptisms. Much of
the reason for this is the focus on death and resurrection (if you read beyond v8, you’ll see that part about Christ’s resurrection). The early church understood baptism to be the means by which believers symbolically partook of the death and rebirth of Christ—the going down into the water, and the rising back up, represented that death and rebirth.
Friends, of course, have always understood baptism to be an inward, spiritual process, and not something that we have to observe outwardly with water. But the principle of death and rebirth is more than simply a symbolic one—we trust that there is an inward, spiritual reality: baptism of the spirit is dying to self and being reborn as a new creation. If this passage does indeed provide a pattern for us in our faith, then we are called to that kind of an inward process, that inward reality of death and rebirth.
Let’s keep that background in mind as as we look at the part of the letter before the hymn. In the first few verses, Paul says to the Philippians, if there is “any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind...” There’s a lot there, more than we can cover in one go this morning; but clearly the apostle is encouraging the church to unity: same mind, same love, full accord. These things are based on their experience together as a body: encouragement in Christ, consolation, sharing in the Spirit, compassion and sympathy; these are all the outgrowth of their life together. And the backdrop to all of this is struggle; in the preceding passage, Paul speaks of some opponents of the church who seek to intimidate the Philippians. So the encouragement and consolation that they have is not simply good feelings because they all like each other, but the strength of community that comes out of suffering for what they are called to.
One word that shows up multiple places here is “mind”; the same Greek word is used three times in this part of chapter 2, and it’s sometimes also translated “purpose”, or “attitude”. Speaking of “one mind” may lead us to conclude that in order for the church to have unity, everyone must think the same way; there must be uniformity of thought. But there’s little chance that this would have been true of Paul’s Philippians; we know that the early church included both Jews and Gentiles, both women and men, both enslaved people and free people, and perhaps most problematic, both poor people and rich people. It’s very unlikely that they could have all thought the same way, even with all their encouragement, consolation, and sharing.
So it’s more likely that Paul is pointing them towards the same attitude, (again, another way we can translate mind) and that is the attitude of Christ as he describes it in this baptismal hymn. When he writes, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” (v5) that’s the third occurrence of that word for mind. So the Philippians are not supposed to have uniformity of thought, but a unity of attitude: when it comes to their faith, they are to view all things through the lens of this self-emptying that Christ modeled.
For the past month or so, I have been preaching about faith and faithfulness (you know that old saw, ‘the preacher preaches what he’s trying to learn’? That’s me...) We’ve talked about the faithfulness of God’s covenant love; the faithfulness of Christ’s self-emptying; and our response as we try to live into the faith of Christ. All that time, I have had this question in the back of my mind: “what does it mean to be faithful in community?” Or we could ask, “what does faithfulness in community look like?”
After a month of pondering it, I’m afraid I don’t have much of an answer, but I think Stephanie Crumley-Effinger had some helpful ways for us to start to think about it, in her recent message on being “members one of another” earlier this month. She pointed out that being part of the same body can be hard: when we don’t all value aspects of our community the same way; when there is conflict; or when one of us, secure in the goodness of our intentions, doesn’t recognize the impact our words or actions have on others, and causes harm as a result. All of these, and more, are ways in which our faithfulness to one another can be tested. And I think a faithful community is one in which we are willing to remain in relationship as we work through hard things like this.
Particularly with regard to conflict, it should be manifestly clear that trying to be faithful in community can (or will) lead to conflict. It’s just going to happen. Jim Wallis, one of the founders of the Sojourners movement, tells the story in his autobiography of how he and many other young people who came of age in the USA in the late 1960s and early 1970s inevitably came into conflict with the older generations in the evangelical churches in which they were raised. As I remember his telling, these then-young people questioned the way that their parents and grandparents lived and the priorities of the churches where they worshiped. They questioned these things not out of simple rebellion (it wasn’t just, “don’t trust anyone over the age of 30”), but precisely because they believed in the Jesus that their parents had taught them about; it was precisely because they had read the Gospels, as they had been encouraged to do in the churches where they grew up, and were convinced of their truth. Because they took Jesus seriously, because of the Gospel, they were led to critique a church that, in the words of the editors of Sojourners, “was wrong in its support of the Vietnam War, wrong in its approach to racism and racial justice, and at best inadequate in its awareness that the gospel calls disciples of Jesus Christ to be agents of change in our fallen world.” So Jim Wallis and his fellows were being faithful to the Christ that they had learned about in the very institution that didn’t seem to have that faithfulness. The cultural Christianity of their parents had fallen short, and doubtless that led to conflict. For them, that led to starting a new community, coming out of the communities in which they had been raised, and starting a new community in which they could explore God’s call to justice and peace.
In some ways, it’s harder to remain where you are, and seek to work out the difficulties that exist. But I think that can also be a faithful response—faithful to God and faithful to the community. Now, this is not, “my church, right or wrong,” or “my pastor, right or wrong”; being faithful does not mean being uncritical, or being unwilling to confront someone when they are wrong, or have done wrong. A more faithful response is one that doesn’t excuse someone when they do need correction, regardless of who person is in the community; but nonetheless, doing it with love.
And it’s important to say that “stay where you are and work things out” has often been used in the church to excuse and cover up abuse. The church has, far too often, made people who have been abused reconcile with their abusers without holding the abusers accountable. That is not Christ’s faithfulness.
So, what does it mean to be faithful in community? Here I come back to self-emptying. Being faithful in community means that we each are seeking to have that self-emptying attitude that Christ modeled. In good times and bad in our lives together—both when there is celebration and when there is conflict—we are to have that attitude. Last week when we were ready to enter into open worship, I asked us to do so with empty hands, done with grasping; and with quiet hearts, ready to let go of whatever God asks of us; and with a willingness to say, “thy will, and not mine, be done.”
Just as we come before God in this faithful way in worship this morning, we need to come before one another at other times. Faithfulness in community calls for empty hands, disarmed of any tool or even weapon that we might use to advance our own agenda at the expense of others. Faithfulness in community calls for quiet hearts, ready to listen, and ready also when it is necessary, to confront, and to do that in love. Faithfulness in community calls for us to say, “not my will, and not your will, and not even our will, but God’s will, be done.”
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/us/. You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work, as well as to make derivative works based on it, as long as: 1) you attribute whatever part of this work you use to the author, Brian Young, by name; 2) you do not use the work for commercial purposes; 3) you distribute your resulting work only under the same license or a license similar to this one.