Today is a good day. Today we celebrate our common commitment to Christ as we come together to better follow and serve Christ. Two churches coming together and becoming one isn’t unheard of. In fact, these days it is becoming increasing common. Sadly, stories of churches coming together, working together, even becoming one aren’t covered in the newspapers and on the news. They’ll cover church the stories of churches splitting up and falling apart though. The media loves to cover those stories. They certainly covered the story of a church in Dallas whose membership had become bitterly divided. The division escalated to the point where each side in the dispute sued the other trying to kick the other side out and take possession of the church’s property. The judge ruled that this wasn’t a matter for a secular court and sent the case before their denomination’s ecclesiastical court, which decided to award the property and building to one side in the dispute. The losers left and started their own church nearby. Sometimes people view those kinds of church starts as failures, but I believe, if handled properly, they serve as reminders of God’s grace in the midst of terrible circumstances. Well, the Dallas newspapers reported that the church court had traced the conflict all the way back to its source – a church dinner at which an elder had received a smaller slice of ham than a child seated next to him.[i] Yeah, the press ate that up, and the people of Dallas got a good kick out of it.
Leslie Flynn even wrote a book called Great Church Fights, in which he tells the story of a Welsh church that was divided over who should be the next pastor. As Flynn describes it, “Yesterday the two opposition groups both sent ministers to the pulpit. Both spoke simultaneously, each trying to shout above the other. Both called for hymns, and the congregation sang two (at the same time) – each side trying to drown out the other. Then the groups began shouting at each other. Bibles were raised in anger. The Sunday service turned into a bedlam. Through it all, the two preachers continued to outshout each other with their sermons.
Eventually a deacon called a policeman. Two came in and began shouting for the congregation to be quiet. They advised the 40 persons in the church to return home. The rivals filed out, still arguing.” He goes on to say, “Last night one of the group called a ‘let’s-be-friends’ meeting. It broke up in argument.” The newspapers and their readers got a big kick out of that one too.[ii] In the 133rd Psalm, David writes, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” Sadly, the opposite it far too often true.
And then this week I read an article put out by an Ohio State University psychologist stating that while overall religion is relatively popular in the United States, the percentage of Americans believe in God, participate in a church and pray daily has declined rapidly just in the past 8 years.[iii] Now, he doesn’t blame church fights and division for the decline. He lists other factors. But what struck me is that we live in a world that is dying without Christ in increasing numbers every day and Christ’s church in the world is consumed with in-fighting, division, and bitterness. So today is a good day. Today is a day we celebrate the unity we have in Christ. Today we experience and celebrate the goodness of brothers and sisters in Christ dwelling together in unity, declaring emphatically that we are better together than we were apart and we are going to reach out as one body in this community with the light of Christ alive in our hearts and shining among us.
St. Paul was always concerned about the unity of Christ’s church in the world. In his letter to the Philippian Christians he quickly shared with them his concern for their life together as the body of Christ and their witness for Christ in the world. “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the Gospel of Christ …” He then spelled out what he meant by that. “… so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm on one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Ph. 1:27). Those are the words he is referring back to when, in the first four verses of chapter 2, he emphasizes life together in the body of Christ, highlighting the truth that to follow Christ is to live in relationship with others who are doing the same, to serve and sacrifice together in the world as the people of God.
He begins by describing what we share together in Christ. Look at V. 1: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from live, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy …” The overarching theme of the first half of chapter 2 is our life together in Christ, and he lists four things that we share together in Christ. The first is encouragement in Christ. The word “encouragement” also means “comfort.” In fact, the second thing Paul mentions is closely related to the first: “comfort from love.” When we are united in Christ, we experience the encouragement and comfort of Christ. And we experience it through one another. We certainly receive the comfort of Christ as we read, study, and meditate on the word of God for ourselves, but remember, Paul is talking about the body of Christ together here. Whenever we gather together, whether it be in a worship service or prayer meeting, or to study the Word of God, or to serve together in the community, we are to uphold, support, encourage and comfort one another.
And we are to do that “in Christ.” IN CHRIST. It is a phrase that Paul uses over and over again to describe the position, the state of being of those who place their faith in Christ. In Romans he tells us that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (8:1), that the Holy Spirit sets us free from bondage to sin and death in Christ (8:2), that believers everywhere form one body in Christ (12:5). In Corinthians that even though we die a physical death, we live on in Christ (1 Cor. 15:22), that we are new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). In Galatians that we have freedom in Christ (2:4), that we are justified before God in Christ (2:16), that in Christ we are children of God (3:26). And then in Ephesians, he uses the phrase 10 times in the first 14 verses to hammer home the reality that all who place their faith in Christ take part in all that Christ has done and all that Christ is.
As believers in Christ, his life becomes our life, his death becomes our death, and his resurrection becomes our resurrection. Over and over again Paul describes us as being in Christ. And Christ being in us. In Colossians he says that Christ in us is the hope of glory (1:27). In Galatians he says that he will keep working until Christ is formed in us (4:19). Our position in Christ and Christ in us: those are two sides of the same coin. Authentic believers, true followers of Christ, live and breathe IN CHRIST. And in Christ, we share with one another the loving encouragement, comfort, and consolation of Christ. We love one another with the love of God that is alive in our midst. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). As we go out into the world to love and to serve, which we must do, it will be our love for one another as we live and serve together that sets us apart as not just another community service organization but the actual, living, breathing, moving body of Christ loving the world. It is our love for one another as we love and serve together that is to be our hallmark, not division and infighting.
The third thing Paul mentions is “participation in the spirit.” The word translated as “participation” there is the word “Koinonia,” which is most often translated “fellowship.” The picture it paints is of close fellowship with or participation in something. The key thing I want us to notice though, is that it is an active word, not a passive one. Koinonia is more than a few minutes after worship in coffee hour and an occasional potluck. It describes doing life together, loving and encouraging one another, fully participating in life together. Potlucks and coffee hours can certainly be an expression of this kind of fellowship and enhance it, and we do them, but we’re talking about more than just a few minutes once a week. We’re talking about a community that identifies with Christ and one another and is actively committed to Christ and to one another. And it is life together brought about by the Holy Spirit’s work among us, drawing us together, uniting us in Christ. It is not something we can artificially manufacture, but it IS something we can seek God for.
The fourth thing in Paul’s list is “affection and sympathy.” He’s kind of restating the first two, loving encouragement and comfort in Christ, but he deepens the meaning. The word for affection here actually means “bowels.” It literally reads, “any bowels and sympathy.” Weird, I know. But in the ancient world, especially for Greeks and the Jewish people, tender emotions were viewed as originating deep within a person. Things that we typically view as surfacy emotions, things like affection and sympathy, were actually viewed as anything but surfacy by Paul and the people he was writing to. Affection, sympathy, and mercy are far more than just an emotion. They have an emotional component, but they’re so much more than that. When they’re real, authentic, they come from deep within a person and drive that person to action, to do something for someone.
Taken together, these four things: encouragement in Christ, comfort from love, participation in the Spirit, and affection and sympathy paint a picture of an active, action-creating commitment to Christ and to one another as the body of Christ, filled by the Holy Spirit and serving one another and serving as the people of God in the world together. They are evidence that we are living together in a way that is worthy of the gospel of Christ. Now, look at Vv. 2, 3, and 4: “… complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” He then paints a picture of what that looks like. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Paul isn’t calling for uniformity here. He’s calling for unity, and there’s a difference. Uniformity values external sameness. Kids who go to private schools sometimes have to wear uniforms. They all dress alike. Teams wear uniforms that all look the same. Uniformity is sameness. That isn’t what Paul is talking about here. Unity is very different than uniformity. Unity is much deeper. Uniformity goes no deeper than the surface. There is no diversity at all. Churches that value uniformity develop lists of rules and regulations to control people so that everyone acts the same. And before worship, people put on their Christian uniform and go to church. They wear whatever the culture of the church dictates, plaster a smile on their faces even if its fake, say and do the right things for a few hours, and then go back to real lives that aren’t at all impacted by their experience of worship together. Unity is much deeper. Unity springs out of our common connection to Christ. Unity actually requires diversity. A uniform church is made up from people who all come from the similar walks of life, blue collar, white collar, rich, poor, suburban, urban, whatever. A unified church is made up of people who don’t necessarily look, act, and talk alike, and who don’t necessarily all come from the same walk of like.
Those of you from Peninsula Bible Church have often heard pastor John refer to the congregation as a collection of ragamuffins following Jesus together. That’s a great picture! The idea comes from Brennan Manning’s book “The Ragamuffin Gospel,” which I highly recommend you read if you haven’t. A collection of ragamuffins following Jesus together. That gets at what Paul is describing here. We don’t all look alike, or talk alike, or even live alike, but we come together in Christ, united by our love for Christ and the love he calls us to have for one another. And so a plumber, a farmer, a CEO, and a doctor might find themselves serving in a ministry together, even on a board together. And each one is looking out not just for his or her own interests, but also the interests of others. Notice that we don’t ignore our own needs, our own interests. But we are to highly regard the interests of others. In the type of community Paul describes here, you don’t have to obsess about your own interests, your own territory, your own ideas and perspectives, wants and needs, because we are each looking out for each other. And we are already practicing that here.
The doors of this building are open to the public, specifically the very poor, the hungry, four days a week – Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday through the food pantry and the community meal. And although we have been and will continue to take every precaution to make sure that things that aren’t supposed to be taken aren’t taken. But sometimes things happen. Just this week, we had purchased some flowers for one of the flowerbeds for the kids to plant during TACO week. And one night the flowers were brought in overnight and placed on a rack that typically has food for food pantry guests. Well guess what … guests from the food pantry took them, because they were accustomed to that rack having things they could take on them. You know what my perspective on that is? It’s ok. Loving people in the name of Christ is worth more than the cost of a few geraniums. We went and got more. And lesson learned: “don’t put things you want to keep on that rack.” Move on and keep loving people.
Why? Because that is the heart of Christ, and his people are to take on his character. Look at Vv. 4-8. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus …” There’s that “in Christ” again. Do you get the implication of those words? In Christ, because his life is your life, what Paul is about to describe already belongs to you. So pick it up and put it on. “Have the mind of Christ among you … who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” This is an incredibly vivid description of who Jesus is, and it’s also a call to us. In the mind of Christ there is a lack of selfish grasping at something, whether it be status, or influence, or position, or a possession in the mind of Christ. Those who are in Christ refuse to grasp at things, fight over things, positions, influence, our way versus your way, and instead esteem and show a deep concern for the needs of the other. In place of selfish grasping is humble service. Humility is a difficult concept to grasp.
C.S. Lewis has probably the best description of humility I’ve found. In his book Mere Christianity, he says that “true humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” He then goes on to describe it this way: “To even get near [humility], even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert. Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.” In Christ we are to humbly concern ourselves with the needs of one another, to love and serve one another, to be committed to Christ, and because of Christ, to one another above and beyond anything else.
And humble servanthood leads to radical obedience that follows Christ even at great cost to the self. We live in a world of people who serve, who help out when it’s convenient, every once in a while. We choose whom, when, and how we will serve. We stay in charge. Jesus doesn’t call us to serve. He calls us to become servants, and there’s a world of difference. Those who serve serve whom they want to serve, when and how they want to serve. Servants are at the disposal of their master to do whatever needs to be done, wherever it needs to be done, for whomever it needs to be done. Jesus doesn’t want people to serve. He wants servants, for he, the Lord of all, made himself a servant of all. And he has given us his life. He is bringing out his character in us. He is forming his mind in us. And so we will serve, together in this community, and we must serve one another. Today is a great day. Today we set aside self as servants of Christ. May we be known as a people who love one another as we follow Christ together, worshipping together, studying the Word of God together, and serving our community together for the glory of God. May we look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of one another, and to the interests of those who will come through our doors seeking a hot meal and food for their pantry, and maybe, accidentally, a flower or two every once in a while. I hope those flowers brighten someone’s day.
[i] J. Dwight Pentecost, The Joy of Living: A Study of Philippians, as quoted in R. Kent Hughes, Philippians: The Fellowship of the Gospel (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2007). Pg. 73.
[ii] Leslie Flynn, Great Church Fights (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1976). Pg. 53.
[iii] Steven Reiss, Organized religion on the decline. www.osu.edu.