Philippians 2:1-13The Message (MSG)
2 1-4 If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
5-8 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
9-11 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
12-13 What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.
Rev. Julie Jensen
This scripture passage was lived out across Bartow County yesterday. Over 225 people from 5 churches scattered to 25 worksites to illustrate the verses of this passage, “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” Yesterday was “Operation Inasmuch”. This event takes months of planning and coordination, and a lot of behind the scenes work to make happen. Add in volunteers and site coordinators, local businesses, local agencies and their employees, and there are hundreds who spend a morning forgetting themselves and lending a hand for others. The work is not glamorous. There are folks who arranged and delivered flowers, climbed in attics to fix pipes, scraped moldy ceilings, walked dogs, sorted papers and clothing, cooked casseroles, painted parking lots, planted and cleaned up gardens and yards, moved individuals who had to leave their homes, and this was only the tip of the iceburg. We have congregation members who could not come because they spent the day out at Red Top with their spring clean up, sold mattresses to support the band, or spent a portion of the week helping others through Meals on Wheels, the Victim’s Assistance Office, Family Promise, driving for the Shelter, being at Friendship Table or serving on the boards of local organizations. We live out the verse “forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”
The question folks ask is “why”? Why do the members of this church and so many others give of themselves so freely and fully to help others? Why do we give up our time and energy and resources to help strangers? This passage gives us some light on the answer – this is the effect of our loving Christ. The passage for today is part of a letter Paul writes from jail. He writes to a people who are in disagreement in this particular congregation, and this is his response – to remember Jesus. He writes, “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor:” There are 4 “if” statements here that tell us that because the love of Christ has made a difference in our lives, because being together in a community of faith matters to us, because we care, THEN we are called to do a few things, including lend a hand to those in need.
We can look at it like cause and effect. If it rains, then you will get wet without an umbrella. If you don’t brush your teeth, then you will get cavities. If your car is out of gas, then you will not be able to drive it. The cause of our actions is Christ. The effect Christ has on us is love of one another and helping those who need help. But, Paul is not saying that this is straight cause and effect. While there are some guaranteed outcomes – if you stand in the open during the rain you will get wet, Paul is talking about a different if-then. Not a direct effect, but rather a desired action as the result of the cause. I think about it as the Public Broadcasting approach. You may be familiar with the fund drives – I think they may being his week. In the fundraising, there are usually one or two segments detailing why people give. Usually it is as a result of what GPB has done for them – how it has changed their lives, or how they view the news, or how much they get from the programming offered. It is the inverse of cause and effect. “I get and so I give”, rather than “I give and so I get.” That’s where Paul is going – we have received and it has changed us and so we respond. Paul exhorts us to respond in some specific ways.
One of the reasons we are using the Message Translation today is that these are familiar words to us. We hear them preached here fairly regularly, read them frequently, and honestly, after spending a week with articles and commentaries, I found Eugene Peterson’s straight talk / modern language to be what we all might need to hear today. Paul tells us: “do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage.”
These words are counter-cultural today, and they were when Paul wrote them. We live in a society that places great importance on individuality, self-sufficiency, and achievement as the marks of success. We, as people, and as a community, strive to be in the top: to have the best schools and businesses, to have the best homes, to be able to say “I worked hard and look what I got.” We want to show off our “blessings” to praise our children for being at the top of the class, to do what we have to do to climb the corporate ladder to get ahead and to the top. We like to claim the privileges of power, of being one of the “cool kids” or in the right social group. As a society we like to do what we have to do to get to the top so we can enjoy the executive suite, the sky box, the corner office, the luxury home or vehicle, the first class flights to exotic locales. How much of our media consumption focuses on people undermining, backhanding, or competing with one another to win the prize? How many magazine covers show us how to be the “best you that you can be” or tell us how we can get money, power, or fame?
As a society, we have also become one that thrives on discord and disagreement. We think we can do it better than anyone else (whatever “it” might be) and so we stop listening to one another. We think our view of how the nation should be run is the best and only way, and so we shout the loudest on cable news or morning shows and don’t stop to consider the other side – and both sides of the political divide in our country are guilty of this. We live in a time where divisiveness is valued – from both sides. “We” don’t want to look like “them”, even when we have common interests. Paul’s letter describes a way that is the opposite of this.
Note that Paul does not say we cannot excel. Paul does not tell us that we cannot reap the rewards of hard work. Paul does not say that we cannot enjoy what we have been given. But, Paul calls us to other priorities as a result of the love of Christ. If the love of Christ means anything to us, if being in a community of the spirit means anything to us, if we have hearts, or if we care, then we are called to go against the mainstream culture.
Paul asks us to do him a favor. To agree with one another, to love each other, to be deep spirited friends.” Paul exhorts us to be a community of faith – not only within these walls, but in our world. The call to service is last. It comes after the call to be in community, to build relationships, and to listen to differences. Only after we do those, can we move to acts of service that truly follow the example of Christ. Acts of service not done to make us feel good or done so we can say “I did that” but done because it is the selfless “then” that follows the “if”. The effect that follows the cause.
When I looked at the group picture taken yesterday morning, I was moved. It is on the church Facebook album, or if you send me an e-mail, I can send it to you. When you look at it at first, it looks like any other group photo. Kids and short people in front. Those who want to hide are behind the tall people. Not everyone looks at the same place at the same time. 225 people in the Sanctuary at Heritage Baptist Church. We were 5 congregations with different practices and different beliefs. What moved me was what I knew about the behind the scenes. You see, Heritage Baptist does something like this monthly, on a smaller scale. The inclusion of the other congregations once a year came about partly as a result of our Thursday Morning coffee conversations. Each Thursday local clergy gather at Starbucks before we head into our churches for conversation and fellowship. I don’t know that y’all realize how rare this group is. Many communities have a “ministerium” that functions to plan community worship events, and meet weekly or monthly to conduct business. But this group did not begin to plan events. We began because our congregations were working together on Bartow Give a Kid a Chance, and as the clergy interacted during the planning meetings, we decided wanted to spend more time together. Not working, but as colleagues and friends. We talk about church in the broader sense – what is happening across the country or in the world with churches. We may discuss theology or local affairs. This group is open to any pastors who want to come. And it works because ingrained in the DNA of the group is the recognition that we will not all agree on everything. Theologically we are diverse, politically we are diverse. We are different ages and in different life stages. Our community in this setting is based on the common belief that Jesus is Lord. We all agree on that, and we all agree that we are not going to try to change one another’s minds about much else. However, we discuss, we listen, we debate (sometimes), we challenge one another. This is a place that models Paul’s letter. By our agreeing on the common tenet of our faith, we have been able to love one another and be “deep spirited friends”. We disagree with each other sometimes, we may not all share the same opinion, but we have been together long enough to build relationships with one another. There is no “our church is better than yours” or “look what we have done” or “our stewardship campaign beat yours because we did what we had to to get ahead.” This is not a place where we are trying to get to the top or put ourselves first personally or professionally. It is a place where we set ourselves, and our individual churches aside to help the body of Christ in this community succeed. It is because of the relationships nurtured over lattes and dark roast at a table that we can help others as a community in the community. If we put our ambitions aside, we can help others get ahead.
How are we building relationships here? Ask yourself this – when is the last time you spoke to someone new at church? Not new as in the sense of they have not been here very long – though I encourage that. New as in the sense of outside the group you normally encounter. When is the last time you sat at a different table at family night, or had a cup of coffee with someone you did not know very well? Have you – gasp – tried sitting in a different spot and making friends with the person whose head you have been looking at for years? I will confess it is hard to stretch in that way. We come to church to fellowship with those we know. We come looking forward to catching up with our friends that we have not seen all week. We want to nurture those relationships. I get it, and I am guilty of it myself. But what would happen if we actively sought out the company of those whom the only thing we have in common with is the fact that we confess Jesus is Lord? If we engaged in debate and discussion not worrying about what we will say next, but rather listened deeply to those who may be different. How can we build deeper friendships here, so that when we move to service, we have a solid foundation upon which to build?
I think sometimes we here at FPC are good at the serve others part. At the Mission Committee meeting last week we discussed the challenge of getting congregation members to sign up for mission at FPC because so many of us are involved in mission outside of our walls, and serve God that way. Where we can sometimes struggle is in setting aside our own wants and wishes, our own agendas and plans to simply be with one another, to listen without hope for personal gain, or a chance to show off our personal achievements.
This passage comes to my mind frequently in the life of this congregation. It comes to mind when I think about those who strive quietly to build relationships and then give a helping hand. I remember when I learned about one of our members who was instrumental in bringing a program for children and youth to Bartow county. He and I had spoken several times abut other facets of his life, but never about this. Yet the time and energy given to this endeavor were done quietly, and without a need for recognition. I was here yesterday after Operation Inasmuch and saw the car of a staff member and a volunteer in the parking lot – folks giving of their Saturdays quietly doing what needed to be done, not from a sense of needing recognition, not from a sense of personal advancement, not to be seen as better or a martyr, but simply because they serve. I listen to conversations where I know both parties disagree on a variety of social issues, and yet they plan an event together and think to myself, “that’s it, they got it.”
I know y’all well enough to know that the “if’s” of this passage are true. You all can proclaim that the love of Christ has made a difference in your lives. You can proclaim that you have gotten something out of following Christ. You value being in the community of the Spirit. You have heart, and you care – many of you care passionately and deeply. So if any of this is true for us, then what’s next? How will we then strive to agree with one another – not about everything but about the main thing? How do we then build deep-spirited friendships with the whole community? How then do we shift away from putting ourselves at the top of the list and the front of the line? How do we, as a community of faith do all of that so that we can forget ourselves long enough to continue to lend a helping hand where it is needed? The cause of our actions is Christ — what is the effect on how we live with one another and be the church together?