Text: Philippians 2:1-18
Epistle Lesson for Series A, Proper 21
✠ In the name of Jesus. Amen. ✠
Dear saints, have you ever been to a play, ballet or stage performance of any kind? Each performer does their bit, and plays their part. Back in St. Catharines, a few years ago they opened up a new performing arts centre. Laurin and I love choirs and classical
music, so we have had the chance to see the Niagara Chorus and the Niagara Symphony singing and playing Bach, Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Egmont Overature, and Brahms German Requiem. It is definitely something else to hear a choir perform live, instead of just in a recording. In any kind of live stage performance, all the individual performers work together in unity and the result is efficiency and beauty.
So that unity is important for a good production. All the performers know right where to be and what to do so that each move, each line, each note sung with precision. It is like watching a new or classic car engine with all its gears and pistons working together in perfect harmony. But, what if one performer is out of step or out of tune? What if one actor suddenly decides his minor character deserves a bigger role? What if the entire Bass or Soprano section decides to start singing a different tune? The beauty of the performance is ruined and chaos ensues. The beauty of the performance can only be seen when everyone involved was working together towards the same object, when they have the same focus.
It is that single-minded focus and unity which St. Paul is urging upon the Church in Philippi. He wants them to be single minded, to have the same way of thinking. He wants them to have the same love, love toward God and love toward one another. But Paul wants the Philippians to be in full agreement, completely united together in the bonds of Christian unity. And with the divisions we see in the Church, Christian unity really does seem like a far-fetched dream, doesn’t it? And that’s because there are things which threaten their Christian unity. And just as they threatened the unity of the Church at Philippi, they threaten the unity of the Church here in Dryden and Vermillion Bay. The number one threat to Christian unity is SELF. It is our “Old Man”, that in born desire to see ourselves as most important and to seek our own interest over that of others.
Paul says the first way that “self” can destroy Christian Unity is by “selfish ambition”. This is when you have something you want, some goal, and you use manipulation and intrigue to accomplish it. This is when we do something only so that we can get what we want. This is when you’re focused only on selfish gain or purposes.
The second way “self” can destroy unity is “conceit”, having an inflated ego. This is when we think way too much of ourselves. This is an arrogant, prideful preference of ourselves above others. We think of ourselves as more important than others. It’s about me and about my rights, and my time, my money. “We can’t do that, because it would inconvenience me. I don’t like it, so I’m not going to do it and you know, it’s my opinion that really matters in the end. Who cares about fairness, because it’s really all about me.” So much for Christian Unity.
The third way that Paul says “self” can get in the way is by only ever looking out for our own interests. What’s best for me and mine is what really counts. “We look out for ourselves, and you can take care of yourself. I’m sorry I can’t help you, I have to take care of my own things. I’m too busy. I’ve got too much going on to volunteer in that event or go to that study.” Perhaps you’re even so focused on our own interests, that you don’t even see the needs of others in the congregation.
The fourth way that Paul says “self” can get in the way is by “grumbling and disputing”. Remember the case of the Israelites in the wilderness? All they did was complain. They complained about their lack of food. So God gave them They complained about their water. They complained about Moses’ leadership. And it can very much the same among us also. We can complain about Pastor. The Pastor is too old. The Pastor is too young. The Pastor is funny looking. The Pastor isn’t there when I want him to be. We can complain about the music. The music is to old. The music is too contemporary. The music is too hard to sing. The song has too many stanzas. The service is too long. Why do we have to have communion again? We not only we complain, we also dispute. We may have an ongoing argument with another Christian. Complaining and arguing amongst ourselves will ruin Christian unity.
In all of these things Paul is telling us that when we begin to prefer ourselves, our interests, our likes, over that of others, we endanger the unity of the church. We’re like that performer doing his own thing. And we’re all guilty of it. There are occasions where we have not thought about our brothers and sisters in Christ and what they need, and instead focused on what we thought was best for us. We have not “loved our neighbours as ourselves”. So, Paul tells us to look out for others. Think of others as more important and significant than you. Quit looking at your own belly buttons and look at your fellow Christians. Look for ways to help your brothers and sisters in the Church. Take others’ thoughts, feelings, opinions, and needs into consideration.
But, Paul additionally tells the Christians in Philippi to change their focus. Instead of being focused on themselves, they should place their focus somewhere else. Think back to our example. When all the performers are focused around performing that play or piece of music, when that is their focus, then it turns out beautifully. So, Paul tells us to place their focus on Christ and on the Gospel.
Ask yourself for a moment, what kind of God do we have? Have you ever heard someone use the phrase, “My God would never do that!” Perhaps you heard it in the context of a discussion of the punishment of Hell. “My God would never send someone to hell!” Instead of each of us having our own conception of what God is like, Paul here tells us what God is like. In fact, because we believe the Bible is God’s Holy Word, GOD himself is telling us what he is like. If you see a new neighbour who has moved in next door, how do you get to know them? Do you spy on them from behind your curtains and make up your own stories about what they are like? No. You don’t go with what you think they are like, you go over and introduce yourself and let them reveal something of themselves to you. In the same way, don’t go with what you like to think God is like. He has revealed himself.
So, Paul tells us about God the Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Paul says he was “in the form of God”. That is, he was God himself, the eternal creator of the universe. And although the Son was fully God, Paul says “he did not consider his equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” (NIV) How do we know that? Well, what does the Creed say? “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” wrote John. Consider how mind blowing-ly crazy that is! The all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal creator of the everything became a human male. God became a helpless infant boy. And he didn’t just become a man, he became a slave. What do slaves do? They serve others. God came to serve us. He came and went to a bloody death on the Cross of Calvary for us. To serve us. To save us. “For us men and for our salvation.”
You see, that’s the kind of God we have. That’s what God is like: Perfect, just and faithful. But, He didn’t think of himself first. That’s not what He’s like. He looked out for our interests before his own. He came down and served us. Your sins are crimes, high treason, and they deserve the response of a just God. But, He came down from heaven and was born, suffered, and died for you because that’s who he is. He gives himself to us, even to the point of shedding his own blood for us. God has given everything to us, because he has given himself. So, Paul’s point is that when you look at the cross, when you see a crucifix, when you see the incarnate God-Man dying on the Cross, you should realize that this is the true meaning of who God is. Who is God? Everyone in all creation will bend the knee and bow before the Lord Jesus Christ, because He is the Self-Giving God. Self-centeredness fades away in the presence of such a self-giving God. That’s the mind-blowing thing about Christianity. If someone asks you what is God like? Or Who is God? Show them a crucifix, show them the image of Jesus on the Cross. That’s what God is like.
And this is vital to understand for Christian unity. Paul says, “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus”. Through Holy Baptism we have all been united together into the Body of Christ. He has placed His name on you. He has claimed you as His own. He dwells in you. He has given you His Spirit and His good gifts. You see, our old sinful nature still tends to focus on itself. Christ has given us all the same single-minded focus. When we focus not on ourselves, but on Christ and the Gospel, Christian unity follows. It follows because we see what God is like because of who God reveals himself to be. You can no longer be so self-centered because you have such a Self-giving God! He has looked out for your interest. He has forgiven you. He has given you his own Body and Blood to eat and to drink. He uses his Word and Sacraments to strengthen you in faith toward him, and in fervent self-giving love to one another.
✠ And the peace of God, which passes all understanding,
keep our hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ✠