I preached this sermon on June 28, 2020, at Bellingham Covenant Church.
There’s a famous quote from Martin Luther King that says 11 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. It’s still a famous quote because, even though he said it in the ‘60s and official segregation ended a long time ago, churches still tend, by and large, to sort themselves out along racial lines. And it isn’t just racial lines; we also tend to sort ourselves out along political and economic lines, as well. We’re drawn to people like ourselves. In fact, in the church-growth movement of the late twentieth century, this kind of sorting was encouraged. It was called the “homogeneous unit principle,” which says that it’s easier to grow your church if you’re reaching people who are just like you. Now, here at BCC we don’t subscribe to the “homogeneous unit principle”; we want to include all kinds of people because we know that all kinds of people are part of the kingdom of God. But there is always a gravitational pull in our society to divide ourselves up according to race, economic status, or political affiliation, and the church will only succeed in our efforts to better reflect God’s kingdom if we’re intentional about resisting this gravitational pull.
We are currently in a series on the book of Philippians. In it, Paul writes from prison to encourage a church he founded in the Greek city of Philippi. Philippi was a colony of Rome, and its residents were proud of that fact. Not everyone in the Roman Empire had the privilege of being Roman citizens, but the Philippians had that privilege. The reason Paul wrote to encourage the Philippian church was that they were being opposed, by their neighbors and possibly even by city officials. We see some of this kind of opposition in Acts 16:20–21: “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:20–21). Do you see the civic pride there, and the resentment of the Christians for upsetting the way things were normally done? The Philippian Christians were probably refusing to take part in the things that their neighbors took for granted as good Romans, like making offerings to the emperor at the local temple. In addition, early Christian churches were places where Jews and Gentiles gathered together in one body, whereas in the rest of society they were usually separate. All of this added up to tense times between the Philippians and their neighbors.
As Steven mentioned in his sermon last week, the pressure that came from opposition threatened to divide the Philippian believers. When you’re suffering, you want to make it stop, and different people come up with different plans for the way forward. Paul writes to the Philippians to help them maintain unity in the good news about Jesus that he had preached to them. Paul seems to indicate in 2:3 that there was a danger among the Philippians of “selfish ambition” (which is a spirit of rivalry, of seeing others in the church as competitors or even enemies) and “vain conceit” (which is a “hunger for glory,” wanting to be seen and to receive praise).Paul’s goal in this passage is to keep the Philippian church from splitting into factions, so he tells them four things to do:
First, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). Behind “conduct yourselves” is the Greek politeuesthe, which refers to citizenship. Paul is taking the background of civic pride in the city of Philippi and saying, “You know what it means to be good citizens of Rome, and what privilege that grants you. What you need to do now is live as citizens worthy of the good news of Jesus. Take on the obligations, and enjoy the privileges, of living in his kingdom.” As he says later in 3:20, “our citizenship is in heaven.” He’s saying, in everything you do, live like you know Jesus is your king and savior, superior to all other authorities. Live there in Philippi, and live here in America, as worthy citizens of your heavenly homeland. Jesus is not something that we can strap onto the top of our current citizenship, where we care about all the same things that our non-Christian neighbors care about, but we just have this hobby of going to church on Sunday. No, it involves a different way of life, a different set of priorities, one that is modeled on the life of Jesus himself. Living like this, Paul says, will give the Philippians strength to endure when their neighbors are ridiculing them for being disloyal to Caesar.
Second, he says, stand firm and united. In verse 27 we read, “Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). He later says in 2:2, “… having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” (2:2). He knows that pressure from outside can lead to warring factions inside. The world is always trying to squeeze you into its mold, to split you into groups who treat other groups with contempt. If you’re on the Right, you’re taught and encouraged to hate people on the Left, to see them as a threat. And if you’re on the Left, you are discipled—I use that term deliberately—you are discipled into seeing the Right as reactionary, and standing in the way of progress. Paul says, don’t let that attitude into the church. If you begin to feel contempt for another person or another group of people, especially in the church, where you have the Spirit of God in common, resist it. That is not the way of the gospel.
Third, he tells the Philippians to accept suffering as a gift. “… without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. … For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” (1:28–29) Don’t panic, says Paul. I grew up reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, and one thing that was always mentioned about the Guide was that it said “Don’t Panic” in large, friendly letters on the cover. Maybe we should start printing Bibles that way, or at least Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul says to the Philippians, What do you have to be afraid of? Even if you do end up suffering for doing good, it will help you to grow more fully into the people God intends you to be. And in our suffering, we can identify with Christ. We ultimately don’t have to be frightened of suffering because Jesus has gone before us and suffered on our behalf. God may not cause our suffering, but when we receive it as a gift, we gain the courage to endure when things look bleak. Suffering is not in any way a sign that God has abandoned us. It is an opportunity to identify with Jesus.
The fourth thing Paul tells the Philippians to do is be humble and service-minded. In 2:3–4 he says, “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” This was countercultural: Humility was frowned on in the ancient world; it was not seen as a virtue. And it is increasingly frowned on today. But for Christians, we have the example of Jesus, which Paul proceeds to lay out in the following verses.
Now, most Christians would agree with Paul’s advice to the Philippians. So why is it so hard to follow? Why do we continue to struggle with our own rivalries and hunger for glory? We are afraid that if we’re humble and put others first, we’ll be taken advantage of. We don’t want to be dependent on God; we want to be self-sufficient. We want to look out for number 1; if we don’t do it, who will? To get the strength to resist these temptations and remain united under pressure, we first need the four things Paul mentions in 2:1.
First, “encouragement from being united with Christ” We need to remind ourselves continually that we are one with Christ. If we are united with Christ, we are also united with one another, as members of his body. That is the truest thing about us, not all of the attributes that we tend to divide over.
Second, “comfort from his love” If we receive the comfort of knowing that Jesus loves us on a regular basis, we are less likely to be hungry for glory. We’ll be less likely to try and justify ourselves or seek the approval of others. We’ll be less likely to try and get the credit, because we know deep down that we are loved already and do not need accolades from other people.
Third, “common sharing in the Spirit” As one of our Covenant affirmations puts it so well, we need a “conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is a person, and if we are united with Christ we have access to him at all times. When we divide, it is often because we don’t take advantage of that resource of the Spirit but try to do things in our own strength. But this will never work. Our sharing is in the Spirit; if we try to base our unity on something else, like the “homogenous unit principle,” it’s not going to work—not over the long haul, anyway. God has not intended for his church to work that way. He made us so that we have to rely on the Spirit to preserve unity.
Fourth, “tenderness and compassion” Here Paul is appealing to the shared history they have with each other and with him. He’s saying, “I know you love each other, and your love is rooted in the love God has for you. You’ve shown that love time and time again. Don’t forget that now that you’re experiencing opposition and suffering.” In the heat of the moment, where you’re feeling threatened, you start to act out of self-preservation. Paul says, in that moment, step back and remember the love and shared history you have.
New Testament scholar Ralph Martin sums up Paul’s advice in 2:1 when he writes,
“The gift of the Holy Spirit and the believer’s conscious experience of his indwelling and activity are the starting-points of the apostle’s appeal. He takes it as a commonly accepted truth which can be verified by personal experience that the believers know this koinōnia [“common sharing”] with the Holy Spirit in all his gracious ministry to their hearts and lives.”Ralph P. Martin, Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary, 99
If we focus on those things Paul talks about in verse 1, we’ll be able to remain unified and put the interests of others in front of our own. Without that, we don’t have a chance.
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was interested in Christian community for his entire adult life. His doctoral dissertation was called Sanctorum Communio, or “communion of the saints.” When he became the director of a small seminary at Finkenwalde, he put into practice many of the things he had learned. Later, he wrote about that experience in his short book Life Together. He has wise words for all of us who would try to seek unity in the church apart from union with Christ and reliance on the Spirit:
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. … Because God already has laid the only foundation of our community, because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, 36
Here’s what this all means for us. We are not facing the persecution that the Philippians were, but like the church in all ages we are always facing pressure to mimic in the church the divisions we see elsewhere. So much of the media that we watch and listen to encourages us to become angry and resentful at people who are regarded as our enemies, and try to humiliate them. And the truth is, this is to be expected of the world. In the world, the closest you can come to unity is an absence of conflict, a kind of cease fire.
But we have the resources for true unity in the church. To maintain unity as a church, we need constant reliance on the Spirit of God to be encouraged and comforted by Christ’s love for us and remind us of his love for others. This doesn’t mean we’ll agree about everything. But reliance on the Spirit will give us the resources to discuss differences without seeing each other as a threat. Without comfort and encouragement from the Spirit, we’ll keep seeing people as rivals and enemies. And we won’t be able to be humble; we’ll keep trying to grab glory for ourselves, wanting to look good and unable to admit when we’re wrong. And we won’t be able to withstand the pressure to treat those who disagree with contempt. The way to kingdom diversity is to first unify around Jesus, and following him in this world together.