Updated: Aug 26, 2022
As we have made note of repeatedly in this series, a dominant theme early in Philippians is Paul’s insistence that his imprisonment not be viewed by the Philippian church through the lens of despair. It might look to them like the darkness is winning but Paul insists that despite his chains the gospel message continues to powerfully advance. He seems to recognize, in fact, that his present suffering is not only tolerable, given the outcome, but that it is instrumental in producing it. His suffering he views not as a burden but as a gift. And so he celebrates. “Yes, I will indeed rejoice!” (Philippians 1:18)
Paul is urging the Philippians to bring him to his feet in joyous celebration by being one in Christ.
This mind blowing perspective serves in the letter to prepare the reader for Paul’s plea for unity. The Philippian church is facing a great trial themselves, a trial that threatens to tear them apart, and Paul understands that the key to getting through it as one is to recognize what he recognizes – their sufferings are a gift to be embraced in the service of Christ. It is within this context that Paul urges the believers in Philippi to make his joy complete by being of one mind. Anyone who knows Paul, knows the value he places on Christian unity. For him it’s not a bonus feature that’s nice to have if you happen across it. For Paul this is essential – one of the key indicators that Christ is reigning in the midst of his people. “Fill up my joy,” says Paul. He is urging the Philippians to bring him to his feet in joyous celebration by being one in Christ.
Christian unity is a high calling; it’s much easier to preach about than to practice. The history of the movement that includes the Churches of Christ reveals that our original plea was that Christians would set aside their denominational differences and unite in Christ. We were pleading for unity among all Christians. I’m proud of that part of our heritage. We dreamed of great things; yearning, hoping and praying that we might cease from our divisions and put Christianity back on rails, bound for glory. But we were not without our train wrecks – some of them disastrous. What we dreamed about with such hope and optimism ended up somehow contributing to the problem rather than solving it.
As Christians this ought to break our hearts.
There have been many train wrecks in the history of Christianity. Yet the Christian faith wasn’t launched with the aim to fracture communities. At the heart of Christianity is the creation of one family in Christ – a family that models his love for the world. And yet have a look around; the dream that was launched has too frequently ran ashore on the reefs of division and discord. As Christians this ought to break our hearts.
I was captured by Christ as a 19 year old. I heard the gospel on the streets of Edmonton; I picked up my first bible on Jasper avenue and I devoured the story of Jesus Christ. His love is what won me; his love is still what won’t let me go. But my story (like our story as a church, and like larger story of Christianity) has had its dark moments as well – moments when my witness for Christ was very much un-Christ-like. Moments when generosity of spirit was suppressed by judgment and criticism, moments when fear triumphed over love and my witness for Christ was anything but. There are still times today when I bear the fallout of my former judgmental spirit. By that spirit I created a distance and distrust that I still have to work at overcoming to this day. We have the same struggle as a church, and the same is true for the worldwide body of Christ. Daily, in too many ways to count, the witness for Christ has been obscured by our divisive spirit.
I’m reminded of this ugly side of our story today because of Paul’s urging in Philippians 2:2 to “Think the same thing,” or to “Have the same mind.” This text was designed to bless and to unite brothers and sisters and yet there have been times when it was hijacked and used to foster division instead. Paul meant for these words to bring us together but sadly I’ve seen them used to drive us apart. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never heard anybody say, “Let’s exploit this text and make it serve a different agenda!” But I have seen these words used to promote the idea that unless we have absolute doctrinal conformity among us that we cannot have fellowship with one another. I’ve seen these lovely words from Paul twisted to mean that you must see everything exactly as I see it. I’ve not only seen it done, I’ve done it myself!
When we tell ourselves that this text means that we must have doctrinal conformity on all issues it compels us on an ugly journey to convert others to our way of thinking instead of to our Lord Jesus Christ. The difference may seem subtle when we’re battling it out in the trenches but the ramifications are huge. For in our worst moments – in my worst moments – instead of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus we proclaimed ourselves. Our sermons became more about how right we were and how wrong they were while the gospel – the glorious good news of Jesus – was sidelined.
On a weekly basis I meet with a group of fellow preachers, ministers, and pastors here in Lloydminster with the aim to simply study Scripture together, to pray together and to confess our sins to one another. It’s one of the highlights of my week. There is a generous spirit there that comes from God. In my conversations with my fellow ministers across the denominational spectrum, I assure you that we’ve all wallowed through these same mud holes; we all in our own ways have the same skeleton in the closet. There have been times when we have all promoted ourselves, our particular brand of Christianity, instead of our Lord Jesus Christ. We’ve all had our own ways of doing that; none of them are pretty.
Just the other night Sabra and I watched a movie called Woodlawn. I highly recommend it. It’s based on a true story. The movie is set in Birmingham Alabama in 1973. The US government had mandated that the school systems desegregate, that the black students and white students attend the same schools. This move highlighted a lot of ugliness as white culture and black culture met in the classroom and on the football field. Woodlawn is the name of the High School in Birmingham Alabama. The star of the movie is a young black man by the name of Tony Nathan. This is where the legendary running back who later played in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins got his start. A young black kid living in the midst of the era of desegregation. The movie does a good job of depicting a community divided along racial lines, black against white and white against black. This ugliness spills over into the classroom, of course, and onto the football field where the young Nathan just wants to play football.
You’ve seen the footage from the days of Martin Luther King and know the racial tensions that were alive and well in his day. King was assassinated in 1968; this took place only 5 years later – the racial tensions were still very real. Hatred continued to run deep despite the fact that on both sides of the divide there were devout, God fearing, Christian people attending segregated churches.
Woodlawn High put those two groups together in a room – on a football team – and God did something astounding there. What would happen if tomorrow we were thrown together against our wills with another Christian community in this town? Pick the one you think we have the least in common with. Would there be tolerance or hatred? Would the Spirit of Christ prevail among us or would this be an opportunity for ugliness to have its way? Would God do something astounding among us or is that only something that can happen among teenagers on a football field?
Folks we don’t have to wait for a radical challenge such as that to plug into the message that Paul has for us. We can plug into it right here in this building. What are the walls that stand between you and me? in what ways are we a divided community, and in what specific ways can we become one in Christ in all the ways that he would have us be? How can we contribute to making Paul’s joy overflow?
Last week we focused our attention on Philippians 1:27-30 where Paul exhorts the believers in Philippi to ‘above all else’ conduct themselves in a manner that was worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we spent some time talking about what that might mean. Paul is urging the Christian community in Philippi to think differently about suffering. He is urging them to re-evaluate everything in light of the gospel. And right at the heart of what Paul wants to say about this radical transformation of how we are to see ourselves, our suffering, and our lives as Christians, is his admonition to unity.
Philippians 1:27-28 (My translation)
27Above all conduct yourselves as citizens in a manner consistent with the good news of Christ. Then, whether I see you in person or only hear from a distance about you, I will find you standing firm in one spirit, contending together as one person for the faith of the good news.
This is what Paul picks up on again in our text for today.
Philippians 2:1–4 (My translation)
2:1Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ , if there is any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2fill my joy to overflowing by being of the same mind, having the same love, existing as one person, thinking as one. 3Let no one be driven by self centered ambition on a vain quest for his own glory. Rather with humility of mind consider others’ needs as being of greater significance than your own. 4No one should have an eye out only for what concerns them; everyone should be on the lookout for the interests of others.
Paul’s plea for unity beats at the heart of this text.
“Fill my joy to overflowing,” Paul urges from prison.
“How do we do that?” we ask.
And he responds, “by being of the same mind, having the same love, existing as one person, thinking as one.”
Instead of us filling Paul’s joy to overflowing, I suspect he’s turning over in his grave.
This unity Paul speaks of here is not about us all signing onto some creedal confession; this is not insisting that we all have reached the same conclusions on a host of doctrinal stances. That kind of unity does indeed exist in Christendom today. That’s why we’re over here and they’re over there. We are united around our sacred doctrines and they around theirs. And our witness sits broken, fractured and ineffective for Christ. Paul would have been absolutely horrified. Instead of us filling Paul’s joy to overflowing, I suspect he’s turning over in his grave.
The Christian community in Philippi was in danger of fracturing. We don’t know all the details but in chapter 4 we get a glimpse into one situation. There Paul names a couple of the leading women who apparently were having trouble getting along. Aren’t we always having trouble getting along? I have my position on a particular issue, you have yours. We’ve exchanged words, we’ve dug in, we’ve rallied support. I’ve been hurt, and so have you. From my perspective you’re clearly being pig headed. From your perspective I refuse to even consider where you’re coming from. And the walls go up…
Paul has a solution to this problem! He doesn’t ride into town and with authority sort our all our doctrinal issues; he doesn’t wade into our controversies and offer his opinion about who’s right and who’s wrong. Paul has something else on offer here and he thinks it’s the solution to the dilemma of church disunity.
Paul turns our attention to Christ, and will ultimately present the glorious Christ hymn in 2:5-11 as the solution to our dilemma. We’re going to focus there next week, but this week we’re going to note how he sets us up to hear those words well. The point of the beautiful Christ hymn is not to present us with some new doctrinal positions to argue over. It’s not some abstract piece of theology. The function of the Christ hymn is intensely practical. Paying close attention to how Paul introduces it will help us to see this.
2:1Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ , if there is any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2fill my joy to overflowing by being of the same mind, having the same love, existing as one person, thinking as one.
Paul begins by urging us to focus our common experience in Christ. When Paul says, “Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ,” he’s not focusing on the ‘if’ part of this equation, entertaining the idea that there might not be any encouragement by virtue of our relationship to Christ. No, his emphasis is on the ‘any’. “Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion…” In Christ has there ever been a moment when he picked you up and consoled you, when he embraced you with affection and compassion? And we all nod our heads as we remember Christ’s astounding generosity with us. And then Paul says, “If this is true, then get on with it and fill my joy to overflowing by being of the same mind…”
Being of the same mind insists that we’re on the same team struggling together as one unit.
being of the same mind… What is he talking about? He’s talking about the same thing he was talking about in 1:27-30 – living a life that is consistent with, or worthy of, the gospel of Jesus Christ. He’s talking about a mindset that fully embraces the gospel – one that is transformed by it and one that puts us on a common trajectory in the service of Christ. Being of the same mind insists that we’re on the same team struggling together as one unit. If Christ, through the gospel has embraced each one of us, then our only reasonable response is to embrace one another. Paul is urging us to redraw how we see ourselves in light of Christ. This, in turn, ought to redefine how we conduct ourselves in community, not only when everything is going well but when things are challenging too. When tension arises between us, when old wounds come to the surface, when we get hurt by those close to us, how will we respond? We will insist that we remain as one!
Paul’s point is that in Christ we no longer act as a collection of individuals but as one person, one family. Through the gospel we have been embraced by the love of Christ and now we find his heart beating in our chests, stoking our affections for one another. Whatever we face, this we will not abandon! This outworking of the gospel in the body of Christ is what thrills Paul to no end. This is what brings him to his feet in celebration.
3Let no one be driven by self centered ambition on a vain quest for his own glory. Rather with humility of mind consider others’ needs as being of greater significance than your own. 4No one should have an eye out only for what concerns them; everyone should be on the lookout for the interests of others.
We will be insistent that we too get to participate in the emptying ourselves for the sake of others
Verse 3 talks about not being driven by self centered ambition – that’s just the opposite of being ‘one’, isn’t it? It also talks about considering others’ needs as being of greater significance than your own. This is not about seeing yourself as a piece of trash to be walked on. This is about looking at your brother or sister as if they were royalty and treating them as such – someone who has a higher social standing than you. As a people who have had our minds captured by the glorious truth of the gospel, how can we continue to live only for ourselves, serving our own agendas? No, along with Paul, we will be insistent that we too get to participate in the emptying ourselves for the sake of others – least of all our brothers and sisters in Christ.
It's time to get on with the business of working together for the cause of Christ. And that begins with a focus on the cross – what Jesus accomplished there, and how he accomplished it. It’s time to cease from wrangling over our differences and to invest in bringing the best out of each other in the service of Christ.
In the movie Woodlawn the black students and white students found their unity on the field. It was there that they discovered each individual’s intrinsic worth. It was there that they broke down the barriers and accepted each other as they faced a common opponent. It was there that they learned to stand as one.
But it wasn’t an easy journey. They had to work through it. And that began with the insistence that they must work together. They had to look past what divided them and focus on what made them one.
The challenge is the same for us, brothers and sisters. We won’t find this kind of unity without the same determination. Paul points us to our common experience in Christ to drive us together. He’s the coach who insists on it, who believes in the team and the ideal we are striving for. And he won’t compromise!
You’ve seen the scene in a football game when the coach leaps for joy on the sidelines. What will move Paul to the same moment of elation is when we come together as one.
Fill up my joy!