A truly Christ-ian community

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Philippians 2:1-11

 

What makes for a truly Christian community?

What would you say makes for a truly Christian community? What does God want and expect to see embodied in us as a Christian community? Another way of putting this is of course the key phrase from last week’s passage – what does it really mean to ‘conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel’?

In some times and places, people might have said a Christian community is one with upright and good people – in particular, people who don’t smoke or drink or swear or gamble. I’m certainly not going to encourage you to go out and do those things, but most of us would agree that’s not really what makes for a truly Christian community. That’s not the heart of it.

What about people who go to church and Bible study regularly? Or at least who watch the livestream most weeks? Sounds pretty important…

People who do lots of good works in the community? Sounds like something God would be looking to see in his people…

Maybe a truly Christian community is one that believes the Bible and holds to its teaching? How could that not be a defining feature?

People who trust and love Jesus and want to praise him? Kind, welcoming people who show practical love for others? Surely!

Of course these are all relevant, and I’m not even saying that aren’t key, defining characteristics. But from our passage today, I think we’re encouraged to see that a truly Christian community is a truly Christ-ian community – that is, a community that is thoroughly focused on and shaped by Christ himself. Churches are to be communities that are characterised by Christ focused unity and built on Christ shaped humility. We are to be a community learning to embody the humble love of Christ as we focus with single-minded unity on Jesus and his mission together.

Now my plan is basically to just walk us through this passage, verses 1-11 of Philippians chapter 2, and see how Paul explains this and calls us to this way of life together. It’s a passage that combines very simple and direct ethical teaching with some of the most profound theological teaching in the whole Bible. And the point is to see how the ethical teaching is based on the theology – what we see and learn of Jesus, and who we are in Jesus, is the basis for how we are to live.

 

Be unified in the gospel because you are unified in Christ (V1-2)

The first main idea is in verses 1 and 2, where Paul calls his readers to be unified in their relationships and in the cause of the gospel, on the basis of the unity they already share as fellow believers in Christ.

Paul writes, Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.”

You might notice that there’s basically two halves to this long sentence – it’s an “if, then” type sentence. If you don’t like chillies, then don’t order the green curry. That type of thing. And the logic here is basically, if you have any participation in the salvation and comfort of Christ (i.e. if you share in the blessings of Christ through faith in him), then live together as people who really do share in the blessings and common hope of Christ! Technically, he says then ‘make my joy complete’ by living this way…etc. But this is really just a gentle and inviting way and urging them to do it. Paul already rejoices when he thinks of the Philippians, but this would really make his cup overflow!

So, the call to live in unity, with unified focus on the gospel, is an implication of their common identity and hope. If, then. In fact, it’s fair to say that what Paul really means is ‘since, then’. The ‘if’ is rhetorical – it’s assumed to be true. Since you share this comfort and hope together in Christ, then live it out! Be of one mind and love together in Christ. That’s the big idea.

But there are a few other things to note about these verses…

 

Therefore…

Firstly, did you notice that verse 1 starts with a ‘therefore’? What Paul says here flows on from and is a logical consequence of what he’s just been talking about, especially in verses 27-30 of Chapter 1. In particular, this call to embody the unity they have in Christ is connected with Paul’s encouragement to ‘conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel’ and to ‘stand firm in one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel’. The only way we can hope to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel is if we work hard at unity – unity in our relationships as people who belong to Christ together, and unity in our mission, working together for the cause of the gospel. If we are to effectively strive together as one for the faith of the gospel, we will need to let our common identity and hope overcome the differences, whatever they might be.

 

4 & 4 (two parallel pictures)

And second, you might have noticed that both halves of the big ‘if, then’ sentence have four overlapping phrases. In each half, Paul builds up a rich picture of what he’s talking about through these different, but related phrases. He explains:

 

If you have…

– any encouragement from being united with Christ

– any comfort from his love

– any common sharing in the Spirit

– any tenderness and compassion

 

Then, make my joy complete by…

– being like-minded,

– having the same love

– being one in Spirit

– and of one mind

The four and four pattern helps us see he’s painting two big complementary pictures with these phrases. We’re not meant to agonise too much about exactly what each phrase means and how it adds something different to what Paul is saying. We’re meant to see how they overlap and reinforce one overall picture.

And as I’ve said, the big picture is pretty clear. The first half is describing in various ways the common experience of comfort, mercy and hope that belongs to people in Christ. And the second half is describing the unity in purpose and relationships that should characterise us as those who belong to Christ. The idea of ‘oneness’ is pretty loud and clear!

 

What kind of unity exactly?

Lastly, I just want to comment a little further on what kind of unity Paul is calling us to as Christian communities here.

As I’ve already indicated a few times, I think the key thing is that it’s a unity that affects both our relationships – the character of our life together – as well as our thinking, our opinions and purpose together – our activities.

 

Unified Purpose

So this means that we should have clarity and agreement about what we are doing together as a church. When it comes to the purpose of life, and in particular, the purpose of our activities as a church, we should be ‘like-minded’, being ‘of one mind’. We should work to resolve differences of opinion over the fundamentals so that we can partner together wholeheartedly and effectively.

It’s not about all being the same, or having the same opinions about everything, as if being a Christian is like being a mass-produced piece of clothing. It’s about sharing a common purpose and working together in this mission rather than running off in different directions with our own ideas about what’s best.

Can you imagine if a fleet of planes were trying to fly together in formation, but there was no real agreement about where they were going and when and where they should turn? Or have you seen those huge swarms of birds swirling and swooping together like one big creature in the sky? Imagine if half of them just decided to do their own thing. It wouldn’t be pretty, and it wouldn’t last long.

We want to have agreement. We want to focus on the goal, and work towards it in unity, each playing our part as a member of a larger body. Like planes flying in formation, or birds flying together, swooping and swarming in breathtaking unity and sensitivity to each other. Not like an explosion of feathers or pieces of aeroplane crashing to the ground…

 

Loving Unity

But it’s not just about having a strong, clear culture of what we’re on about. As people who belong together in Christ, we are called to relationships of loving unity. We work together as people who share the comfort and love of Christ together.

Sadly, there have been plenty of examples, even amongst solid, well-meaning, evangelical Christian churches of pursuing the cause of the gospel with great passion, but without real loving unity. In fact, there is a danger of a strong, driven mission culture becoming hollow, cold and dangerous. People can become parts in a machine rather than brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s a particular danger for leaders, but we all have a responsibility to build a culture of genuine loving unity and oneness in spirit, over and against a culture that prizes results and activity over people. We want our unity in purpose to flow from unity in our relationships – our common identity and love for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

So that’s the first big idea, in verses 1 and 2: be unified in Christ, and in his gospel, because you areunified in him.

 

Pursue unity in the gospel through Christ shaped humility 

The second big idea is that we pursue unity in the gospel through Christ shaped humility. There’s two parts to this point, which cover the whole rest of the passage. First, in verses 3-4, Paul is essentially explaining what it will really involve to embody our unity in Christ – it will mean humbly looking to the interests of others rather than pursuing your own agenda out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. This will be the necessary foundation for real, loving unity in the gospel. Secondly, from verses 5 to 11, Paul then points out that this mindset, this way of approaching life and relationships, is demonstrated most clearly and profoundly in Christ himself, who humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. If we are to pursue Christ focused unity together, we need to first learn Christ shaped humility together.

 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit

So first, in verses 3 and 4, Paul elaborates:

3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

I think it’s hard to make these verses any clearer than face value. They don’t really need much explanation. We just need to pause long enough to take it in… We all know what selfish ambition and vain conceit look like. We recognise it easily enough in other people!

Just the other day, I watched a bunch of young guys crossing the road at the intersection when they should have been waiting, making the cars sit and wait and watch them saunter past, so that not a single car got around the corner on the green light. It’s a small thing – nothing to get too worked up about – but it’s the same underlying sense of self-importance that leads people to cut corners in business for their own gain while others suffer. And it’s the same sad conceit that can lead people in churches to seek positions of leadership and to serve in roles ultimately just to receive applause from others or to make things happen in a way that suits them. It’s the same selfishness that I know is always present in me, ready to shape and motivate my actions.

But it has no place in our life together as a Christian community. Do nothing out of selfish ambition and vain conceit. Do nothing. Whether it’s at home, at work, on the sporting field, in the queue for the bus, studying for an exam, saying something to a friend, sharing a photo on Instagram… whatever it is, do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Especially not in our life together as a church. There is nothing uglier than someone ‘serving’ out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Don’t do it.

 

Rather, in humility…

Instead, Paul says, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

The antidote to toxic vanity and selfish behaviour is humility and genuine concern for others. You might have heard of the Christian term, ‘other-person-centeredness’. It’s based on these verses. We are naturally centered on ourselves. I am the most important person in the universe (apparently we all are!), and so everything revolves around our ambitions and needs.

But Paul explains, the Christian humbly centres themselves on others. They don’t assume they are more important than others. In fact, we are to do the very opposite! We value others above ourselves, looking carefully, pondering, observing what the interests and concerns and needs of others are, even before our own. It sounds unnatural doesn’t it? But it’s beautiful in action.

 

Notice that this is very different from how many people have come to use the word ‘humbled’ in recent times. Have you noticed that? People claim to be humbled as a way of celebrating success and appreciation without trying to seem full of themselves? “Wow, I can’t believe I won the award for best real estate agent of the year! #humbled…”, “Guess who’s been nominated rising star of women’s athletics??! #humbled…”

Now, I know what people mean. They trying to express their surprise and joy at being appreciated and rewarded. It sounds a lot better than, “Of course I won, because I’m the best – I deserve it!”

But it’s not what it really means to be humbled. A more genuine Facebook #humbled post would be something like, “Wow… Got fired today for not being good enough at my job. #humbled…”

But the real problem with that way of thinking about humility is that we’re still focused on ourselves – on our achievements and our successes or failures. What we are being called to do here is to instead focus on others, because we genuinely value others. That’s real humility. Breaking free of the assumption that I am more important, so I will exploit others and life in general for my own ambitions and pleasures. A truly Christian community is one where we work together for the cause of the gospel, embodying the loving unity that belongs to us in Christ, by humbly looking to the interests of each other. If we can live like this at home, at work, on the sporting field, in the queue for the bus, studying for an exam, saying something to a friend, sharing a photo on Instagram… and of course, serving together in church… when we can humbly look to the interests of others in all this, it’s beautiful – breathtaking even.

 

Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus

And as Paul goes on to say, it’s a mindset, a way of life, that we learn first and foremost from Christ himself.“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…” (v5).

And from here, Paul defines this mindset of Christ by presenting to us a narrative of the life of Christ, from eternity before the incarnation to eternity after Jesus returns as Lord of all. And through this narrative, Paul highlights for us the attitude and motivations of Jesus as the supreme example of humble other-person-centeredness.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that this is a very special passage of Scripture. Many describe it as a Christ hymn, expressing in short, moving phrases, profound theology about the person and work of Jesus Christ, that is, what theologians call ‘Christology’. We don’t know whether Paul wrote it himself or whether he is simply including an existing piece of liturgy, recited amongst the early church. It doesn’t really matter either way, what’s important to appreciate are the profound things it says about Jesus, and the way it helps us understand what true Christian humility looks like.

The hymn, or liturgy, consists of two quite obvious sections that almost mirror each other. Verses 6-8 describe the downward journey – the self-humbling of Jesus Christ in his incarnation and crucifixion. Then verses 9-11 describe the upward journey, where God exalts Jesus to highest place of honour and glory in all of creation, because of the way he humbled himself.

 

Jesus, the humble, divine servant (Verses 6-8)

The main thing to appreciate from the first half, the downward journey in verses 6-8, is how Jesus expresses his divine nature in humble service of others. This hymn to Christ begins with Jesus existing in eternity as God, with God. “Jesus, being in very nature God.” It mirrors the grand opening verses of John’s gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God.’ And what does Jesus do as God? What does he do with his God-ness? ‘He didn’t consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.’

This is the key point. Jesus, being God, being in very nature God above all and before all, didn’t consider this something to be exploited for his own gain.

 

And this is not what we’d expect from our experience of life is it?

I saw the movie Shazam a while ago. I thought it was going to be quite lame – in fact, I wasn’t sure why I kept watching it, but I got to that point where I’d invested too much time to stop, and then I actually found it quite funny and enjoyable in the end. Anyway, the main character, this young teenager who was abandoned as a kid, finds himself suddenly able to transform into the superhero of all super heros – basically with all the powers of all the superheros rolled into one. He’s super strong, he can fly, bullets bounce off him, he can bring down lightening on whomever and whatever he wants. Everything.

And at first, all he can think to do is use his powers to satisfy his own petty desires and ambitions. He’s not evil, he’s not doing really bad things, it’s just that he uses his powers in petty ways for his own desires. He has no real concern for why he might have been given these powers – how he might be able to use them for the sake of others. And of course, the bad guy in the movie is the classic example of grasping at god-like powers for the sake of dominating others – using absolute force to get revenge on those who’ve hurt him and get what he wants at the expense of others.

Movies like this present fantastical, imaginative extremes. But they are based on sad reality. The age-old saying is that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Human beings are very good at exploiting positions of power for their own gain. We assume that if we don’t put checks and measures in place, that’s what people will do. And we’d be naïve not to! At best, we use power to look after ourselves, at worst, we use it to dominate and exploit others for our own gain.

And yet, here is Jesus Christ, being in very nature God, not considering his equality with God something to be grasped hold of and exploited for his own benefit, and instead doing the very opposite.

As verse 7 explains, “rather, he made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Jesus didn’t come into existence 2000 years ago with no say in the matter. No, his birth as a human being was the deliberate and voluntary decision of the eternal God to take on human flesh himself for our sake. The birth of Jesus was the God of all creation, the God of unlimited power and glory, taking on the very nature of his own creation. Relatively speaking, making himself nothing.

And he really did make himself nothing didn’t he? He wasn’t born into royalty. He was born into poverty and obscurity. And as a man, he humbled himself to be a servant – a slave – of all. He humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. Romans didn’t even like to talk about ‘the cross’ – that cruel method of execution reserved for slaves and ‘non-romans’. The God of all subjected himself to the ultimate humiliation.

We know from the rest of the Bible that the reason Jesus did this was for our salvation. The motivation and purpose of this suffering and humiliation was for our sake – to bear the punishment for our sin so that we might be forgiven and have life through Christ. But this hymn to Christ assumes all that and focuses instead on the astounding, breathtaking humility it required for Jesus to do it.

And Paul is holding this example out to us and urging us to embrace it in our relationships with each other. This is what it looks like to be Christian. A truly Christian community is a community shaped by the cross of Christ. This is the example and the mindset we are to adopt if we are to value others above ourselves and look to each other’s interests. Decisions and interactions that reflect this kind of love and humility will mark us out as distinctly Christian.

 

Jesus, the Exalted Lord of All (Verses 9-10)

But then, from this point of the lowest of the low, this reflection on the humility of Christ moves to describe his glorious exaltation.

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

             and gave him the name that is above every name,

10          that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

             in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11          and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

             to the glory of God the Father.

Even at face value the glorious position that Jesus is raised up to is abundantly clear. The description of his exaltation is as striking as the description of his humiliation. He is exalted to ‘the highest place’, God gives him the name ‘that is above every name’, and at the name of Jesus ‘every knee bows’; in every sphere of reality – all creatures, whether earthly or spiritual, dead or alive, good or bad – every tongue acknowledges that Jesus Christ is Lord. There is no corner of the created universe that does not submit to Jesus as almighty Lord.

But it helps even more to see how these phrases pick up on language from Isaiah, where God is describing himself as the sovereign Lord of all.

“This is what the LORD says—

   he who created the heavens,

             he is God;

he who fashioned and made the earth,

             he founded it…

He says:

   “I am the LORD,

             and there is no other…

there is no God apart from me,

   a righteous God and a Saviour;

             there is none but me.

   “Turn to me and be saved,

             all you ends of the earth;

             for I am God, and there is no other…

   Before me every knee will bow;

             by me every tongue will swear.” (Isaiah 45:18-23)

You can see the significance, can’t you, of declaring that ‘at the name of Jesus every knee will bow’ and that ‘every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.’ Jesus is exalted to the place of the LORD God almighty and worshipped as the one and only Lord and God of all creation. What the one and only God says belongs to him alone is given to Jesus. There is nowhere else to go, no position higher.

And what Paul wants us to appreciate from this is that it was because Jesus humbled himself that God exalted him. It was because he did not grasp onto his status, but humbled himself, for our sake, to the point of death, that he is exalted in this way. Verse 9 opens, ‘Therefore God exalted him…’ What God exalts is humility and concern for others above ourselves.

In fact, we should appreciate that God exalts Jesus, not despite his humility, not even just because of his humility, but in his humility. The one who God exalts as Lord of all is the one who has humbled himself to death – even death on a cross! It’s at the name of Jesus, the man who was crucified, that every knee bows and tongue confesses. The humble Lord of the cross is the one who is worshipped as the exalted Lord of all. This is the glory of Christ – the glory we are to embody and pursue in our relationships together.

 

A truly Christ-ian community

So what is a truly Christian community? It’s a truly Christ-ian community. It’s a community shaped by and focused on Jesus Christ. It means expressing our common identity and hope in loving unity and single-minded devotion to the cause of the gospel. And it looks like people who are learning to humbly consider the interests of others before their own, captivated by the example of their Lord and God who set aside everything to do just that.