This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Philippians 2:1-11
Sermon prepared by Rev. Jack Westerhof, Sarnia, ON
Dear People of God, A young rabbi found a serious problem in his new congregation. During the Friday service half the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition. Nothing the rabbi said or did moved toward solving the impasse. Finally, in desperation, the young rabbi sought out the synagogue’s 90 year-old founder. He met the old rabbi in a nursing home and poured out his troubles. "So tell me, was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during prayers?"
"No," answered the old rabbi.
"Ah, then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers?"
"No," answered the old rabbi.
"Well, what we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout, and the other half sit and scream."
"Ah," said the old man, "that was the tradition."
Whenever two or more are gathered together, people will come down on different sides. There will be differences. Dissent. Conflict. It’s been that way since the beginning of the Christian church. It was there in the churches served by the apostle Paul. It was there in that very gifted and charismatic church of Corinth, and it was there in the church in Philippi.
It’s hard to say what the conflict in Philippi was about, but we know it threatened this church because Paul turn his letter into a plea for harmony and unity. He reminds the Philippian Christians of their union with Christ, and he pleads with them to adopt the mind of Christ. They enjoy the love and acceptance of God, it is their hope, they revel in it. Now let that love and compassion flow, he pleads with them, and let it flow in your relationships. This is what it takes for God’s people to make an impact on their neighbors, to shine like stars in the night! You can see how that speaks to us today. We want to mirror Christ. We want his compassion to show and flow through this congregation. We love to sing "They will know we are Christians by our love." Yes, that’s how they’ll know. And for that love to show, we need harmony, a real, deep-rooted harmony and unity in Christ. We need the heart and mind of Christ. That’s essential for a vibrant church, for you know it well: a warring church is an unattractive church. Paul knew what makes for conflict. Sustained conflict is always about power, power over others. Sustained conflict is about differing groups each trying to assert their dominance, to get the upper hand. Sustained conflict by its very nature is divisive. It’s about a winner and a loser. It is about having someone on top and someone on the bottom. It is about someone being powerful and someone being powerless. Sustained conflict, whether in the home, at work, or in the church is always about power, power someone or some faction is asserting over others.
And Paul knew that where this happens in a church, it easily becomes a way of life. It becomes the way we deal with issues, the way we handle differences; it gets to be accepted as the norm. And once it’s rooted in the church, it will not matter what the issue is. For instance, the presenting issues might be that "We must maintain the truth, and standards," on the one side, and "We need to be relevant, we need to speak to our times to make a difference," on the other. And of course, both of these are right and true—but often the issue that’s really driving the conflict, but not presented, is this need for power, the need to control, the need to have this dominance. We’ve seen the upshot of this sort of power in our churches. We’ve seen families divided, we’ve seen churches split, and we’ve let the young be scattered to the winds in the course of our conflicts. Time and again we’ve seen beautiful and vibrant congregations divided, their members sadly out of step, winners and losers: losers who resent their plight, winners who by winning their battles lose the war.
In Philippians 2 the apostle Paul points out a better way. A way for us to mirror Christ, a way for us to serve each other with our power, to bless each other with our differences. One thing needs to be in place: that Christ is in our lives, that he’s begun to make a difference. "If this moves you at all," Paul writes, "if your Saviors mercies move you, if his Spirit blesses you, then you—who with your loving gifts have given me such joy already—make my joy complete by now also making that spill over in your attitude to others—others with their differences, others you’ve got issues with, others you simply do not understand or even like, others with whom for a host of reasons you could easily live in perpetual conflict with. Please, on the strength of the new life that’s begun to live within you, be of one mind, love each other, be together where it counts, be together in love and spirit and propose."
That’s quite a challenge, and we need to see precisely what it is we’re asked to do. Does he want all of us to end up perfectly agreed on everything, to think alike on every point of doctrine, ethics, worship style, dress and decorum? Is he asking for cookie-cutter uniformity? We all know the answer to that. Paul isn’t asking for uniformity—he’s asking for unity, for commitment to the greater good, the larger purpose. He’s not asking us to leave our differences at home. He’s asking us, precisely with our differences, to major in the common purpose, to commit ourselves to one another and to the mission that our Master makes us share! So, uniformity, no -- unity is essential to the church. Our shared rootedness in Christ, that’s what really matters. And that’s deeper and stronger than "my concept of what worship ought to be," and someone else’s notion of "the way the world will end." It’s important that we discuss these things. It’s just that our unity cannot depend on these. Our unity in Christ lies deeper, at the level of our heart. And precisely when we’re nurtured at that level, deeply in Christ Jesus, we learn to love and accept each other.
And the love of Christ, and the unity that he creates -- that’s what’s going to make us mirror Christ. That’s what makes a church attractive and effective, because God makes it his home, his workshop. He continues in the church what he’s shown us in the cross of Christ.
It is a truly stupendous thing that Christ has shown us in his cross, an astounding testimony to the power of love. Paul spells that out in this passage, this portion many take to be an early Christian hymn: "Let this mind be in you, which is yours in Christ...." If anyone had the right to have his way it would be Christ. He had gifts, he had status, he had rights. He, the Son of God, had all the awesome attributes of God himself. But he gave them up in order to come to us in humility and in sacrificial love. He divested himself of everything the way you and I might empty our pockets. And so he came, as any one of us. And that’s how he lived, and taught, and made a following, and at the end found himself betrayed and trapped and abandoned. And he died the most shameful death that people had devised, the death of the cross. He humbled himself and for the sake of others, he brushed aside his rights, ignored what might have been his own agenda, sacrificed himself, gave himself away.
How did he manage that? What’s the secret you and I can learn from him? It’s all there in that "therefore" at the end of this passage. "Therefore God has exalted him." Christ lived for the Father’s higher purpose, and Christ trusted his Father to supervise his life, his sacrifice, his death. The secret lies in the power to be there for others, not to be served but instead to serve. To look to the interests of others, to prize them higher than you prize yourself. This too is the mind of Christ, that we trust our Father to know what we need. This is the secret to the servant life, this is the secret to the harmony we’re looking for, this is how we come to mirror Christ.
Now to him who is able to do all that we ask and more, to him be the glory in the church, now and forever. Amen.
Suggested order of worship
We Come, 0 Christ, to You
Call to worship: Isaiah 55:1,6
Hymn #238 "We Come, O Christ, to You"
Hymn #416:1,3,5 "For Your Gift of God the Spirit"
You Are the Way to God
Prayer of confession
Hymn #488:1 "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say"
Assurance of grace
The Christian life
All Wisdom Dwells in You
Prayer for illumination
Scripture reading: Philippians 2:1-11
Message: "The Unity We Have in Christ"
We Worship You, Lord Christ
Hymn #291 "May the Mind of Christ My Savior"
Hymn #405:1,3 "I Serve a Risen Savior"
Doxology #568 "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling"