I love this old stone structure out on the water’s edge in Ambury Farm Park. It looks like it belongs at some desolate spot on the coast of Ireland or Scotland rather than just over there at the end of Mangere. I think it must have originally been a sheep pen or barn, but now it serves as a shelter for the public. The supports for the roof at each end of the structure form a cross, so when you are in the sheep pen and looking out, you look at the world through a cross…
…You can look down the Manukau towards the dark distant hills of the Awhitu peninsula on the southern side and Puponga point and the Waitakere’s to the north. …
…You can turn around and look back across the fields and suburban houses to Mount Mangere. Either way you see it all through a cross of wood. In the sheep pen it frames how you view and comprehend the world around you.
This winter we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. A letter he has written to give thanks for the Church’s support for him while he is in Prison. He takes the opportunity to encourage and instruct the church as they face similar persecution and trouble. He tells them to stand firm, and live a life worthy of the gospel. It’s not just encouragement to hang tough in the face of life’s storms; to simply survive with gritted teeth and clenched fists. Paul uses the word joy sixteen times in his letter and encourages the church to know the fullness of joy that the Christian faith offers, regardless of the circumstances. Paul’s words to the church then and there are equally helpful for us here and now as we stand firm on our own joyous journey following Jesus.
The passage we had read to us today starts with the word therefore which connects it to what has gone before. We need to look at that to give us context. Paul had shared his situation with the Philippians that he was facing persecution from outside the church, he was in prison in Rome, and he was also facing opposition from those in the church. But in both these situations he could give thanks because while he was in chains the gospel was unchained and was being fruitfully proclaimed and while his future seemed uncertain, as it was in the hands of the roman Emperor, in reality it was certain, weather he lived or died, his future was in the hand’s of Christ.
As we looked as last week, Paul then turned to tell the church at Philippi to live in a manner worthy of the Gospel, to be good citizens of the Kingdom of God, as they faced the same kind of persecution and trouble Paul did. in the face of persecution, they were to stand firm in unity, strive together without fear for the gospel. Now in the reading from this morning he turns to tell them about how to live a life worthy of the gospel as they face internal troubles. He does it three ways, firstly he tells them that our unity is an outcome of God’s salvation work. Then he tells them that unity needs human effort to be work out. Finally, he pulls those two things together in calling Jesus followers to have the mind of Christ, which he reveals in a wonderfully deep, rich poem, or song about Jesus incarnation and death and his exaltation by God to the highest place of honour and praise.
Firstly, Paul tells us that Christian unity is the work of the triune God. The whole of the God head has been at work in for our salvation and bringing us together. We have been united in Christ through his life, death and resurrection. It is because of that that we are God’s Children, and have been made brothers and sisters. This is the outworking of God the Father’s great love for us. God has poured out his Holy Spirit on all believers, we share the same Holy Spirit. The reality of that, the encouragement, comfort tenderness and compassion that results from that should be seen in our love for one another. Christian love and unity is so important because it shows the reality of the gospel. As Jesus said in John 13:34-35
‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’
It makes sense that the outworking of God’s love for us should be our love not only for God but also for one another. It makes sense that the godhead working in unison, in perfect unity should result in our unity.
Paul gives us a glimpse into his mind as a mature disciple of Christ when he says that to see such a unity be worked out in the church would make his joy complete. His heart and desires are aligned with God’s heart and God’s desire. He wants the church to be like-minded, to see unity as such an important central focus, have the same love, the love God has for us, that we would be of the same spirit and mind, that our soul and our thoughts might be attuned to that unity.
Now we shouldn’t mix unity with uniformity, when Paul says that we should be of one mind and like minded he is not saying we all should think alike, like the same things, be bland and monotonous because we are the same. We are all individuals made unique one off’s, we all have our own cultures and traditions, tastes and opinions, skills and abilities, likes and dislikes, faults and foibles… and that individuality is a gift from God. It is more that we are like an orchestra, we bring our different voices and tones and ways of making noise and music, our vibrating strings or skins, or reads and mouth pieces in so many different configurations together to make the music of the gospel in unison and harmony. Like with a orchestra that takes great human effort.
So Paul turns to give the church some very practical advice on what that means in terms of the human effort required to make unity work. Paul says “We should not do anything out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather in Humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” In first century culture status was very important and hospitality and preference to others were given to receive social advancement in return, and Paul says this is not the way Christians interact. Paul himself had given them an example of not out of selfish ambition when in the previous chapter he shared his response of people whose motive for preaching the gospel had been out of some jealousy and dislike for Paul. Paul's response was to give praise and thanks that the gospel was being proclaimed, he wasn’t concerned about their agenda or seeking to defend his status as an Apostle rather could rejoice that the gospel was the important thing.
When Paul says in humility put others interests before our own. And this is possibly best understood If we go back to our orchestra illustration it means that each member of the orchestra is willing to not play or be so prominent so that other members can bring their contribution. The violin players willing to play soft or not at all so the horn section can play its part, or the flutes.
I am aware that for some people, putting other before ourselves comes from feelings of low self-worth or phycological drivers like wanting to be liked all the time or needed. Equally that can be a block for developing Christian Unity, as it can easily become unchristian trampling upon. Humility is knowing who we are and our true value and not then demanding our own rights and status but being willing to put others first. In fact the example given in this passage of humility is Jesus himself. That leads us to how Paul brings this all together by saying when it come to the way we relate to each other we are to have the mind of Christ.
In a recent interview Prince Harry talked of why he enjoyed his time in the army. He said suddenly instead of being Prince Harry, with all the pomp and ceremony that went along with it, he was just plain old Harry. He laid aside all that went with royalty so he could serve. In fact now he is more comfortable with being royalty because he can use it for the good of others in his charity work. Rather than time in the army Paul focuses on Jesus incarnation and crucifixion as emptying and serving. In verse 6 Paul tells us that Jesus was in very nature God, but did not consider that equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, rather in verse 7 it tells us he emptied himself of that and took on the form of a servant being made in human likeness. It is the incarnation, but it is the attitude of being willing to lay aside status and position, prestige and personal comfort and safety, to come alongside and be with and part of. More than that to serve.
Paul tells us Jesus took on the role of a servant and was obedient even unto death, death on a cross. It was a total commitment of obedience to God and an all-in commitment for the very good of others. That is the attitude needed for Christian unity. At the heart, it is sacrificial love.
The story does not end at the cross Paul goes on to talk of Jesus resurrection and ascension into heaven and his exaltation to the right hand of the father, and a coming time when all will proclaim Jesus as Lord and every knee will bow. That lifting up that exhorting to a high place that is in God’s hands and God’s timing, it’s not ours to impose or demand.
In other parts of the New Testament we see this attitude worked out in real life situations. For example in Corinthians the services used to start with a meal and the rich people would sit down to eat and worship and those who were servant couldn’t get there till they had finished their days work, they often missed out on the fellowship and the food. In James, we see people of power and prestige being offered the best seats while the poor are told to stand at the back. This may have seemed right in first century society, but in the church we were to change and address those situations with the mind of Christ…