(an old, adapted sermon from September 2008)
Sometimes it seems like discord and disagreement are all around us. Whether it’s a new church structure, an issue of biblical interpretation, or the proverbial color of the new sanctuary carpet, life together in the church often seems fraught with argument. I’ve spent the last few years working in the church, and have been bowled over to realize just HOW MANY things we disagree seriously about as a church. Whatever the topic of conversation, it seems, there are at least two staunchly divided sides or opinions. We just aren’t so great at coming to agreement, and we might be even worse at figuring out how to disagree gracefully.
This isn’t a new problem for the church. In today’s text, Paul is writing to the Philippians – one of the very first Christian congregations - in order to encourage them to find some common ground. They’ve been squabbling amongst themselves a bit, and Paul is offering some friendly advice about how they ought to be getting along.
And Paul’s advice really is friendly. Compared to the way that he writes to other churches, his rebukes to the Philippians are mild and encouraging – there’s no dressing down or convoluted theological explanation in this letter. Even so, Paul’s instructions to the Philippians have an edge to them. If I had been reading the letter, I probably would have wanted to argue back with Paul.
Paul says: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy…be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord…”
Sure, we’d LIKE to be of one mind, Paul, but have you SEEN the kinds of things we’re trying to do together here? Do you know what issues are on the table and how incredibly divisive they are? Sometimes, Paul, we can barely talk to one another, much less come to a “full accord” on anything. Really, do you know what you’re asking us to do?
My immediate reaction is to challenge Paul and ask him if he knows what he’s saying to us.
I think the Philippians must have felt just a little of the same resentment. After all, Paul had started the church and then promptly left to continue his missionary travels. He was writing this letter to the church from a far-away prison, and all his news of the Philippian church came from mutual friends and acquaintances. Paul, far removed from the day-to-day life of the church, was effectively telling them to straighten up, fly right, and “be of one mind, already!” It must have seemed like he was too far away to understand the complications of what he wanted them to do.
Plus, the Philippians were one of the first – EVER – churches. In our disagreements today, we at least have precedent and tradition to call upon to figure out how to do things and which way we should go to resolve our differences. The Philippian church was so new that the gospels hadn’t even been written yet. What they had to rely on was the example of Jesus handed down through oral tradition, and the encouragement of Paul, from far away in prison. All of these things that we take for granted – how to worship together, how to baptize someone into fellowship, what’s required of someone to join the church, which old Jewish laws apply to us and which ones don’t – all of that was getting worked out right there on the ground in the midst of this new community of Christians. It’s not like the community could just agree to disagree – they had to DO these things together, live together and work together while they waited for the return of the Messiah.
Reaching consensus was necessary for the survival of this new and fragile community.
Imagine being a part of that – imagine how exciting and scary it must have been to be figuring out all these brand-new things together, how incredibly difficult and exhausting it must have been. A letter from such a good friend as Paul was certainly a welcome encouragement, but for him to say to the Philippians – “just be of one mind already!” would have had to been just a little bit infuriating.
Luckily, Paul follows up that instruction with some real-life examples, examples of how we ought to “do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to his own interests, but to the interests of others.” The first and best example is Jesus Christ himself, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” Even though he was the Son of God, and could have rightfully claimed that title and translated it to earthly wealth and power, Jesus knelt down in the posture of a servant, washing other people’s feet, counting others as better than himself. Paul goes on to explain that this kind of behavior is obedience to the will of God, and that Jesus’ obedience led him all the way to the cross.
At first, it’s hard to see how these examples of BEHAVIOR are connected to Paul’s first instruction about being of one MIND. To be of one MIND seems to mean to be in agreement, to come to a “full accord” sounds like getting everyone on board with a particular idea or opinion. It sounds like Paul is telling us that we should all find a way to agree with one another, to believe all the same things. But by following up that instruction with examples of behavior, Paul turns the “one mind” idea on its head. What “Being of one mind” actually means, it turns out, is “being of one body” – the Body of Christ.
Paul isn’t telling the Philippians what to believe, he’s telling them how to be. He’s not insisting that they convince one another that one is right and the other is wrong, he’s giving them encouragement to act, in their life together, in the way that Jesus has showed them. Being of one mind is less about agreeing and more about submitting, counting others as better than one’s self, and acting out of humility and service. This, after all, is how Christ acted, and the one thing that we do all have in common is Christ.
This passage reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite Brethren foremothers, Anna Mow. “We can’t make unity,” Anna said in a 1968 issue of Messenger, “we join it, for our unity is in Christ only.” The one thing that we all have in common, that we’re already in full accord on, that we’re already of one mind about, is this shared example of Jesus Christ. What would change if we all took that example seriously? How would our disagreements transform and our arguments turn around if, instead of trying to convince one another that we’re right, we instead humble ourselves and counted others as better than ourselves?
We’d probably have to listen more than we spoke, and admit our haughtiness more often. Who knows what church meetings would look like, but maybe there would be more room for disagreement and less room for disrespect. If this is what Paul prescribed for the Philippians, trying to work out their own salvation with nothing but Jesus’ example to go on, then how much more important is it for us?
“Be of one mind,” Paul tells the Philippians, but not just any mind – “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” this mind that you already have and that you already share. Be of one mind so that you might be of one body.