Philippians 1:3-14 – Unity Through Shared Purpose

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare even more to proclaim the gospel without fear. (NIV)

Physical health does not just happen. Care of the body is necessary through eating well, exercising, and coping adequately with stress. In the same way, spiritual health and care for the Body of Christ occurs when we put every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

When spiritual health breaks down in the Body of Christ there are divided loyalties, unhappiness, and disunity. And this is precisely what happened in the ancient Philippian Church. They were spiritually sick and relationally fragmented through inattention to one another.

Unity is much more than the absence of division. It is a common community, sharing life together, working on supporting one another and reaching out to others. In our New Testament lesson for today, the Apostle Paul begins his letter with emphasizing that the Body of Christ realizes unity through a shared purpose of embracing the good news of Jesus Christ and proclaiming it to others.

Every pronoun, each “you” used in these verses is not singular but plural. We are meant to establish our common life together around a shared mission of gospel proclamation: The kingdom of God is near. Through repentance and faith in the person and work of Jesus there is forgiveness of sins, new life, and participation in the life of God. The mission is not for larger church attendance, although that is nice and may happen; it isn’t to do more, or to get other people to stop swearing or avoid tattoos.

The Apostle Paul knew that without a focus on mission, on sharing the good news with each other and proclaiming the gospel to others, that the lack of purpose would create spiritual sickness. Apart from a deliberate focus on centering life and mission around the person and work of Christ, a group of people just nit-pick one another to death with all their various opinions and wants.

Wherever there is an absence of shared purpose, there you will find constant complaining, endless arguing, and a bunch of crotchety curmudgeons who nobody wants to be around.

Conversely, with a polestar on mission, the community of the redeemed work together in close fellowship with the result being joy. Happy people are a breath of fresh air to be around. A good healthy spirit is a delight to others. In fact, folks will find hope and healing through a common purpose of life together which imbibes liberally from the redemptive events of Jesus.

Good news is fun to share. It is joyful. The gospel of Jesus Christ is wonderful news, worthy of exuberant celebration. The Apostle Paul had fond memories of his partnership in the gospel with the Philippian believers. Although he had been jailed and beaten, Paul joyously sang in the prison – to the point where the jailer took notice and listened to the good news of new life in Christ. The jailer and his entire family became followers of Jesus. (Acts 16:16-34)

The Philippians were Paul’s spiritual children. They had sacrificed with Paul toward the shared vision of proclaiming good news. So, Paul wanted them to remember their own significant events of coming to faith, enjoying fellowship together, and working toward common objectives. In reminding the Philippian believers, Paul hoped to help get their heads screwed on straight again. He was confident this would happen, having an unshakable belief that God would continue the good work started within them.

This confidence was the basis of Paul’s prayers for the church. He beseeched God to unleash the Philippians’ collective love in a grand experiential knowledge of the divine so that they might discern well, making solid decisions which place the gospel as central to all of life.

There is an incredible depth to human need – a deep spiritual longing for what is good and beautiful. Relational unity brings out the beauty and majesty of humanity. Sometimes we just need to recall past days when this was true of us when we are facing animosity and acrimony.

In times of frustration, anger, demonstrations, riots, violence (both physical and verbal) and injustice, we desperately need a vision of humanity which locks arms in unity without vilifying one another.

When we place priority on the good news, I believe we will again discover the joy of life, of knowing Christ. Perhaps, with a watching world observing basic human kindness and joyful relations, we will find ways of being better together and working toward the common good of all persons. And methinks, Jesus wants to help with this, if we will only let him.

May the risen and ascended Lord strengthen our efforts to mend the ruptures of the past and to meet the challenges of the present with hope in the future. May we embrace the grace which a sovereign God holds out to us and to our world. Amen.

Philippians 2:1-13 – Pass It On

Welcome, friends! Click the video below and let us participate together in the life of our God…

You may also view this video at TimEhrhardtYouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLw1vnnbHWE&t=60s

And, let us sing the oldie but goody Christian chorus…

May the Lord bless you, protect you, sustain you, and guard you;
May the Lord shine upon you with favor, and surround you with love and kindness;
May the Lord look upon you with divine approval, and give you the peace of a tranquil heart and life. Amen.

Pass It On

I am the youngest of five children, and because of that reality I had to follow my siblings in school with many of the same teachers they had. I heard these statements more than once: “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” (the studious valedictorian) and “Why aren’t you like your brother?” (the nice quiet one).  I sometimes had this icky feeling in school that I somehow fell short because I wasn’t like them. 

The task of the Christian is to imitate Christ – not impersonate Jesus by being someone we are not. God created each of us uniquely and has sovereignly gathered us together as the church. So, we need to strive to be the best individual person possible in imitating Jesus by means of who we are, learning to work together, appreciating one another as we seek to follow Christ. 

The Apostle Paul wrote the New Testament letter to the Philippian Church because the fellowship had broken down into some rancorous in-fighting. This left the believers disillusioned. So, Paul passed on four imitations of Christ (not impersonations) to help them (and us) experience the unity God desires for his people.  

1. We are to imitate Christ through passing on the right values (Philippians 2:1-2).   

Shared values, not smooth sailing, keeps a group of people together. Paul appealed to lived experience. If anyone has experienced encouragement, comfort, fellowship, tenderness, or compassion, then we need to recognize it, remember it, and then pass it on to others. Those values happened because God granted blessings to us through other people. In other words, we owe to others what God has done through others for us.   

These common valued experiences occur as we participate in the life of our triune God. They come from the perfect relational dynamic that endlessly occurs within God himself as Father, Son, and Spirt. As we spend time with God and are filled with the divine life, these relational values spill-over in our human interactions.   

Passing on encouragement and compassion is not a function of willpower in trying to impersonate Jesus; it is a matter of spending time with God – because people tend to imitate those they hang around. If we spend time with people who typically complain, we will end up constantly cranky. If we hang out with people who continually pray, we will find ourselves reflexively praying about everything. If we are around chronically negative people, we will become constantly unhappy. If we make it a regular practice to hang out with Jesus, we discover that we are imitating him in our relationships through encouragement, love, comfort, and compassion. 

The word “joy” pops up a lot in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, yet it is never an exhortation to be joyful but rather an exhortation to unity. The by-product of unity is joy. Joy and happiness are the direct result of unity, and unity comes from embracing the shared common values Paul expressed. 

2. We are to imitate Christ through passing on the right service (Philippians 2:3-4).   

Humility is the remedy for dissension and disunity. Strife comes from stubbornly guarding our own opinions. Humility, however, considers others better than oneself. We are to do nothing out of selfishness or vain conceit. Instead, we are to imitate Jesus – to take up our crosses and follow him through dying to things which create disunity. Trying to impersonate Jesus results in lording over people and circumstances. It leads to division. However, imitating Jesus results in being like him in his humility and gentleness. It brings unity and peace.   

Nik Wallenda is a Christian and a high wire artist. In 2012 he walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls; and, in 2013 he became the first person to high wire walk across the Grand Canyon. Nearly a combined billion people saw those two incredible feats. After every tight rope walk for the crowds, Nik Wallenda engages in a simple spiritual discipline: he walks where the throngs of people just stood and watched him, and quietly picks up their trash.  

Wallenda says about this practice, “My purpose is simply to help clean up after myself. The huge crowd left a great deal of trash behind, and I feel compelled to pitch in. Besides, after the inordinate amount of attention I sought and received, I need to keep myself grounded. Three hours of cleaning up debris is good for my soul. Humility does not come naturally to me. So, if I must force myself into situations that are humbling, so be it …. I know that I need to get down on my hands and knees like everyone else. I do it because it is a way to keep from tripping. As a follower of Jesus, I see him washing the feet of others. I do it because if I don’t serve others, I’ll be serving nothing but my ego.” 

3. We are to imitate Christ by passing on the right attitude (Philippians 2:5-11).   

The Apostle Paul bluntly stated that our attitude is to be the same as Jesus: laying down life for the benefit of others. Impersonating Jesus leads to a martyr complex that wants others see our good works. However, imitating Christ’s attitude is to serve without being concerned who sees it or who gets the credit. It is an attitude of passing on what we have received from God. 

In the way of Jesus, the way up is down; the way to gain is by giving; the way to life is through death; the way to praise God is humble service for others. When my grandson was in one of his many hospital stays in the epilepsy ward, I watched him (3 years old at the time and without any prompting) make his way from room to room encouraging other patients and serving them. In the room where a ten year old girl had just had brain surgery with no hair and unattractive bandages, I overheard him say, “Oh, I like your new hat; it looks great on you!”  Making his way to the next room of a twelve-year-old boy who was near death, he said, “Would you like a drink?  I can get a drink for you!”   

I saw parents in the epilepsy ward who were as different from one another as you could imagine. Yet, we all shared a common purpose which gave us a common attitude. We all wanted these kids to be seizure free, and we were doing whatever it took to help each other realize that dream. 

Jesus humbled himself and became a man, being obedient to death on a cross, because his purpose was for humanity to be sin-free. Christ did whatever it took to make that happen.  If a small little boy can be used of God, then how much can you and I adopt the attitude of Jesus and do whatever it takes to see that people realize freedom in Jesus Christ!? 

4. We are to imitate Christ through passing on the right commitments (Philippians 2:12-13).   

The Christian life is meant to be lived together with other believers. We can try to impersonate Jesus, which will result in trying to impress the wrong crowd. However, when we imitate Christ, we commit ourselves to the people God has placed in our lives. Just as it was not our choice which family we were born into, so it is not our choice which spiritual family we are born again into. The church is not a voluntary society, any more than a family is. The church belongs to Jesus and we are neither to just fluidly move in and out of it as if it were a hobby that we toy with once-in-a-while, nor treat it as a spectator sport just watching what happens and playing arm-chair quarterback on Monday morning. 

Paul exhorted the believers to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. That means we are to live-out our collective salvation together in being mindful of each other. In other words, unity takes a lot of work – work which requires imitating Christ through a shared commitment to one another. 

The promise we have is that when we do this kind of good work that it is God who acts to bend everything to his good purposes. This is a wonderful promise, one we need to take to heart with a good dose of godly reverence and awe. 

Conclusion 

My oldest sister was the valedictorian of her class. I did not follow in her steps. My brother was the kind of kid that teachers envied to have in their classes. I think my teachers wondered if we were from the same family. My other sister was friends with all her teachers, and they all enjoyed her. I just remember getting a lot of sighs and eye-rolling from my teachers. I often struggled with my identity as a kid.   

I found my identity in Christ. I discovered I did not have to be like anyone else. God used me for who I am right where I was, learning to imitate Jesus. We need not be worried or discouraged about how far short we fall in comparison to others. Instead, we are to be concerned about how God wants to fulfill all his good promises in Christ through us – because at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God.  We are to pass on to others every good thing we have in Jesus Christ. 

Mark 11:27-33 – Dueling Authorities

They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”

Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)

So, they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (NIV)

Because Christ is Lord, we might overlook that Jesus, in his earthly ministry, was an outsider. Although a teacher, a rabbi, Jesus was neither a priest nor a member of any Jewish religious sect. He walked around as if he owned the place (which he did) and this gave no end of consternation from the established status quo religious leadership.

Jesus made significant inroads into people’s lives, especially with outsiders like himself, and this created anger and jealousy with many of the religious ruling class. Since Jesus was not a card-carrying member, the leaders wanted to hear from him why he kept acting confidently and deliberately on their religious turf, as if he had authority to do so.

The established authorities are depicted in today’s Gospel lesson as a craven bunch who did not want to alienate the crowds yet were eager to get the upstart Jesus out the way. This appears to be an age-old situation of leaders putting their fingers to the wind to go with whatever will keep them popular and in power. Since Jesus consistently refused to play such games, the authorities believed he needed to go. They, however, had no intention of risking an outright confrontation and showing their shadow motives.

Jesus clearly connected himself with John the Baptist, both coming from the same authority. John was yet another figure for whom the established leaders could not control. We ought never to underestimate that threats to status quo leadership who have no inkling of being public servants when true moral authority comes along. The lack of conformity from both John and Jesus would cost them their very lives.

Speaking truth to power while not becoming defensive is a tricky art. Yet, Jesus did it. Continual challenges to his authority left him unfazed as to his mission and purpose on this earth. Christ was assertive without becoming despotic; forward without taking the bait of useless arguments; confident with no hint of arrogance.

For me, the contrast between Jesus and the religious authorities is trenchant. The confident, wise, and calm authority of Christ is in direct opposition to the fear, anxiety, and worry of the ruling leaders. Whereas they kept anxiously ruminating about what to do about this threat to their established authority, Jesus exhibited a non-anxious presence which maintained a steadfast focus on God’s righteous, holy, and benevolent rule and reign.

Sometimes, continual fear is a clue that one is so worried about losing the person, place, or position they possess that the divine gets pushed aside.

Questioning Christ’s credentials was the giveaway that the existing religious authorities were concerned about their power and privilege, and not the people. The wise person will see such queries for what they are.

Wherever we observe those who refuse to share power, have a xenophobic bent toward outsiders, and will seem to do just about anything to maintain the status quo, there we will find the abuse of authority. Conversely, where we observe a deep concern for equity, justice, and the common good of all persons, there we see compassionate leadership who will champion ethical leadership and espouse moral authority.

In any democratic society, we must choose our leaders wisely.

Great God of hope, in these times of change and uncertainty, unite your people and guide our leaders with your wisdom. Give us courage to overcome our fears and help us to build a future in which all may prosper and share together through Jesus Christ our Lord in the strength of your Holy Spirit. Amen.