1 Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves ; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling ; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. 14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing ; 15 so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain. (Philippians 2:1-4, 12-16)
Almost from the very beginning the church has faced an ongoing dilemma. On one hand, it is (theoretically at least) the most inviting movement on the face of the planet. All people from everywhere with every kind of background are welcome among her ranks. Everyone is invited to come worship, study, prayer, and break bread with the body of believers. Particularly in Paul's world (the guy who wrote the scripture) this was largely unheard of in every corner of the culture. Culturally, people largely stuck to their own "kind", and only reached out to others if there was some immediate base need they had someone else could fulfill. The church was made up of rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female... compared to the world it was an unknown, wild jungle of the human spirit. When you entered the world of the church, you had to leave your labels behind, and as people gave up whatever labels they came in with, and exchanged them for "Disciple of Jesus", the church just continued to become the increasingly diverse.
But that didn't meant, even if our prince is the Prince of Peace, doesn't mean we've gotten along.
But just because you profess faith in Jesus doesn't mean that you automatically shake your influences. Putting all these different types and kinds of people might sound beautiful in an "Up With People" sort of way, but in the real world it created a lot of conflict. People who came from religious backgrounds that celebrated, for example, wild uninhibited acts of religious ecstasy in worship, generally brought that tradition with them into the church. So when they'd experience "speaking in tongues", they felt right at home. But other people from more subdued religious backgrounds related more to times of prayer and fasting, and when these two people, and many others with other spiritual affinities (some of which were downright unacceptable) all got together, it created conflict.
Lots of conflict.
That's a myth of the church, I think. We read something like Philippians 2, which calls us to be of the same mind, maintain the same love, unite in spirit, and intent on one purpose, and we tend to think of it as proscriptive. As an order, like from a doctor when we've gone to her when we're sick. But I think we miss the tone of Paul's writing as we read what he writes. Paul has learned long ago that you can't force anybody to do what you want them to do or believe what you want them to believe. His is just one voice. An important one, no doubt, but still only one in a world where even the Apostles are struggling to understand what it means to "be of one mind".
So when I read the text above, I hear in it a bit of exasperation. A frustration that comes from having too many times to quell too many disagreements among too many people who, in theory, should take "love your neighbor as yourself" much more seriously.
14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing ; 15 so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.
That doesn't sound like a guy to me who is used to speaking, and seeing immediate results. He's basically asking these people to get along if for no other reason, than because they like and respect him. Like a father begging a son addicted to pain killers at an intervention to go to rehab for Dad or Mom if he can't do it for himself. That's the degree of strife and resistance to his teaching Paul encounters in the church.
The church has always been filled with tension, strife, differences, and challenges, and it still continues.
I know this first hand. I got a couple of reminders earlier today. At the beginning of this post you see a picture of our pastoral staff. You got me, in all my button-down tied glory. You have Charlotte, our site pastor at our Bath campus who is in the picture, the rose among thorns. And then you have Daniel, who all of us other pastors have nicknamed "Pastor Eye Candy".
A white guy. A white woman. A black guy. Can't say there are too many other pastoral staffs who look like ours... anywhere. I remember seeing that picture for the first time and just kind of being surprised. And the first time I saw it, I saw it in a newspaper that had been distributed to more than 90,000 people that very morning. It surprised me when I saw it.
And guess what, so was the public.
Yesterday I received two different phone calls from surprised, even angry, people who I don't know and said they don't go to our church. In fact, they made it point to tell me that they wouldn't dare attend our church. One person, a woman, lectured me for about fifteen minutes on how unbiblical we were because we had a female pastor. She knew a lot of scripture - at least a lot of scripture regarding a woman's role in the church - and let me know that I was inviting "the wrath of God" upon us.
That was the friendly phone call.
The second one I received from someone who somehow got a hold of my cell phone number, and knew how to block theirs from showing up on my screen. He had a lot to say about race and religion. He had a lot to say about me. I don't feel compelled to repeat exactly what was said. Let's just say this person isn't a fan of people who look different worshiping together.
3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves ; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
Both of these other people claimed to be Christians, and I'm not sure what they would do with Philippians 2:3-4 if I had repeated it to them. More than likely, they would have blew me off.
But that what it's like in this faith of ours. We all come to the feast prepared for us by Jesus at the table with all kinds of experiences, backgrounds, beliefs and attitudes. On our way to that table, we often bump into people who are strange, and sometimes even upsetting, and often we want to just go find a place where we won't get stretched. Where we'll be more comfortable. A place where we aren't just fed, but catered to.
Jesus is no caterer. The table is set, but you still need to come forward and sit down with everyone else who has been invited. We do a good job, in this life, most of us in this family of God, sequestering ourselves so that we don't have to see, or smell, or hear others so different from ourselves. But I want to tell you... there aren't different houses of worship in Heaven. Just one, and John the Revelator told us that it was revealed to him that in the presence of God, together, there were people of all tribes, nationalities, races, and tongues. God won't let us keep our blinders on for eternity. Sooner or later, we'll have to take a good look at the other folks singing his praise next us, and realize that realize how different they are. The question is how soon God wants us to wake up to this reality.
Let me share something with you as we end five weeks of looking at ways Jesus restores us when sin, anger, pain, success, or something else steals away our identity. When Christ restores us, he's not interested in restoring us to be the us we were before whatever it was that derailed us, derailed us. His is a complete restoration. He wants to haul out all the junk. Paint every wall. Re-carpet every floor. Replace the electrical and plumbing. He's looking for a total rebirth.
Jesus restores us, only to take what our identity was away, and to give us a completely new one. And the way he does the work is through the work we're already doing, in humility, with much fear and trembling.
We call the restoration work Christ wants to do in us, sanctification. The Greek word is "Qadash" which means to "vindicate the holiness" or to "separate to make holy". Its the work we do, like to an old house that needs made over, to tear out the ugliness that marks us. Paul tells us in v.12-13 that as we do the hard work of tearing out all the ugliness, God come alongside of us in that work, and begins working through us, like a spiritual interior designer and contractor.
To make us "perfect" in his sight.
Perfect is a funny word isn't it. Life is so imperfect, perfection seems virtually unattainable. But perfection, as we understood in our Wesleyan tradition, hasn't as much been a destination (a finished home), but rather a continued journey that only is made complete when we stand fully in the presence of God. A journey of loving God more and more, and loving our neighbor increasingly with a grace greater than our sin.... more and more like Jesus loves us.
Jesus wants to steal our identity, and give us a perfect one. And the way we know we're on the right track, as we do all of this work, is by how far you can extend your love as you faithfully do God's bidding, and as far as you can outside of your little circle of family and friends. It's the movement from looking to be fed by the Jesus the Five-Star Caterer, to finding a seat at the Lord's table next to somebody who makes us very uncomfortable, or angry, or conflicted, or even deeply, deeply sorrowful.
Doesn't seem to make much sense does it. You'd think this Christian journey would be all uplifting prayer meetings, songs that take us to new heights, and preaching that would inspire the angels. Not a difficult journey made with people who could even exasperate a saint like Paul.
But that's how it works.
All of us, doing the work of tearing out the ugliness, while the Holy Spirit renews, strengthens, and makes us over. There is learning in the work, and that education is never free. But if you want to get right with God, you gotta do the work of getting right with others, otherwise you'll never learn who you are supposed to be. You've gotta run - not walk - but run to the table looking for a seat in the place of least honor, with the people who seem least worthy of being there. Even next to the woman who thinks I'm going to Hell for working proudly with a female pastor, and even next to the guy who is a prejudiced bigot. At the table you learn where they've come from, what's been done to them, what their limitations are, how imperfect things are, and yet how important it is to keep them in your prayers, in your orbit, even if they don't want to be there.
Doesn't matter if you ever change them. You can't change anybody anyway. That's the work God does, as we do the work on ourselves, with fear, trembling, and humility. What matters is what's being separated out, the wheat from the chaff, the crap from the holy, so that we might start looking for, maybe even getting a little excited about, running to the Lord's table to find a seat next to the person who isn't the dinner companion we might have, on our own, chosen.
You gotta run, not walk, but run, to the table. Sit down. That's where the feast is.
I just want to tell you, that's the kind of church I want us to be. The church who runs to the table to sit down next to the least, the last, the lost, the hurting, the difficult, and the sick. The church that looks, well, really different, because it seeks out people looking for healing, and is filled with people looking to help heal.
A family of faith being sanctified, doing the hard work of ripping out the ugliness inside, to reveal something God has done that is individually more beautiful, more perfect, and collectively more heavenly. A light, even, in the darkness of what could be the darkest moment of the soul.
It can only happen one restoration at a time. Each of us doing the hard work. All of coming to the table the Lord has prepared.
Won't you come to the table?