- Philippians 1-2
As I read through the letter to the Philippians, I get a sense of the great love that Paul was pouring out to his friends in Philippi. He misses them so much. He really wants what is best for them. He mourns at the divisions and rifts that he sees stirring. It has seemed to me as I read and re-read Paul’s letter to the Philippians to have a tone of a parent to a beloved child or a coach to a special student athlete. This is a letter full of encouragement and blessing. It is a ‘you-can-do-it’ letter, ‘I know you have it within you.’ Love each other as I love you.
We live in a world populated by humans and therefore fraught with conflict – for all manner of reasons. Paul has heard about what’s going on at Philip – even though we don’t get the details. His intimacy with the people in Philippi is evident. Both from the personal details like that of Timothy, of Epaphroditus and his illness, of Euodia and Syntyche and their conflict. It pains Paul to know of their distress and conflict and it buoys him up to know of their health and good works.
I have an ambivalent feelings about Paul and about what he writes to the churches that he founded and worked with, about how his words have been used to marginalize already marginalized people. But I cannot fault his pure love for these friends and his hard striving on behalf of the Kingdom of God.
He calls this congregation back to the Lordship of Christ, reminding them of their center and source. He describes the Philippians experience with Christ: one of encouragement and consolation. He describes their experience with each other: one of Spirit-filled sharing, compassion for each other, sympathy and caring. And he urges them to remember these things and to be of one mind: the mind of Christ.
Be of one mind with Christ – in other words, let go of your own grip on what is important and most right and step into the shoes of Jesus, who say Paul quotes an ancient hymn, “t hough he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.”
These are hard words for me to hear and take to heart on a personal level. One, because they have been used against women to ‘put them in their place’ and accept the violence and subjugation by men as their Christian duty. And two, because (as I may have mentioned before) I have a strong sense of fairness, and if someone else has/says/does something I should be able to have/say/do the same – it’s only fair. Jesus is not concerned with fairness, Jesus is concerned with rightness.
I recently read a book that one of the youth suggested to me called “the Fade” – a sci-fi about a planet, two of who’s peoples are in an ongoing war with each other that seems to have no end. The main character is a mercenary who unquestioningly follows the killing orders of her master. And when she begins to question, her answer/solution is violent retribution against him. Although Sci-Fi is not usually my genre of choice, I was drawn into the story. Especially interesting (and relevant) was the perpetuation of war for the profit of the elite. But the acceptance of violence – brutal violence – as redeeming and not even so much that as just par for the course, an acceptable fact of life, continued to bother me throughout.
But the more I thought about, the more I realized the difference between my reality and that of Orna. In her world there is no Jesus. There might be a ‘so-what’ in there – after all most secular fiction doesn’t mention God or Jesus. But in this world – in my world – Jesus my reason for non-violence. In a world where there is no Christ, there’s no example of the power of Love, no returning to God’s presence, no non-violent saviour. There is essentially no reason to be humble, put the other first. There is only what will benefit one’s self or what is important to me. For Orna, it is her living son and husband killed in war that give her reason to turn away from the violence perpetrated her master, (an admirable thing no doubt) but toward the violence of retribution – evening things our and making things ‘fair’.
In the mind of Christ no person is more important than another – even the horrible, unlike-able evil and sinful. And violence and hatred does not bring us closer to the will and being of God who is Love, but in fact the opposite. So in my world, where there is Jesus, who I believe to the be the ‘way the truth and the life’ that becomes my guiding principle. Only by putting the other first, by becoming a servant, by emptying ourselves do we come nearer to the mind of Christ. Crazy, right? Phil. 1:20ff
20 It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.
Paul talks about dying being ‘gain.’ He doesn’t know which is better, to live or to die. The man must have lost his mind. And yet, that’s exactly what we’re called to do: lose your own mind and replace it with the mind of Christ, take on not our own will and agenda but that of Christ.
In his companionship training, Craig Rennebohm talks about ‘facing the same direction’ as another. While he means this literally in some cases and in some relationships/ conversation, he also uses it as a metaphor for how we see the world in the same ‘direction’ as the person to whom we are companion. I like this imagery in this context as well. We are called we putting on the mind of Christ to face the same direction: toward God. That’s part of the reason for worship; we are reorienting ourselves away from the world and toward the One who created us.
When two people you care about are fighting/don’t get along it’s like they are looking in different directions. Whether we are a part of a situation like that or whether we are outside and looking in, it can be very painful and difficult. Paul, watching from a distance longs to be there in Philippi and really wants them not only to get along but to seek Christ truly. His tone is pleading but also confident and assuring:
“If then, there is any encouragement in Christ, If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
But these ‘ifs’ do not wonder whether these attributes exist in the Philippian congregation, this is a rhetorical device that assumes that these things are present and asks that the Philippians build on them. In other words, “I know that you are encouraging and sympathetic, compassionate and giving. I know that you are full of the Spirit. So let these gifts compel you and inform you of the mind of Christ.”
We may well encounter conflict and tension in our congregation; we have already encountered it. But we do well to remember our worship and who is at the center. We’ve talked many times lately about being a centered-set congregation. Who is the center? And we do well to remember that we too are encouraging and compassionate, sympathetic and giving. The Spirit dwells in us too, and then to take on the mind of Christ, self-emptying, humble, loving and willing to lose everything. “Striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.”
We have also talked about being on a continuum. I wasn’t here when this congregation did the continuum exercise related to beliefs about sexuality, but I’ve participated in similar exercises myself – where we place ourselves along a continuum from strongly agree to strongly disagree with a given statement/belief. But what it, instead we were all somewhere in a circle – facing inward. Not only could we see the center, we could see and stand beside each other. This is also the image that I think of when I picture a Quaker clearness meeting. When they have an issue before them they meet not first to discuss, but to be in silence before the Spirit and listen for the word of God in their midst.
Putting the other first, being humble to the point of death , following the teaching of a man who lived 2000 years ago and who thought he was God. This seems crazy to people who don’t get it. It seems crazy to me sometime – often even. The epithet ‘crazy Christian’ does come from somewhere. But what is wisdom to the world should be crazy to Christians and vice versa. We should all be crazy Christians.
Paul is crazy! He has lost his mind. He accepts and even welcomes death. He is unintimidated by his powerful opponents. He is in prison but content with this situation. He is just as happy poor as well provided for. He repeats the word joy about a million times in this letter in spite a crazy difficult life. Maybe not crazy, maybe just stupid.
But Paul addresses this crazy, stupidity in his first letter to the Corinthians. In 1:18ff he talks about the foolishness of the cross – seems crazy and dumb to anyone who doesn’t get it yet.:
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness 1 to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 … Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe . 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.
Next summer a bunch of crazy Mennonite Christians from around the world will be gathering in Paraguay for the Mennonite World conference. We will be meeting other Mennonites from other nations who have different ideas about what it means to be Christian all of whom will be using these words of Paul as their guiding texts for our time together. And all of whom will have Christ as their center and saviour. Many of these Christians could teach us a few things about humility unto death and putting the needs of others before their own. I have only to think of the danger that the Mennonite Church in Colombia may be inviting onto itself by protecting Hector Mondragon and advocating for justice for the poor and marginal.
I have been catching up on-line with the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Shows like this point out exactly how foolish and silly the ‘wisdom of world’ is. How ridiculous the powerful are – Stewart’s show tents to focus on the ridiculous of the right, but liberal lefties have their share of ridiculousness as well. These days of election fever can bring out the worst in all of us.
Paul invites us to shine like stars in the midst of a perverse generation. Shine like crazy, mindless stars who say that we should be advocating against violence and for people on the margins. When I interviewed here I was warned by most of the people that I talked to that I would be walking into a hornet’s nest of conflict within the conference and in the congregation because people have different understandings of homosexuality. I said then and I continue to say ‘bring it on’. It’s true that I feel that advocating for people who are gay and lesbian and other sexual minorities is a justice issue. It’s also true that I know that there are people who in their desire to be faithful, disagree with me. But if we are of one mind with Christ, then even though we tire of going over the same ground – wondering why I’m bringing it up again – even though there will be countless meetings, the Spirit will be present.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters – says Paul. What will make you lose your mind? Maybe people thinking you’re crazy is a sign that you’re on the right track.
1. A side note to any of you interested in etymology: I discovered when looking at this passage in Greek that ‘foolishness’ or a foolish person is a mwron (moron) – so now we know where that word comes from.