Paul’s letter to the Philippians still challenges us
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Our friend Bryce led the Leadership Team to use that passage from Philippians 2:1-4 the other night and he got us to thinking about mutually honoring and respecting each other. Being mutual in a culture that still values mavericks and lone stars is radical. And I also think it is fundamentally Christian. I was glad to consider how the church exhibited mutuality and oneness.
It is not just the Spirit of individualism that makes mutuality hard these days though, but also the era of social construction and postmodernism. Those philosophies, one could argue, are in some competition with each other. The European modern man (and yes, it was usually a man) could stand up for himself despite opposition from the ruling powers. Individualism is the Spirit of the Enlightenment, the crowning achievement of that movement being the United States. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, being your own self-made person, overcoming difficulty, persevering through hardship—those themes are all worth celebrating, in my opinion. They certainly have pitfalls, and left unfettered, they can lead to decidedly anti-Christian results, but I think that they aren’t useless and many people need to have the confidence to believe in themselves
No person is an island
The problem is that the individual ethic was largely formed and maintained by the dominators, many of whom didn’t acknowledge that they, alone, were not responsible for their success. That no person is an island and we live in a communal context, always connected to the whole. Barbara Brown Taylor reminded me of this, surprisingly, in an essay she wrote about Newtonian and quantum physics. In the former theory, you might think that everything is reducable to its components; that we are no more individually than we are together. However, at the quantum level, things acts differently when they are together or apart. She writes in Luminous Web:
“There is another way to conceive of our life together. There is another way to conceive of our life in God, too, but it requires a different worldview—not a clockwork universe in which individuals function as discrete springs and gears, but one that looks more like a luminous web, in which the whole is far more than the parts.”
She’s arguing that we are together more different than we are apart. And so we can’t function alone, live alone, or succeed alone. We’re connected. That is much more like the Body of Christ image that Paul coined in Corinthians, but one that flows through his whole corpus.
People started asking questions about the rules of the individual ethic that was held together by the so-called dominators. As such women and minorities, in the postmodern scene, started challenging modernistic individual thought. It wasn’t just white European men who could succeed, and no they didn’t just do it on their own. Individualism was still there, but this time it wasn’t just for the European guys, but for everyone. And what those European guys said truth was? It wasn’t so either. One could succeed and triumph without following all the same rules or having the same philosophies.
What the modernists didn’t get was that they were not doing it alone, but together. And what the postmodernists miss is that that philosophical unity, what Paul calls “the same mind,” matters too. That mutuality can’t happen alone, and it can’t happen when we overlook, as opposed to reconcile, our difference in mind and spirit.
We’re still doing what Paul instructed
The reason I bring this up is because we live in a time that is very polarizing, a time where hate is increasingly the rule, and people can’t seem to get along well. The problem is our era is not committed enough to the truth, to the one-mindedness of Paul, that is called for.
Furthermore, the spirit of greed and competition, which dominates our markets, is not conducive to the call against selfish ambition that Paul offers, the humility to consider others better than yourselves, or the selfless interests we are to have.
It’s hard to follow Philippians 2 in the United States in 2018.
But amazingly, I think we do in Circle of Hope. And we do in many ways. Bryce asked us to think about how we did, and the first thing that I thought of was our Love Feast. My friend Pat brought this to my mind too.
At our Love Feast, we welcome in new members into our covenant. They all come from different backgrounds, they have met Jesus differently, but they come together to join a common tribe and work for a common cause. Jesus holds us together, which is why affirming their entrance into the community is so easy. They don’t even live in the same neighborhood and they do it. We are increasingly crossing boundaries, but we remain of one mind, held together by our dialogue of love.
What bonds us together is our common agreements and our common covenant, rooted in the revelation of God. Though our proverbs, our lore, and our plans are subject to change as we continue to bring the Gospel to the present with great flexibility, we discern them together, listening to the people who are spreading God’s love and making disciples.
We have the same mind, the same love, and are of full accord. Or at least that’s our goal. Quite honestly, I think we do it very well. The five congregations held together by the covenant is just one example, but there are others, too.
Overlooking differences is not the same as reconciling them
Trouble comes when we think overlooking (or ignoring and not acknowledging) our differences is the key to unity, as opposed to submitting to God together. Or rather, when we think we shouldn’t name the sin that can corrode us.
The temptation of the social construction that was so important in challenging European modernism can rear its ugly head if we decide we are not committed enough to truth and morality, to name plain evils as such. We live in a time where morality is seen as partisan, where we don’t have a common mind, but rather what separates our minds is just a matter of perspective—that when someone disagrees with us, we don’t strive to know why, we just call it fake news.
No one person knows how we are to follow God together, but that doesn’t stop us from thinking together. We aren’t ideological, rather, we are practical. We want to love God, love others, and make disciples, and we’re trying to figure out how to do that in 2018.
We are working on a world redemption project with God; reconciling all things to Jesus. Our common agreements, vision, and mission hold us together. In my opinion, we probably should agree about everything and I think we get there through the humility and service Paul talks about Jesus exhibiting.
What happens when it doesn’t work?
But we’ll fail. We’ll hurt each other. We’re all recovering from a sin addiction, so expect conflict to happen.
What do we do when things don’t work out? When our friends fail us? When we are disappointed? When someone acts in a rude or hateful way? The reconciling ministry of Jesus Christ moves us toward forgiveness, reconciliation, and repentance.
It’s hard to forgive someone who has wronged you. And in my opinion, the most powerful people often have the hardest time repenting of their sin because they are so committed to their power. Often times they literally get away with heinous actions and it takes the bravest among us to name that and move them to change.
Our goal is forgiveness and reconciliation and repentance. When someone wrongs you, try not to cut them off immediately. Work toward resolution and forgiveness and reconciliation when you’re ready. We all need to get better and our goal needs to be winning our siblings in Christ over, not shunning them. The church should be a sanctuary where healing can happen. The insecure environment that we live in might make it quick to excommunicate someone. I think that sometimes that needs to happen, but too often it just happens as a matter of course.
I’m not suggesting we tolerate sinful behavior or sinful ideas. But we need to make room for people who are missing the mark, who are behaving in life-diminishing ways, because God wants them to hit the mark and behave in life-giving ways. The church is a good incubator for that kind of development. This means that our cells and Sunday meetings are tools we can use for discipleship. Our covenant should move us toward transformation, not just tolerance. We aren’t just tolerating our differences, but rather reconciling them as we work toward a common mission together. We are of the same mind, formed by Christ, resulting in humility, service, and selfless interest. You have a chance to become your full self here, and we’ll move one another toward that together. But we’ll be moving, make no mistake. We’re all growing in Christ. So there’s room for you. It’s safe for you, so long as you can own your dignity, make some commitments, and take initiative. That’s the mutuality we’re going for.