In a week that has seen another terrible air disaster I want to begin with part of a report from Time magazine that tells of the tragic plane crash of Air Florida Flight 90 on January 13, 1982 in Washington D.C. Shortly after take-off, the plane crashed into the 14th Street Bridge – hitting 6 cars and a truck – and then into the icy Potomac River, killing 78 people altogether.
"As disasters go, this one was terrible, but not unique...There was the unusual element of the bridge, of course, and the fact that the plane clipped it at a moment of high traffic, one routine thus intersecting with another and disrupting both. Then, too, there was the location of the event. Washington, the city of form and regulations, turned chaotic, deregulated, by a blast of real winter and a slap of metal on metal. And there was the aesthetic clash as well – blue-and-green Air Florida… sunk down among grey chunks in a black river. All that was worth noticing, to be sure. Still, there was nothing very special in any of it, except death, which, while always special, does not necessarily bring millions to tears or to attention. Why, then, the shock here?
…the person most responsible for the emotional impact of the disaster is the one known at first simply as "the man in the water." (Balding, probably in his 50s, an extravagant moustache.) He was seen clinging with five other survivors to the tail section of the airplane. This man was described by the crew of a police helicopter as appearing alert and in control. Every time they lowered a lifeline and floatation ring to him, he passed it on to another of the passengers. "In a mass casualty, you'll find people like him," said the pilot, "But I've never seen one with that commitment." When the helicopter came back for him the man had gone under. His selflessness was one reason the story held national attention; at some moment in the water he must have realized that he would not live if he continued to hand over the rope and ring to others. He had to know it, no matter how gradual the effect of the cold. In his judgment he had no choice. When the helicopter took off with what was to be the last survivor, he watched everything in the world move away from him, and he deliberately let it happen."
(Roger Rosenblatt, 'The man in the water', Time, January 25 1982)
When I read this report, it didn't take long for my mind to think about another costly sacrifice. Two thousand years ago, Jesus, the Son of God came to earth with the express purpose of dying on a cross to pay the penalty for our sins. All of his 33 years were building to that one history-shattering moment when he watched everything in the world move away from him as he was abandoned by his friends… and he also deliberately let it happen. It was the ultimate act of sacrifice. Giving his life, so that others might live, not just for the next 40, 60 or 80 years, but so that they might live for eternity! As Christians, when we talk about being like Jesus, when we talk about copying him, when we encourage our kids with songs like: 'I want to be like Jesus' this is what we are talking or singing about – a life of sacrificial service, a life of selflessness, demonstrated best through the attribute of humility. And this is what concerns Paul in this next bit of Philippians we're looking at this morning. He wants his readers, the church in Philippi, and us, to grasp what being like Jesus is all about. I've got three main headings for us this morning. Firstly,
1. What The Church Needs: Unity
"So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind." (v1-2)
In a way the chapter and verse divisions that we have these days are unhelpful, because verse 1 is a continuation of the point that Paul makes in verse 27 of chapter 1. There he is talking about the fact that Christians should conduct their lives in a manner that is worthy of gospel. And the last three verses of chapter 1 tell of how a life worthy of the gospel stands firm against external attacks. Here, Paul wants us to know that a life worthy of the gospel stands firm against internal attacks too. And nothing kills a church faster than poisonous division from within. So, Paul says, stand firm by being united. How are you doing here at St. Joseph's with unity? It's been a great few months hasn't it? New church, renovated building, excitement, new members, a great mission stretching out in front of you – to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the west end of Newcastle and beyond. There has been much encouragement, much comfort, so much selfless participation, much affection – guys this letter wouldn't be called Philippians if it were being written today; it would be called Benwellians! And this is exactly Paul's point in these opening verses. He is not questioning whether these qualities are in evidence. "If there is any encouragement…" No, he is affirming the fact that there is. Indeed, most serious commentators suggest that the correct translation here is to replace the word 'if' with the word 'since' or 'if, as is indeed the case', which looks like this:
- Since there is encouragement in Christ at St. Joseph's – be of the same mind.
- If, as is indeed is the case, there is comfort from love in Benwell – maintain that same love.
- Since there is participation, or fellowship, in the Spirit at St. Joseph's – be in full accord.
- If, as is indeed the case, there is affection and compassion in Benwell – be of one mind.
Same mind, same love, full accord, one mind! St. Joseph's, Paul is saying in these verses, be united! And what is really quite striking here is how this stirring appeal is rooted in experience! Paul is talking about those times when we've just sensed God close to us in a special way; when folk rally round those who are sick or who are in trouble; when we pray and read the word together in good times and bad; when we have been aware of God's love in scarcely describable ways; we've spent countless hours with brothers and sisters listening to each other's struggles and trying to help each other; when food, money, possessions have been shared with those who have been in more need than we have at the time; when celebrations have been shared – birthdays, anniversaries, exams finished! In short, whenever we have felt God's love, whenever we have experienced the joy and benefits of being part of his family - in light of all that experience, he says - don't mess it up by being divided! Don't. Don't let division kill this church. Be united!
Now of course, you're never going to agree on everything… from the specifics of how we bring up our children to which way we should vote on Europe. He's not saying that you have to dress like me and I have to dress like you, which is probably a relief for you! He's not saying that we all have to think and analyse things the same way. It's unity – not uniformity. But we do need to be of one mind, and as Paul says it elsewhere, it's all to do with having the mind of Christ. This is the mind that he is describing here. It's a mind that walks together in love; considers each other and looks to help each other's faith. This is what is needed if there is to be any hope of your wonderful unity continuing here at St. Joseph's. So, how do you accomplish it? By taking on board the very practical advice Paul gives next. So my second point is:
2. How We Accomplish It: Humility
The unity and harmony that Paul earnestly desires for his readers can only be achieved if they reject all forms of self-seeking and vain glory and instead humbly regard one another as more important than themselves. Again, in one word, it's all about humility. Please don't ever let anyone convince you that the Bible is unpractical! Verses like these fly in the face of such nonsense! Paul gives us three very down-to-earth tips. Firstly:
a) Never let selfishness or conceit be your motive.
"Do nothing from rivalry or conceit…" (v3)
In other words, pride, arrogance, smugness, that feeling of superiority that 'I'm always right', that desire that all my family need to fall into line to do what I want when I want – none of that will get us to unity. Never let selfishness or conceit be your motive. Secondly,
b) Regard others as more important than yourselves.
"…but in humility count others more significant than yourselves." (v3)
In other words, recognise your true standing – be modest and unpretentious - you are a sinner saved by grace. That's all. Any success, any standing you have by worldly standards, has only come about because God has allowed it. He loves each and every one of the people that surround you, just as much as he loves you. And the best way that we can keep our egos in check is to always think of everyone else as more important than us. Third tip from Paul:
c) Don't limit your attention to your own personal interests.
"Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." (v4)
Pretty clear isn't he?! He's saying 'Don't be so self-absorbed that you fail to pay necessary attention to your brothers and sisters in need around you.' Instead, intentionally forget self and prioritize the needs of others above your own. One pastor tells of a vivid example of the kind of unity that self-forgetfulness can bring about. It's an example from Hitler's bombing of Britain. Here's what he writes:
"How often during that last war were we told of the extraordinary scenes in air-raid shelters; how different people belonging to different classes, there, in the common need to shelter from the bombs and death, forgot all the differences between them and became one. This was because in the common interest they forgot the divisions and distinctions… and suddenly … become united."
(Martin Lloyd Jones, The Life of Joy, 1989 p.142-43)
How much more so does the church need to do the same. St. Joseph's: in the fight against sin, the world and the devil, you need to forget all superficial divisions and distinctions and unite in humility to withstand spiritual attack. And before we move on, it may well be worth just a couple of words on what humility isn't. Humility is not false modesty, or self-focused. It recognises both what we are good at and what we're bad at and makes neither too much nor too little of either.
On its own merit, this passage, read over and over with prayerful intent by each one of us could lead to a quiet revolution in our families, in our work places and in our churches. You'll notice that on the back of your service sheets, at the bottom, I've printed out these verses with a couple of gaps. What I want you to do is to fill that gap with a name. Fill it with the name of someone in your family, here at SJB, at work, or wherever. And then say it and pray it over and over again! We've been experimenting with this around the Teasdale dinner table this week. I got Nathan, our eldest, to read these verses out and insert his brother's names into the gaps. The other two have reluctantly had a go too – makes for an interesting tea time! But what about if the first thing you did at work on Monday morning was to think of that person you struggle with the most and you inserted their name and prayed that through. Powerful, life-changing stuff this!
Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility count __________ as more significant than yourself. …look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of __________!
(From Philippians 2:3-4)
Friends, true humility is the cure for selfish ambition, it is the cure for vain conceit, for complaining and for arguing. But as game-changing as verses 1-4 could be, they do not stand alone. Paul is just about to link them with one of the most sublime, stunning, captivating, majestic passages in all of Scripture, as he points to Jesus' own story as the model of what he has just urged. So, my third and final main point:
3. Jesus: The Best Example
We heard it read earlier, let's just go through it verse by verse. Verse 5:
"Have this mind…"
What mind? The mind of Christ – as we have seen it's a mind of unity through humility.
"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,"
In other words, the only reason we stand half a chance of getting this mind, is because of what Jesus has done. And so Paul launches into this wonderful summary of Christ's example – which stretches back into eternity and reaches forward into eternity, with a wonderful stop off on planet earth in between. Verse 6:
"who, though he [Jesus] was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,"
Paul wants us to picture how Jesus acted before he came to earth. Ever since forever, Jesus has existed in the form of God. He is the second member of the Godhead and as such he is coexistent, coeternal and coequal with God. Here's our example of selfless motivation: Jesus did not try and grasp or hold onto all those benefits as Lord of all. Rather, verse 7, he:
"…emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men."
And here Paul wants us to picture how Jesus acted as he came to earth. In one sense, Jesus could well have stayed where he was, but in full control he willingly let go of it all, making himself nothing, to serve us. Here's our example of regarding others as more important than ourselves. As I said earlier, this isn't false humility. Jesus knows that, as God, he is far more important than us, but he willingly chose to serve us; he willingly made us more important than any need he had to hang on to his glory and he effectively abandoned his rights and became a nobody. Verse 8:
"And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."
Friends this language is meant to shock. Today the cross has become a dulled and domesticated symbol – from pop stars to archbishops, from tattoos to sunglasses, from church buildings to nightclubs – it just looks nice! Not so! We can't let these images of the cross affect how we read the Bible. As one author says Paul is trying to get his readers to see that the Son has exercised complete obedience to the Father in:
"dying an odious, revolting death [on] the cross, reserved for public enemies and the dregs of the criminal justice system."
(DA Carson, Basics for Believers p.47)
Paul has taken us from the heights of glory (equality with God) now to the depths of hell – separation from the Father - all to accomplish our rescue from sin. Here is our example of painful, suffering, costly attention to the interests of others. And yet, in so doing he has won the victory. And so Paul next wants us to picture what all this has achieved. Verses 9-11:
"Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Once the debt of sin, our debt, had been paid, God again lifted up Jesus to an unprecedented position of glory and honour and praise. One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess – the language of 'in heaven and on earth and under the earth' is meant to draw our attention to the fact that everyone ever created, saved or unsaved, will one day acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus. It may be that you are here this morning and you don't know Jesus and this is the question facing you today: are you going to voluntarily humble yourself before the Lord Jesus, or are you going to wait to be forced to do so when Jesus comes again? Please don't wait. Please don't wait. Because if you do, Jesus could come again and then it'll be too late. But if you act now and call on the name of Jesus, saying sorry and asking for help – he will answer you and you will be saved for eternity. Of course, many of you here already confess Jesus as Lord. And that is great! And this morning I want to leave you reflecting on verses 6-7:
"though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men."
Jesus voluntarily sets aside all the benefits of being God. He chooses to leave that and become a helpless, dependant baby. As I finish, just think about that for a moment. The Lord of the universe dependent on his umbilical cord to his mum; the Word unable to utter a word; the beginning and the end needing to learn how to eat and walk and tidy his room; the one who never slumbers or sleeps needing to kip because he got tired. This is absolutely staggering. And it begs the question for you today. What are you currently grasping that is keeping you from serving others in humility? Is it a title or position, a right or a privilege, a personal preference, is it an ego? Friend, will you set it aside and let it go, making yourself nothing for the sake of the gospel and the church?