Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Interests of Others: Sermon on Philippians 2:1-8

In a town in Bithynia, a philosopher stands in the heart of the theater, where the townsfolk have gathered to hear him out. It's about the same time John's Revelation has been hitting seven churches to the south. But up here in Nicaea, something else is afoot. The Nicaeans have had an exhausting year – a year consumed in a knock-down political brawl between different parts of the city government. And as neighbors chose one side or the other, it all led to the fraying of their civic fabric. Lately, they've managed a tender truce. Hearing that their rival city of Nicomedia granted honorary town citizenship to the distinguished speaker and philosopher Dion, who grew up about fifty miles from Nicaea in Prusa, the Nicaeans didn't want to be left out. So they resolved to do the same, and invited him to come receive the honor and give a speech to inspire them.

So Dion came. He was in his later fifties, and these colder months weren't quite as pleasant to him as they used to be. He caught a winter cold on the way over. But he went. Now, Dion was no Christian. And neither were most Nicaeans, or perhaps any. They were pagans. They believed, and he believed, in the gods of the ancient Greeks. And the myths they cherished told how the town of Nicaea had been built and named by none other than the god Dionysus, and had again been raised up by the half-divine hero Heracles. So as he commenced his speech in Nicaea, Dion began there. The gods, he assumed, model perfect friendship among themselves in their heavenly bliss. And so “it is fitting,” Dion told the Nicaeans, “that those whose city was founded by gods should maintain peace and concord and friendship toward one another.” Dion knew that they knew the old definition of the Roman writer Cicero, who held the essence of friendship to be “complete agreement in policy, in pursuits, and in opinions.” This was what the gods must have, so surely their founding gods desire Nicaeans to have the civic friendship that will result in “orderly politics.”

And, Dion said, they had already begun to rebuild those ties of friendship. Dion's own joy was increased, was made fuller, he told them, because when he came among them, he found them “wearing the same costume, speaking the same language, and desiring the same things.” And he asked them:

Indeed, what spectacle is more enchanting than a city with singleness of purpose? And what sound is more awe-inspiring than its harmonious voice? What city is wiser in council than that which takes council together? What city acts more smooth than that which acts together? What city is less liable to failure than that which favors the same policies? To whom are blessings sweeter than to those who are of one heart and mind? … When a city has concord..., it's just as if some god had made a single soul for so great and populous a city.

As Dion spoke, he found his strength failing him. With an apology for his weakness, he wrapped things up a bit earlier than he otherwise might have. Offering a short prayer, he called on the gods who meant the most to the Nicaeans, asking that they “may implant in this city a yearning for itself, a passionate love, a singleness of purpose, a unity of wish and thought; and, on the other hand, that they may cast out strife and contentiousness and jealousy, so that this city may be numbered among the most prosperous and the noblest for all time to come” (Dion Chrysostomos, Oration 39.1-8).

Dion spoke those words several decades after Paul had already claimed his martyr's crown; indeed, Dion was born during the earlier years of Paul's ministry travels. He did not learn from Paul, likely never heard of Paul. But some of the initial structure of Dion's logic might remind us of what Paul says in today's passage.

Where Dion held out to the Nicaeans the myths of their founding by Dionysus and Heracles, gods and demigods of Greek lore, Paul pointed to the one true God before whom all such idols must fall. But Dion pointed to the imagined divine founding of Nicaea to say that, if Nicaea prides itself in the benefits of a divine origin, then that should lead to changed behavior. And Paul says much the same to the Philippians: if the Philippian church can claim divine benefits, then that should lead to changed behavior, harmonious behavior. The Philippians have been honored and graced by a “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” They, like Paul, have received the gift of “encouragement in Christ,” the person of the Son. They, like Paul, have received “comfort from love,” from God the Father's love. They, like Paul, have savored “participation in the Spirit,” the Holy Spirit. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Paul is covering all the true divine bases there are. And, between them and Paul, they've also maintained “affection and sympathy.” Now Paul leverages all that. Dion rejoiced to the extent the Nicaeans were living according with their supposed divine founding, and Paul rejoices to the extent the church in Philippi lives according to its divine graces. So, he says, if he and they have shared those graces, and if they feel even the slightest bit of affection for him, they should “complete [his] joy,” should give Paul something to celebrate (Philippians 2:1-2a).

And what would Paul celebrate? He'd celebrate if the Philippian church could live out the same kind of concord and friendship that Dion hoped to see from the Nicaeans. Dion was happy to see the Nicaeans matching – to see them “wearing the same costume, speaking the same language, and desiring the same things.” Dion lauded a city that moves with a “singleness of purpose,” that “acts together,” that “favors the same policies,” where the people are “of one heart and mind,” that acts like it has “a single soul.” He prayed that the Nicaeans could have “a unity of wish and thought,” expressed in a passionate love for the good of the city. That's civic friendship at its best, in the Greek world. And Paul sets the bar no lower for the Philippian church. Just as the Nicaeans had been torn by civil unrest, Paul sees the first petals of that flower opening in this church, and he wants to rip that out by the roots. So he calls them to “be of the same mind, having the same love, united in soul, of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). Paul asks the church to set their minds to the same channel, as it were, and participate in a shared life, focus on matching their ways of thinking. They need a singleness of purpose. They need to act as a single soul, to live from one heart and mind, to unite in their wishes and their thoughts, to be driven by intense love for the good of the church. They need to want the same things.

But here's where Dion and Paul part ways again. Dion and the Nicaeans could only learn from the idols of the Greeks. Dion lived in a world where the natural expected behavior of any town's citizen was to pursue upward mobility in honors – to promote himself through bigger and better stations in life. 'Think big' was the cry of the hour. So Dion, as a young man born to wealth only because his father Pasicrates had been a successful loan shark, had been determined to climb the social ladder, rising to prominence in his hometown before going off to Rome and making powerful connections that made him realize how paltry his old ambitions had been – so he strove for empire-wide fame beyond the usual city course of honors. Dion viewed this kind of behavior as fully compatible with his vision for the Nicaeans – Dion thought they could still live in this way, grasping after status and honors, and have real concord and friendship. And the Philippians are inclined to agree. Philippi, as a Roman colony, is obsessed with ladder-climbing. Even among slaves in Philippi, they tended to put on their tombstones who their most famous master was, so that they could even in death compete with other slaves for bragging rights! And Philippi was filled with clubs where people angled for privilege and prominence and post, all so they could list their upward climb in an impressive resumé of honors. It was natural for Philippians – yes, even those who became Christians – to carry the built-in assumptions that the world works that way.

But Paul says no. No, that's not how it should be. That's not the way to go. Paul sees that ladder-climbing as the heart of two critical vices. One is electioneering, or 'selfish ambition,' as your Bible might have it. That's the same vice that drives some Roman Christians to try to take advantage of Paul's house arrest to pressure him and hurt him (Philippians 1:17), and Philippian Christians should be ashamed if they say they love Paul and yet act toward each other the way his detractors do to him. And the other vice is vainglory, baseless self-exaltation, empty bragging about things that don't really bring credit, all born out of a fundamental insecurity. Everywhere in Philippi, you could see monuments where people brag about things that are just so empty. To break these, the Philippian church has to reject the whole ladder-climbing worldview. Instead, they have to embrace something that would have horrified Dion: humility (Philippians 2:3).

To us, that sounds perfectly normal. But to the ancient Greeks and Romans, 'humility' was a dirty word. Greek authors actually listed 'humility' as a vice, as a character flaw! Because the word Paul uses here literally means “low-mindedness.” Greeks associated this word with cowering and groveling. They sneered at it as being the way low-class people think to get ahead. They said that this kind of behavior was the way slaves act. So for the Philippians, all of whom were converted out of this background, the word 'humility' stings! Should they lower themselves and grovel and simper and cower and flatter? That may be what it looks like to pagan eyes. But for Paul, humility is 'low-mindedness' in the sense of recognizing that all our perceived social differences between a president and a janitor are basically flat when we realize we're all just creatures confronted by a Creator who looms infinitely large. And with God in the picture, humility becomes a sensible thing. It was in the Hebrew scriptures, which repeatedly praise those who “humble themselves before the LORD.” But it's even more sensible in light of Jesus Christ, whose intentional downward mobility was what saved us. For, existing in divine glory, he rejected out-of-hand this grasping and clinging behavior the Philippians were addicted to; and instead, he emptied himself of everything showy and bright, put displays of glory aside, and stepped down into mortal shoes; and not only that, but he dressed in the costume of a slave; and not only that, but he submitted obediently to God his Father and embraced crucifixion, the uttermost shame a Greek or Roman could think of (Philippians 2:6-8). There's no greater course of dishonors than to go from visible equality with God, down through posts like human and slave, all the way to the cross. That's humility – and the Philippians can't claim to be followers of Christ while refusing to admit humility as a virtue (cf. Philippians 2:5).

So what should humility look like in practice for the Philippians? It means to give regard to one another's needs and concerns as more pressing than one's own. It means paying less attention to one's own vested interests and instead paying the greatest attention to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4). That's how Paul explains it. It turns the Philippians' world on its head. To ignore one's own interests means not angling for prominence, not seeking to climb the ladders that will impress their neighbors. It means being willing to take a step backwards, even many steps backwards, if that's what will be helpful to other people. Paul encourages the believers to make a habit of prospering the things that profit those whose interests seem to diverge from your own. Dion could have pictured a city where people are united in wishing the common good. But Paul goes so much further than a pagan philosopher could dream, then and now. Paul hopes for believers, in humility, to actively seek to promote each other's interests, even at their own personal expense. He wants them to invest where others will reap the dividends. And that only seems out of place because we haven't yet swallowed what Paul's dishing out: the command to pay more attention to others' needs and interests than our own, to put greater weight on what affects other people than on what affects us. And that, Paul says, is real civic friendship – this behavior alone will really lead to a convergence of loves, a convergence of mindsets onto the model of Jesus Christ.

Where does that bring us today? In March 1801, a new president was sworn into office. His name was Thomas Jefferson, and he'd made quite a few people nervous. Almost two months after President Jefferson took office, a Pennsylvania man named Thomas Dill wrote him a somewhat rambling letter, reminding the president that, as his calling was such a weighty one, he would need God to instruct and guide him. And Dill urged Jefferson to work for a country that would take the Apostle Paul seriously – a nationwide city that would “live in love and unity and goodwill and concord and harmony, furthering the wealth and outward estate and welfare of one another, forgiving and lending freely one to another without grudging, and let every man look upon the things of others as well as their own things.” Dill hoped President Jefferson, though hardly a Christ-follower, would be stirred by Paul's vision of civic friendship.

Because too often – as the ugly election of 1800 proved, and as we've proven over and over since – our country sometimes thinks more like the pagan Greeks and Romans than like the early Christians. We can get tied up in various sorts of ladder-climbing and other quests for honors and power. Our politics are full of electioneering, selfish ambition, empty claims to glory. But real humility, the way Paul defines it? Not so much. Sometimes, perhaps. But not as a rule. The same is as true of everyday citizens as of those who campaign. We tend to bundle ourselves into groups defined and divided by our interests. We project those interests as if they're good for the country as a whole, but rarely do we pause and ask how they impact those whose lives look differently.

But what do you suppose would change in our civic life if what loomed large in our mind was what benefited the people we have the hardest time seeing ourselves in? If we're young, maybe that looks like asking whether the policies that most appeal to us would really serve the interest of our elders – and, if not, find some that would. And if we're older, asking whether the policies that most appeal to us would really be in the best interest of the younger generation – and again, if not, find some that would. If we live in the city, are we taking care to look out for the interests of those in the countryside? And if we live in the countryside, are we really thinking most about what would make life better for the cities? For many of us, a humble approach to civic life might mean focusing on what would most serve the interests of the poor, on what would most serve the interests of the chronically ill, on what would most serve the interests of those who face unjust discrimination. Their interests might diverge from what feels like it works for us. But if we all started advocating for the interests that diverge from our own, over time we might see real civic friendship transform our community.

Of course, while Paul's words begin by echoing the political language of his day, he doesn't stop there. Paul is determined to speak to the church. For it's the church that has received the encouragement of the Son, that has been comforted by the love of the Father, that has been blessed to share in the Spirit. It's the church that has been saved by the humble mindset of Jesus Christ, whose pursuit of downward mobility bought our salvation. And the church is itself the 'city' Paul wants to see transformed by humility.

In this church, we can be trained to see one another's concerns as weightier than our own. And I rejoice that I see that! For many of us have accepted some uncomfortable measures during this season, not for the protection of our own personal health, but as a way of looking out for the health of others. In this church, we don't see the sort of ladder-climbing mentality that afflicted the Philippians. I rejoice in that, too! In churches, as we grow in humility, we learn to prefer the songs other people like over the ones we already know. In churches, as we grow in humility, we learn to prefer what's helpful to others over what's convenient to ourselves. In churches, as we strive to live out Paul's vision, we aim to see others' spiritual growth as the goal of our own.

So, if I might paraphrase and blend Dion and Paul together:

It's fitting that a church powered by God's grace should maintain peace, friendship, and love to one another! So I rejoice to find you wearing the same costume of the pure robes of righteousness, speaking the same praises of Christ, and desiring the same new creation. What sight could be more enchanting than a church with singleness of purpose? What sound is more awe-inspiring than the church's harmonious voice raised in worship? What church is wiser than the church that takes council together? What church acts more smoothly than a church that acts together? What church is less liable to failure than a church that agrees on the same mission? To what church can blessings taste sweeter than a church whose people are of one heart and one mind? To what church are afflictions lighter than to the church that bears one another's burdens? When a church enjoys friendship in Christ, then and only then are all our blessings and assets truly useful. So let this church live as one soul, joined by the same love, tuning our minds to the same frequency broadcast by the Jesus who descended from glory for us, who humbled himself for us, that we might live. In the same humility, let this church weigh one another's needs as the more significant, putting aside ambitions and empty pride to pay greater attention to each other's needs, each other's concerns, each other's interests. Let this church have the mind of Christ our Savior.

Let us pray:
Father, Son, Holy Spirit – one God, the Founder of all our divine graces, the Giver of all our benefits, the Fount of every blessing, of the encouragement of Christ and the comforting love of God and the sharing of the Spirit – I pray that, from this day forth, you would implant in this church a passionate love, a singleness of purpose, a unity of wish and thought, of soul and mind fixed on love and humility; and that all contentiousness and jealousy and self-seeking would flee before the outpouring of your grace, so that this church may forever be a spark that ignites our neighborhood and the world, burning up our ladders and dividing walls, but warming the heart of a cold world. Preserve us in the unity of the faith delivered to the ancient saints and handed down through thousands of years. Preserve us in the common hope for our souls, a Savior from heaven, Jesus Christ, who will make all things new. Preserve us in the bonds of love that unite all virtues together in one. Teach us the mind of Christ for the redemption of the world, for the joy of the church, and for the glory of his name above every name. Amen.

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