How Then Shall We Live? (part 3)

So far we have seen that Paul’s advice for living in crisis begins with rejoicing—a whole-body act declaring that we believe the good news all the way down. His second piece of advice is that we must grasp the good news—a story of Jesus’ humility, obedience, death and resurrection—as a map for our lives. It was Paul’s map, which enabled him to see good in the deathly threat of a Roman trial, and to find meaning and joy in the midst of it.

The third piece of advice has to do with living in community. From the first words of Paul’s letter it is obvious that Paul loves the Philippians. They care about him, and have shown it by sending Epaphroditis to help him, probably with a gift of money. Paul lavishly expresses his love and kinship with this community. He is terribly thankful for them, he frequently prays for them—and he prays with joy. (1:3-8)

It is not, as we noticed, that Paul wears rose-colored glasses. He recognizes the selfish and egotistical in the church, and warns against those who would lead them astray. Nevertheless, his strongest plea is for them to be unified. If there’s anything real in your faith, he urges them at the beginning of chapter 2, “then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” (2:2) Earlier he called such unity a sign to their enemies—a sign of how the story will come out. (1:27-28)

Paul doesn’t say why the Philippians’ unity will serve as such a sign. I think it’s rooted in the unique sociology of the early church. For the first time in human history, slaves and free, Greeks and barbarians, men and women were assembling as equals. The people in that early church had literally nothing in common, except their faith in Jesus. (At no time since then could that be said of the church. We come together for other reasons, related to class and ethnicity and style.) It must have been a compelling and bizarre reality—and sometimes an uncomfortable one, to judge by Paul’s letters. As a sort of sociological miracle, brought about by the unifying Spirit of God, the unity of the early church was a “sign and wonder.”

I see, though, a larger and more universal reason for Paul’s insistence on unity in the face of crisis. It has to do with the family mindset that always undergirds the gospel—and is so difficult for us individualists to get.

God works with family. He began to set the world right by choosing Abraham’s family. He made a nation from that family. When Jesus came, he related the good news almost entirely within and to that family. He called twelve apostles (twelve brothers, like Israel’s) for the renewal of that family.

Jesus did not offer a philosophy or a faith that you could adopt on your own. Disciples walked together.

And therefore the little ekklesia that met in Philippi should recognize the importance of getting along. (Maybe the most urgent words in the whole letter are addressed to two women leaders in the church: “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” (4:2))

One common impulse in a crisis is to huddle up with those whom we agree with. Or, to be so pure and principled that we only huddle up with ourselves! That is not how the gospel story runs. We are meant to follow Jesus’ footsteps as the Jesus family. And that means: find a way to “be of the same mind in the Lord.”

I don’t that means paying no attention to differences. I think it means cutting each other enough slack to recognize and appreciate family likenesses. I ran into this just recently, when an old friend began by probing what I believe about radical Pentecostals, and ended up furious that I want to accept them as brothers and sisters. She would nail them to the wall; I want to try to see the world through their eyes. Most of all, I want to be able to worship God with them (and anybody else who says Jesus is Lord.)

Democrat or Republican, Presbyterian or Pentecostal, young or old, male or female, rich or poor, we are not meant to lay down markers that separate us. In a time of crisis, we need to search out common ground, and demonstrate our humility (like Jesus’ humility) in joining with people who don’t meet our total approval.

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