Unity in everything

Philippians 2:1-11

One of things I like to collect is DVDs of the decent stuff they don’t make for television any more. The sitcoms of the 1970s and 80s are, I find, generally far superior to most of today’s offerings. So, I enjoyed reading a book about the making of Last of the Summer Wine. It was a programme that dropped in quality in later series, but was brilliant in its heyday. The book I read told the behind-the-scenes stories we all enjoy. Bill Owen and Michael Bates disliked each other in real life far more than their characters ever did; and many of the cast, especially Peter Sallis, detested Thora Hird, about whom he was quoted saying awful things. It’s widely known that Brian Wilde thought he was important than the others, and left because he couldn’t have his name listed first, and receive a higher salary. Yet, they were all consummate professionals and in front of the camera we saw them working together precisely as we were supposed to.

Thinking of the theatre, I know many of us have sat and watched spellbound as the actors moved at what seemed like the speed of light. Many plays are complex and intricate, with many layers and double or treble meanings. Sometimes things happen so fast, all around the stage, that it can seem more like a circus act than a play. Everyone has to know exactly where to be and what to do so that the next move will work all right, and the next, and the next. Plays like that are like watching a highly complex piece of machinery with all its cogs and wheels working together in perfect harmony.

That’s a bit like what Paul is urging on the little church in Philippi. On stage, the actors are not out for their own individual glory at each other’s expense; if one single actor tries to steal the limelight from the others, the whole thing would fall apart. It only works because everyone is working together with the same object. That’s how the church should be too. The important difference, of course, is in church it needs to be real, and meat with all our heart, not just a performance for the benefit of others.

If you read these verses from Paul’s letter to that church in Philippi in any other way, they sound, to me at any rate, to be almost laughably impossible. There’s an old Jewish joke that says if you’ve got two rabbis you’ve probably got three opinions, and often the church seems like that as well. Not only are there big theological differences, smouldering resentments from historical events long ago, and radical variations in styles of worship. There are also personality cults, clashes over leadership style, arguments on issues of moral behaviour, cultural politics, and so on. How can we even begin to think that it might be possible to live the way Paul indicates here – thinking the same, loving each other completely, regarding everyone else (and their opinions!) as superior to you and your own? The answer must be that everyone must be focused on something other than themselves; and that something is Christ himself, and the good news he came to bring.

In this passage we’ve read today, Paul’s coming at the issue of unity from every possible angle: the motivation for unity, the inner life of unity, and the practical application of unity. Each of them has something to say to us.

What the motivation for unity means is that belonging to God’s family, if it’s about anything should be about a growing sense of love within the family, a love that sustains and cheers us from day to day. If we don’t have affection and sympathy, for each other, what’s it all for?

The inner life of unity sounds very pious and holy, and something most of us don’t seem terribly bothered about in this church. Paul talked about bringing our thinking into line with each other. Of course, if that meant that person A changed her mind to agree with person B, just at the moment when person B was changing her mind to agree with person C, while at the same time person C was struggling to think in line with what person A had been thinking a moment ago, then the whole thing would become a ridiculous parlour game. Of course, that’s not what Paul means for a moment. What I think he’s getting at is that like the actors all focusing single-mindedly on the performance, we’re challenged to focus completely on the divine drama that has unfolded before our eyes in Jesus, and is continuing now into its final act with us as the characters.

What Paul then has to say is quite extraordinary, outrageous, even. He suggests that Christians are to perform the extraordinary feat of looking at one another with the assumption that everybody else and their needs are more important than they themselves are. I knew a church once where two people shared the role of Church Secretary, and they both said that it worked because they each looked to the other as the senior partner. I remember once going to a function with quite a number of interesting people there, and at the beginning the beginning the host said, very firmly, ‘remember the most interesting person in the room is the one you’re sitting next to!’ Multiply that up a bit into a congregation, and you’ll get somewhere near what Paul is saying.

Today our Church Meeting will deal with contentious business, over which large sections of the universal Church have been deeply divided and come to bitter strife. Whatever our views on any given topic, if we set up barriers between ourselves, if fall out with one another, if we lose our fellowship with each, we shall let down God, and let each other down. What is most important, I suggest, is not what we decide, but how we decide it and how remain united in Christ.

All this is, of course, impossible, unless we keep your eyes fixed the whole time on the person at the centre of it all. That’s what Paul goes on in the passage, after where we stopped reading, to show us. So often we get it so wrong. How, I wonder, can we move beyond frustration and penitence, and towards getting it right in future? Let us listen to Paul’s words reminding in such poetry of why we’re her and what we’re about, after which we’ll keep a moment of silence for reflection.

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