A pastor to his church always wants a good working relationship. As a pastor of this church, I want a good working relationship with all who would participate in the ministry of the church. In such a good working relationship, the leading of God can best be discerned, understood and expressed as a faith community. When the pastor and congregation see eye-to-eye, when they are on the same page with one another, they can work together to be the body of Christ the church was instituted to be. Don’t mistake seeing eye-to-eye to mean they must agree on all things; quite the contrary, varying opinions often help the community as a whole discern God’s will. What they must do well is to have a shared understanding of their purpose to be used by God for God’s work in redeeming creation.
But for such a good working relationship to exist, both the pastor and the congregation have to be honest with one another. By that I mean, the congregation and the pastor must be vulnerable with one another. The congregation has to be honest with itself – able to name its own deficiencies, struggles, distractions, and failures – so that the pastor (the shepherd, if you will) can best offer insight as to how God’s Word can be applied for the community to grow as disciples.
In the same way, a pastor must be honest with him or herself. They must name before God their own deficiencies, struggles, distractions, and failures. In doing so before God, they allow themselves to be honest with the congregation about how we, as pastors, are not perfect. Just as we offer insight to the community about how God’s Word is leading us together, we know that God is still working to help us be better prayer partners, encouragers, disciples, preachers, and teachers.
With both parties humbling themselves before God and one another, owning up to and naming where growth as disciples is needed, they are able to receive praise from the other without it increasing the size of their head, and they are able to receive criticism from the other without it tearing them to pieces. The praise and criticism are offered so that together, the pastor and congregation can serve alongside one another more faithfully seeking to serve as God has intended the church to serve. Only in the honest feedback that is shared reciprocally can the faith community live out God’s mission.
If you wonder what such a relationship should look like, read Paul’s letters.
In reading Paul’s letters we receive only half of the conversation that is taking place between Paul and the many faith communities, the start-up Christian churches surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. What we have is Paul’s written word to the churches. What we are missing are the many letters that were sent to Paul from the communities. The faith communities, seeing Paul as their shepherd, would write to Paul laying out the status of the church. They would name what was working well; they would name their struggles and any conflict that existed among the community. In being honest to themselves and to Paul, they were able to receive feedback to help them grow into the instrument God created the church to be.
In our text today we see a good example of how the vulnerability of the faith community to name problems existing in their community allows for God’s Word to offer a way forward that better imitates the life of God in Jesus Christ.
Verse 1 says, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation from love, if any sharing in the Spirit, if any compassion and sympathy …”
The Greek text includes before each phrase in verse 1 the conjunctive word if – in Greek the word is pronounced ei (transliterated as e – i). Fred Craddock, a New Testament Scholar, highlights that the word if in Greek has two different distinct meanings.[i] The word if can be read as meaning there is a question to the situation. For example, it would be like saying “If I were president (which, I am not).” But it can be a conjunction offering affirmation as well. For example, it would be like me saying, “If I were a pastor (and I am).”
Dr. Craddock argues, as do other scholars, that in this text, the word if is functioning in the affirmative understanding – Paul is not questioning if these things exist, he is naming that he knows the community is succeeding in these areas. Dr. David Bartlett, in making his case for this reading, says it would be better to replace the word if with the word since.[ii] With such a change, the scripture would read as such, “Since there is encouragement in Christ, since there is consolation from love, since there is sharing in the Spirit, and since there is compassion and sympathy.”
Paul is highlighting for the community in Philippi that he knows they are focused on Christ, and they love one another, they share in the spirit. He knows that as a community there is compassion and sympathy shared among one another. But verses two through four highlight that all things are not perfect within the community.
Paul says, since these first few things are true, “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.”
I can hear Paul saying, ‘You’re so close to living the life God has created you to live – since you’re doing these things well, because I know you are, then just let that good momentum carry over and do these other things well.’ Paul isn’t trying to say they are bad disciples, but they are places where growth is needed.
Verses 5 through 8 offer the application of God’s Word in Jesus Christ as instructions for how to better live as the instrument God created the church to be. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
These first few verses of application here highlight the necessity of humility and the servant mindset that must be present in the faith community if the faith community is going to live as God has discerned is best. God does not work in the expected ways of earthly kings and empires; God chose not to redeem the world through displays of power, but through an act of personal sacrifice. To offer instruction to the selfish ambition and conceit that was named as present in the faith community, Paul reminds them of the nature of Christ – that just as Christ was sent by God to offer redemption to creation, so too was the church created as an instrument to continue to live out God’s mission of redeeming the world.
Paul is naming Christ’s role in God’s mission of redemption to name Christ as a model for the church to imitate. Notice, Paul does not call the church to impersonate Christ, but to imitate the Lord. To impersonate is to make others believe you are something or someone you are not.[iii] But imitators, they seek to live up to the challenge of being a reflection of a something or someone they hold in high regard.
And if there’s question as to whether or not we should hold Christ in high regard, Paul instructs in verse 9 through 11, “[that] God has exalted Christ and given him a name above every name, so much that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. “
When we seek to be impersonators, to be something we are not, we refuse to look in the mirror and name where it is we are failing as a people of God to live out the mission of God to redeem the world. As impersonators we try to cover up where we have fallen short of the glory of God. As impersonators we tell others we have our act together, and lead them to believe we are worth imitating. As impersonators we refuse to believe that others could offer anything constructive as to how we can better exemplify the love and teaching of Christ. As impersonators we ruin the image of Christ.
For impersonators aren’t seeking to lead through humility; impersonators aren’t willing to sacrifice their time and gifts for the redemption of creation; impersonators focus on a societal checklist for what’s right and wrong, regardless if the person they are trying to impersonate is Christ – for impersonators aren’t trying to reflect the life of the person they impersonate – they just want others to think they are them. The reality is, Christ impersonators add nothing to the mission of God, for they aren’t redeeming the world, they are merely offering a false impression of God’s humble act of mercy in Jesus Christ.
But imitators – imitators aren’t perfect, and don’t claim to be. Imitators aren’t trying to convince anyone they compare to Christ. Imitators aren’t seeking fame and glory, they aren’t hoping for praise and adoration, they aren’t expecting promotions or bonuses. No – imitators are seeking to live up to the challenge of being a reflection of Christ. That when others see the way we love, see the way we live, see the way we respond in times of crisis, see the way we deflect to God when we are offered thanksgiving – what they see is a reflection of the humble, servant life of Christ.
As imitators, we take a long hard look at the reflection we give to others, and we name where humility, criticism, and honesty are needed to lend to change and growth, that we may truly reflect the life of Christ. That as a faith community, as a church, established by God, we may be used as instruments for God’s mission of redeeming creation – that we may be used for restoring faith in the faithless, hope to hopeless, love to the unloved, friendship to the stranger, and life to the walking dead.
Washington Street Church, I call upon you and I want you to call upon me, that we may together seek to be an imitation of Christ. I want us to work together to ensure that when the name of this church is mentioned anywhere around town, people think of God and God’s love. I want to work with you hand in hand, stride for stride, servant beside servant to ensure that God’s name is known for the love God has offered to all persons. I want us to work together to ensure that every person who is broken around us knows that in joining this community, they are joining other broken people, that we are all broken – and that we are here not because we are perfect, but because we know only through the grace of God in Jesus Christ that our brokenness can be redeemed and we can have any chance at imitating the Lord.
Since there is so much joy in Christ, since there is so much love, since there is so much compassion and sympathy, may our joy be made complete – may we live and work with one another as a reflection of the Holy – may we learn to live as imitators, that in every aspect of our lives we may reflect the servant life of our Risen Lord – for that is a name worth imitating, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the incarnate God – Jesus Christ. Amen.
[i] Fred Craddock. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Philippians. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993.
[ii] David Bartlett. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year A, Volume 4. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
[iii] Gilberto Collazo. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year A, Volume 4. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.