Motivation for Unity

2 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. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 

So is the first word, indicating that Paul’s connecting what he’s about to say with what he’s just said.  He’s just told the Philippian congregation to stand firm in one Spirit.  Let me plunge a little deeper into what I mean by standing firm in one Spirit.  

And what he wants to drill down on is this issue of unity.  He wants the Philippian congregation to be unified.  Not just because that’s prettier, but because unity reflects the gospel of Christ.  It advances the gospel of Christ.   

In v.1 he lays out the motivation for unity.  In v. 2 he describes this unity.  And in vv. 3-4 he sets forth how unity is expressed.   

Today, we’ll have time to cover only the motivation for unity in v.1: 

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy… 

When Paul says any encouragement, any comfort, any…any… – he’s employing the figure of speech called understatement.  The Philippians don’t need to scratch around to locate a little – any – grace that God has thrown their way.  There’s grace all over the place, of course!  And even if they, or we, could spot only a little kindness from God, the problem is our perception; the truth is that we’re surrounded by God’s help.   

I hope this sermon encourages you to reflect on God’s kindness in your life.   

Commentators wrestle with a central question in this verse: Is Paul referring to objective facts or subjective experience?  Directing that question at the first phrase: is he pointing to the kind of encouragement in Christ occurring whether or not it’s felt as encouraging?  Or is he nudging them to consider all the times when they’ve felt encouragement from Christ?   

A father can buy his kid a quality bat and baseball, sign him up for a baseball camp, and pay for him to play on club team.  There’s encouragement from the father.  Objective encouragement.  But in all that the kid might not necessarily feel encouraged about baseball. 

On the other hand, after the game when his kid has struck out every time at bat, the father comes up to him and says, let’s go to Chipotle.  They eat together, and father reminisces about games he’s played when things weren’t clicking.  Then the father mildly suggests some technique adjustments.  Offers to practice with him over the next two weeks, 20 minutes/ day.  By the time they leave Chipotle, the kid feels ready to play again.  Subjective encouragement.   

Back to the question: is Paul pointing to the objective encouragement we have in Christ, or to our experiences of encouragement in Christ? 

At the risk of taking the easy way out, I don’t think we need to choose one option over the other.  Since Paul leaves things general, we can interpret generally.  We’ve been the recipient of objective and subjective encouragement in Christ.  Objective and subjective comfort.  Etc.   

One other interpretive question arises as we read this verse:  Is Paul referring to the encouragement, comfort, participation, affection, and sympathy that comes directly, immediately from God?  You’re down in the dumps and then, inexplicably, hope and joy arise in your heart.  And you conclude (possibly correctly): God acted directly on me to encourage me.  

Or is this encouragement, comfort, participation, affection, and sympathy that arrives to you the kind that, sure, ultimately is sent from God but is mediated through agents that aren’t God?  Especially through the Church?   

When we were in Newton there were a couple of families who, around Christmas time, would set some basket of goodies in front of our house, ring the doorbell, and then run to their car and would be driving away by the time we got to the door.  You can imagine the smiles and cries of surprise and delight when we went through the basket.  That’s encouragement…yes ultimately from God, but through the agency of the Church, other Christ’s followers.   

Again, I don’t think we’re supposed to dissect and assign specific categories here.  Today, the Spirit is inviting us to reflect on the benefits we receive – objectively there and subjectively felt – that come from God, though often sent through other agents.   

Often the line between objective facts and subjective experience is quite blurry.  I recall the first year of our marriage: I paused my seminary training in order to support Tonia who was finishing up her master’s degree.  To make ends meet, I awoke early and threw a paper route, then headed out to work in a lumber yard under a hot southern sun.  That first year of marriage, I discovered that I had lived a coddled existence until then.  Really, the hard work for little money and the pinched conditions were a real shock to the system.  Plus, being away from seminary, I wasn’t moving ahead in my career, and I wondered if I’d ever get back on track.  A little frustrating. 

On Sunday evenings we’d go to a church where there was excellent preaching.  And I vividly remember the balm those sermons were – God’s Word was unfolded, the gospel was explained, from different angles I heard over and over that God is powerful and that He’s for us and that He’s working toward a new creation and the Kingdom of God is advancing and He has a plan for each person who is following Christ and is working out good in their life…. I heard these objectively encouraging facts and I was subjectively encouraged by them.  And I remember coming to the end of Sundays simultaneously sad the day was done and also prepared for the upcoming week.  The encouragement of Christ.  Rehearsing those encouraging facts led to encouraging feelings.   

And, by the way, that encouragement came from God but through the agency of preaching. 

Brothers and sisters, reflect.  For you, what specifically about God and your peaceful relationship to Him through Christ and the works He’s done and is doing… have you found especially encouraging?  

Here’s something interesting: Those things that you find especially encouraging might have little to do with you.  For example: When God came to Job – wounded, confused, grieving, disoriented Job – He asked him a series of questions that – among other things – set his mind free from…his suffering.  And that was what Job needed. 

Job, Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars/ and spreads his wings toward the south?  Think about the hawk, Job.  Did you have anything to do with that animal’s being and qualities and instincts?  And, of course, the subtext of that question and all God’s questioning was: I did that.  I’m responsible.  I know.   

And at the end of this onslaught of questions like these, where Job has to reckon with the vastness and wildness and dangerous-ness of God, our brother Job is both deeply humbled and profoundly encouraged.  Oh man, God is so much bigger than what I thought.I’m part of something vast and personal.  And for some reason the Most High Creator, who is of a different order of being, who is the Ground of Being, has brought me into a dialogue with Him.  There’s Him and there’s Me and we are impossibly different, He is infinitely higher, and yet He speaks sentences that have and you.  God addresses me.   

And even though Job has gone through all this horror, what he hadn’t realized was just how hungry he was for God, and God met him and filled him with Himself, and that was so encouraging.  And yet, throughout, God never brought up…Job himself.     

Brothers and sisters, have you been comforted by love?   Any time you’re comforted by love means you’ve been comforted by God Himself, because God is love and all love and goodness comes down from Him.   

Think about it:  Have there been periods in the past – maybe you even remember certain hours – when you’ve had moving experiences of or awareness of the love of God?  And even up until today you’ve carried the memory of what you learned in those moments, and you’ve continually drawn comfort.   

Blaise Pascal was a mathematician and philosopher, a Christian, who went home to the Lord in 1662.  After his death, there was found sewn into the hem of his shirt sleeve a piece of paper on which he had scrawled the following memorial of something that happened eight years before:  

The year of grace 1654,Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, 
Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.
From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,FIRE.GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.

Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy…  

One night when he was 31 years old, Pascal had an experience of God’s love that obviously he drew from for the rest of his life.  He literally carried it around with him.  

I can’t point to single experiences of God’s love.  But when I look back over my life, I see love.  I wonder how many of us, when we think of the matter of being comforted by love, think of our spouse.  The day in, day out support.  The ongoing year-after-year conversation.  The forgiveness.  The shared burden.  The private jokes only the two of you understand.  The being-on-the-scene to watch in real time God transforming her.  Yes, the years go by, and the bodies change, the spirits change, and the love grows wiser, both fiercer and gentler, more insightful.   

George Eliot in Adam Bede, I think: “What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life–to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?” 

There is this great comfort of love, and I daresay we’ve all experienced it, and that love and its comfort sure comes down through various agents, but it is sourced in God itself: Every good and perfecting gift comes from above, down from the Father of lights (James 1:17)…. Think about it, Christian, you’ve been the recipient of this love, I’m 100% sure, even if you don’t recognize it.  I’m 99.999% sure that you’ve experienced comforting love, if not from God directly, down from God.   

What about participation in the Spirit?  We are not just objects of mercy, something God has redeemed from the ashes.  Although we are that!  But also, through His Spirit, God brings us into the inner life of the Trinity, and we’re drawn into the fellowship of the Father and the Son through that Spirit.  I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one. (John 17:23)  The Spirit unites us to Christ, and the Father is in the Son, and we have arrived into this periochoresis- an inter-penetration of the persons of the Trinity, this eternal fellowship and camaraderie of love and life.  We don’t understand much of that now, but in all eternity we will never stop growing up into the life and fellowship of the Triune God.   

As part of this participation of the Spirit we are brought into the work of God, the work of redemption.  For we are God’s fellow workers (1 Corinthians 3:9)…. Be steadfast, always abounding in the work of the Lord.  Created in Christ Jesus for good works.  (1 Corinthians 15:58)  Hearing this, meaning floods into our lives – God is at work around us, and is calling us to join Him.  To invest into people.  To work spiritually, practically, logistically to bring people before the announcement of the gospel.  Every moment, every interaction, has importance, has potential.   

The Spirit baptizes us into the body of Christ, and we become a member of the redeemed of every tribe and tongue and age.  When you read Augustine and John Wesley and Jan Hus and Hubmaier and Bonhoeffer and Lewis – something deep in you finds a connection with these brothers and sisters who speak with archaic language and have never even handled an I-phone!   

When you enter in a gathering of Christians whom you’ve never met, there’s an immediate connection already there.   A partnership of the Spirit. 

I’ve got friends everywhere, across the country, across the world.  Most of whom I’ve never met.  I walk into Tehran and there are brothers and sisters awaiting me.   

We had a bunch of people coming to us at Christmas time.  Betty says, they can stay here at my house.  This is the partnership of the Spirit throughout the world.  There’s a crisis of loneliness in the world and yet the Church, as long as we follow our Savior, is impervious to it.   

Acts 28: 11 After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods as a figurehead. 12 Putting in at Syracuse, we stayed there for three days. 13 And from there we made a circuit and arrived at Rhegium. And after one day a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. 14 There we found brothersand were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome.15 And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.  

And then, any affection and sympathy – we won’t spend long on these words.  We live in this story wherein God so loved the world that He gave His Son.  And when the Son came, He loved His own until the end of His life.  And then He laid down His life for us, dying for us while we were still sinners.  And then He sends out His ancient Spirit to indwell His Church.  And the Spirit yearns over us.  Intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.  And the story will take its final, major turn when the Father rejoices over us with singing.  We’re in this setting of deep, wise, infinite love.   

And this affection, sympathy gushes out from the Trinity and throughout the Church in every generation of the Church.  I remember Ken Keltner, who was a youth pastor at the church when I was in high school.  More than a youth pastor, he befriended me and my brothers.  He would come to our house or we went to his and played basketball together… a lot.  He taught me post moves.  He pushed me religiously: he pressured me to go on a mission trip and then insisted that I preach – and I was a stutterer scared of public speaking.  By the time I left high school he was one of my closer friends.   

I remember one day at church in tenth grade, he told me he wanted to come to my school and eat lunch with me.  Oh shoot!  A tenth grader – especially one with my reputation – didn’t want to be seen with a minister.  Well, he made good on this threat: he came to school, and I saw him from a distance… and I hid.  He looked for me, and never found me.  He left.  A couple weeks later I confessed this cowardice to him, and guess what he did? – he laughed and laughed.  He thought that was the funniest story.  And he never tried that again.  Affection…sympathy. 

Oh, brothers and sisters, we look back over our lives and see how cowardly and whiney and immature and cheeky and lazy we’ve been…and also how our Lord and our brethren have met this with affection and sympathetic understanding.   

Encouragement from being united to the King.  Comfort of love.  Partnership in the Spirit.  Affection and sympathy.  Do you know anything about these?  Have you experienced these to any degree?  I want to hear about this.  Please, this week, send me e-mails where you relay how you’ve experienced encouragement of Christ.  The comfort of love.  Partnership in the Spirit.  Affection and sympathy. 

So then what do you do with all this kindness?  How do you respond to the wave after wave of grace and mercy throughout your life?  The kindness that reaches its apex in forgiveness and reconciliation through the sacrifice of the Son of God? 

There are two faulty responses.  One is ignorance.  You look over your life and find only reasons to complain.  You don’t spot God or his grace.  Open up our eyes.  I think about that scene in the play, Our Town, when Emily, one of the dead is permitted to return to the living for a brief visit.  In returning to the living, what strikes her is how blind people are:  “Let’s really look at one another!…It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed…”  

And then as she is forced to return to the dead: “Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?”  

Open your eyes to the grace of God.   

To get to the other faulty response to all this: My son, Kai, is in the Army Special Forces, and he’s constantly amazed at how well he’s treated.  He doesn’t have to wear around his uniform on the base.  He can – within limits – grow out his hair.  He has access to this weight room that is amazing.  His meals are amazing: as much as you want, steaks, fish, etc.   

What principle is in play here?  To whom much is given, much shall be required.  We’ll give you a lot, and then we’ll send you to do hard things.   

So, one faulty response is not to see the kindness of God that is holding up your life.  The other faulty response is to forget that all that kindness was intended for something: To whom much is given, much shall be required. 

Paul says something along these lines:  Be of the same mind, having the same love…  What you’ve received, pass on.   

If you’ve been forgiven for so much, if God and people have gone out of their way for you, if you’ve been continually lifted out of one difficulty after another, if you’ve enjoyed the satisfaction of partnership, if others have read your situation perfectly and wisely dealt you kindness… 

This wasn’t all so you could get fat with grace, so you could lay up for yourself ease and entitlements and excitement and entertainment and excursions.  Christ died for all , that those who love might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.  2 Corinthians 5: 15 

You are not a terminus of God’s grace but meant to be a conduit.   

And – this detail is essential – respond in kind to all the grace you’ve received in the context of deep friendships within the Church.  being in full accord and of one mind [with one another in the congregation] 

That’s where we’re going our next time in Philippians.  For this week, though, let’s reflect on the goodness and kindness of God in our lives.  


P.S. On the week of his wedding, I pass on Ben’s application video to Noah’s Ark, the place he discovered his bride.

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