Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Fellowship of the Servant

Years ago while on a summer long trip to the Middle East, my friends and I found ourselves in Alexandria, Egypt...sharing arabic coffee and a warm meal with a Coptic Orthodox family in their sea side home. As I stood on the balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, I was intensely aware of two things. First, how far away from home and everything familiar I was. Second, how completely at home I felt at the table of these brothers and sisters in Christ. We spoke different languages, grew up in different cultures and Christian traditions, but our faith was a bond that made us family. Just last week I was worshiping in a Chinese church in which I understood little of what was being said, but as a beautiful song was being sung, a man leaned toward me with warm and gracious eyes and said, "The song is saying that we are family in Jesus." I experienced again the miracle of this international fellowship of Jesus' followers. In Philippians 2: 1-11, Paul urges us to treasure this gift of community, alerts us to what threatens it, and reveals the key attitude that makes it grow and flourish.

Treasure the gift of Christian community. “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" (Phil. 2: 1-2). This is the first hint we have in Paul’s letter that there may be discord in Philippi. You don’t ask people to be of the same mind, have the same love, and be in full accord unless folks are not of the same mind, do not share a mutual love and respect, and are not in one accord. And so Paul appeals to the truth of what they’ve experienced together…. If you were ever encouraged by this fellowship or if it means anything to you that you met him and began to follow him here; if you’ve ever been loved here, I mean really loved, accepted, forgiven; if there has ever been a true sharing (lit. a koinonia) in the Spirit in which your gifts and the gifts of everyone else were truly welcomed and appreciated; and if my joy means anything to you….do me a favor and work together, be united in your thoughts, decisions and actions.

Christian fellowship is a gift, but I’m afraid that it’s one we can easily take for granted. Jesus certainly did not enjoy the kind of fellowship or popularity which we define as success in the American church, nor did his disciples. John the Apostle lived out his last days exiled and alone on the island of Patmos. He prayed in the Spirit moment by moment and found his comfort there, but the physical presence of his brothers and sisters was nowhere to be found. There is a dedicated man from our own congregation who is serving Christ in the Balkans where the majority religion is not Christian. But for the sake of sharing the gospel, he has given up the privilege of Christian community that he knew here. Christian community has not been guaranteed us by God. It is a gift we must treasure while we have it.

And if we treasure this gift we will be beware the threats to Christian community. “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” (Phil. 2: 3-4). When a 21 year old Georgian luger was killed on a practice run in the Vancouver Winter Olympics…it cast a pall over the Opening Ceremonies, but it especially effected his fellow athletes. U.S. Snowboarder Shaun White put it this way: “We are all in different sports and from different countries but when we get here, we’re all part of the same family. It’s definitely effected everyone here.” We often describe the church as a wonderful family, but like any family…it is not invulnerable. There are hazards….and people can get hurt.

The biggest threat is what Paul calls “selfish ambition and vain conceit” where we begin to think of ourselves as better than, set apart or more important; focusing on our own interests instead of the interests of others. I don’t know about you…but I’m floored by this call to humility and the challenge that Paul puts before us. Repeat after me, “(I) do nothing from selfishness or conceit / but in humility (I) regard others as better than (myself); (I) look not to (my) own interest but to the interests of others.” Can you say this without any nervous laughter? Imagine if we began to look at one another in this extraordinary way; as though everybody else and their needs were more important than our own?!

Tom Wright describes a luncheon he went to with a friend where there were several well-known public figures. As he said grace at the start of the meal he also said very firmly: “Remember that the most interesting person in this room…is the one you’re sitting next to.” That’s the attitude Paul wants us to have; and it's impossible, unless we have our eyes fixed on the One who is the model of Christian community. But, as Tom Wright, suggests, perhaps we should first stop for a moment and ponder how far we fall short of this goal.

Imitate the model of Christian community. “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….Therefore, God also highly exalted him…” (Phil. 2: 5-11). I read about a flight being canceled due to bad weather. One solitary agent was trying to rebook all of the travelers whose schedules had been delayed. One man impatiently pushed his way to the front and slammed his ticket down on the counter. "I have to be on this flight, and it has to be first class!" The agent politely said, "I'm sorry, sir. I'll help you as soon as I can, but I have to take care of these other people first." The man became angry and shouted, "Do you have any idea who I am?" Without hesitating, the agent picked up the loud speaker microphone and said to the hundreds of people in the terminal, "May I have your attention, please? We have a passenger here at the gate who does not know who he is. If anyone can help him find his identity, please come to the gate." The man backed off, and the crowd of people burst into applause.

Here was a guy who really thought the world revolved around him…and we’ve all been there. It’s so much more fun when things are going my way…when everyone is orbiting around my needs. It’s the life of a baby…and we all have days when we’d like to get back there, wearing our Huggies. But here is Paul’s point. In Jesus’ case, the world really does revolve around him! After all, Paul says that he was in the form of God (lit. having the very nature of God). In Colossians we read that “He is before all things and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). And yet…and yet…this one around whom the whole universe literally revolves, humbled himself before the Father and took the form of a servant!

In Philippi, the image of the heroic leader would certainly have been men like King Philip of Macedon , their city’s namesake, or Philip’s more famous son, Alexander the Great who quickly became master of Greece and then at the age of 20 set out to conquer the known world…and succeeded. What a very different kind of leader was Jesus than Alexander, who came not as a conqueror but a carpenter; who reminded his disciples that “Whoever wishes to be great among you must become your servant … just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20: 24ff.). This one around whom the universe really does revolve humbled himself even to the point of death on a cross. He went down to the lowest, most shameful, seemingly God-forsaken place, to raise us up with him.

I’ve been told that nearly all of his professional life Albert Einstein kept the portraits of two scientists on his wall—Newton and Maxwell. But toward the end of his life he replaced those with portraits of Gandhi and Schweitzer. He said this: "It is time to replace the image of success with the image of service." Paul says that it was the Father's Servant Son that “He highly exalted…that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father!” The glory that the Father and the Son share with the Holy Spirit is the glory of humility and self-giving love…and it is to be the mark of Jesus' followers, the fellowship of the Servant.

One last thought: Jesus said that if we care for the very least of his brothers and sisters, it is like we are caring for him, and if we disregard the very least of his brothers and sisters, it is like we have disregarded him. The next time you share in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper…consider the words of C. S. Lewis: “Next to the blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses” (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory). What Lewis meant is that we honor our Savior’s sacrifice and his Supper…when we love one another. We honor the One who came not to be served but to serve, when we humbly serve one another. We honor Jesus when we begin to handle one another with the same loving care and the same respect that we handle this cup and hold this bread.

Gracious Lord Jesus, thank you for the gift of Christian community. Thank you for enfolding us in this miracle of encouragement, love and compassion that was purchased with your blood, and set aflame with your Spirit. Forgive us for taking this gift for granted and the blessing that it is. Forgive us for the times we’ve contributed to its division through our own actions or inactions, or thought only of our own interests instead of the interests of others. Help us to turn from selfishness and pride. Let your example be evident in every aspect of our life together: the way of self-emptying humility; the path of the lowly servant; the way of self-giving love – for you died on a cross for our sin! Together we confess you to be the very life and breath of this church, our true hope and joy! Amen.


Download Brothers and sisters said...

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Carol C. said...

Our Lifegroup discussed the concept of "...being in full accord and of one mind." We concluded that even we Christians will have issues that we are not in agreement on, but we would do well to listen respectfully to those with different points of view because we can't expect others to listen to us if we won't listen to, and try to understand them. And with non believers, we will not be able to share our faith if the person we're talking to feels shut down or out. First, we listen; then we share, when appropriate.

Steve said...

Good points Carol. Seeking first to understand and then to be understood is a good principle of communication...and it's biblical as James reminds us, "Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger." Blessings!