Have you ever had one of those moments when you realized you were on the wrong track, and it was going to be a tough time getting things straight?
Some years back, a vacuum cleaner salesman determined to go door to door left the city to tackle customers in the country. It would be more work, he thought, but he'd take his big-city slogan and find out-of-the-way homes where he'd sell his vacuum cleaners. He went as deep as he could into the backwoods, knocked on his first door, and nearly pounced on the elderly lady who greeted him. He quickly launched into his sales pitch, pointing out the features of his machine, telling her everything he could about the new technology his vacuum cleaner had. He talked so fast and showed her so many functions, she didn't have a chance to say a word.
Suddenly, right in the middle of his sales pitch, he saw an ash tray on a table. He picked it up and dumped the contents on the floor! His client was stunned, and still speechless. "Ma'am," he declared with a confidence he'd developed in the city, "what this machine won't pick up, I'll lick up!" Finally able to talk, the lady said, "Well Sonny, you'd better get started, 'cause out here we ain't got no electricity."
Getting back on the right track was going to be a rather distasteful activity!
When it comes to getting along with other Christians, the Bible doesn't waste words. If we're going to really get along, we'll have to model the sacrifice of Christ.
We're about to read a passage that uses the word "if" several times. This tiny Greek word, however, is synonymous with "since." It's a "conditional particle," and it works like this. You might think, "If I'm going to church today, I'd better get out of bed and get dressed." You're really saying, "Since I'm going to church today and since the clock tells me I'm already 15 minutes late, I'd better get out of bed and get dressed for church." Or even more realistic, "If I'm going to be happily married to my wife, I'd better take the garbage out today." Since you probably want to be happily married, "if" is the same as "since." And you can replace the word "if" with "since" in any of these opening statements from Philippians 2.
But how do you practice unity, when you're in a spiritual war?
How can you practice unity in an imperfect church? How can it possibly work?
I'm like the little fellow in the first grade. His teacher told her class, "If you need to go to the bathroom, I want you to raise your hand."The little boy thought about that, then asked, "How will that help?"
I'm practical. Help me! How can we be unified in an imperfect church? Thankfully, the Bible says it's not that complicated. Difficult? Sure. But it's just not complicated.
I. Eliminate selfishness
What a powerful instruction: "Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves." (2:3)
Remember the story about the turtle who wanted to come to Florida for the winter? He knew he could never walk all the way, so he talked to the two ducks who shared his pond. They were better equipped for long-distance travel. He found a piece of stout cord and persuaded each of them to take an end while he, with his strong jaws, held on in the center. It was a pleasant flight and everything was going as planned until someone on the ground looked up and said with admiration. "Who in the world thought of that?" Unable to restrain the impulse to take full credit for the idea, the turtle opened his mouth to say, "I did."
The turtle couldn't eliminate vain conceit, and therefore, he was eliminated.
This will mean that we're going to think more highly of other people than we think of ourselves. And that may not seem to be an American way of doing things. A few years back, for instance, the state of Illinois introduced personalized license plates for the first time. And the Department of Motor Vehicles received more than 1,000 requests for the number "1." The state official whose job it was to approve requests said, "I'm not about to assign it to someone and disappoint a thousand people."
His solution? He assigned the number to himself!
During Game Four of the 1996 World Series, Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner bought a hot dog while his team was the Yankees. To see him carefully count out three $1 bills you would have never thought he was the man paying for the multi-million dollar players on the field. When he went over to the condiment table he was overheard commenting to a stranger, "Three dollars for a hot dog. Can you believe it?" A fan who heard the complaint and recognized Turner, said, "Then do something about it!" If you've checked the prices out at the new stadium in recent years - the stadium named "Turner Field" - you'll find that Turner didn't do anything about steep prices. He was just complaining.
The people who have the opportunity to do something about expensive hot dogs, so to speak, are us. We can either address selfishness head-on, or live with disunity. What a terrible option!
We live in a land that preaches a "Look-out-for-number-1" gospel. The climb up career ladders is so focused, business ethics are often left wanting. The entire nation suffers, at times, from selfish-driven, corporate stock market scandals. Countless individuals suffer in smaller offices, where some career ladders are placed squarely on the back of fellow employees.
How opposite a message the church proclaims! Our greatest leaders are our greatest servants. We've even named our key lay-leaders - deacons - after the Greek word for "servants." The "diakonos" in the Greek world was the lowest servant on the social totem pole.
Have you noticed how complaining and arguing so quickly divide people? A simple complaint can start an argument that will ruin a family picnic, hurt a marriage, and stymie a child's creativity. Enough complaining, enough arguing, can hurt Christians and even destroy churches. That's why the Bible says: Eliminate all things that have to do with selfishness. Stop the complaining and eliminate the arguing.
Even in his incredibly positive conclusion to the letter to the Philippians, Paul had to address two women who hadn't been getting along. (4:3) Isn't that something? The private arguments of Euodia and Syntyche had such an effect on the entire church, Paul felt a need to stop his essay on joy and address it directly. How embarrassing to Euodia and Syntyche! How we hope they put aside selfish interest and became friends.
Have you realized that church unity always boils down to one-on-one relationships? It's rarely more complicated than asking Euodia and Syntyche to clear up their differences. When they do, the church works, and people come to Christ. Frankly, people outside the church are desperately hoping they can find a place where people put aside selfishness and simply get along.
II. Be subject to Christ
There is more to getting along with one another than simply putting aside selfishness. We must all put aside our personal desires and personal standards, and reach for a higher mark. When we have "fellowship with" or are "united with" Christ (2:1), we find that higher standard.
When we are united with Christ, we will be united with the Word of God. Having a sound theology, a sound understanding of what it is to follow Christ, is critically important.
Without a higher standard, each one of us is left to determine the standard of morality on our own. Another phrase for such a lifestyle might be "cultural anarchy," since there would be no authoritative voice of truth. The church is the last point of reference for ultimate truth in any culture. Armed with the never-changing truth from the Bible, the church has been charged with proclaiming that message without apology.
In the 1960's American culture changed radically. Many of the most influential voices in this country were pushing an acceptance of the drug usage. Some rock stars openly experimented with illegal drugs. Millions of young people followed their example. By the end of the decade, popular television shows started including drug usage as a part of sit-com humor, in those days a shocking message from the entertainment industry. A handful of politicians pushed measures to legalize marijuana, and millions of Americans thought it the right thing to do. News video from Vietnam showed soldiers smoking marijuana, and the national question seemed to be: "Who could blame them?" There's a sense that the loudest voices in America addressed the drug question by saying: "Just say yes!"
By the middle of the 1980's, however, all those important sounding voices reversed their message about the use of illegal drugs. Led by First Lady Nancy Reagan, music stars, key athletes, and the entertainment industry in general lined up for a new national slogan: "Just say no!"
Whether the subject is homosexuality, alcohol use, premarital sex or any of a host of issues, the pattern is certain to repeat itself. Cultural opinions reverse themselves again and again, proclaiming "right ideas" as if they were the waves of a sea.
The Bible says it's even possible for Christians to be tossed about on those waves of insecurity (James 1:6), but there's no need for that. Your anchor is readily available. The Word of God has never changed, and it will never change. Frankly, if you choose not to believe the Bible, you'll suffer terrible consequences.
One of those consequences is to lose the definition of integrity and purity.
Today's definition of a hypocrite is the person who complains there's too much sex and violence on his DVR.
Our prisons are well-stocked with well-educated, once-successful executives who lost their battle with personal integrity and purity. Some fudged in the area of finances, until they lost complete sight of right and wrong. Some forgot about purity, and became so immersed in immorality that they thought right was wrong, and wrong was right. (See Romans 1:32)
Personal integrity is priceless. Just six cents worth of failure can cause irreparable harm. Dr. Bob Reccord tells of an experience he learned about while in the business world. A major institution that ranked among the Fortune 500 was working to make an unheard of move. They were going to promote a 38-year-old Vice President to President. The man was a very impressive business man who wooed and awed the Board of Directors.
Upon completing the final interview process, the Board broke for lunch with plans to offer this man the prestigious position of president after they all returned from lunch. This young man went to lunch alone at a cafeteria but was unintentionally followed by several of the Board members who stood in line behind him. When the young man came to the bread section, he placed two 3-cent butters on his tray and covered them up with his napkin. As he checked out he never revealed the hidden 6-cents worth of butter.
When everyone returned to the Board Room for what was to be a joyous occasion the mood had dramatically changed. The promising young man was not only denied the helm of the company but was immediately fired from his position as Vice President. All because of 6-cents worth of butter.
When you give, the Bible says: Don't lack integrity. Be blameless. Watch your step. Read the Word of God and simply obey it.
III. Serve others
Instead of selfish ambition, there is humility (2:3). Instead of vain conceit, there is service to others (2:3-4). It all leads to unity in the entire church, for Christians who forsake selfishness, submit to the authority of Christ, and serve one another will be quickly "focusing on one goal." (2:2).
The phrases are tied together so quickly, we get the impression that the ideas happen simultaneously. And isn't that the case, when someone comes to a saving knowledge of Christ? When Zacchaeus met Jesus, he only needed an afternoon meal to be transformed from a selfish tax collector to the most generous man in Jericho. The Bible says, "Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith from my works." James 2:18 (HCSB)
The story has been passed along of Ernest Candler, who once lived in Williamsburg County, South Carolina. Ernest attended Cades Crossroads Baptist Church, where he was the Chairman of the Deacons, the Sunday School Director, the Brotherhood Director and church grounds keeper. If you needed a servant at Cades Crossroads, Ernest was your man. Arthritis struck Ernest in his last years of life, and he needed a metal walker to get around. Still, he was the first to arrive at the church each Sunday, and the last to leave.
One Sunday morning the pastor saw Ernest at church and noticed grass stains on his pants. The pastor was a bit embarrassed about the condition of Ernest's clothes. "Ernest, what happened to you?" he asked. "Well, sometimes I fall down," Ernest replied. "And I fell down in the church yard this morning. It wasn't a problem, really. I just had to crawl over to the steps so I could grab the handrail and pull myself up." And Ernest was happy to be there, happy to serve the church he loved.
Paul breaks out into song in Philippians 2, quoting what may be one of the oldest Christian hymns of them all. It's a hymn about the servanthood nature of Jesus.
(Read Phil. 2:5-11)
What an unusual savior we have. He gave up everything to become nothing. The one who should have been served came to serve. We should have died for him, but he died for us. As a result of his willingness to serve, Jesus was exalted to the highest place in all of creation.
When Christians elect to serve others, they too are exalted. As Jesus promised, the first become last, but the last become first. The greatest leaders? Servants, all of them.
We already know that success and servanthood go hand in hand. Bill Gates became the richest man in America because he developed a software program of "windows" that turned the computer into a servant for millions of people. The most successful companies in America consistently put the customer first, with either their products, their services, their assistance, or both. If excellence in the business world is tied to servanthood, how much more so is it true in the church?
A rabbi dreamed he had been given the opportunity to see both heaven and hell. He was directed to a closed door and informed that hell existed beyond the doorway. As he entered the room he was surprised to see a banquet hall that was set for a feast. Everything was exquisitely prepared but all of the diners moaned and wailed in agony. In the center of the table was a mouthwatering dish of food and each person had a very long spoon set beside them. The spoon was long enough for one to dish out the food, but too long to reach one's mouth. Consequently, they were unable to eat and were shrieking with pains of hunger! The horror was more than the rabbi could bear, so he asked to leave.
When he opened the door to heaven he was petrified to see the same scene. Everything was the same. There was an incredible table set with the finest china, and a mouth-watering dish of food in the center, and long spoons all around. Only here, in heaven, laughter replaced the pitiful cries. The difference in the two places? Those in heaven did not cry over their inability to feed themselves. They simply celebrated the privilege of feeding each other with the same long spoons. You could say, then, that serving others is a way to bring a taste of heaven to earth.