Life United - Philippians

Having not written anything on the Bible since graduating eight years ago with a degree in it, I was really questioning why I’d agreed to this. After locating mine and actually having to wipe dust off, I felt a familiar sense of trepidation as I turned to Philippians. My usual experience of the Bible is to start reading, quickly become irritated, confused or frustrated with questions of application, modern Christian living, an inconsistent view of God and not having a clue what to make of any of it – then shoving it straight back on the shelf until I can brave it again. Hence the dust.

But I was ready for another go. So thinking as positively as I could, I read all the way through Philippians. Twice.

Then ensued a morning of tearful frustration as my mind was drowning in ideas about loss and gain and Timothy and Epaphroditus, in racing and straining and what does any of this mean to my little life at home looking after my kids? And does this letter written to people hundreds of years ago in a completely different culture by a man who knows nothing about my life have anything to say to me? And if not, why am I reading it? Why on earth am I trying to write anything about it?

The Bible went on the shelf. I went to bed. But on waking up the next day one word was sticking in my mind; floating around my brain: "unity."

So I picked up my Bible and tried again with the thought of unity to focus me and I actually found it a truly helpful and inspiring read!

Unity in everything?

I'm reading Chapter 2 and Paul is really getting into his letter and his emphasis seems to be encouraging the church family to stand united - to be of "one mind" and already I'm worried.

How can I be of 'one mind' with everyone in my church?

Don't get me wrong I like being part of a church community, but I have spent many years feeling frustrated because often I disagree with or have huge questions on what gets spoken about and how church is done. So to be of one mind with my church family do I a) give up all my own thoughts, beliefs and convictions? No I can't. I believe in these things too strongly and care too much to do that. I can't blindly go along with what the church leaders say when that doesn't seem very healthy. So do I go with option b) constantly argue with people and try to convince everyone to agree with me? No I don't want that – I’m not arrogant enough to think I am right about everything! So I am left with option c) to call it quits and try to find people who think in a similar way to me.... No I don't want that either. Despite the frustrations I actually like my church family!

So where does that leave me?

After a night of wrestling with this idea and feeling at an impasse I returned to chapter 2. And found that I was reading the words in a different light which left me quite surprised. Because Paul gives his suggestion on how to be of one mind, but it has nothing to do with doctrines, theology, statements of belief or ways of doing church. Instead he says "here's how you do it":
? Never act out of selfish ambition or vanity; instead, regard everybody else as your superior
? Look after each other's best interests, not your own
? Have the same mindset as Jesus who made himself nothing and became like a slave
(Chap 2:1-7)

And there it was, the moment of inspiration.

So this is what it means to be a church, to have fellowship!

It's not about signing up to statements of faith or a specific theology; what brings us together is having the same mindset as Christ - loving and submitting to each other and looking out for each other. This is something that might just revolutionise my whole church-going experience!

"Your task now is to work at bringing about your own salvation" (2:12)

The basic requirement for being a 'Christian' and really belonging to a church is being 'saved'. But when we talk about salvation we often focus on what we have been saved from not what we are saved to. Becoming a Christian - joining the church of Jesus - is about starting a journey, about running a race. We "work out our salvation" - it is something we do and continue. Paul says God is "at work" among you (2:13). Present tense. He's not just done the work on the cross to save us from death. The good news is that he has found us; he is at work in us. He has overtaken us in the race we are running, he is ahead of us on the journey. This journey - this race - is our salvation and everyone can participate because of the cross.

How do we as a Christian fellowship work out our salvation? By being united. By loving each other, by losing ourselves - counting all we have as loss against what we gain through Christ - his mindset of extreme love which will make us 'shine like stars in the world' (2:15)

Don't worry, be happy (4:6-9)

So let's put aside what pulls us apart - our arguments on sexuality and gender, on heaven and hell, on ethics and sin and be drawn together by our extreme love for one another and our exalting of each other above ourselves as we trust God to keep watch over our hearts and minds (4:7) Yes, let's debate and discuss, let's challenge and refine our thinking, but recognise it as part of our personal and collective journeys and not let these things exclude or divide.

If you have chosen to be part of Gods salvation, if you have embarked on the journey Jesus has made open to all, if you started the race whether running or walking, weighed down by chains or free, many years ago or right this minute then we have a 'partnership in the spirit' (2:1) and together we are working out our salvation. We are called to put one another's interests above our own; to put aside our vanity (especially when we are convinced we are right) in the pursuit of ‘one mind’ - the mind of Jesus.

Philippians gives the church a promise: God has given us the will and the energy to run the race - to make the journey - to empty ourselves and be like slaves to one another; forgetting what is behind and straining every nerve to reach for the prize. Life.