“Humility Trumps All”

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. 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. 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. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

One of this year’s bestselling books, entitled Lincoln in the Bardo, is a story about ghosts.  A bardo is an “intermediate state” between death and reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism, and this historical novel imagines the interactions between Abraham Lincoln and the ghost of his son, Willie, who died in 1862.  In the depths of grief, Lincoln visits Willie’s grave, and the story envisions Willie’s ghost, as well as the ghosts of slaves, able to enter Lincoln’s body unaware, and they share with him their own feelings and experiences.  It’s a moving novel which offers a fascinating, even if fictional, slant on the compassion and greatness of President Lincoln.

By slightly less lofty standards, probably more of us are familiar with the concept of a “mind meld,” practiced by Mr. Spock on Star Trek.  A mind meld is a technique that allows a Vulcan to merge his or her mind with the essence of another’s mind by using their fingertips.  “My mind to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts” is the exact (and so profound!) phrase.

And then we have the words of the apostle Paul to the church at Philippi:  “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.”

Biblical scholar’s aren’t sure what particular problems Philippi’s fledging community was facing that prompted Paul’s letter, but it probably had to do with division, and a lack of unity – not uncommon among churches.   A church consultant once remarked that “There’s no such thing as a large congregation. There’s only a church composed of dozens of small ‘churches’ that happen to meet at the same location at the same time.”

 

Paul is confronted with disunity.  But rather than position himself on one side or the other, mounting arguments for and against, he tries to minister to the divisions and factions in the church.  He says: “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

So how do we do that?  Not only as a church, but as a nation?  Some would argue that division is the defining characteristic of our country today – politically, economically, racially.  The list is endless.

At a talk in Sydney, Australia last weekend, the neo-conservative columnist Bret Stephens said that  “Americans have rarely disagreed so vehemently about so much…What makes our disagreements so toxic is that we refuse to make eye contact with our opponents, or try to see things as they might…Instead, we fight each other from the safe distance of our separate islands of ideology and identity and listen intently to echoes of ourselves.  We take exaggerated and histrionic offense to whatever is said about us.  We banish entire lines of thought and attempt to excommunicate all manner of people…without giving them so much as a cursory hearing.”

I think that’s a good analysis.  But the question then is:  How do we de-tox the disagreements?  How do we overcome the divisions?  How do we, in Paul’s words, “be of the same mind , having the same love?”

I believe we start by acknowledging that disagreement is part of what makes us human.  In the midst of the recent focus on athletes’ taking a knee during the national anthem, I appreciated the words of Tom Brady:  “You don’t have to agree with everything certainly.  It’s hard to agree with your own wife on everything from day to day.”

He’s right.  We don’t have to agree on everything.  But we do need to accept that we will disagree, and then move forward.  Again, from Bret Stephens:  “To disagree well you must first understand well.  You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely.  You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt;  have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning.   And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say…The idea of open-mindedness can’t simply be a catchphrase or a dogma.  It needs to be a personal habit, most of all when it comes to preserving an open mind toward those with whom we disagree.”

The apostle Paul encouraged the church at Philippi to “Be of the same mind…one mind.”  Then he said, “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.”  Humility is what matters. We can disagree well, we can understand well, only with humility.

Paul tells this divided congregation at Philippi that he wants to instill in them the spirit of Christ, to think like Christ thinks, to do what Christ did.  “Though he was in the form of God, [he] 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.”

When we’re humble, we’re able to look each other in the eye.  When we practice humility, we don’t have to be right.  When we’re focused on “the interests of others,” then we’re not living on separate islands listening only to echoes of ourselves.

We live in a time of divisiveness.  But we don’t have to be part of it.  We are Christ’s church, here in our little part of the world.  We’re also part of Christ’s church throughout the world – which we celebrate on this World Communion Sunday.  We join with Christians around the globe who gather in remembrance of the One who emptied himself.  The One who embodied peace, and compassion, and humility.

We’re not going to solve the problems and divisions of our nation.  But we can be an example, a beacon, and a model of being “of the same mind…of one mind.”  We can take time to look each other in the eye, and extend the Peace of Christ – through our handshakes, our words, our outstretched arms, even to those we may not know – especially to those we don’t know.  We can hold hands and sing the Lord’s Prayer together.  And we can bow our heads before “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  Amen.