Unity Through Humility
“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
These are Paul’s instructions for the church in Philippi, and these are Paul’s instructions for us today. “Be of the same mind…in full accord and of one mind.” I don’t know about you, but to me that kind of unity seems impossible…
And we don’t have to look very hard for examples. The 2020 presidential election is just about a month away; turn on your TV or radio, scroll through Facebook, drive down the road and you can see that we are far from being of one mind in this country. Whether it’s health care, abortion, immigration, law and order, racism, climate change, gun control, or the pandemic, friends, families, neighbors, and communities are divided by political and ideological differences that seem as stark as ever.
Or look at the church. There are thousands of Protestant denominations in the world. All of them began over disagreements about the way things “should be.” Long ago we argued over the sacraments, the scriptures, and the proper way to govern a church; now we fight over marriage equality, the ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy, different kinds of worship styles, and evolution. We protestants are far from being “of one mind” or “in full accord.”
Or look even at our own congregation. We’ve had our splits; we’ve had our arguments; people have left. And when we look to the future, we may all agree we want a more vibrant church, but we have little agreement about what that looks like and how we get there.
Division is all around us. But it’s nothing new. When Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians, he wrote it from prison. He himself had been arrested for preaching the gospel. The Roman Empire was at odds with the Christian faith. Christians were at odds with their Jewish brothers and sisters. And it seems the Philippian Church itself had some kind of internal division or conflict.
Paul urges unity, but surely he must know that that is impossible!
This reading from Philippians was the sermon text for our wedding. As Isabel and I prepared to commit to each other for life, our preacher wanted us to know precisely how difficult unity, like-mindedness, and accord can be between those professing their love for one another. If it’s hard for people who love each other, how much harder is it for people who hate each other? It all seems impossible.
But Paul doesn’t think so. Indeed, later in this book, Paul writes, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Paul believes firmly that unity, like-mindedness, and accord are possible. But how? Well, if we keep reading, Paul hints at an answer. He continues: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” This is the answer: in humility, regard others as better than yourselves.
Paul sets up a contrast between selfish ambition and humility. The Greek word here that we translate as “selfish ambition” is particularly relevant to our current election season. One commentator defines this word as: “a desire to put oneself forward,” or “a partisan and factious spirit which does not disdain low arts,” or simply “partisanship.” In short, it is campaigning for yourself and what you want. Conversely, the Greek word which we translate as humility means to have a humble attitude toward one’s self.
So for Paul, disunity is the result of people campaigning for themselves, whereas unity is the result of people campaigning for others. Disunity comes when we do everything for the sake of our own needs. Unity comes when we do everything for the sake of other people’s needs. We could say that disunity comes when we draw a line between “us” and “them.” And maybe it is our human nature to do so. But we could also say that unity comes when we see that line and then dedicate our lives to the service of “them” over “us.”
So who falls into your “them” category? Is it Biden supporters? Trump supporters? Is it people who wear masks? People who don’t wear masks? Is it Black Lives Matter supporters? Blue Lives Matter supporters? All Lives Matter supporters? Is it people who go to Catholic churches? Nondenominational churches? Is it Muslims? Atheists? Is it environmental activists? Climate change deniers? Is it people pro-vaccine? Antivaxxers? Is it your family? Is it your next-door neighbor? We all have a “them” category, and the first step toward unity means committing ourselves in humility to them.
Paul’s argument for unity through humility is not without evidence. It is in Jesus, Paul writes, that we can find the very heart of humility. And so to find unity, we must have a mind like Christ’s. So next Paul quotes this hymn:
“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.”
There was disunity between God and humanity and Jesus sought to restore that unity through one great act of humility. Jesus, who is God, came to earth and took on the form of a human being; he did not continue in his god-like power, Paul tells us, but instead “emptied himself” of that power, became a lowly human, and died a lowly death.
This is what humility looks like. The most powerful force in existence empties himself of all his power for the sake of the weak. With his godly powers Jesus could have pursued his own selfish ambitions; he could have come to earth as a conqueror and tyrant, glorious and terrible. But instead he counted himself worthless and us valuable.
Normally, when I tell you a Greek word, I say go ahead and forget it, but today I want to teach you a Greek word that is worth remembering. When Paul says that Jesus emptied himself, the word there is kenosis (it is written in your bulletin). Kenosis is the act of emptying yourself; it is the act of letting go of yourself; it is the act of humility. Kenosis is putting away your own self-interest so that you may look to the needs of others.
Jesus performs kenosis by putting aside his Godly power for the sake of us sinners, even though we don’t deserve it. And so Paul urges us to perform kenosis by putting aside our own power, our own selfish desires, and seeking to do what is best for others.
Easier said than done, I know. Kenosis is not achieved easily, and probably never achieved perfectly. Our only chance at humility comes from God, not ourselves. To truly experience kenosis, to empty ourselves of ourselves, to act toward others in humility, we must do at least three things every day:
First, we must search our hearts. We often justify all kinds of behavior pretending that we are serving others while really only serving ourselves. In order to experience true humility, we must acknowledge our true motives: is this for me or for my neighbor?
In their song “Delta,” Mumford & Sons give us the perfect set of questions to ask when we are pondering our own selfishness. They sing: “Does your love prefer the other? Does your love just make you feel good? Does my love prefer the other? Or does my love just make me feel good?” In this lies the difference between selfish-ambition and humility.
Particularly in an election season like this one, we must also search our hearts to see if our actions are meant only to benefit our own tribe, which is to say only the people who think like us. Actions that benefit only the people who think and act like me or you are not humble; they are simply selfish ambitions on the corporate level.
Second, we must repent. Once we have searched out all the instances of selfish ambition in our lives, the ways that we have sought to serve only ourselves or our tribe, then we must ask God for forgiveness. Only through repentance, the act of admitting what we’ve done wrong, can we then move toward healing, humility, and unity.
Third, we must pray. It is impossible for us to be humble without the power of the Holy Spirit, no matter how hard we try. And so we have to ask God for humility every single day. Through these three daily actions: searching our hearts, repenting, and praying, we may come to experience kenosis.
When Paul urges us to be of one mind, he is not urging us to have the same thoughts or ideologies or beliefs or political leanings. The Greek word for “mind” here is actually a verb and it has more to do with your intentions, your will. It’s as if Paul says, “incline yourselves to the same purpose.” Paul is not trying to unite the Philippians around a common ideology; any attempt to unite everybody around ideas or doctrines or politics ultimately leads to further divisions. Instead Paul is trying to unite the Philippians around love and mutual service.
True unity, Paul argues, will come when we commit ourselves in full humility to loving one another, not for our own sake, but for the sake of the other. True unity comes with kenosis, the act of emptying ourselves for the sake of others, especially those who think differently than we do. We do not necessarily need to agree with each other; but we do need to love each other through kenosis. Then we will be united not by some idea, but by Jesus himself, the very heart of humility.
In the midst of all the turmoil of this year, my prayer for you is this: may the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, so that in humility we might find unity.