We’re in the second week of a series we’re calling, Finding a Deeper Joy, from the letter to the Philippians. Joy is a dominant theme in this letter, and last week, we saw how the seeds of Paul’s joy were planted by sharing the gospel with the Philippian church. He remembered sharing in the life of Christ with them and that brought him joy during some of his darkest days in prison. Today, he pleads with them to make his joy overflow by having the same mindset – the mind of Christ. Listen for the word of God.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Sports have been a staple in our family recently – kids’ soccer, college football, baseball championships. Last Saturday, there was a college football game for the ages – maybe you saw it. After worship on Sunday, while we were standing at the door, Shannon leaned over and said, I’m surprised you didn’t mention the Alabama/Tennessee game. Hmmm. I have been known to mention such things, and I thought about it, and Knoxville is much closer to Asheville than Tuscaloosa is, but I pointed out that we have an inordinate number of Alabama fans around here and I really don’t want to be divisive.

It’s easy to be divisive today, in church or anywhere else. It’s not hard to start an argument accidentally, or trigger someone without meaning to: two coaches on a soccer field with a teenage referee and sidelines full of proud parents; a policy vote at a school board meeting; a new curriculum in the parent teacher conference; political positions or candidates or hearings; a slow car in the left-hand lane; traffic calming measures on Merrimon Avenue; an unwelcome horn; an explosion of road rage.

As one person said to me this week, it’s as if the veneer of social togetherness that we could rely on just a decade ago is not there. Where once you could deftly dodge the subject or duck the debate, today folks are ready to fight – to push back, be offended, or walk away. I’m sure this “us vs. them” volatility is not entirely new, but it has surely on a new dimension in our lives, lives.

We’re saturated with media, and social media, and partisan identities. And at the same time, we are starved for real friendships, in-person conversations, and thick relationships. To manage the tension in the air, we default to our tribes and subgroups, neighborhood, class, politics, race.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians was written to a church in a city where social divisions were in the fabric of life. Philippi was resettled a hundred years before Paul’s letter by veterans of a Roman Legion. They defeated the last defenders of the Roman Republic after the death of Julius Caesar, and resettled the city Philippi as a reward. They created an homage to Rome, with military culture, governed by military officials appointed by Caesar, and marked with huge monuments and theaters that displayed the wealth of the nearby gold mines.

Wealth, citizenship, and military lineage defined the strata of society in this Imperial city. And when Paul planted a Christian church, he preached the same message he took everywhere: in Christ you are a new creation. Christ has broken down the dividing wall between you. You’re adopted in Christ, you’re a child of God now. Your social divisions are dissolved, you are all now citizens of heaven. In this little church in this proud city, Paul was knitting a new kind of social fabric, different from the surrounding culture, with threads of service, humility, and mutual love.

But it was tenuous, vulnerable to the next explosion of road rage, or political rage, or church rage. So in perhaps his last letter to them, Paul writes, “[M]ake my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love.” His joy would overflow if their divisions dissolved. If they were one in Christ. Be of the same mind. Without a shared mindset, the diversity of their congregation would pull them apart. Without a shared understanding, they would naturally sort their very complicated community by natural tribes: you live in my neighborhood, you go to my service, you work downtown, you look like me, we like the same music, we eat the same food. Without a common identity, they would default to their subgroups: men, women, veteran, business owner, enslaved person, us versus them. It takes almost nothing to make a tribe. You don’t need ideology or theology; we could make tribes out of our bulletins and hymnals right now.

Let me tell you the story of the Eagles and the Rattlers. Twenty-two boys arrived by bus to the Robbers Cave State Park, a hundred and fifty miles southeast of Oklahoma City. All were strangers to each other, but they were remarkably similar: all white, all Protestant, middle-income, fifth graders. In fact, they were chosen because they were so similar to each other. But when they reached the park, in separate buses, they were assigned to two different cabins very far apart and unaware of each other’s presence. One group decided to call themselves the Eagles. The other chose the name, the Rattlers.

For a week, not knowing the others were there, the two groups went about their activities—swimming, tossing a baseball, sitting around a campfire, and each band developed its own social norms and hierarchy. The Rattlers, for instance, took to cursing. The Eagles frowned on profanity.
Toward the end of the week, the two groups learned about each other. The reaction was quick. Each group wanted to challenge the other to a contest, and their counsellors scheduled a tournament.

On the first day, the Rattlers won at both baseball and tug-of-war. The Eagles were livid. One of them declared that the Rattlers were too big. They couldn’t be fifth graders; they had to be older. The Eagles, on the way back to their cabin that evening, noticed that their rivals had attached a team flag to the backstop of the baseball field. They tore it down and set it on fire. The next morning, the two groups got into a fistfight, which had to be broken up by the counsellors.

That day, the group’s positions reversed. The Eagles won the baseball game, a development they attributed to their prayers for victory and to their rivals’ foul mouths. Then they won at tug-of-war. The Rattlers responded to these setbacks by raiding the Eagles’ cabin after the Eagles had gone to sleep. The Eagles staged a counterraid while their adversaries were at breakfast. Finding their beds overturned, the Rattlers accused the Eagles of being “communists.”

As tensions mounted, both groups became increasingly aggressive and self-justifying. The Rattlers decided that they’d lost at baseball because the Eagles had better bats. They turned a pair of jeans they’d stolen from the Eagles into a banner, and marched around with it. The Eagles accused the Rattlers of cowardice, for having staged their raid at night. They stockpiled rocks for use in case of another incursion.

When the Eagles won the tournament, each boy received a medal and a penknife. The Rattlers immediately stole them. At this point, members of both groups announced that they wanted nothing more to do with the other. But their counsellors, who were really grad students, were just getting going, with contests of the sort that only a social scientist could love.

The whole elaborate experiment is now regarded as a classic of social psychology. The participants had been chosen because they were so much alike. All it took for them to come to loathe one another was a different animal name, a contest for some penknives, and natural human instincts.

Paul pleads with the Philippians to resist the impulse of tribalism. Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus. Here is your shared mindset: the mindset of Christ. Here is your shared understanding: the life of Christ. Here is your common identity: you’re children of God, siblings with Christ.

Paul quotes what was very possibly an early Christian hymn to paint a picture for them of the cosmic life of Christ. From oneness with God in the dawn of the world, to the freely chosen and humiliating death of the cross, to his exaltation over every power and principality in creation.

We’re so familiar with this language; let me read for you how Eugene Peterson paraphrases this great passage:

Jesus had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

Jesus’ life is the story of a grace-filled humility and self-emptying love for others. This was not how you got ahead in Philippi; it’s not how you get ahead in America. But it is the path of divine presence and blessing that Jesus shows is the heart of God. It is humility that is freely chosen and lightly worn, not subservient or oppressive. It is the humility of a welcome mat, not a doormat. It is the humility of the Savior who ate and laughed with outcasts, a Savior who made friends with the rejected, a Savior who took a towel and basin to wash the feet of his friends, a Savior who gave his life to prove God’s overwhelming love. This is the mindset of Christ, the shared understanding of God’s children.

Let’s go back for a minute to the Robbers Cave and the fifth-grade boys. After nudging the boys toward conflict, the grad-students-slash-camp counselors decided to see if they could nudge them back toward together-ness. The first thing they tried was a social hangout. The boys were brought into the meal hall for a shared dinner; the result was a food fight. Since that didn’t work, the grad students decided to try something called “super-ordinate goals.” They manufactured crises the boys could only solve together, like a water shortage and a supply-truck breakdown. Gradually, working together on these common challenges, the boys grew friendlier; and on the way back to Oklahoma City, the Eagles bought the Rattlers ice cream.

When it comes to the divisions in our society, I’m not sure what we need to bring us together and move beyond the anger that sits so close to the surface of our daily commutes and community meetings and kids’ soccer games. I’m not sure what superordinate goals we need to bridge those divides.

When it comes to being the church, I do know that our superordinate goal – our common task – is to share the mindset of Christ. When we focus on following the way of Christ, we will become Christ’s one body. That does not mean we will agree on everything. We will disagree like good friends do. It doesn’t mean that we will share the same interests or political views, or live in the same neighborhoods, or like the same food or music. In fact, if we are truly being the church, then the church in here should be just as diverse in every way as the community out there.

Our unity will be found, not in our sameness, but in the shared mind of Christ. You and I have been made children of God by grace. Nothing else that can be said about any of us is more fundamental. We belong to the family of God. We are citizens of heaven. Our common task is to shape lives that look like Christ, lives of humility and self-giving love, confident that the love of God is abundant. And when it comes to our society, I believe that when the mind of Christ has transformative power, when you leave here and take the mind of Christ our there – to a field, or a classroom, or a neighborhood, or business, or a home – there is divine power and presence.

Paul didn’t call this our superordinate goal. He called it our gift – who we are in Christ. And he saw it as a pathway to our joy.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina




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