Dancing With OthersPhilippians 2:3-4
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Today we are continuing in our study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Together, we have been exploring this letter verse by verse and seeing how this grace and peace continues to unfold around us.
Over the past couple weeks, we’ve seen a shift in the letter, where Paul moves from telling the Philippians about the struggles that he has had in prison under the Roman Empire, to how these difficulties, as inconvenient and painful as they may be, are actually advancing the Gospel in ways that he couldn’t have imagined before. From this Paul goes on to tell the Philippians that he knows they are dealing with the same struggles that he is. Even though the Philippians are on the other side of the Empire, even though he is in prison and they are not, Paul knows, and the Philippians know, that the ways of the Empire are not the ways of Christ. As the Empire continues to seek to belittle, control, abuse, and demean the dignity of others, the Philippians are exposing them by living with grace and peace.
Paul knows, and the Philippians know, that there is a good chance they could end up in prison just like Paul. They share in this same struggle for grace and peace, and when you rise up against the Empire, the Empire is not just going to stand down.
Last week, we looked at Paul writing that we need to live with the same mind, with the same love, that we should be united in encouragement and sympathy. This isn’t Paul saying that we have to agree about everything, but it is Paul saying that first and foremost our orientation towards the world and one another should be grace and peace.
In our text today, Paul writes, “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”
This sounds, at first, like a very simple and straightforward text about Christian ethics, and in some ways it is, but it’s more than that too. Sometimes we can be so familiar with an idea or a concept that it actually becomes unfamiliar. Think about it like this, every week in worship we say the Lord’s Prayer, but could you honestly start it in the middle without having to recite the first half to yourself? I can’t.
Have you ever been thankful for having the wind knocked out of you because when you could finally take your next breath you were grateful for it in a way you never had been before? That’s what this text has been for me all week, so I am going to give you everything I’ve got because I need you to see how the Spirit is inviting us to live and move in the world. If we can live into this together, everything changes for the better, and grace and peace will move in ways we never imagined before.
When Paul writes that we should do nothing for “selfish purposes” there are actually two different Greek words and ideas here. Various translations of the scripture bring out the nuance of these words in different ways. At Grace, most of the time we read from the CEB but I like how the NRSV puts it as they translate Paul, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”
In Greek, the word for selfish ambition is ἐριθείαν (eritheian) and it was a word used in the first century to describe mercenaries. The imagery that Paul wants us to have in mind is this struggle, this ongoing movement toward grace and peace against evil and injustice and Paul is comparing that to the Roman soldiers that go into battle for a paycheck. They don’t care about the cause, they don’t care about who they harm or how many villages they destroy, they just want to get paid.
Conceit, in Greek, is κενοδοξίαν (kenodoxian) and it literally means empty glory. Some of you might recognize the glory in that word from Doxology and kneo is empty, cheep, or vain.
Paul writes that we shouldn’t do anything in this life as if we are mercenaries, just in it for a paycheck, and we should live beyond vain glory.
There’s another way that we can translate κενοδοξίαν (kenodoxian) into English, reality television. It’s the fame so many crave, but it’s being famous for being famous without doing anything to make you famous.
Instead of living with selfish ambition or conceit, empty glory, we should, “with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”
This sounds like Christian ethics 101 because it is.
Jesus says that we should love one another as we love ourselves. When Jesus tells the disciples how others will know that they are following the way of Christ, Jesus says, “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35).
When we live with love, we live like Christ, and for Paul, this raises all sorts of important implications.
In Greek rhetoric, and especially in the letters of Paul, there is often a main idea that they want to get across, and to reinforce that idea, they keep bringing it up in different ways. Paul is writing about our relationships with one another but Paul is also writing about the nature of God. Foundational for Paul is the idea that we are made in the image of God, so let’s look back at what Paul has said about God so far.
Paul begins their letter to the Philippians writing, “May the grace and peace from God our [creator] and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (1:2).
This God is generous, this God freely and continually gives grace and peace.
Has someone ever told you about their promotion, about how their life is getting better and better and you know that you should be happy for them but you just can’t bring yourself to smile? Every now and then we find ourselves believing that there is only so much good news to go around as if the goodness of this life is like pieces of pizza and if someone else gets more that means you get less.
Paul’s God is generous, not just to some but to all. The goodness of this life is less like a pizza and more like justice, someone else getting theirs doesn’t mean that you lose a chance to have yours. With this God, there is always more than enough grace and peace and generosity to go around.
A few verses later, Paul writes, “I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus…You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel. God is y witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.” (1:6-8)
Not only is Paul’s God generous, but this God is also personal and connected to the movement of our lives. This God knows you by name, this God began a good work within you and will bring it to completion, this God is filled with partnership, affection, and compassion. That means that this God doesn’t just have generosity for you, partnership and affection and compassion for you, but for everyone, and this God is at work, as we saw last week, through the encouragement in Christ, comfort in love, and sharing in the Spirit.
This God is generous, this God is loving, this God is personal, this God is communal, and through this God, Christ, and Spirit, everyone is included and invited to join in the joy and beauty.
Throughout this letter to the Philippians, Paul writes about this never-ending generosity, love, and compassion that is personal and communal. Again and again, Paul writes about God, and Christ, and the Spirit, in this uninterrupted flow of grace and peace.
Somehow, this generous and passionate partnership of God in grace and peace, this vibrant good news of the Trinity has been reduced to a dry, dogmatic doctrine.
But why is it that we all seem to have at least one friend that is always posting on Facebook? What is it that fills us with anxiety when our cell phone only has 1% battery life yet and we don’t have anywhere to plug it in?
We crave connection and community. Even those among us that consider ourselves introverts among introverts need and long for those personal, generous, communal, partnerships that fill us with life.
Scott McKnight writes, “God’s eternal reality is the Love between [God], Son, and Holy Spirit. This is what God was doing, is doing now, and will do for all eternity. This is what God is…Union and communion are the goal of all created reality.”
Creation is intended to be deeply connected, interwoven, and harmonious relationship. We are created in the image of the generous, personal, communal God of oneness. It is as if we are hardwired for union and communion with one another and all of creation, that in the ways we share in this generosity, this personal love, and communal partnership, we reflect back the image of God that we are created in.
This is why we crave sharing a cup of coffee with friends. This is why we long for the day when we can share a meal together. This is why hours of conversation can feel like mere moments. This is why social distancing is so difficult for us and at the very same time, this is why we care so much about our community and one another that we will endure together.
One scholar wrote that the Trinity is, “the ceaseless exchange of vitality, the infinite expanse of Spirit upon Spirit in superlative, triplicate consciousness.” Even if you don’t understand that sentence you can’t help but love it. “To speak plainly, from eternity God has had a communal life and didn’t need to create a world to get one. Nothing internal or external to the Trinity compelled God to create.” (https://www.thebanner.org/departments/2011/01/god-s-good-creation)
From eternity, God has had a communal life. This triune God is the ceaseless exchange of vitality, this triplicate consciousness of personal and communal love.
Trinitarian theology cannot imagine a God that is static, isolated, or detached.
Some want to think that God created the cosmos because God was lonely, but that raises all kinds of questions, primarily, what kind of God would create us for company?
The idea of a detached, unmoved, isolated, stoic, and separated God that is somehow somewhere else and only creates because it was lonely, bored, or needed to be praised, has nothing to do with our faith.
From before eternity, God is community. God always has been, is, and always will be, this ceaseless self-giving and receiving vitality, love, joy, beauty, partnership, and celebration. This God has always had harmony and community. This God, the God that Paul has pointed us towards again and again in the letter to the Philippians, did not create out of loneliness or boredom to be loved, better than that, God is love and God created from the overflow of this ceaseless vitality, it is from the abundance, the never-ending movement of generosity, love, community, that creation came to be. This Trinitarian God, this love shared, given, and received between God and Christ and the Spirit cannot be contained and will always overflow.
God gives to Christ, Christ gives to the Spirit, the Spirit gives to God and so God receives from the Spirit, Christ receives from God, and the Spirit receives from Christ.
The totality of the creation is not static, isolated, or alone, there is communion and union all around us because there is no selfishness in the ground of our being, only the giving and receiving and sharing or love, grace, and peace.
The God that we know in Christ who continues to move among us through the unity of the Spirit is generous, personal, and communal, which means our response and relationship with this God must be generous, personal, and communal. Trinity has this way of pulling us into a far larger world than we can imagine on our own. Our Trinitarian God is the source of the explosion of creativity in the cosmos and as we enter into a generous, personal, and communal relationship with this God, creation, and one another, things can’t help but get more and more interesting.
You are not a spectator to God or this life, there is always a divine hand reaching out to you, inviting you into the moment of holy creation, holy salvation, and holy communion.
The poet, Malcolm Guite, puts it like this:
In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In [God’s] own image, [God’s] imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for [God’s] glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
[God] calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within.
The God that is beyond, beside us, and within, is the God that calls us to holy creation, holy salvation, and holy communion.
This is why you may have friends that want nothing to do with God, faith, the Bible, organized religion, and yet, they love to go to the art museum, they are captivated by music, and film, and books, they find pleasure and joy in gardening, in manipulating and moving plants around so they can bloom. It’s why they have a toolbox next to their toolbox and more wrenches than you might think are necessary but they know each one is vital because with those tools that can create and repair and renew. The creativity that brings them to life is at the center of life itself through the triune love of God.
It’s the same reason why you might have a coworker that doesn’t see the point of church, they don’t know why you refuse to sleep in on Sundays and yet, they continually go out of their way to make sure the companies they shop at support their workers with a living wage. They show up at rallies, sign petitions, vote early, and have signs on their yards because at the core of their being they know that tangible salvation isn’t just possible it’s a necessity. They see the need for holy salvation all around us, and they have to be a part of it because the nature of God is the nature of each one of us, a holy longing for salvation, for goodness, justice, and joy.
I am willing to bet that you know someone that isn’t all that interested, at least on the surface, in religion, Jesus, or faith, and yet, they can throw an amazing dinner party. They know how to organize a meal, find a place for everyone around the table, and make each person there feel like they are the most important person in the room. There is a communion and a community that we know we are created for because it is what God created us for.
We all crave grace and peace because trinitarian love is always reaching out to invite us in and include us in the ceaseless exchange of vitality. You are created to be a part of what God has been from the very beginning.
This sits just below the surface of everything that Paul writes. The grace and peace of God in Christ are with you, the God that started a good work with you will not let you down, the Spirit is leading us and holding us together, because God is generous, God is personal, and God is communal.
Paul believes that we can be with and for one another just as God is with and for God. Just as we are created in the image of God, we are called to be generous, personal, and communal, giving and receiving, participating in this ceaseless exchange of vitality with one another. Now do you see why Paul is devoted to unity but not uniformity, can you understand the passion that Paul writes with when they describe how we should do nothing for selfish purposes, but with humility must think of others as better than ourselves, that when we come together in unity and community we don’t have to look out for our own well being because we’re looking out and taking care of others which, of course, means others are looking out and taking care of us.
In Philippians 2:3 the word that Paul uses for ‘others’ in Greek is ἀλλήλους (allēlous) and it’s a very complicated and tricky word to translate in Greek because it means others. It a very subtle and nuanced word as you can tell.
It’s actually the obviousness of others that makes it vital in this passage. Others means others. It doesn’t mean the folks that you naturally gravitate towards and instantly care for, it doesn’t mean friends, Paul doesn’t write that we should care for the wellbeing of those that fit into our particular demographic. Others, ἀλλήλους (allēlous), means others.
The movement, the energy, that Paul is insisting that God calls us to be a part of is this one love, this one mind, this unity of service and community, where we encircle and include others. Just as God encircles and serves and love Christ and Christ encircles and service the Spirit and the Spirit encircles and serves God which means God receives from the Spirit and Christ receives from God and the Spirit receives from Christ, in the same way, that this love continues to be given and received freely, as it abounds and overflows, Paul insists that enter into living out this same love and service with one another, but, especially, with others.
The theologian Karl Barth writes of this passage saying that others are, “The strange, the different, the unintelligible,” When Barth says that others are the strange is your first thought, and I know them by name. When you hear ‘different’ does a dictionary open up and have a very specific person pictured in the definition? And unintelligible, I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a few folks in mind there.
It is “The strange, the different, the unintelligible, the subjective aspect of my neighbor.” That’s such a good phase, well done, Karl. Here’s what Barth is getting at, we all think that there is an objective way that we do things, we do A, and then we do B, and then we don’t skip to D because we have to take care of C first. We have our objective life, but others seem to have not read the instruction manual and we have no way of grasping their subjective aspects.
Karl Barth writes that it is “The strange, the different, the unintelligible, the subjective aspect of my neighbor, is the garment in which the one thing meets me.”
The one thing is grace.
If we want to understand God’s love and grace and peace, if we want to truly understand what it means for God to have enveloped and encircled us with hope, love, peace, and grace, we have to try to orient ourselves to the strange, the different, the unintelligible, the co-worker that we avoid because for some reason they’re always microwaving fish at the office, the family member we’re embarrassed by. As we serve and circle around them, in our frustration of love, we will be face to face with what it means for God to have loved us even in our strangeness, difference, and unintelligibility.
The person that most gets under your skin may in fact be the very garment with which you become clothed with God’s grace and peace to bring you more fully into ceaseless vitality of God’s love.
If you could take even one step, no matter how small, into caring and loving the other, by looking out for their well being, putting one of their concerns above your own, it would be a step into understanding what it looks like for God to continually love and care for each one of us.
Barth goes on to write, “We discover respect for one another, not on this ground or that, [BUT] counter to every ground, simply because we are bidden when looking at our neighbor to look at the one thing, which is grace. The claim my neighbor makes on me, on my patience, on my attention, on my consideration, on my love, is the claim of the one thing [grace].”
Perichoresis is a Greek word the early church used to describe this movement and flow of love between God and Christ and the Spirit that overflows among them and we are invited into. Peri, in Greek, is around, and choresis is movement, it’s where we get the word choreography.
Perichoresis is how we describe the divine dance that is in the center of God. Each of the persons, aspects, identities, of God, Christ, and Spirit, move amongst one another, in this unity, wherein the distinctness of their roles and identities and aspects, however, you can wrap your head around it, each is fully itself and owns its identity so much so that it can give itself away to the others in this endless flow of emptying and refilling as they move together in this divine dance of generosity that is personal and communal. It is this eternal movement of giving and receiving, the ceaseless exchange of vitality, the infinite expanse of God’s dance forbids us to think of God as solitary, separate, or somewhere else. We enter into this dance together, we encircle one another, serving and being served, sharing this love as we give and receive, continually extending a hand as this divine trinitarian dance continues to unfold and overflow within and around us, as we see and experience the choreography of this great love.
Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.
Aug. 24 – 29
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Read – Genesis 1:2, 26-27, Psalm 33:6-9
Notice – – In Biblical Hebrew, the word rûaḥ meant spirit, wind, and/or breath. “In the OT the spirit (rûaḥ) of Yahweh is God’s power in action. Yahweh’s spirit is God himself present and at work, as are his ‘hand’ and his ‘arm’…. A term for both breath blown out and wind blowing (wind is viewed as God’s breath, Is. 40:7; Ezk. 37:9), rûaḥ has vivid and awesome associations when used of God’s energy let loose.” * Long before anyone had thought about the word “Trinity,” Genesis 1’s poetic creation liturgy said the one God created humans in “our” image, made to be like “us” in character. It described God’s rûaḥ moving over the waters of primordial chaos. Psalm 33 was a later passage that also portrayed God’s spirit as fully involved in the work of creation. The biblical assertions about the meaning of creation point us towards joy, creativity, and goodness, all held together by the God who made us in “our” image. How does it change your sense of why you exist to believe that the fullness of God (“us”) brought this world, and the life processes that created you, into being?
Pray – Holy Spirit, you are the spiritual air I breathe. Help me to grow more aware of the inner strength and vitality you offer me as I make you the “oxygen” of my life with God. Amen.
*J. I. Packer, article “Holy Spirit” in New Dictionary of Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988, p. 317
Read – John 15:9-13
Notice – Scholar William Barclay wrote, “We are chosen for joy. However, hard the Christian way is, it is, both in the travelling and in the goal, the way of joy. There is always a joy in doing the right thing…. A gloomy Christian is a contradiction in terms, and nothing in all religious history has done Christianity more harm than its connection with black clothes and long faces.”* On the night before he died on a Roman cross, Jesus reminded his followers that living out his agape love is ultimately the path to joy. Jesus began John 15:9 with ten key words: “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you.” As the moon reflects the sun’s light, our love for others at its best reflects God’s love for us. Today, how will you live out your commitment to love God and others? How can your church be, above all, a living model of God’s unceasing love for all people? To what extent have you learned to see self-giving, not self-gratification, as key to a genuinely joyous life?
Pray – Jesus, you know how much I like pleasing myself. Keep teaching me how to find life’s deepest joy in living out your model of self-giving to bless others. Amen.
Read – Matthew 7:7-12
Notice – When Jesus compared God favorably to human parents, he reminded us that we may see “good things” differently than God does. Have you ever seen a child who strongly wants something (e.g. a fourth ice cream cone) that the child’s father knows would not be good for the child? How does this shape (or reshape) your understanding of Jesus’ promise that God will give “good things to those who ask him”? At times Christians seem to think the Golden Rule only means “Be nice” in surface-y, social ways. Jesus said his short phrase held the deep spiritual essence of the entire body of “the Law and the Prophets,” all the Hebrew Scriptures. What people or conditions make it hardest for you to truly treat others as you wish they’d treat you? When has someone else treated you by the Golden Rule’s standard? How did that affect you?
Pray – Jesus, in your earthly life you never imposed yourself on others, yet always tried to win even your enemies. Give me wisdom to know how to honestly live out your Golden Rule. Amen.
Read – Colossians 3:12-15
Notice – In today’s reading Paul listed six positive qualities we can “put on” (verses 12, 14), with love as the crowning quality in the list. That kind of inner changing is not as quick or as easy as changing changing your clothes. If it were easy, we might not need verse 13 on forgiveness. Yet the image of “putting on” these lovely qualities reminds us that their ultimate source is God, not us. In what ways is God’s love, forgiveness and reconciliation shaping your life today? How much of the time do you live that way in your relationships? Has being “locked down” together made this kind of life more characteristic of you or less? If you fail to “put on” this way of life, what blocks you?
Pray – God, guide me. Help me to live so that words like “peace,” “unity,” “humility” and “love” will be the main qualities others see in me. Amen.
Read – 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Notice – Paul’s specific focus was an offering from Gentile Christians to support poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Yet he focused on what God gives us: “everything you need always,” “every kind of grace” and “You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous in every way.” When (if ever) have you received a gift that “left you speechless,” that words couldn’t fully describe? How would you compare that feeling with God’s gift(s) of which Paul spoke? How does (or doesn’t) generosity fit into your picture of what it means to be one of God’s people? How does generosity make you and others more resilient?
Pray – Jesus, you gave, literally, all you had to give for me “for the sake of the joy” laid out in front of you (Hebrews 12:2). Teach me more each day about the joy of generosity. Amen.
Read – Luke 9:1-9, 18-50
Notice – In answer to Jesus’ penetrating question, Peter said Jesus was the Christ (Greek for “anointed one,” like the Hebrew Messiah). Jesus did not reject the idea—but did say bluntly that being the Christ meant suffering, not the power of the empire. Peter, John, and James probably expected Jesus to descend the mountain, call in the cavalry, and drive out the Roman oppressors! They couldn’t yet grasp that greatness in God’s kingdom often looks very different from the world’s idea of greatness. Jesus, far from pursuing status or power, served others, trusted God fully and gave himself to save the world. How do you define greatness? In what specific ways do God’s ideas of greatness differ from human ideas?
Pray – Humble Jesus, like Peter I can say you are “the Christ sent from God.” But keep me from thinking that following a king like you is always easy and comfortable. Build in me the backbone it takes to serve you faithfully. Amen.