Humility

Introduction Let me ask you two questions to begin with. What do you like about JPC? And what would you like to change about JPC? Since this is our Partnership Sunday and the tape of this service will get to St Philip's in Mburi, I'll ask them the same question: What do you like about St Philip's? And what would you like to change about St Philip's? Let me quote Matthew Parris, writing his column in the Times newspaper. He's complaining about the pettiness of the kinds of things that we discuss and disagree about in churches:

vigorous opinions... about whether prayers should be said or sung, or the Bible read in the King James or in modern English, what clothes should be worn, what music should be played, what hands clapped or not clapped

And he goes on to make the observation that the Christian message is bigger than all that:

The New Testament offers a picture of a God who doesn't sound at all vague to me. He has sent his Son to earth. He has distinct plans both for his Son and for mankind. He knows each of us personally and can communicate directly with us. We are capable of forming a direct relationship, individually, with him, and are commanded to do so. We are told this can be done only through his Son. And we are offered the prospect of eternal life - an afterlife in happy, blissful, glorious circumstances Friends, if I believe that, or even a tenth of that, how could I care which version of the Prayer Book was being used? I would drop my job, sell my house, throw away my possessions, leave my acquaintances and set out into the world with a burning desire to know more and when I had found out more, to act upon it and to tell others.

I think he's optimistic about what kind of a disciple he would be. Discipleship is easier said than done. But he's right on the main point. If the gospel is true, and we know it and believe it, why do we spend so much time and energy on things that are not just less important than the gospel, but also on things that are not important at all? I don't know what your answer would be to those two questions - 'What do you like, and what would you change about JPC?' (or St Philip's for those out in Mburi). But I hazard this guess. Most of the things that came to our minds are either much less important than the gospel, or not important at all. Maybe it was music, maybe it was style, maybe it was this emphasis or that. And Matthew Parris says to us, 'If I was a Christian, how could I care about those things, how could I get so self-interested in those things and so self-absorbed that all I do is spend my time disagreeing and disgruntled and trying to shape the church to suit me, when there's a worldful of people around me without the gospel and without God - in this life and eternity?' And the apostle Paul would agree. You can sum up Paul's great concern for this church at Philippi in one sentence:

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you, or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel. (1.27)

What is to be our priority? Well, whatever happens, says Paul to us, be united around the gospel, and get the gospel out to the world - even if it doesn't want to hear. And the problem was that the Philippians weren't entirely conducting themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel. Philippians 2.3 tells us there was selfish ambition and vain conceit in the fellowship. Self-interest and self-importance. Philippians 2.14 tells us there was complaining and arguing. Self-assertion and standing on rights. And Philippians 4.2 tells us there was open and damaging disagreement between key members of the fellowship. Paul was writing to a church just like ours - full of saved sinners still full of themselves and of their own importance and their own agendas. And if we'd asked Paul, 'What do you like to see in a church?,' his answer would have been very simple. Philippians 1.27: words to the effect, 'I like to see people living unitedly around the gospel, and getting the gospel out to others.' And if we'd asked Paul, 'What do you think most needs to change?' his answer would have been equally simple: us. We need to give up our own little agendas and small ambitions, and put the gospel first. First, PUT THE GOSPEL FIRST IN THE FELLOWSHIP (vv 1-4) The way to stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel is to remember that it's the gospel that brought us together:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness or compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. (2.1-2)

It all starts, v1, from: being united with Christ. If you're in Christ and I'm in Christ then, whatever our differences, we have in common something more important than all of them. We differ on things that are not important at all. We differ on things that are quite important, but are not the gospel. But the bottom line for believers is that we have something infinitely bigger in common. We've experienced what it is to be on the receiving end of the love of God. The things that the gospel holds out have become real and personal to us. We've found the encouragement of Christ's acceptance, the comfort of his love, the fellowship of his Spirit with us, standing by us and helping us, his tender concern for us and compassion for us - even in our sin and silliness. And Paul says to us, if that's your experience, v1, then, v2, 'make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose': however unalike we are, we share the Lord Jesus, and his purpose that we spread the gospel. And, says Paul to us, we are to have the same love: however unbearable we find one another at times, we're to show the same love to one another that the Lord Jesus has shown us. So v3: 'Do nothing out of selfish ambition.' In other words, out of self-interest. There are any number of interests washing around a church like this. Individual interests - like how many times I want to sing a song. Once? Twice? More? I could divide us immediately by asking for a show of hands. And there are group interests, like which area of the church needs more leaders, or more space, or more money. And Paul calls us to sacrifice all those interests to the one interest of the gospel - uniting around it and getting it out to others. If my little agenda doesn't serve that one, then it's not important. And even if it does, it may have to wait. There's nothing more destructive to the life of a church than ministries that don't serve the agenda of uniting around the gospel to get the gospel out. You end up with home group members who just want to take; music groups that just want to perform, staff who just want followers, leaders who just want an audience. 'Do nothing out of selfish ambition,' says Paul, 'or vain conceit' (v3). There is to be no self-interest; and then, no self-importance. Self-importance is where I assume my opinion on a matter to be better than yours, my understanding of the Bible to be better than yours - and therefore not correctable by you. And so on. Here is where ministries in the church become ways of self-promotion. We stop seeing people to serve and start to see audiences who'll applaud - whether it's our Sunday school group, or our Home Group or our Hall group that's clapping.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. (2.3-4)

No self-interest. No self-importance, but self-abasement, which is what the word translated 'humility' literally means. Self-lowering, self-forgetting, self-denying, self-crucifying. Iris Murdoch once wrote, 'Love is the painful realisation that something other than yourself is real.' And that's what Paul is on about. He's calling on us to humble ourselves and consider others, and say to ourselves, 'They are real people, not things to serve my own ends, but people to serve. And I am to consider them better than myself. I am to say, "In this relationship, I am the servant. I take that part. What can I do for you?"' Not 'Where can I found an outlet for my gifts? -' which can be a pride-inducing question. Not, 'How can I wield some influence in this church?' But, 'How can I serve you? What can I do for you?' And for us to say that to one another takes a change of attitude that only the Lord can bring about. So, onto our second heading: Secondly, MAKE THE CROSS THE PATTERN FOR YOUR ATTITUDE TO OTHERS (vv 5-11) The only way we will serve one another is to lower ourselves to the position of servants. And if we want to know how to do that, how to crucify self, we need to look at the cross. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being found in human likeness. And, being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient to death - even death on a cross. (2:5-8)

Here are we, just creatures, and yet we assume that our wills should be done, we assume we have rights, we stand on them and insist on them, and complain when they're infringed, or when we're taken for granted or don't get what we want. And it's as if Paul says: let's take all those attitudes to the cross, and see how long we can keep them up. Verse 6: 'Who, being in very nature God...' Just think about that 'Who'. The person with every right in the universe. The only person who actually has rights in the universe. The person through whom the universe was made. The person before whom, one day, vv 10-11, 'every knee should bow... and every tongue confess that [he] is Lord.' The person who is fully God, and fully equal with God. But unlike us insecure, status-grasping little creatures, he didn't hold on to any of that. He didn't insist on his right to sit on the throne of heaven, but, v7, he became a nobody. He became a servant to the human race when all along he was and is our Lord and King. And in order to serve us - to meet us at our point of need - he had to take on a low status (v7) and then an even lower job (v8). The status was to become a human being. The job: to die on a cross. And the real agony of that death was not the physical agony of the cross, but the spiritual agony of taking the judgement for our sins on himself so that it might never fall on us if we trust him. We know how hard it is to bear when we are falsely accused. How much harder for the sinless Son of God voluntarily to bear our sins - taking responsibility for them, and facing the punishment for them, as though they were his own. And Paul is saying: how can we believe that Jesus looked out for our interests, like that, and still be self-interested? How can we believe that Jesus laid aside his importance like that and still ourselves be self-important? How can we fail to humble ourselves (v3) when Jesus humbled himself like that (v8)? How can we stand next to the cross and be proud?

When I survey the wondrous cross,On which the Prince of Glory died, My richest gain I count but loss,And pour contempt on all my pride. (Isaac Newton)

That says it all, doesn't it? The story is told of a banquet given by an American ambassador. One guest was particularly fussy about where she sat. She discovered, on arrival, that she was further down from the head of the table than she expected. She asked to be moved. She was eventually moved up to a place by the ambassador himself. And when she was finally settled she said to the ambassador, 'You must find these matters of precedence so tiresome.' 'Not really, he replied. 'In my experience, the people who matter don't mind, and the people who mind don't matter.' Harsh. But true. Just re-read vv5-8 with those words in mind: 'The people who matter don't mind.' The person who matters more than all of us in the universe didn't mind becoming human to die on a cross. We, by contrast, mind very much the pin-prick discomforts of bearing with fellow-Christians in the gospel and getting the gospel out to others. We are more sick at heart than we believe even at our most lucid moments. I was helping on a Scripture Union summer camp for 10-13 year-olds. It was the final day; the youngsters had gone home, we were clearing up. We had a leaders' meeting to assign tasks. The worst job - the one everyone shrank from - was the job of cleaning up the outside loos that these 10-13 year-olds had been using all week. They were foul. The request was made for someone to do the job. An uneasy silence fell on the meeting. And then I remember a hand going up - the hand of the oldest leader there, a highly distinguished school teacher in his 50's. And he slipped out quietly to get on with it. And when I looked by a little later (to provide moral support!), there was no word of complaint or anything like that. Just an inquiry as to the Test match score. I reckon he understood Philippians 2. Without that attitude, any service we try to give - here in church or in CU, or on a summer camp - will be a menace. So, onto v9:

Therefore, God exalted [Jesus] to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.

We who are just creatures are so quick to exalt ourselves. I am so keen to be equal with you, at least - if not to beat you. We are so prone to compete, to impress, wanting by nature much more to be noticed than to serve. What, by contrast, did Jesus do? Humbled himself, served and - v9 - waited for God to exalt him. And he had to wait till beyond death. We humans never exalted him when he was here. Far from it. We crucified him. But God exalted him, ultimately, by raising him from the dead and bringing him back to heaven, to take his place as Lord. Maybe no-one knows or notices how we serve the purposes of the gospel - the praying that goes on, the caring for people. No-one will thank us for our attempts to share the gospel with them - at least, not until they're converted. And few people will thank us for the ministries we exercise in church or CU. But in every case, God sees. And God exalts the humble, just like he humbles the proud. Conclusion Let's return to that question we began with. What do you like about church? And what would you change? I suppose that's another way of saying: What do you think is wrong with church? You may know the story of the correspondence in The Times after the second world war. Letters appeared day after day under the title, 'What's wrong with the world?' - letters on education, government, the lot. The shortest came from the Christian writer G. K. Chesterton:

Dear Sir,

I am,

Yours faithfully,

G.K. Chesterton.

What's wrong with the church? I am. You are. We are. Why do we spend so much time and energy on what's not important, while we have the gospel to get out to others? Why do we disagree, and then complain and argue, or fight our corners or pursue our own little agendas? Because we've lost sight of the biggest agenda of all:

That at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (2.10-11)

What should I like about a church? That, whatever its faults and failings, it seeks to stand for the gospel and get it out. And beyond that, nothing else is really very important at all. What would I like to change? is not the point. The point is: what would God like to change? And the answer is 'us':

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. (2.5)

Back to top