The church is never a place where you will find selfish ambition or vain conceit! That’s a joke!
In fact our passage speaks of selfish ambition and vain conceit (v3).
Selfish ambition: the desire to have more, to be more: more money or possessions or status or significance.
Ambition in itself does not need to be wrong. The problem is what we are ambitious for. The problem is when we end up climbing over others to get what we want. We fix our eyes on the object of desire and nothing and nobody will get in our way.
Vain conceit: this is the temptation to think more of ourselves than we should. We have our petty little achievements and successes and as a result we start to think that we are rather important. We become 'puffed up'. I’m bigger than you; I’m stronger than you; I’m cleverer than you; I’m more attractive than you. We look down on others. We think we deserve greater status or honour. We're put out when we feel that we haven't been treated with the respect that we deserve. And resentment eats us away like a cancer.
I remember with utter shame the time that I went to a formal dinner and complained because I had been placed on one of the lower tables. I felt it was below my status as vicar of St Mary's.
And vain conceit leads to my seeking empty glory; it means I pride myself in my petty achievements - which in the grand scheme of things are pretty pathetic - and I end up mercilessly fault finding in others.
The problem with vain conceit and selfish ambition is that it divides.
If you are conceited, if you are ambitious for good things in this life then it is almost a given that your conceit will smash against my conceit; your ambition will crash against mine. And there will be argument, conflict and division.
And sadly that happens as much in church communities as it happens elsewhere.
It certainly was happening here in Philippi.
· Paul mentions people who were preaching Christ not to build up the Kingdom of God, but in order to build up their own name (1.17: ‘they preach Christ out of selfish ambition');
· He speaks of Epaphroditus who 'takes a genuine interest in your welfare' unlike all the others who 'look out for their own interests, but not those of Jesus Christ' (2.20-21).
· He pleads with two ladies by name, Euodia and Syntyche, and he urges them to agree with each other in the Lord (4.2).
And every church community is the same. Because we are human there will be the envy, the pride, the jealousy, the naked ambition that tears people apart.
But, and this is what is radical about this passage, it does not need to be so in the church.
There is the possibility to begin to live in a radically different way.
Paul writes to the Philippian Christians and he urges them to be like-minded, to have the same love, to be of one spirit and one mind.
1. We have the most amazing example of someone who renounced selfish ambition and vain conceit
2. And we have the grace of God, the power of God which can come into us and fill us with his compassion and tenderness, and it can transform how we look at and how we treat other people.
1. So we look at Jesus
He is the one who we call Lord - and we seek to follow his example:
‘In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had’ (2.5)
There was no self-conceit or selfish ambition in him.
He had everything and he gave it all up.
Whereas we are always looking to fill ourselves up with status and stuff, he emptied himself of status and stuff. 'He made himself nothing' (v7).
Kierkegaard tells the story of the fabulously wealthy and powerful prince who loved a peasant girl. She was unaware of his love. His problem was how to declare his love.
If he commanded her to love him, would he ever know if she truly loved him? Perhaps she would always live her life in fear of him.
If he brought her to his palace to woo her, would she fall in love with him or would she fall in love with all the prince and princess stuff?
The only thing he could do was to leave his prince life and become a peasant; to exchange the palace for a hovel; to live the sort of life that she lived; to woo her as one peasant would woo another peasant.
And so Jesus leaves heaven and comes to earth. He becomes a baby, one of us. He woos us. And what is even more astonishing is that he does that in the knowledge that we would reject him.
Vv6-8 speak of the emptying, the self-humbling and the obedience of Jesus.
That is the alternative to selfish ambition and vain conceit.
It is about being like Jesus, putting God first, and doing what God wants us to do.
And if we commit ourselves first to being obedient to God, if we kneel before Jesus, who has been made Lord and who has been given the name above every name, then we will be changed.
If we commit ourselves to him, and if we place our desire for him and for his kingdom above our desire for stuff and status and significance, then it becomes so much easier to empty ourselves.
And if we begin to learn how much he loves us, and the good he desires for us (not necessarily here and now), then it is much easier to humble ourselves before others. So what if they consider me insignificant, a 'dead dog', 'a flea' (as David said to Saul, when Saul was hunting him)? It really does not matter. If Jesus lives in you, you can be treated as a dead dog as far as this world is concerned because you are a prince or princess of heaven.
So we look at Jesus, at his example
2. We turn to the grace of God
Without the power of God at work in our lives, this will just be wishful thinking. We cannot change.
I have been particularly struck by the first verse of this passage:
It speaks of the encouragement that comes from being united with Christ.
In schools they used to say, "Put your hands together to pray". It is quite a simple way of explaining what it means to live in a relationship with Jesus. This is me. This is Jesus. We were enemies of God, but because Jesus let them drive nails through his hands when he hung on the cross, we are forgiven, and can become friends of God. And not just friends of God, but intimate with God. It is about being in Jesus - united with Jesus.
And so we are united with the one who has been made Lord of all.
I'm part of him. You are part of him. In him you are welcomed, accepted, forgiven. God has given him everything and in him, as part of him, you have received everything.
There will be many times when life is rough, you are hurting, you feel abandoned and lost. But you are in him. And you are not on your own in this. Each one of us who has received Jesus is part of him. And in being part of him we are part of each other.
So when the grace of God grabs us and we know that we are united to Christ, we begin to realise that we have an interest in building up each other and in not tearing each other down. When you are built up, I am built up. When you are torn down, I am torn down. When the Methodists or Baptists are built up, we are built up. When the 9.30 or the 11am are built up, we are built up. We are united with Christ. We are part of him and we are part of each other.
That is why separation is painful, because we are literally losing part of ourselves. But it is only temporary. Because on the other side of heaven, as believers we will be reunited and there, there is no separation and no death.
And Paul writes of the comfort that we receive from the love of God.
I make no apologies for speaking about Michael who I visit and who has motor neurons disease. It has spread right through his body and is now beginning to affect his swallowing. If there is anyone who I know who you would expect to spit in the face of God it is Michael. But we were speaking on Tuesday about this passage, and Michael spoke of the comfort of the love of God. He spoke of the gift of the still small voice of calm that brings peace. And he was saying, through his oxygen mask, how he longs to be able to take that peace, wrap it up and give it to others.
If we know the love of God, then Michael has taught me that we can face any situation. 'Even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me ..'
And when we know that love of God then we will begin to see other people as they really are: people created in the image of God, of equal value as you and me, and beloved by God. We see ourselves and each other as people whose identity, dignity and destiny can only be truly found in Christ.
And Paul writes of the fellowship of the Spirit:
This is speaking about the fact that as believers we both have the Holy Spirit living in us and we are brought together by the Spirit.
He gives us different gifts so that we need each other.
And I hope you also know something of that almost indescribable connection that can come between fellow believers in Jesus.
Someone I knew went many years ago to a Taize week. She shared a tent with a Polish girl. She didn’t speak Polish and the Polish girl didn’t speak English. But, she said, as they prayed in different languages, but together, there was something that united them at a heart to heart level.
So of course we are not perfect; and of course you will find selfish ambition and vain conceit in the Church. You’ll find it here ..
But what Paul is saying is that it does not need to be like that. We can be different. We can change. We can begin to put away vain conceit and selfish ambition. We can begin to value others above myself. We can begin to look not only to my own interests but also to the interests of others.
· Look to Jesus, who humbled himself and who was exalted. We kneel before him. We put him first
· Pray for the grace of God: ask him to fill us with his Spirit, so that we know the encouragement from being united to Jesus, the comfort of his love and the fellowship of having his Spirit living in you.