Meanderings

Virtual Christians or Real Followers – Philippians 2:1-18

Michael Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC in Tipp  City, Ohio – an exurb of Dayton,
tells this story about his son’s high school baseball career. The winter of his senior year the youth
ministry went skiing and snow-boarding, but a scholarship stood in the balance – so to avoid injury Mike’s son sat out the snow-boarding and skiing.

That is, until later in the spring when the baseball team was playing at an out of town weekend tournament. The team had a break in the action and they
headed to the local mall’s food court for a meal. In the mall was an arcade and his son
immediately went to the snowboarding machine, strapped in, and maneuvered his
way down the mountain. And then it hit
Mike … this is just like church. We show
up on Sunday morning to worship, to risk being in God’s presence, but so often
we just strap in for an hour or so of virtual Christianity and then we return
to the safety of our homes. Paul
challenges us today to be real followers of Jesus as we navigate the slopes and
trails of the world’s mountains, not just virtual Christians hanging out at the
local religious arcade (buy Michael Slaughter’s Real Followers @ Amazon.com).

This week in A Wesleyan Spiritual Reader we will be paying
attention to “The Marks of a Methodist” (pp. 74-81). This second chapter of Paul’s letter to the
Christians of Philippi paints a picture of what a true Christian, one who
genuinely lives the gospel, should look like.  The primary color Paul uses in this portrait
is unity. He urges the Philippians to unite their hearts and minds together in
Christ.

Paul encourages the Philippians to look to Christ as their
ultimate example of unity in mind and spirit, and then to nurture that same
unified mind and spirit within themselves and the community.

The opening verse offers us four subjunctives – "if"
statements – that  work toward a
conclusion in the second verse. Many
translations omit the repeated “ifs” thus obscuring the relationship of the
behaviors listed. The original might
sound more like this:

  • … if there’s
    any encouragement …
  • … if there’s any consolation …
  • … if there’s any sharing of the
    spirit …
  • … if there’s any compassion …

Paul’s four “if” clauses appeal for his listeners to practice
the subsequent qualities.  Paul also
challenges the Philippian community to join together in expressing these
qualities. Those who genuinely share in the Spirit find that in their bonding
with Christ’s spirit as individuals they find themselves bound together in community.

Joy is a recurring theme throughout the Philippians’ letter.
In verse 2 Paul invites joy to be brought to him by practicing what Paul now
preaches. It’s unity in attitude (mind), in heart (sympathy), and in spirit (or
“psyche” here) which brings joy to Paul as a preacher.

Paul then turns to the source of his joy … that Jesus
emptied himself of all that was divine within him to live our mundane human
lives. This divine-human burden leaves
many of us confused. I understand the
stark contrasts of the eternal Son of God and the peasant-carpenter from
Nazareth of Galilee, but how do they exist in union? I can distinguish between the pre-existent
Word that spoke all into being and the condemned criminal on the cross, but
two-in-one?

The miracle of “God moving into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message) and becoming flesh and
blood is that Jesus took our human character – our too-human, too-common,
too-poor and lowly, too-frail and fragile, too-insignificant and obscure,
ordinary individual life – and showed us how live as real followers of God.

Jesus did not come to impose a program on humanity that
would mend some of the world’s brokenness and injustice.  Jesus came to show us how live hand-to-mouth,
foot-to-road, grassroots, in-the-trenches, out-in-the-stable, everyday for every
woman/man/child.

Jesus was not special … except that he was God incarnate.

Jesus was just one of probably hundreds of wandering
prophets, preachers, teachers, making his way among the poor, the seeking, the least,
the last, and the lost of first-century Palestine
except that he was the Messiah.

Jesus held no position of power or influence … except when
he healed the sick, raised the dead, fed the multitudes, and walked on water.

Jesus didn’t exploit the power structure in order to reach
the world … except when he exploded the power of death through his
resurrection.

Paul’s message to us is to imitate Christ’s attitudes and
actions, not because the apostle wants them to be good or godlike.  But because Christ came into the world with
humility and obedience before God and human limitations in order to save the
world. You see, its simple – in order to
save the world, Christ had to be in the world.

We go into the world, as John Wesley suggest in his essay
“The Marks of a Methodist” seeking to live out certain teachings (see John Wesley’s "The Character of a Methodist"). Remember:

  • "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, ‘Hear, O
    Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God
    with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with
    all your strength.’ The second is this,
    ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment
    greater than these" (Mark 12:28-31,
    NRSV).
  • “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience,
    kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law”
    (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV).
  • “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves
    with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a
    complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven
    you, so you also must forgive. Above
    all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect
    harmony. And let the peace of Christ
    rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly;
    teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts
    sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the
    Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:12-17,
    NRSV).
  • “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
    whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is
    commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of
    praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8, NRSV).

God, the cosmic gardener created our Eden.
And as every good gardener knows the
only genuinely caring committed gardener is a dirty gardener.  You can’t tend the garden without getting down
in the dirt, digging into the soil, sifting through the seed beds with creased,
grimy, filthy-fingernailed hands.  In the
incarnation God the gardener got down and dirty in our weed-choked earthly Eden.

That’s why Paul counsels the Philippians to be of the same
mind as Christ.  The true gardener
doesn’t even consider dirt to be dirty.  Dirt
is soil, or as an old soil scientist once told me: “soil is what is in the
earth; dirt is what is behind your ears.”  Manure is fertilizer.  Stinking, rotting vegetation is compost.  The dedicated gardener simply sees these
elements as vital components of the garden, not as something to scrape off the
bottom of shoes with averted nose and eyes.

Likewise we who would imitate Christ’s incarnational – flesh
and blood – moved into the neighborhood – style for mission know that this must
be lived out in the world and not just the sanctuary.  If Christians would be of the same mind as
Christ, we can’t abandon the world; we must immerse ourselves in the midst of
the world.

As many of you know, the best decision I ever made was in
choosing my parents. You may have seen
my mother’s impassioned appeal on behalf of my brother JEB and the other patients
of the O’Berry Center in Goldsboro featured
in this week’s News and Observer (see "Many Rely on the State to Care," July 6, 2005). JEB
taught our family compassion … to allow our hearts to break with another.

As our family painfully released him to the state mental
health system in the 1970s, we began to spend time leading our conference in the
emergence of the Volunteers-In-Mission program. We spent summers working amongst the poor of Jamaica, Haiti, and Mexico. We journeyed through the Carolinas
providing relief after tornadoes and hurricanes. Once one of the secretaries of the Civil Engineering
Department at NC State University where my dad taught asked him this question:
“Dr. Bingham, how in Christ’s name could he afford to do all this?” He replied, “Exactly! I do it in Jesus’ name!”

The real follower lives 24/7 for Jesus and is rarely
satisfied with a one hour arcade ride on a Sunday morning. Jesus waits for your answer, will you settle
for Virtual Christianity or choose Real Followership?