By Paul Koch –
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interest, but also to the interest of others.” (Phil. 2:1-4)
These words from St. Paul paint an incredible picture of the fellowship of God’s children. It is an image of a dynamic and radical way of living in full accord with one another. The image is one where the love and encouragement of Christ is received by the Spirit of God which dwells within us to bring us to affection and sympathy for one another. Imagine this reality created by the gifts of God where rivalry and conceit are set aside and humility and concern for others are the main thing. The fellowship of the faithful is not measured by their wisdom or their wealth or even how happy they are. Rather the fellowship is defined and gathered together by love. Love that looks with care and concern for each other. Love that willingly sacrifices itself for the sake of a sister or brother in Christ.
Can you imagine how the world would react to such a dynamic group of Christians? A place where rivalry and conceit were left at the entrance to the gathering, a place where love was actually lived out in practice for one another? The world may not like such a group. They probably wouldn’t be able to fully understand it. But they couldn’t simply ignore it, either. The accusation of hypocrisy would wither and fade upon acts of love. Charges of guilt driven authoritarian control would be squashed by constant sacrifices for one another. Oh, how the world would wonder in confusion before such a fellowship. How can they love like that? Are they paying off a debt? Are they trying to earn their way into heaven? Is it just a fake outward façade or could it be genuine? Is it real? Could I love and be loved like that?
In the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, there is a large stained-glass window above the altar on the back wall of the chancel. I spent a lot of time in that place while training for the ministry, and I spent many hours contemplating this massive and involved image. Featured in the center of course are images of Timothy and Titus. Pictured all around are images and symbols which tell stories about their life and our faith. They sort of grow on you over time. So, one day you’re sitting there and you notice the rock between the feet of Timothy. You’re reminded of his martyrdom and the cost of discipleship. Another day you get lost round the edges where there are images of Corinth and Rome and even a boat at sea, reminding us that these two apostles were companions of St. Paul doing the work of faithful pastors. The preaching and receiving of the sacrament in that space was not just an exercise for our personal faith, but was part of the greater story of God’s reigning kingdom in this world: a story that we were all to be a part of.
If you looked closely enough you could even find the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg with the 95 Theses still nailed to it – telling us, of course, that the story goes on. Art throughout the centuries has told that ongoing story. In stained-glass, paint, wood and stone the church has captured over and again the pinnacle events of God’s work and mercy through the lives of his people. But our stained-glass windows are often selective in their subject matter leaving us with a somewhat inaccurate picture of our story.
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interest, but also to the interest of others.” It would make a nice stained-glass image, wouldn’t it? A picture of the church that would be the envy of the world, dominated and guided by love. But I don’t think such an image, no matter how beautiful it might be, would be very accurate. No, our stained-glass windows would look much different if they were honest.
Perhaps we could commission a new window, an honest window of the church’s story. Over there we might dedicate an image to the how the congregations have failed to show love and respect for their neighbor. Perhaps the times that we have judged our neighbor and viewed them with scorn. Sure, their outward deeds may be no different than the thoughts of our own minds, but we want to make an example of them. So, we wounded them when they needed our love the most. We could have an image of an un-wed girl nearing the end of her pregnancy as she walks in shame outside the church. We could have a picture of member who leaves because they were hurting and in need and no one seemed to care. Perhaps we could have another window depicting the fake smiles we put on when we gather together. The shell that allows us to be hurtful and selfish to those we are closest to, those within our own families, instead of letting the love of God have its way with us. We could have a stained-glass window of church bureaucracy and power that encourages us to relate to one another out of fear and through politics rather than love.
These windows at least would be accurate. These images would display how the story of God’s kingdom is handled by our generation. And who would blame anyone from rising up in the midst of the fellowship surrounded by such images, tired of the hurt, tired of the disappointment and fear and with rocks in their hands begin to shatter each and every one of them? For they reveal our shame, reveal our secrets, reveal our failure over and over again.
And yet, through that glass shines a light, a light that moves into your fear and shame, into your darkness and hurt. It is a light that flows from our Lord himself, “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.” (Phil. 2:15) In fact, St. Paul declares that you yourselves will shine as lights in the world. Not by throwing away your story, not by dismissing your failures and hurts but by flooding them with his light. You then become beacons of his love to the rest of the world. Paul says that this is the result of holding fast to the Word of Life. The Word that reveals your shame because of your sin is the same Word that fills you with the promises of Christ alone. The promises that are for you and your children, for you brothers and sisters, a promise that sees all the images you would rather hide away from, a promise that is spoken from the cross of Calvary itself as the Word of Life dies. And he says quite clearly, I forgive you.
The story of our life of faith may be ugly and shameful at times, but it has not deterred the love of Christ. His sacrifice is not limited by your ability or even desire to love him back. While you were yet a sinner, Christ died for you. And he died for all those images you don’t want the world to see, the hatred and distrust, the lying and lust, and pride and arrogance. He has covered it all with his blood. He has declared you to be his brother and sister, his friends and family, those whom he loves, those whom he has set free.
And it is because of this radical love that St. Paul can call us into a life of love for each other. It is because of this love that he gives us a picture of the church that is the envy of the world. In fact, he says, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith. I am glad and rejoice with you all.” Paul wrote these words while in prison, the sacrifice of his own life may be imminent but he goes forward with joy. He sees his life as an offering for the faith of others. If he must be poured out, offered up to God’s glory so that others may believe, why so be it. In Christ he has already died and risen so that he might live for others.
And so it is with you. You don’t have to smash the stained-glass windows of your life. Rather allow the light of Christ to continue to flow right through them. As that light flows through you, you find that the colors and distinct shapes begin to fade and meld together. Judgment and shame give way to love and forgiveness. This light is then what you bear in this crooked and twisted generation. As Christ was poured out for you on the cross of your salvation and St. Paul was poured out for the faith of the church, so you are poured out for one another. See you are free in Christ, free to love, free to care, free to forgive.
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interest, but also to the interest of others.”