On New Year’s Day this year I was struck by two texts and decided to make them a kind of theme texts for living during the year. I didn’t really make a plan or a resolution. I was just impressed to keep these two texts available and look at them. I’ve found that I actually end up looking at them at random times. They are Philippians 1:27-30 and Ephesians 5:1-2. At some point I’ll talk about the phrase “be imitators of God” in Ephesians 5:1, which I find challenging, or perhaps intimidating would be more the word.
Today, however, I read on after the end of chapter one into the first four verses of chapter 2. Here Paul challenges the Philippians to do nothing from selfish ambition or contentiousness (two closely related ideas!) or from vanity (we could spend a day meditating on that word), but to count others as greater than oneself with humility. Again, we could talk about the latter. Have you ever experienced someone counting something else greater than himself with no humility at all? “Look how great I am! I count even this lowlife failure as more important than I am!”
But then there’s verse 4: “Don’t look out for your own interests, but for the interests of others.”
Now there’s the one. If the church should have a key verse, this would be it, I think. It contrasts to the world’s value, expressed to me once by someone advising me on my business: Ain’t nobody cares about your business like you do!
Now you see how my thinking turns toward business and the making of money. I have nothing against those things, but it’s actually quite easy to be generous with your money and to be contentious and vain with everything else. Thousands of brass plates on church pews, stained-glass windows, and other objects designated for “spiritual” use testify to the fact that there are people quite generous with their money while satisfying their vanity. If you don’t believe me, try removing one of those labeled pews or swap out the stained glass window. Even worse, leave the pew or the window there but remove the name plate. Vanity will jump up and slap you in the face!
Looking after our own interests crops up everywhere. Why is the color of the church carpet a very contentious thing? We all have colors that we’d like to look at, and colors that we don’t find pleasing. How many times have you heard people argue carpet color on the basis that it would serve someone else better?
What about a misspelled name in the bulletin when someone serves on Sunday morning? Have you ever heard the complaints about that? The church secretary ought to be fired!
I don’t mean to list all the ways we can be contentious, as they are so numerous, and so many of them do not have to do with money.
“Look out for the interests of others,” says Paul.
One of the great problems with our witness in the American church is that we are so much like all the people we’d like to witness to. We want to explain all the theology to them and get them all straightened out. But what we really need to do is look out for the interests of others.
And to be a good witness, we need to extend that action outside the church community as well.
On page 25 of his little book Stewardship: God’s Way of Recreating the World (Topical Line Drives), Steve Kindle quotes 2 Corinthians 8:3-5. I’m just going to highlight one clause: “they gave themselves first to the Lord.” That’s the foundation of stewardship. It’s also the foundation of living in Christian community, and it’s the foundation of being an actual witness (not just a nuisance) to those outside the community. Looking out for God’s interests, perhaps. God is very interested in God’s children, in God’s creation.
Who is welcome in your church? How will they live with you? How will you live with them? Do you give yourself to God first and then look out for the interests of others instead of your own?
If you’ve followed me this far, let me suggest a question to think about. If a man and a woman entered your church this Sunday and the woman was wearing a hijab, while both clearly looked middle eastern, what would your reaction be?
(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)