It has been a great privilege to be able to preach so much at Warren Park. The pressure of having a sermon due on a weekly basis has been a challenge, but has also been very rewarding. Recently I have been able to spend some time in the book of Philippians, and am excited to be able to share with you some of the things I’m learning. Most recently, I have been able to get a better understanding of what Paul is writing about when he told the Philippian believers, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
I could spend considerable time and space writing about what Paul doesn’t mean by this instruction. I think perhaps it would be better to just focus on what is at the heart of this command from Paul. I grew up in a tradition that used the King James Version, which has the little adjective “own” imbedded in the command. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” So in my formative years I always understood this as an individualistic warning. As if Paul had specified “each of you work out your own salvation.” It wasn’t until recently that I realized this wasn’t the case. In fact, Paul is actually telling them to do something that they can’t do as individuals but rather something that can only be accomplished in community. In v.27 of the previous chapter, Paul had told the Philippians to conduct themselves “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And Paul then, in effect, equates this conduct with “stand[ing] firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel” without fear of those who oppose them. And Paul even goes on to tell them that this is a sign of their salvation. Here we get a sense of how important unity is in the body of Christ.
Paul continues in Chapter 2 to tell them some of the particulars of what is required to live with this kind of unity. Among his instructions are exhortations to “in humility, consider others better than yourselves” and “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Verse 5 of Chapter 2 seems to summarize what is required to live with the type of unity that Paul is commanding when he tell them “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. . .”
Paul then goes into the popular passage sometimes referred to as the Kenosis (2:5-11). In this passage Paul traces the descent of Christ from deity to humanity to death on a cruel Roman cross, and his subsequent exaltation to the highest place, where he is given that name that is above every name, at which every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father. In this section Paul is presenting a model for our attitude, as well as a reason for our hope in Christ.
Then when we get to Paul’s instruction for the church to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, we see that, in essence, he is presenting a parallel command to that of v.27. “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Paul is commanding these Philippian believers to live in a way that acknowledges their unity in Christ, and takes up the attitude of humble self-sacrifice that Christ displayed. In v. 14 Paul supports this when he specifically emphasizes, “Do everything without complaining or arguing.” Something that complaining and arguing seem to have in common is that they are both a result of pride. Complaining, in the context of community, is rooted in a dissatisfaction that your interests and priorities aren’t being accommodated. At the heart of this dissatisfaction is the subtle assumption that your interests and priorities should be the priorities of the community. And likewise, arguing is born out of a pride that assumes that your viewpoint or method is the best. What is required for the unity that Paul is instructing is that each of us, in the body of Christ, lay down our individual priorities and agendas and take up the priorities and agendas of Christ. And Paul says the result of this is that we, the church, will “become blameless and pure, children of God, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold on to the word of life.”
In effect Paul seems to be pointing to the reality that our unity in Christ is no mere incidental reality. Paul isn’t saying, “Hey guys, try to get along…” Our unity is central and necessary. The difficulty is that community involves other people. And we all know people are difficult; but perhaps that’s the whole point. Perhaps, just as marriage is a means of sanctifying and exposing our selfishness, so community, and our bond in Christ, is a means of sanctification. Just as marriage requires a thousand tiny deaths of personal agenda, so living in Christian community requires the death of our personal agendas so that we might take up the agenda of Christ.
But I think there’s more. Paul speaks of marriage as being a portrayal of the gospel in Ephesians, and here in Philippians he tells the church that if they live in this way they will “shine like stars in the universe.” They will be “blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation.” Basically he’s telling the church that we will be displaying God’s character to the world when we live in Christ-like community.
In this passage we see that Christ has called us to follow him in self-sacrifice for his people and in so doing we are living a life worthy of the gospel and displaying God’s character to the world through community. We are, if you will, public displays of the crucified Christ, as we lay down our pride, and our own interests, and take up the interests of Christ. And like the bread and the wine we, the church, become a sacrament for the world to see. Christ’s presence is in, with, and under us, as we present the gospel to the world through community. If the task seems too tall, praise God that he is at work in us to will and to act according to his good purpose.
May God give us the grace we need to reveal Christ's character through our unity.
 The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.