Summary: God gives shepherds to love us with the affection of Christ Jesus, that we might be both encouraged and taught to love one another.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a Sonnet some of you will have heard: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach…. I love thee freely, as men strive for Right; I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise…. I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.”
The Apostle Paul’s love was not so flowery, but it was substantial, and expressed in solid, practical ways. If you would like to follow, I am reading the opening verses of Philippians 1. [Read Philippians 1.1-11. Pray.]
A young fellow beginning his career asked an old rich man how he made his money. The old guy fingered his worsted wool vest and said, "Well, son, it was 1932, the depth of the Great Depression. I was down to my last nickel. I invested that nickel in an apple. I spent the entire day polishing the apple and, at the end of the day, I sold the apple for ten cents. The next morning, I bought two apples. I polishing them and worked all day to sell them for 20 cents. I continued for a month, by the end of which I’d accumulated $1.37."
"And that’s how you built an empire?" the boy asked.
"Heavens, no!" the man replied. "My wife’s father died and left us two million dollars."
That is a parable about relationships. It may seem that all the effort put into loving one another yields only $1.37 worth of good. We want an inheritance! We prefer that God bring perfect people to church—people easy to love, who will give a better return on our investment. Instead, he brings—us together, that we might learn to enjoy one another right in the midst of life.
That is the theme of Philippians. Sixteen times in four short chapters Paul uses either the noun, “joy,” or the verb, “to rejoice.” Apparently, those who know Jesus should be happy. Yet joy is not the same as escaping the pain of being fallen creatures in a fallen world. Jesus wept and grieved while he was here. And Paul taught about the time for godly sorrow. Joy (as it turns out) results when God changes us, not our circumstances.
God offers joy in Christ while suffering with sickness, while struggling with temptation, while misrepresented by a coworker. And, in today’s text, joy in Christ while building a church unified around the Bible and the Gospel.
It seems to me that Christians often expect it to be easy to enjoy one another. “We ought to get along”—without hurt and difficulty. But the Bible implies that doing so is challenging. The New Testament has 26 different “one another” commands. God gives 26 specific instructions about how to relate to each another. Why so many? Because it is unnatural and difficult; it demands death to self and to selfish desires. It will not be easy; but it is good.
The goodness of the way of difficulty is one of the central messages of the cross. God delivers the greatest good through the most terrible and unjust suffering. The cross guarantees God’s joy in the midst of life, good in suffering, blessing in faithful obedience.
Paul writes to a church threatened by disunity brought on by selfishness. But he does not scold; instead, the wise pastor calls for Christ-likeness in our thinking even as he models a ministry of the loving shepherd. He struggles to love sinful people, so he takes active steps to ensure his service as an elder remains faithful in love.
In so doing, we have two main applications from this text. First, we see a loving elder in action, and this becomes the standard and goal for our elders. It is a high standard, but as God conforms us to this job description, our effectiveness will increase and our delight in service will be evident. Second, we are challenged to implement such practical love in our lives. We all want a healthy and unified church; here are five practical steps that each of us can implement to walk in the good works prepared for us by Jesus.
1. Elders Love Us Through Thankful Prayer (Philippians 1.3-4)
The key word is “all”: “In all remembrance… always… in every prayer…. for you all…I am thankful to God and full of joy.” A lack of unity threatens to unravel this church. In chapter two, Paul will plead with these folks to quit operating from rivalry and selfish conceit. Later he will even name names: “Euodia and Syntyche—please ladies, agree in the Lord.”
So where does unity begin? It begins by praying, with thanksgiving, for all of the people in the church.