If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
– Philippians 2:1-4
This piece of advice given by St. Paul to the Christians living in the ancient city of Philippi seems, at first glance, something of a pipe dream. Is it really reasonable to expect people to be “in full accord and of one mind?” Paul immediately tells his readers how that can be achieved, of course: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” The method seems as unrealistic as the goal. Does Paul really expect people not to look after their own interests, but to put the interests of others ahead of themselves? Good grief. What sort of world did Paul live in?
The reality is that Paul lived in a world in which human beings were not much different than they are today. As his extensive writings preserved in the New Testament clearly demonstrate, Paul was well acquainted with the realities of being human. As he writes in his Letter to the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” These are hardly the reflections of a man who had too idealistic a view of people. He was well aware of how difficult it could be for people to do the right thing but rather to give in to their worst selves, which Paul identifies as “the sin that dwells within me.”
Yet, for all his consciousness of human weakness, he was still able to write those words to the Christians in Philippi, urging them not to give in to their shadow selves, but rather to live out of their deep connectedness with Christ, putting others before themselves and working to be of one mind sharing one love. Despite Paul’s intimate awareness of how hard it is for people to do the right thing sometimes, he never doubted that for someone who was “in Christ”, this high ideal was a possibility.
With all of our recent national soul-searching following the shootings in Tucson, I was deeply struck by Paul’s vision for us when the Philippians passage was read at our healing service today. It seems to me that we have gotten into the habit of not expecting very much of ourselves or one another. I was powerfully reminded of a conversation I had with an 18 year old recently who made it clear to me that his basic outlook on human beings was that “most people suck.” It is a philosophy which is ultimately rooted in a very low estimation of the human condition, and taken to its logical conclusion, it suggests that we shouldn’t really expect much from other people. And if we take in that perspective deeply enough, it’s not very hard to conclude that we therefore shouldn’t expect much of ourselves.
As Paul reminds us, however, the true Christian vision of humanity is not so dismal. The Christian tradition affirms that while human beings often make bad choices, the human capacity for love is deep, wide and broad. Our tradition affirms that human beings are made in the image of God, and thus our basic orientation is love. Within the long spiritual tradition of Christianity, there are many teachers who make the observation that we mistakenly believe that the ugliness of life is inevitable, that it is part and parcel of being human, and we must simply accept the ugliness as a given. The Christian concept of the Fall, however, despite the many ways in which it has been distorted and misused, does contain an essential truth: that the ugliness that so often creeps into our lives is not supposed to be there. It is not who we are, but rather is a corruption of our true nature. With God’s help, accessed through a set of spiritual practices or tools, that ugliness can be redeemed. That is, it can be overcome and replaced with the beauty of authentic humanity. It is this authentic humanity that Paul describes to the Philippians, and it is this authentic humanity that we should seek to manifest in our lives.
An authentic Christian perspective does not take a low view of people. Rather, it shines a bright light on the amazing potential of human beings to be people of compassion, sympathy, joy and love. These are some of the marks of the Spirit, and as we find these qualities in ourselves, we can manifest them in our lives. And as we manifest them in our lives, we can encourage others to do the same.
This coming weekend, we will remember as a nation the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He had every reason during his life to think the worst of people, because so often, it was the worst of people that he experienced. Yet, he was able to have a dream of people at their best, and he believed that people could achieve their best not by giving in to their shadow sides and pursuing a path of violence, but by manifesting the best qualities of the human spirit. His vision was rooted in the Christian vision, and we remember him today in part because he was willing to believe in us. God believes in us, Jesus believes in us, and even Paul believed in us. May we have the courage to believe in ourselves and work for the kind of world that Paul, and Dr. King, dared to dream.