In Philippians 2: 19-21, Paul wrote this: I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.
This passage gives us insight into some of the turmoil going on in the church in the middle of the 1st century. Let’s remind ourselves that when Paul was writing letters to congregations, he was writing about their behavior, not the behavior of that outside of the church. The movement was still very small, and Paul had enough cats to herd without having to address those who were not followers of Jesus. When he wrote about division in 1st Corinthians, it was about followers of Jesus who favored one leader over another. When he wrote (if it actually was him) in 2nd Thessalonians 3, that people who didn’t work should not be given food, he was talking about followers of Jesus, not others. Paul wrote to the people of the Way, not to everyone.
With this in mind, our passage should alarm us, but also help us understand that even followers of the sacrificial Christ were – and are – just as able to be selfish as anyone else. Paul was letting this tiny church know that they could trust Timothy because Timothy cared about them the same way Paul and Jesus did. He was cluing them into a sad reality; be careful who you trust, even if they say they serve the risen Christ. They might be living only for themselves, and you are, for them, a pawn or a sucker.
I think it has always been easy for churches and the people who fill them to focus on themselves instead of others. I have had the sad experience of attending a lot of church funerals; that is, last services for churches that were closing. At every one of them, I would hear about the wonderful, innovative things this church did – but I started to notice a recurring theme. Just about every one of them began to die when they stopped doing for the community, and started focusing on themselves. This trend started, unfortunately, when the neighborhood around them began to take on a different hue than the people in the church. These once mostly filled white congregations saw people of color moving in, and they circled the wagons. They stopped having free meals for the neighborhood – they stopped reaching out and inviting their neighbors to church – they stopped opening their doors for community use. This didn’t happen every time, but far too often to be coincidental.
I think the church is an organism, much like a fish, and when it stops moving, it dies. When the windows are shut, the air stops flowing. When the door is kept locked, the hinges begin to rust. When we lose our concern for others because they are different from us, we fail Jesus. The work of the church is not to dominate the culture, or to have authority and sway over the politics of the community, or to be respected in the marketplace – the work of Jesus is to express concern for others and not seek our own interests. The moment we do this – the moment we start responding out of fear instead of compassion – this is the beginning of the end. People are the same way; nations are the same way; corporations are the same way. There is a reason Jesus said that the greatest commandment consists of loving God first, people second, and ourselves third. If we put ourselves first, we often don’t see a need to continue beyond that. When we only love ourselves. and those like us, we die spiritually.
That is where the church stops being the church, and starts being a private club. It doesn’t worship Jesus anymore – it worships itself.
Prayer – If we have lost our concern for others in every part of our lives, have mercy on us, loving God. Heal us of selfishness and show us how to have concern for others. Amen.
Today’s art is “Washing Feet” from the Jyoti Sahi Art Ashram in Northern Bangalore, India.