There is a striking way in which persons who move away from their place of origin tend to set up a new home that even magnifies their old identity. Maybe it’s a longing to be still “at home” or perhaps there is a special pride these expats carry to their new location. So, for a couple of centuries the island nation of Barbados was known as “little England.” They had polo, cricket, and English law. They even had a monument to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar before the one in London was erected.
It’s the same in all kinds of locations and traditions. The Irish in South Boston are, well, very Irish. And the restaurants in Little Italy in San Diego are about as marvelous as any you can find in Tuscany. About two thousand years ago, another of these places emerged in what is now northeast Greece. The city of Philippi was originally named for Alexander the Great’s father, Philip. But in the second century BCE, the Romans took over the city. The veterans from the battles to conquer the area were given land grants around Philippi, and wave after wave of Roman citizens found Philippi the best place to live. And they lived as a very intensely Roman city: amphitheater, the forum, the Temples to the emperors. they called themselves "Little Rome" and were proud of their language and culture. It is in this city that Paul's missionary efforts founded a Christian church. Right there in Little Rome.
We might be surprised, then, to hear Paul insisting on the Philippian church growing more fully into a “koinonia,” a sharing in the Spirit. Apparently there are issues of some sort that have St. Paul insisting on a deeper unity there in Philippi. “Complete my joy,” the Apostle says, and adding that his joy will find fruit in the congregation “being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.” Such unity is not found only in a collective agreement with some central doctrines or through the achievement of a warmer, fellowshipping experience of their life together. For Paul, his beloved church at Philippi has some top to bottom issues related to their falling short of unity in the Spirit. Some of these failures pop up as we read the whole of Paul’s letter to this church. Two of the women leaders of the church apparently are in a long, unresolved dispute with each other. Eudoia and Syntyche are urged to be of “the same mind in the Lord.” But the divisions at Philippi must have spread wider than this quarrel between these two fine women. Paul calls for all of the members of that church who are “mature” to be of the same mind. Apparently that was not the case.
However, it is crucial for the vitality of this church that Paul write the letter that he did. As Rabbi Edwin Friedman has so well pointed out, congregations that fall into some kind of unhealthy behavior can continue those patterns from generation to generation. Perhaps the granddaughters of Eudoia and Syntche would still not be speaking to each other! More recently, scholars have depicted the church at Philippi to have a Latin-speaking Roman majority who, it seems, were making decisions and leading the congregation while there was also a Greek-speaking underclass of slaves and laborers who were not counted among the true community of the faithful. If so, this domination by the Roman, Latin-speaking class would have caused Paul to speak “from his gut” about the need for unity in
Finally, there are hints that there may well be some division between the leaders of the church and St. Paul himself! In this case, the Paul would also be appealing to his authority as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. One constant thread among all of church-dividing issues is that some were looking out for their own interests and not also “for those of others.” The antidote for such lack of unity, St. Paul prescribes, is a deep sense of humility by all parties in the Philippian church. Any unity worth keeping is based in a mutual concern for others; looking out for the interests of others. Without humility as the foundation of the church’s life together, unity is impossible. But one New Testament scholar adds an important note here that “true humility is measured, not by low self-evaluation, but by demonstrable concern for others.” 1 Once more, Paul’s use of that “gut feeling” term for compassion comes into play. Our humility is not an attitude that calls for us to be “doormats” for the dominant or to be abused by any abusers. Not at all! Paul is insisting that we become a community in Christ where compassion for each other is an on-going virtue and where that “demonstrable concern for
A healthy church community will, therefore, be sustained in the Spirit by certain practices that are of God. Preeminent here is our prayer and our caring actions towards each other, week in and week out. Looking out for the needs of others means offering intercessions for other members of the congregation along with engaging in acts of mercy to go along with prayer. (Makes you wonder about Eudoia and Syntyche again. If one of them became sick, would the other join in prayer with the assembly for healing? Would Eudoia bring her fabled chicken soup to Syntyche’s home upon hearing of this illness? But a community of
humility and Christ-like compassion would also be turning away from other actions that only perpetuate a lack of unity. For example, there is one symptom of a church that lacks unity. That community regularly trades in the passing along of rumors and gossip. People avoid speaking the truth in love directly with each other. The anger or fear or anxiety that sparked a rumor is not resolved by spreading it around. The whole community gets sick. Compassion is ignored. And
the church needs to heed Paul’s admonitions: Be of the same heart and mind with each other. Seek out others whose needs are for compassion and healing. No rumors passed along; no “resolving difference” by distancing ourselves from the other. Humility is the antidote for division within a parish. It grounds our unity in a continuous caring for each other. And we pray for each other, always.
Now we hear the echoes of an ancient hymn from those early Christians, the one Paul selected because it may have been one of the favorites of the Philippi congregation. But this time, heard it anew, as freshly composed by the Spirit.
Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus,
Who though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming into human likeness,
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
1 . Troy Trofgruben, “Commentary on Phil 2:1-11,” Working Preacher, October 1, 2017,