One of the hardest-to-get, most-difficult-to-live-into, toughest-to-hold-onto ideas of the truly Jesus-like life is this: A Christian lives for the sake of others. I did not make this idea up. It is not the product of some soft-minded, gushy-hearted spirituality. This idea is central to a biblical understanding of what it means to be truly a Christian—literally "a little Christ"—rather than a person merely playing at discipleship.
The mindset of Jesus
Listen to the emphasis the Apostle Paul puts on this idea, as he writes to the Christians at Philippi: "Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion …" (Phil. 2:1). Translation: If Jesus has made any real dent on you … if being his follower has had any real effect on you …"then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind" (2:2). With whom? With everybody around you? With all the people who are like you? With all the folks you naturally like or who like you? No, says Paul. Have the same love, spirit, and mind as Christ.
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit" (2:3). In other words, don't be self-focused. You don't like that in others when you meet it—that "I'm best, me-first, who's-taking-care-of-me, what's-in-it-for-me, there-should-be-more-for-me" orientation is what got human beings in trouble in Eden and it's been wrecking life ever since. The fifth-century bishop, Augustine, said the essence of sin is this incurvatus in se: literally, this "curving in upon oneself," this tendency to think a great deal about my feelings, my opinions, my needs, my position.
Christians don't need to do that anymore. Christians know they are beloved children of the almighty God of the universe. They have seen the most brilliant and beautiful being, greater than the universe itself, proclaim them so beloved that he would suffer and die for them. Christians know they are heirs to a glorious heaven. They've won the Paradise Powerball. They have an identity and security that is unimpeachable. And while it takes a lifetime to fully live into that reality, if you get this, it is liberating you from a self-focus toward an other-focus. I love how my friend Clark Miller puts it. He said: "Because of Christ, I've retired from myself. I've gotten off the ego ladder. Now I'm just a servant." In other words, now I'm curving out.
The apostle Paul understood that this shift of orientation takes time for all of us. I think it's why he writes this letter to the Christians at Philippi. He knows we're always being tempted to go back to the natural, sinful, human way of looking at things and coming at life. We're feeling the pull to make our school days, our job, our marriage, our politics, our church life a lot about us or our tribes. But "[r]ather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others" (2:3-4).
I'm not saying you don't matter. You are heaven's royal children. You have an identity, gifts, and wisdom that are needed in this world. Don't think less of yourselves. Just think of yourself less, as Jesus models.
"In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God …" (Phil. 2:5-6) In other words, Jesus could have properly and rightfully chosen to have had everything be about him. " … did not consider equality with God something to be used to his / own advantage … " He did not view his position or privilege or power as something to be used mainly to secure more benefits for himself. "… rather, he made himself nothing / by taking the very nature of a servant … he humbled himself / by becoming obedient to death— / even death on a cross!" (2:5-8) Why? For the sake of others. Wow.
A persistent and urgent question
A mother was preparing a pancake breakfast for her little boys, Kevin and Ryan. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake, and their mom saw the perfect opportunity for a moral lesson. "Now, boys, hold on a minute here. Let me tell you: If Jesus were sitting here, he would say, 'Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.'" The two children sat silent for a moment. Then the five year-old, Kevin, turned to his younger brother and said, "Okay, Ryan, you be Jesus!"
That's the challenge, isn't it? Choosing to be like Jesus when the pressure is on—choosing to use our position, privilege, and power not just for our own advantage, but for the blessing of others. We face that every time the credit card comes out or the offering plates goes round: Is my life about getting or giving? We face it every time we're in a conflict at home, work, or in politics: Am I going to focus solely on my feelings and preferences, or is there a legitimate hurt or hunger on the other side that I could somehow serve? We choose it each time we come to church: Is the purpose of this to get my needs met or help me to address the needs of others?
Martin Luther King Jr. once said that "life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'" If you and I are genuine disciples of Jesus and not merely admirers of him, then of course that is a persistent and urgent question for us. It is why we carry the gospel into all the world. It is why we exercise compassion to those stuck in the ditch. It's why we seek
policies and politicians that advance biblical values essential to human thriving. It's why we pursue justice in the systems and structures of our society. This outward-curving mindset is our distinctive brand. A Christian lives for the sake of others. Are you one of them? Do you "have the same mindset as Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:5)?
Nowhere is that mindset more persistently and urgently needed today than in the complex arena of race relations. We are living in a time when racial tensions are high and whole segments of our society are stuck in ditches they can't seem to escape. As our country becomes more and more diverse, there is an increasing risk that we will descend further into a suspicious, hostile, dog-eat-dog form of social Darwinism that won't be good for anybody.
But, here again, the voice of Dr. King still speaks with such provocative clarity:
From time immemorial, people have lived by the principle that self-preservation is the first law of life. But this is a false assumption. I would say that other-preservation is the first law of life … precisely because we cannot preserve self without being concerned about preserving other selves. The universe is so structured that things go awry if men are not diligent in their cultivation of the other-regarding dimension. "I" cannot reach fulfillment without "thou." The self cannot be [fully] self without other selves.
The Bible says that, in the beginning, God created one family out of which would come all others. Woven into that beginning was a web of mutuality and interdependence—a ministry of being helpmates to one another and stewards of the whole creation. Sin has blinded us to this reality. Adam and Eve turned on each other, and Cain believed he was no longer his brother's keeper. But closing your eyes doesn't change reality. Dr. King reminds us that whether we are black, brown, red, white, or yellow, our lives are linked to one another just the same. It's in the structure of creation.
That human ecosystem is now growing inexorably more connected. Like the proverbial butterfly that flaps its wings in China and influences changes in the weather in Chicago, or the World Wide Web that now links school kids from Peoria to Peru, or the global market system, what happens in one place affects another. We are bound to others in a way that is devastating to ignore and can be delightful to discover, once you appreciate the value that different others bring.
Paul noted this in his teaching about the nature of the church, but it applies to a broader sphere as well.
I urge you to read David A. Anderson's wonderful book, Gracism: The Art of Inclusion, for more insight into what that passage teaches us about how to treat those who are different from us and why. But let me leave you today with one final "gracist" behavior—one more creative action you can take to bring more grace to the issue of race in our time: Dare to dream of what we could be together if we fully opened our eyes.
The motion picture Remember the Titans tells the true story of Herman Boone (played by Denzel Washington) who is brought in as the coach of a high school football team in Alexandria, Virginia, in the year 1971. Because of government-mandated redistricting, black students and white students have, for the first time in their lives, been pushed together in the same high school and required to play on the same teams.
Early in the film Gary, a white all-American football player, and Julius, an African American who is the star on defense, display brazen hostility toward each other—a sign of the racial tensions marking the whole team. Coach Boone, however, takes the team off to a two-week summer camp and requires Gary and Julius, along with other white and black players, to room together. The early days are marked by constant conflict above and below the surface. A racial
brawl breaks out in the locker room. White players deliberately miss blocks for black players, resulting in injuries and more hostility.
Finally, in a climactic encounter, Julius confronts Gary. "You're the captain, right? … Then why don't you tell your white buddies to block for Rev [the black running back], because they have not blocked for him worth a plugged nickel, and you know it … I'm supposed to wear myself out for the team? What team?" Gary fires back, "That's the worst attitude I ever heard." And Julius answers, "Attitude reflects leadership."
The next day during practice, Gary confronts a white player for failing to block for a black teammate and this act begins to catalyze a change. The divided sides start to work together, each different part serving the whole body and being recognized as valuable. And the ragtag Titans become a championship team. The historical truth, however, is that it was not just winning football games that drove their reconciliation.
Shortly after a key victory, Gary suffers a car accident that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. Mustering all the emotional strength he has, Julius walks into the room. A nurse sees the black face and immediately responds, "Only kin are allowed in here."
But Gary says, "It's all right, Alice. Can't you see the family resemblance? He's my brother." As Julius stands at Gary's bedside, Gary says, "When I first met you, I was scared of you, Julius. I only saw what I was afraid of." And as tears stream down his face, Gary confesses, "But then I saw I was only hating my brother."
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, / That saved a wretch like me. / I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind but now I see."
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.