Obedient Listening or how to avoid a Casual Vacancy in the Valley – Philippians 2:1-11 by Revd Alex Pease

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves”. Philippians 2:3 

St Paul tells the Philippian Christians that they should model themselves on Jesus’ humility.  We should regard others more highly than we regard ourselves.  In the words of the Lent Course material (we will be discussing this on Tuesday at the Lent Course so please do attend), we should be ‘obedient listeners’ to others – taking time to love those who see things differently by hearing them and walking alongside them. https://winchesterlent.wordpress.com/welcome/week-3-obedient-listening/

But what does that mean in practice?

How can we be an obedient listener, if we disagree with those that we are meant to be listening to?

Do we perhaps pretend to listen, with a show of humility?  And having gone through this charade, then say and do exactly what we were going to say and do in the first place – unmoved by the other person’s opinion?

Is Paul saying that we should, as Christians, behave like Mr. Collins in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in his dealings with his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourg, humbly talking about her ‘estimable condescension’.  Or like the ‘very umble’ Uriah Heep perhaps in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, wringing his hands in false humility?

Or maybe St Paul is speaking in a post-modern sort of way – suggesting that we Christians should treat all others as if their view of truth is of equal (or greater) value to our own; that there is no such thing as absolute truth and that if something is ‘true for you’ then I need to accept it as of greater or at least equal value than, what is true for me?

Should a Christian be saying ‘your opinion is so much better than mine – I will just agree with you’.

Much of the time we can agree to disagree.  As Bishop Tim says on occasion ‘we disagree, that’s OK isn’t it?’

This question really only becomes really important, the rubber only hits the road, if we actually have to make a decision in our community.

So to illustrate the problem I want to put before you a ‘Let’s supposal’.  This is not a proposal – it’s a supposal.  I am making it up.  A theoretical scenario to illustrate the problem of which model of behaviour we should as Christians use?

Let’s suppose that one of our parishioners dies and leaves the church a large legacy.  Say £1,000,000.  The will says that the money is to be used ‘for the Kingdom of God in a single project in the Itchen Valley’.

The PCC wisely canvasses the opinion of all the church goers in the community.  There are two views.  One is that we should invest the money and never have to raise money for the Parochial Church Share again!

Another view is that we should build two or three houses on some free land and make them available as part of a housing association to agricultural labourers, who have been brought up in the Valley, who would otherwise have to leave because of the cost of housing.

There is an even split between the two views on either side in the PCC.  There is deadlock.  The solicitors remind us that, under the Will, we can only spend the money on one project.

You may have seen the BBC adaptation of J K Rowling’s novel The Casual Vacancy which was broadcast last week or you may have read the book. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02h1mvr

In this a similar problem arose and was resolved in the most horrible way possible between protagonists seeking to get elected for the casting vote on the Parish Council.  All the characters were pretty well as awful as each other, except the two who die before the end of the story.  It is a gloomy picture of village life and not at all how things are in the Valley!

How could we as Christians avoid the unpleasantness shown in the Casual Vacancy in our supposal?

Paul says in Philippians that, in humility, we are to regard others as better than ourselves.  We are to be in unity with each other.  He seems to be saying that this will involve accepting the opinions and behaviour of those with whom we disagree.

One group says that we should invest the money.

The other says we should build the houses for the locals.

How can we resolve this?

How do we get to unity and agreement?

Was Jesus in unity with those who had allowed the Temple to be used for money changing which we saw in the other reading for today?  Clearly not.  He was making a prophetic stand against the corruption of God’s temple.

But how do we distinguish between those with whom we are expected to agree and those to whom we are to be a prophetic witness, like Jesus in the Temple?

I think the answer to these questions lies in the introductory words to the passage in Philippians:

Verse 1: “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”

Now I used to think that this meant: you are a Christian now and that’s good, so the least you can do is to pay God back by being unified – so pull yourself together, grit your teeth and pretend at the very least to get on with each other, even if you don’t….  Be unified with perhaps ‘estimable condescension…’

But no.  Paul is not speaking about being unified with everyone.

No.  In fact St Paul is speaking about unity between those who are ‘united with Christ’.  Or in more modern parlance those who are ‘in Christ’.

What does being ‘in Christ’ mean?

When we experience the transformative effect of being filled by the Holy Spirit; we change in many ways.  Galatians 5:22 speaks of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, the things that we experience by being filled with the Holy Spirit as ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’.

If we have been filled with the Holy Spirit, we will start show these characteristics – we just will.  The Holy Spirit changes our will and these are characteristics that we find that we want to show.

Now we all receive the Holy Spirit at our baptism.  It’s a bit like with a gas boiler.  For some of us there will just be the pilot light burning – ready, should we choose to do so, to be turned up at any time. For others the boiler may be firing on all cylinders.   And if we have been filled once, we need to be refilled regularly with the Holy Spirit.

So as a community of people filled with the Holy Spirit, or to use the words in Philippians, if there has been ‘any sharing in the Spirit’, then it is not unreasonable for Paul to ask us to be unified.

Because if we are a community of people filled with the Holy Spirit  – we all have our hearts filled with God, we will all want what God wants for our lives and for the community itself.  In the case of a community like that, it is totally reasonable for Paul to expect that we will be unified and that any disagreement will only come from (verse 3) ‘selfish ambition or conceit’.

And this is where we come to listening to each other.

If we are all filled with the Holy Spirit, then the person sitting next to us in church is ‘in Christ’ and Christ is in him or her.

So it is a reasonable possibility that when they are speaking, they are speaking what God thinks on the issue which we are discussing.  Of course, we have to continue to evaluate what anyone is saying against the only totally reliable source of truth that we have, which is the Bible, itself.  But we should, at the very least, take very seriously the possibility that what others who are in Christ are saying to us at any time is God’s will and that what we want, if that differs, is selfish ambition and conceit!

The words ‘regard others as better than yourselves’ have been translated (in the KJV) ‘esteem others’ higher than yourself or ‘value others’ higher than yourself.

I remember a few years ago going to visit the Senior Partner at my law firm Allen & Overy.  He was not that much older than me, but was a highly respected lawyer and wielded a huge amount of power to dismiss or hire people pretty well at will, including other partners.  His principle tactic in meetings was the silence.  If you were asking him something; he would listen and remain in silence for just too long after you had finished speaking.  This often made people cave in their negotiations with him.  They could not bear those seconds ticking away.

But if we have experienced meeting someone very senior who has authority over us; we

know the way that we behave.  We are not (I hope) like Mr Collins or Uriah Heep.  But nevertheless, we pay very careful attention indeed to what they say and what we say.  We don’t interrupt.  We treat them with a lot of respect.

And I think this is what Paul is saying here.  We are to treat everyone who is in Christ with us as if we are with the Senior Partner, the Managing Director, the Commanding Officer or the Bishop – but even more so!  Because in fact we are.  We are engaging with someone who carries the Holy Spirit in them.  And through their words, we may hear the words of God himself.  So this is what Paul means when he says ‘value each other higher than yourself’.  Stop, listen, pay attention – God may be speaking.

And if God is speaking, we need to be obedient.  To be willing to change our view; decide on, and Implement, a different course of action than we had originally planned.  Perhaps this is the acid test of whether we are listening.  Are we really willing to abandon our original plan in favour of another, if we determine that God’s will is that we should?  Are we willing to be not only listeners but obedient listeners?

And because it is God speaking; he may speak through the intelligent or the stupid; through the old and wise or through the young and inexperienced.  He may speak through the extrovert and the introvert.  He may speak through those who have authority over us, but also those over whom we have authority.  He may speak through children who are in Christ, as much as through the elderly or the middle aged.  All of these people may be used as a prophetic vehicle for the Holy Spirit.

Then, of course, they may not.

After we have listened to each other; not just to the noisy or the difficult, but to the quiet as well, with the respect due to God himself; when we have, perhaps, reflected back what has been said so that the other person absolutely knows that we have got it, then we have a responsibility to think carefully over and discern whether what has been said is what God is saying about the subject under discussion or not.  The question is not ‘am I persuaded that what they are saying is right’ but rather ‘is this God’s will?’

You see even those who are ‘in Christ’ are not totally sanctified; not totally governed by the Holy Spirit.  As Solzhenitsyn wrote ‘the line separating Good and Evil runs through every human heart’.  We are all, at different times, subject to what Paul in Galatians calls the ‘flesh’ which amongst other things includes ‘envy, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels etc.’ or the things that Paul specifically warns about in Philippians, ‘selfish ambition and conceit’.

There is only one God.  If we are all seeking His will, we are seeking to be guided by the Holy Spirit, who is God living in us.  If we all put our selfish agendas and vanity to one side and seek what He wants in any situation; then we should have total unity on all things.

And if we do, there will be no need for a casual vacancy to be filled on the PCC to bring about resolution of deadlock, because all our decisions will be unanimous.

As in the Valley, they so often are…..



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