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Sep 26, 2023

Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited (Romans 12:16).

We continue with our reflections of the horizontal plain, the relationship we have with each other -- the love Christians are called to have for one another. Before we get to our text, it is worth pointing out that this horizontal is never independent of the vertical. Love in the Christian fellowship is grounded in the mercy we have first received from God. “In view of God’s mercy,” this chapter begins, we are “to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.” Any act of love to a fellow Christian is at the same time an offering to God, an act of thanksgiving for his mercy.

As Paul continues this short meditation on love, he writes, ‘live in harmony with each other’. The words are almost identical with Paul’s appeal to the Philippians to be ‘like-minded’ and ‘one in spirit and purpose’. Again, it is not that we need to be in full agreement with each other on everything. However, our minds need to be trained to move towards each other, not away from each other. We agree on the essentials and allow latitude wherever possible.

This becomes clear with the next phrase, ‘do not be proud’. Here is a renewed call towards humility which seeks to understand before being understood. Humility prefers to communicate rather than do battle with words. We seek to speak with not against. We do not learn to do this well in our debate orientated society. Further, few of us make friends with those who think differently than we do. “Steel sharpens steel”, says Proverbs (27:17), but we prefer not to be sharpened, preferring our friends to echo our own ideas.

Humility regards the thoughts of others with high regard. “Do not be conceited” counsels against thinking of oneself as highborn, high ranking, high class, high minded, or highly educated. With such distinctions we expect to be treated according to our status, expecting others to defer to us because of our high position.

In his letter to the Philippian believers, Paul reminded them of how Jesus climbed down from His heavenly place to suffer the humiliating death of a criminal for us. “Associate with people of low position” means, literally, “Allow yourself to be carried away by people of low rank.” In secular Greek and Roman culture, to be seen with people of much lower rank could be fatal to one’s ambitions. Not only were they socially undesirable, but they were also thought to corrupt the morals of upright citizens.

To the contrary, Paul taught that humility seeks out people on the fringes and risks embracing them. Now there is a danger here. The fringes are often sought out as projects, as folks the in-crowd should be helping. Such an attitude still smacks of pride. Instead, we ought to embrace each other as equal in status and value. Humility means that we develop relationships of mutuality, in which everyone has something to contribute to the community.

In Luke 7, we find Jesus leading us towards such things. He is invited to the house of a Pharisee for dinner (36). The Jewish leadership, which included the Pharisees, were already out to get him (6:11), so it might have been wise for Jesus to decline the invitation. But he went for dinner, reclining at the table. Dinner took a long time, for while he was there, a woman ‘who lived a sinful life’, heard about it and joined the party to anoint Jesus’ feet with oil and tears. Instead of recoiling, Jesus used the occasion to teach the Pharisee a thing or two about God’s love. He wanted the Pharisee to learn about grace from one who lived a sinful life.

If all of this sounds like too much to expect, then listen again to these words:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21).