07 June 2015

Sermon – “A Threefold Call” (Philippians 2:1-11)

One of our great institutions in this land is the annual festival of Thanksgiving. Once a year it offers us a day to pause and to render thanks to God for his many blessings to us. The focus of Thanksgiving for the most part is on our material blessings—a home to live in, food on the table, physical health—not to mention those less measurable blessings such family and friends, freedom and peace. In the opening words of the letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul by contrast gives thanks to God “for every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”. Then he goes on in the verses that follow to enumerate those blessings: being chosen in Christ and adopted as God’s children, redemption and forgiveness by God’s grace, the hope of a glorious inheritance and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.
In the verses before us from Philippians 2, Paul calls upon his readers to do the same thing. But he does it in an indirect fashion, at least for us who speak the English language. For he begins each phrase of what he says with the word “if”. For us “if” is a word that expresses doubt. But that is not necessarily the case in Greek. In fact, “if” can mean quite the opposite. It can be an expression of absolute certainty. So let me try to render what I think Paul is really trying to say in the first verse of our passage this morning.
If there is any encouragement in Christ (and most assuredly there is!), if any consolation from love (and most assuredly there is!), if any fellowship in the Spirit (and most assuredly there is!), if any compassion and sympathy (and most assuredly there is!), then make my joy complete…
What Paul is doing is calling the Philippians to look around them and see in the faces of their fellow believers the blessings by which they are surrounded: those who have stood with them when things were going wrong, those who have expressed love in times of loneliness, those who share your most deeply held values and convictions, those who have given their very selves for you at your moments of need. As we look around in that way, we recognize that we owe far more than we could ever give. I find myself humbled by the many ways in which my fellow believers, my brothers and sisters in Christ, have given themselves faithfully, selflessly and unstintingly for me on so many occasions.

The Call to Unity

Well, says Paul, if that is the case (and most assuredly it is!), here is something else I want you to work on: Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. It seems to me that the challenge for the Christian community in Philippi was not that different from the challenges that face any healthy, growing church body. It was that there were great things happening over here, and over here, and over here, but they were happening without any sense of the larger whole. It was what business people today call siloing.
In the business world siloing often goes along with personal kingdom building and departmental turf wars. However, I don’t think that was the case with the believers in Philippi. I suspect that things had simply grown and grown, and nobody had had the time to stop and give consideration to the life and health of the whole body. Yet Paul recognized that if they didn’t take measures to do so, there were all kinds of pitfalls that lay ahead of them.
Paul recognized that for the most part unity doesn’t just happen. It requires intentionality and effort on the part of all. In verse 2 he tells the Philippians what that is going to involve: being of the same mind, having the same love and being in full accord. Now for some of us “being of the same mind” may bring visions of Waco, Texas, and the Branch Davidians or of Jonestown in Guyana thirty years ago. But that kind of groupthink is the farthest thing from Paul’s mind. Remember after all that Paul is the one who exhorts us to stand firm in the liberty in which Christ has set us free. Paul is not looking for mind control (unless we mean minds controlled by the Holy Spirit).
Over my years at Messiah our Vestry has had a number of discussions about what this means when it comes to making decisions. On the one hand there have been those who have argued for complete unanimity. On the other there is our democratic heritage of majority rule. The tragedy is that our human fallenness is able to make either of these into a form of tyranny. What Paul is describing is a common mindset, a commitment to set of shared values that is able to guide our decisions and our common life.
Yet that is only one side of the coin. Aside from being of the same mind, the second thing Paul exhorts the Philippians to is to have the same love. That is to say that the church is bound together not just by a commitment to certain truths, but also by a commitment to one another. Without that love, that mutual caring, we are no different from a stamp club or a historical society. “Love covers a multitude of sins,” says St Peter. And of course the love that both he and Paul are referring to is the love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

The Call to Humility

The second quality to which Paul exhorts the Philippians is humility. “There is nothing so foreign to a Christian soul as arrogance,” proclaimed the great fourth-century preacher and bishop John Chrysostom. “The two impediments to a universal, diffusive, unconditional charity are the exaltation of party and the exaltation of self,” wrote another great preacher and bishop, J.B. Lightfoot, fifteen centuries later.[1]
Like unity, genuine humility is a basic ingredient to Christian community. I like the fact that our English word “humble” has its origins in the word “humus”—earth, soil. It reminds us of our origins, that like Adam God formed us from the dust of the ground. That truth is visibly and tangibly reenacted for us every Ash Wednesday, as the ashes are smeared on our foreheads in the form of a cross and we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” Before going too far, however, I should make it clear that humility does not mean groveling or indulging in what some call “worm theology”, thinking that I am worth no more to God that a creature that crawls beneath the ground. Quite the opposite: if nothing else, the cross of Jesus proves our infinite worth to a heavenly Father who loves each of us more than we can ever imagine.
Thus, says Paul, true humility involves having a balanced understanding of who we are—what Oxford professor Markus Bockmuehl defines as “an unadorned acknowledgement of one’s own creaturely inadequacies, and entrusting one’s fortunes to God rather than to one’s own abilities or resources”.[2] And that in turn involves leaving aside selfish ambitions and conceit (what Bockmuehl again colorfully describes as “that strangely addictive and debasing cocktail of vanity and public opinion”) on the one hand and esteeming others above ourselves on the other. Once again, that doesn’t mean that we have to be doormats, but that we always have other people’s interests at heart. I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases it: “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead.”
I think I may have told you before about Bishop Russel Brown. With pure white hair and a resonant voice with just the trace of an English accent, he was a man who could not have looked our sounded more like a bishop. One of the roles he took on well into his retirement was as chaplain at a small hospital and it happened that my student assistant was assigned to him for part of his training. I well remember Paul telling me with a look of amazement, of how the two of them had paid a visit to a patient who was too weak even to shave himself. Without hesitating, the bishop rolled up the sleeves of his purple shirt, daubed the man’s face with shaving cream, and began to shave him. It was a lesson in humility that he and I would never forget.
As we sang three weeks ago at Pentecost,
Let holy charity my outward vesture be,
and lowliness become my inner clothing—
true lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
and o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.
In humility esteem others as being higher than yourselves.

The Call to Christlikeness

Paul calls the Philippians—and by extension he calls us—to unity and to humility. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. The real point he has been leading up to all along, the primary challenge that makes the others pale almost into insignificance by comparison, begins in verse 5: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” More than unity, more than humility, it is the call to Christlikeness.
In his commentary on Philippians Markus Bockmuehl describes these verses as
… a passage which in the twentieth century has been the subject of an uncontainable deluge of scholarly debate, quite possibly more than any other New Testament text. Other passages in the New Testament are of similar poetic grandeur and force; others have been similarly influential in the history of the church; but few if any have over this past century received even a comparable amount of scholarly attention… Fifteen years ago, one well-known monograph on Philippians 2:5-11 and its modern history of interpretation had a bibliography of five hundred items; at least another hundred items could now easily be added.[3]
And he was writing more than fifteen years ago himself! The subjects of these debates are many and include issues such as, “Were these verses really a hymn already familiar to the Philippians?” and, “What did Paul mean when he described Jesus as emptying himself?” But all these questions really are a colossal exercise in missing the point. That is, that if you and I are truly going to be the church, if we are to be the body of Christ in the world, then we need to be like Jesus.
What does that mean? First of all, Jesus did not see equality with God as something to be exploited. Do we hear echoes of Adam and Eve here in the Garden of Eden? They were fooled into thinking that if they ate the forbidden fruit they would become like God. But Jesus chose to divest himself of all his divine prerogatives, to empty himself, not just to share our human frame, but to go all the way to the death for you and for me. “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus told his disciples before he went to the cross, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
So, says Paul, our calling is, yes, to unity and to humility, but even more to the same self-sacrificial love that Jesus has shown to us. Such love will rarely be recognized by the world. It will not hit the headlines or go viral on YouTube. Apart from the women and John, Jesus died on the cross alone and unrecognized by the world. Yet now he holds the name that is above every other name, the name before which every knee will one day bow. So too, we do not look for fame or any earthly reward, but to be effective in God’s service, to know that we are doing the Father’s will—and finally to hear those words that every child of God longs to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
I’d like to conclude with a well-known prayer from Ignatius of Loyola.
Lord, teach me to serve you as you deserve:
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.

[1]     Philippians (ed. Alister McGrath), 122,123
[2]     The Epistle to the Philippians, 110
[3]     Page 115

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