The Lord be with you./And also with you.
Our God is always working within us, so that we can follow God’s will.
Come, let us worship.
Sermon for 9.25.11: Apple Festival Sunday
Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32
When things seem all at sixes and sevens, I try to remember a blessing that I’ve just received. This can sometimes turn me around. It’s comforting to me that Paul is doing much the same thing in this famous passage from Philippians. There are problems in the church at Philippi and Paul hopes to help. He himself is in prison, waiting to be executed, and he wants to lift his own spirits too. I’m sure that the early church saved this letter in part because it showed the way faith can bring us through hard times.
So Paul starts by reminding the Christians of Philippi of all the good that they have experienced through Christ. Our translation starts with a series of “if”s: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit,” Actually the passage is a series of statements with which Paul knows the Philippians already agree: “Since there is encouragement in Christ, since there is consolation from Christ’s love, since there is fellowship in the Spirit”—since we know these things are true and since we know we are the better for them, it is possible to live in an even more Christ-like way. Doing so will bring us closer to salvation, will be pleasing to God, and can only make matters better among us in our community.
But how do we live in a more Christ-like way, with the same attitude or mind that was in Christ Jesus? How do we respond more appropriately, more fully to our blessings? To answer his own question, Paul quotes a hymn to Christ that also explains who Christ is. Maybe the most exciting part is that Paul introduces the hymn by asking us to be part of it: “let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus.” Eugene Peterson, in his interpretation, the Message, is bolder. He writes, “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.”
The first part of the hymn states what we know: Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be [all puffed up about], but emptied himself, taking the [status] of a slave, being born in human likeness.” In other words, Christ, because he was God, was not only willing to humble himself in order to be born as a human. To become human, he had no choice.
The second verse too is familiar: Here is the Resurrection and Ascension! Because of Jesus’ humility, God exalted him and made him Lord over all, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue …confess that [He] is Lord”-- a power greater and better than anyone can imagine.
But first Christ had to be humble. Look at the way Christ’s humility is described. The hymn says he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (vs. 7). The Greek word that Paul used became important theologically: It’s kenosis. I want you to hear it, even if it sounds like the name of a disease or maybe an imported sausage: kenosis. Paul is imagining what it meant for Christ to empty himself of his Godliness in order to become one of us, to become Jesus. Self-emptying. The word asks us to think about the Incarnation, not only for Christ but for us.
To become man, Christ had to be humble, had to empty himself of all that Godly power and might, and-- to live among us—you know He had to be incredibly loving and humble. Not in the abstract, not remotely, from on high. Humble towards us, loving towards us, loving creatures so different than God’s own self.1 And because of this, Christ—the God/man---had to love justice, peace, and the well-being of all creatures. Such self-emptying was a passion for him—a passion great enough to die for. So how can Paul start with asking us to think of ourselves the way Jesus thought of himself?
In the second verse, we are told that we respond to Christ’s emptying of Himself by bowing before Him: “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow” (Hymn 168). This doesn’t only mean praising God or a motion we go through in church before prayers. It means that we respond to Christ’s self-emptying with an emptying of ourselves. This isn’t just theology. There’s a message, a real hope here for each of us. Christ is asking something that might seem strange, impossible even, but in silencing our mind chatter, we are allowing Christ to enter our lives.
We get all puffed up with ourselves, our ambitions and dreams, all filled with our worries, our burdens, our anger, our hurt. But Christ, a higher authority, asks us to be like him. He tells us to have the mind of God’s humble servant and empty ourselves sufficiently to allow God to work within us.
Christ’s authority begins to come from within as we listen. As we allow God to work within us, we are more likely to act on God’s authority. Allowing the divine presence to work in us takes prayer work, the discipline of specific time given not only to talking with God, but listening to God speak within us. This is also humbling work. Sometimes we have to admit that maybe God is working within us in ways we can’t yet hear, ways we can’t yet understand. But if Christ could empty himself, we can at least try to do so.
There’s the old joke: If you were accused of being a Christian, what is the evidence that would convict you? After the last month, many of us would have the right to say: Lord, I was faithful. I came and worked at the church for hours, day after day, until I was exhausted. And this past weekend, Lord, was over the top! While pastor was upstairs happily typing, many of us were doing heavy kitchen duty downstairs. And all for your glory.
This is true and this is good. And yet, when we get a little rested and begin to recover, help us to remember that there are many ways to act on the Lord’s authority. Help us to remember that they also serve who only stand and wait for the Lord’s presence to fill the space prepared within our hearts.
Let us pray: Dearest Lord, let us enthrone you in our hearts. Let us allow you to transform all that is not holy, all that is not worthy of you. Give us the humility to empty ourselves so that we leave room for you and your authority. Let your will enfold us in its light and power and love. Let our work be for your good pleasure. Amen.