A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Philippians 2:1-13 – Creation 3
There’s no nice way to say this, but generally when Paul writes a letter it’s because one of the churches he planted has gone off the rails a bit. The church in Philippi is no exception. His theme is about humility and unity.
Guess why? Right, it’s because they weren’t being those things. I’ll leave it to you to discern if we are today – and who might be included in that ‘we’.
In his day Jesus taught that we should strive to be selfless and humble and unified in our attitude toward one another because that’s the best Way to live.
In Paul’s day he had an advantage. He didn’t just teach those things. He pointed at Jesus and said, “Look at Jesus! Look at his life. Jesus embodied his own teaching, but he never pointed at himself – which means he embodied his own teaching even more! So…Be like Jesus!”
This isn’t a ‘come to Jesus’ sermon; it’s a ‘be like Jesus’ sermon!
How do we do that? Well, consider Jesus.
We look at him as the most awesome, spiritual, evolved, mature expression of humanity ever, and that makes him a superstar, and worthy of praise and adulation.
He could have embraced that and made himself very powerful.
He could have leveraged his position for great gain.
He could have exploited his status and privilege and lived like a king.
But he didn’t do any of that.
He did the opposite.
He turned it all upside down and subverted what we think of as being successful and powerful, and showed us how living a life of absolute and utter loving-kindness, and care, and compassion, and spiritual depth was actually a far richer life, because it centred the ‘other’ in love rather than selfishly centring ourselves.
There’s a fancy Greek word in verse 7 – kenosis. It means to empty yourself, to pour yourself out, to let go of your supposed ‘right’ to wealth or power or possessions or whatnot and live utterly abandoned and surrendered to love, to God. To give yourself away and in return gain more than you ever could have imagined possible – not more stuff or more power – no, we gain more depth, more joy, more peace, more sacredness, more meaning, more love. It’s kind of like ‘humility-plus’!
Philippians 2:7-11 Jesus didn’t tightly grasp his greatness as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. And…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a humiliating cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
I’m not Jesus. You’re not Jesus.
But it would be a mistake to say that we don’t have power, and status, and don’t have the ability to exploit that power for our gain. We certainly do.
So how do we avoid the trap of exploiting our power?
v.5 Let the same mind, the same attitude, be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Ok, I can try that. But what does that look like in my life? In our church life together?
Philippians 2:3-4 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
This is not a new teaching, and yet we have countless examples through history – through Christian history – and still today of how Christians repeatedly do things out of selfish ambition and conceit, with no humility, and regarding others as lesser than ourselves.
The two great social justice challenges of today – Indigenous issues and anti-racism issues – are both fundamentally based on the idea that one group – Christian white people – were better than other groups – wanting to Christianize the ‘savages’. (God, it’s hard to even say that.)
Jesus embodied self-emptying humility.
Paul preached humility.
Christians, the supposed followers of this world-inverting Way take that Way and reinvert it back to what’s comfortable.
Instead of humility we embrace hubris.
It’s like we’ve been reading these words for 2000 years but never bothered to actually learn what they mean.
How different would the world be if hundreds of years ago when Europeans first encountered The Americas they had Philippians 2:3 on their lips?
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
Slavery doesn’t happen.
Genocide doesn’t happen.
Residential schools don’t happen.
Systemic racism doesn’t happen.
But before we strain our arms patting ourselves on the back for being so much more enlightened today, it isn’t just those old-timey Christians who got it so wrong.
Have you read the news lately?
And it’s not just our American neighbours. It’s all over Canada too.
Selfish ambition and conceit – no humility – regarding others as lesser.
Have you tried talking politics with anyone lately? It’s become unbearably polarized.
Someone with an opposing view isn’t just wrong, they’re evil, they’re the enemy.
When did we lose the art of holding diverse opinions respectfully?
And don’t get me started on the whole ‘wearing a mask’ thing, or people thinking the rules about physical distancing don’t apply to them.
Right at the front of that line are Christians demanding exemptions for gathering for in-person worship.
Philippians 2:4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Fundamentally intertwined with the concept of humility here is the concept of unity. In fact, the first 4 verses of this scripture passage are one long sentence in Greek.
Philippians 2:2 Paul says, “make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
And then he talks about humility and regarding others as better than yourself.
You can’t have unity without humility.
And you can’t have humility if you think you’re the top of the heap.
Jesus was, for us, for his followers, the absolute supreme top of the heap and then some.
And what did he do?
He held it lightly.
He didn’t exploit his status, or power, or privilege.
He poured himself out in humility and love.
He was the model Christian.
It boggles the mind as to why so many of his followers don’t follow his model?
I don’t know, maybe you think I’m being too hard on Christians.
Or maybe you think it’s just ‘those other Christians’ and not Christians like us.
Does that sound like humility, or unity, or being of one accord?
Consider this: If I were to stop someone on the street, or post a message online and asked people, “What are Christians like?” – Do you think I’d like what I’d hear?
Probably not! Why is that?
Is it because they’ve never met the fine folks from Faith United, and if they did they’d think different?
But basically I think it’s because Gandhi was pretty much right.
Gandhi said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ!”
But was he right? Is he right today?
If so, what might we do about it?
Well, obviously we need to strive to be more like Christ! Christlikeness is the focus of Philippians 2:1-13 – and we’ve just explored how that’s all about humility, and unity, and seeing others as better than yourself, and not exploiting your power – like Jesus.
In a nutshell: if we want to be like Christ we have to be unlike the culture we swim in, unlike the ways of the world that tempt us.
If we want to be like Jesus we must be counter-cultural, like Jesus.
We must love the ways he loved, and ‘unlike’ the things he unliked!
Unlike the greedy we must be generous.
Unlike the callous we must be compassionate.
Unlike the selfish we must be selfless.
Unlike the exclusive we must be inclusive.
I need to pause here and, risking our humility, say that we as a community of faith really are doing a wonderful job in so many ways. Paul would not need to write Philippians to us and I don’t need to preach it to you like he did to them. But that doesn’t mean we should ever be complacent. It means we need to work harder and harder and never rest on our laurels – because the culture out there is nasty in so many ways and it’s really, really hard to live counter to it. But we must, if we want to be like Christ.
When we see unloving, un-humble behaviour, we must actively ‘unlike’ it!
When we hear a racist comment or joke, we must unlike it.
When we encounter un-Christlike attitudes, we must be Christlike and unlike that attitude.
When we catch ourselves responding from our embedded prejudices instead of our enlightened learnings, we must unlike our old ideas and affirm our Christlikeness.
You might say we need to die to those old ideas and ways – and be reborn or renewed on Jesus’ deeper path.
Philippians 2:8 He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
On a ‘cross’ – like Jesus.
I hope you don’t unlike my message!
Let’s be clear about something here – humility, and unity, and selflessness are fantastic, but being Christlike doesn’t mean being a doormat.
Don’t confuse kenosis with cowardice.
Humility doesn’t mean you just shrug your shoulders and flush away all your power.
The point is not to pretend like you don’t have power but to use it for good. To use it, not for your advancement or gain, but to take a stand in the name of justice and love.
You will recall that gentle Jesus once kicked over a few tables in a prominent place to express his extreme ‘unlike’ of the culture around him!
Scripture doesn’t say Jesus chose to be powerless – it says Jesus chose to eschew being self-aggrandizing when he could have cashed in.
To be truly Christlike is to risk living out the courage of your convictions – like Jesus – unlike too many of his followers – or Gandhi’s analysis wouldn’t sting so much.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this is all supremely hard work!
Neither Jesus nor Paul ever denied that.
Practicing humility and unity is not our preferred way; we prefer to have our own way!
Being counter-cultural doesn’t come easy.
Happily, we’re not in it alone:
Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my beloved… accomplish/achieve your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
The word ‘work’ here is energeo – to be energized!
The Message Bible says, “That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you.”
Accomplish your own faith journey – it’s ours to do, it won’t be handed to us – strive to be humble and unified – and to accomplish that remember that it is God who is working in you – energizing you – enabling you both to desire to act and to be energized, for that delights and pleases God.
I think that sounds pretty great!
I wonder what Gandhi would say if he strolled into Faith United.
I’d like to think he’d amend his statement just a little:
“I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ
– but I can see that you’re working on it, and you’re energized, and you’re trying to be humble and unified, and it shows.
I bet that pleases God!”
I hope Gandhi wouldn’t unlike my amendment.