A Sermon from Sherborne

Compline Address 3 – Rejoice in the Lord!

Humility – the Way of the Cross [2.1 – 18]: preached by The Reverend Jono Tregale, Team Vicar, on Monday 5th March 2018

 

As we have journeyed through Lent this year we have been exploring the Epistle of St Paul to the Philippians and tonight we come to its midpoint and, as some suggest, also its high point. In it we discover the incarnation laid bare before us, the mystery of God become flesh, and the invitation to imitate Christ in all our human relationships.

Paul wrote this letter to a particular group of Christians, in a particular context, in a particular time and place. It was a society in which great military leaders were being regarded as divine, revered as gods – the Roman Emperors revelled in such attribution. Perhaps modern times are no different – many world leaders now, as throughout history, lay claim to greatness by their own assertion – and many are accorded it by their loyal followers. If nothing else, they seem to act as if they were God in the popular meaning of that phrase – exercising power over many, in a way which is unaccountable and arrogant, controlling the fate of each subject; ‘playing God’ with other people’s lives.

But Paul is painting for us a very different picture of what it means to act like God; a very different picture of what God is like revealed in Jesus Christ. And I want to start with this question first: Who is Jesus? Let me read verses 5-8.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mind-set as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped; rather, he emptied himself and made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!

Can we see how utterly subversive and countercultural this was – and still is? When world leaders were regarded as gods through the exercise of power and domination over others, Jesus is not like that. Jesus is the true king and his kingdom is quite different. World leaders would be grasping at the opportunity to be like God, to be seen as all powerful gods. Jesus does the opposite. The true king, the true God, lets go of his innate power for the sake of his subjects. He humbles himself.

This is Jesus – in very nature God. All that St. Paul writes in this passage hinges upon this statement. Many say that Jesus was a good man, a great ethical teacher, an example to follow, a prophet even. But just a man. A man who points humanity towards God, but a man himself, and only a man.

This is not the testimony of the bible; it is not the historic faith of the church. Such a view is sub-Christian; indeed it is not Christian at all. Christianity is not a system of morality; it is a relationship with the divine Jesus, who has shared our humanity, and who lived, and died and rose from the grave. This is Jesus – in very nature God.

There are two key expressions in this passage that open up for us the character of Christ.

Firstly there is that idea of grasping – which could be taken as holding onto at all costs or taking advantage of. Jesus did neither; he was willing to let go, lay aside, leave alone – for our sake.

Secondly, is the idea of emptying. There is no sense here of Jesus emptying himself of his divinity, of switching from being divine to becoming human in the incarnation, and back to being divine again once his work on earth was done. It is not that he becomes less than he was, he is in very nature God from the beginning to the end of time, but it is the voluntary laying aside of the exercise of his Lordship.

In this act of incarnation he is showing us what true divinity is – it is revealed in self-giving love. Jesus retained his equality with God the Father – and God the Holy Spirit – but he chose not to take advantage of it. Divinity, equality with God the Father, meant sacrifice. In the incarnation and in the Cross Jesus has done what only God can do. It is surely scandalous to many – what sort of God is your God who dies upon a cross, who suffers, who is humiliated? The one true God, Christians must reply. For this is the very essence of God. It is self-giving love. It challenges our worldly notions of who God is, of what divinity looks like. It is the very antithesis of the human drive to dominate.

And this is our inspiration as we seek to be Christ-like, as we seek to live after the example of Christ. It is to be humbly serving others; it is about sacrifice and self-giving love.

St. Paul helpfully gives us some pointers about what this looks like – in the first few verses of chapter two – let me read them, verses 1-4.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Being like-minded, loving each other, regarding everyone else higher than oneself is a big ‘ask’ indeed. How is it possible? Quite simply it is by focussing on something higher, a bigger grander vision than our individual relationships (which so test us). In fact it is by focussing on someone else – Christ Jesus himself – our example and our inspiration.

Why should we live this way; why should we even try? Because we know the comfort of belonging to Christ’s family, the love experienced within it, and the sense of God’s Spirit within us enabling us to love others.

I do just want to say a brief word about being like-minded. Is St. Paul really saying we should all think the same? I don’t think so at all. There was, and is, such diversity within the people of God. If we all thought the same about everything we would be little more than pre-programmed robots, boring and bored.

It links in to the phrase we’ve already referred to – having the mind of Christ. And what is the mind of Christ – we’ve already discovered that – humility and self-giving love. This is the sense in which we are to be like-minded; united in a humble and generous Spirit toward one another.

And how might we live out this unity and love? How can we put it into action? St. Paul hits the human drive for superiority head on; we are to consider everyone else more highly than ourselves and their needs more important than our own. What a contrast to the self-proclaimed emperor Gods of the Roman world. And it doesn’t sound much like many leaders of our day either, sadly some in the church too, who delight in winning every argument, dismissing opposing views, and asserting their own opinions above any other perspectives. Arrogance and ego is not the way of Christ. This is a tough vision to live for; but it is the way of Christ. It is the way of the Cross. It is the way of life threaded through the disciplines and reflections of Lent.

But how, practically, can we curb the temptation to assert our rights over others? In his superb essay on how Christians should live together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian who was executed for his opposition to Nazi ideology and rule in the dying days of the Second World War, suggests seven principles for eradicating selfish ambition from Christian communities. Christians, he says, should:

  • hold their tongues, refusing to speak uncharitably about a Christian brother or sister;
  • cultivate the humility that comes from understanding that they, like St. Paul, are the greatest of sinners and can only live in God’s sight by his grace;
  • listen “long and patiently” so that they will understand their fellow Christian’s need;
  • refuse to consider their time and calling so valuable that they cannot be interrupted to help with unexpected needs, no matter how small or menial;
  • bear the burden of their brothers and sisters in the Lord, both by preserving their freedom and by forgiving their sinful abuse of that freedom;
  • declare God’s word to their fellow believers when they need to hear it;
  • understand that Christian authority is characterized by service and does not call attention to the person who performs the service.

 

Maybe we would do well to meditate on these challenges over the coming weeks as we continue to journey through Lent?

For if we live like that, turning to verses 12-18, we will shine like lights in the world; we will be beauty in a world of darkness and self-seeking; we will be like signs of God’s new life in a world that only knows the way to death. This is the vision of kingdom community, of God’s community, the community of Jesus the one true king. It is a community in which we work out our salvation – we don’t earn it – but we express it in Christ-like living. There is a responsibility for each one of us who follows Christ to work out our salvation – we need to work at living it out – we don’t just sit back and our character is transformed. We work at it, we actually put into practice Bonhoeffer’s challenges – we willingly humble ourselves.

In the hundreds of ways in which our lives touch the lives of others every week, St. Paul says, we are to have the attitude of Christ Jesus. But how is this possible when we are so prone to sin and selfishness which is our common human condition.

In his classic ‘Mere Christianity’, C. S. Lewis provides a helpful description of how the fallible believer (and isn’t that such a good description of us?) can be more like Christ amid the give and take of everyday life. It helps, says Lewis, to pretend to be Jesus, just as a child might pretend to be a soldier or a shopkeeper. Just as the child’s imaginary games help the child to develop skills that will later be useful as a real soldier or shopkeeper, so the “game” of pretending to be Christ inevitably reveals to the believer places for improvement and guides the believer toward spiritual maturity. Lewis argues that the moment we realize we are dressing up like Christ, we will discover ways in which our pretence could become reality. We will be embarrassed to discover thoughts that Christ would not have had and unfulfilled duties that Christ would not have neglected. Those realizations, he says, should in turn prompt us to more complete obedience.

Though sometimes presented as if the answer were simple, there is, I suggest, merit in asking ourselves the question “What would Jesus do?” For if we turn to the example of the self-giving Christ, and heed St. Paul’s encouragement to act with humility towards others then surely that’s a great starting point in our journey to become more like Christ.

Let me conclude with those words from Philippians chapter 2, verses 1-8 once more.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.

Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mind-set as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!

But there is more. The one who humbled himself, Jesus, will be exalted.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The Reverend Jono Tregale, Team Vicar 05/03/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne