Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Pentecost 17 (A)
1 October 2017
Video of this sermon is now available online.
This is the second in our four week sermon series as we take the opportunity to explore the key themes of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
For those who were not with us last week, let me just offer a brief recap.
During this series of four Sundays, the lectionary offers us a rare opportunity to read a complete book of the Bible.
We mostly hear brief excerpts from the Bible, but I think it does make a difference when we get to hear the whole document.
In this instance, we get a better feel for the relationship between Paul and the people of the small Christian community at Philippi as we read the whole letter over these four weeks.
There are also some background notes for this sermon series online, so I encourage you to look those up and get a deeper sense of the history of Philippi, and of the relationship between Paul and the small church that he founded there.
As best we can tell, Paul was only into the city for a couple of weeks before he was forced to move on to another location. Yet in that brief time he founded a new Christian community in this city, and formed such a close relationship with them that they stayed in close contact with him for many more years.
As we saw last week, the bonds were so close that they supported Paul when he again found himself under arrest. This time they sent money as well as one of their church members to be his personal assistant.
The bonds were incredibly close, as we saw last week when we explored the theme of compassion.
Make my joy complete
In chapter two of Philippians, Paul is seeking to promote harmony among the members of this young Christian community.
He is appealing for them to put each other’s interests first:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 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. (Phil 2:1–4 NRSV)
Notice that he is not suggesting that they resolve their differences by a majority vote. Rather, he is raising the bar much higher. They are to operate by consensus and seek total agreement between everyone:
be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind
That kind of unity is not achieved by voting, but by a willingness to listen, to understand, to put our own interests aside, and to put the interests of the other person first.
That is not how our world works, but it was also not how the world worked in Paul’s time either. The model for this kind of outlook is not to be found in the ways most people act most of the time.
Rather the model for this kind of attitude comes is found in the person of Jesus.
The Mind of Christ
Now we come to the crown jewels of this brief personal note sent by Paul to the Christian community in Philippi in the northern winter of AD 54/55.
Paul backs up his appeal for the Philippians to treat each other well by quoting an early Christian hymn known to them from their Sunday gatherings.
In these lines we are delving back behind even the letter itself to an earlier stage in the emergence of early Christianity.
This was presumably a song that Paul taught them while first explaining what it means to be a Christian. More than that, we can presume the song to have originated in the church in Antioch. This is the where Paul gained so much of his own Christian formation as he served alongside Barnabas for a year (Acts 11:25–26) prior to their first missionary journey as emissaries of the Antioch congregation (Acts 13:1–3 and 14:26).
These words we focus on today take us back very close to the start of Christianity.
Interestingly, Paul does not ask people to believe a long list of things about Jesus, but to act in the same way that Jesus acted.
That is a lesson the church soon forgot, and we have since become quite skilled as assessing people on the basis of their beliefs.
But Paul appeals for them to have the same mind, the same sense of self, the same outlook as we observe in Jesus himself.
Here are the key lines again:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness … (Phil 2:5–7 NRSV)
We could spend a whole sermon series exploring this ancient Christian song, but today I just want to focus on the key point that Paul himself was seeking to highlight when he used this song as part of his appeal to this friends in Philippi to put each other’s interests first.
There are just two phrases I want to underline for you today.
- [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited
This is actually a verb difficult phrase to translate, and might be better translated as: he did not think that equality with God was about grasping
If we hold that idea in mind for a moment, we may recall that it fits well with what Jesus himself is remembered as saying about his own mission:
The son of man came not to be served,
but to serve.
This song also resonates with the scene in John’s Gospel where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples at the beginning of the Last Supper.
Divinity is not about power, but about service.
That is not how we usually think about God, but it is the way Jesus teaches us to imagine God. More importantly, it was how Jesus embodied God: as love in action, not privilege seeking recognition.
The God who comes among us in the person of Jesus, is a God who serves, heals, saves, restores, and unites.
- but emptied himself
This important insight is then reinforced by the example of Jesus himself.
He did not just understand divinity differently, he acted in a way that showed us a different side of God.
In Paul’s original Greek he used the word kenosis, which means to empty something out so that is becomes of no value at all.
Far from grasping at privilege and power, Jesus gave it all away.
We see this most powerfully in his death.
No claims to privilege or status, no demands for special treatment, but a willingness to pour out his very existence for the sake of others.
Baptised into Kenosis
This morning we are baptising Theodore into our part of the amazing Christian movement that took root in ancient Antioch and whose first European community was founded in Philippi by Paul about 20 years after Easter.
There will be things Theodore needs to learn, and there will be beliefs that he will embrace for himself as he grows into the faith that we claim for him today.
We all have a stake in that process of faith formation, but the responsibility rests especially with his parents and godparents.
More important than any knowledge or beliefs that they will share with Theodore is the supreme importance of assisting him to have the same ‘mind’ that we see in Jesus.
As a follower of Jesus, Theodore will learn to put others first, and pour out his life in the service of others. We wait to see just what form that will take in his case, but we give thanks for the gift that he will be—and indeed already is— to other people.
And today we renew our pledge to spend our own lives that way as well.
To live for others, and not for ourselves.
If we can do that, the world may yet be transformed