Sermon, October 1, 2017

Sermon.10.01.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32

 

Last week we noted Paul’s exhortation to the Christians at Philippi to live their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, to stand “firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1.27; NRSV).  Paul also pointed to the struggle they share in living for Christ, and reminded them of “the privilege not only of believing in Christ but of suffering for him as well” (Philippians 1.28; NRSV).

In today’s lesson, Paul says, “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” (Philippians 2.1-2a; NRSV). In other words, if this accurately reflects our relationship, then make my joy complete. How? By living in unity with one another, that is, by being “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2.2; NRSV). There is no place here for factions or divisions. Is living this way in community possible?

Paul then spells it out even more clearly: “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. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2.3-5; NRSV). This is not the way things usually happen. Our natural tendency is to look out for #1; we have a great deal invested in our ego, and we want to make good on that investment. However, if everyone followed the principle of looking to the interests of others, wouldn’t others satisfy our interests? But fear raises its ugly head – what if no one looks after my interests? If that happens, haven’t I been played for a sucker? But Paul makes it very clear, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Biblical scholars believe verses 6-11 express an ancient hymn written within 10-15 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is very likely one of the earliest well-known hymns in Christian circles. When Paul began reciting it, the recipients of his letter may well have begun to sing it. On Passion Sunday, we lift these verses from their context and sing them as a Christological hymn. The hymn begins by noting Christ’s presence with God the Father, then moves to his Incarnation, death, and ultimately, his exaltation. Notice this sequence as I read it once 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.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a 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 (Philippians 2.5-11; NRSV).

 

When we remove this hymn from the context of Paul’s remarks to the Christians of Philippi, we lose sight of the fact that it serves to reinforce an ethical exhortation: “Let the same mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus.” Reginald H. Fuller, the Anglican priest and biblical scholar, notes that biblical exegetes question whether we are to understand Christ as an example which we are to emulate or as a pattern into which God transforms us in a more mystical sense.

The question arises from the fact that the original Greek contains no verb in the final phrase; the literal translation is “Let the same mind be in you which in Christ Jesus.” Hence, when the English verb form is added, it may legitimately be translated as “Let the same mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus” or as “Let the same mind be in you which you have in Christ Jesus.” The latter translation, “which you have in Christ Jesus” lends a more mystical sense associated with Paul’s use of “in Christ” throughout the epistles. Fuller states, “In this [mystical] interpretation the pattern of Christ’s life, namely, the pattern of humiliation-glorification, is not a model for Christians to imitate but a pattern with which Christians are brought into conformity by their incorporation into Christ and their life in him” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/26OrdA100117/theword_indepth.html). The difference is one of acting (imitating or emulating) or being acted upon.

We have been presented with an “either-or.” Perhaps there is a third possibility – that of acting and being acted upon. That is, as we strive to imitate Christ, the Spirit of God works with and empowers our Spirit. We work in partnership! Our transformation into the mind of Christ may look more like act – acted upon – act – acted upon – act, etc. In acting we are acted upon. Our transformation may be more cyclical and expansive in nature.

Don’t the closing verses of our reading address this issue: “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2.12-13; NRSV). On a humorous note, I once reminded a friend of mine of this verse; I then looked at him and told him if I were in his shoes, I would be doing a whole lot more trembling. I don’t think that was Paul’s intended use, but we both had a good laugh!

“Work out your own salvation … God who is at work in you, enabling you to will and to work….” I believe this reading corresponds to Jesus response to the disciples’ question when Jesus said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus responded, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matthew 19.25-26; NRSV). It also accords with Paul’s words in Romans, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8.26-27; NRSV). What an awesome partner we have! The only fitting response is love, praise, and adoration which leads to living in one mind, one love, and one spirit.

Amen

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