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Sun, Sep 27, 2020

Complete Joy

Duration:17 mins 45 secs

“Complete Joy”

Sermon on Philippians 2:1-13

17th Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 21, Year A (Confirmation Sunday)

                There are a few key words that come up over and over again in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi: joy, rejoice, love, affection, fellowship. From the evidence of the letters we have, the Philippian congregation was Paul’s favorite. He has nothing but warm feelings for this congregation, but he is concerned about them. There has been some conflict – we don’t know what it was, but it seems that there was some kind of competition going on, people lining up on one side or the other, trying to achieve dominance and further their own interests.

Paul wants it to stop. “Be of the same mind,” he says, and “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” And then he addresses them in the words of a hymn, one of the very earliest Christian hymns. The gist of it was something like this: “Christ Jesus, the very spitting image of God, the one who had God written all over him, walked on the earth as an ordinary human being. He didn’t consider himself too good for a human body, he didn’t go around flaunting his divinity, he got right down here with the rest of us. He humbled himself – in fact, he went so far in sharing our condition that he went to a painful, humiliating death for us. That’s why God has raised him up, and given him ‘the name that is above every name’.”

            It’s interesting that Paul, who was never at a loss for words, used a standard Christian hymn to make one of the most powerful statements about the person and ministry of Jesus in the entire New Testament. The hymn Paul used was something like a Statement of Faith, a concise summary of some basic articles of Christian doctrine. The Apostles’ Creed, which we’ll recite later in this service, is another example. The members of this year’s Confirmation class have each written a Statement of Faith. They were asked to reflect on basic articles of Christian belief, such as the nature of God, the person and ministry of Jesus, and the work of the Holy Spirit, and then to write a statement of personal faith, “fleshed out” through their own life experience. In other words, they were asked to say something about what these basic articles of faith meant to them personally and how they were trying to live their lives because of what they believe.

            Paul adopted the hymn he quoted to make a point about the pattern of the life of Jesus. He then used the rest of the letter to put “flesh” on the pre-packaged statement of faith he had received. He saw in this hymn a model or pattern for Christian existence.

“Look at Jesus,” Paul says to the Philippians. “He didn’t put his own interests first – he put God’s interests, and our interests, before his own.” He gave up his high status, he humbled himself, and so he was exalted, raised up by God. “Look at his attitude, his life, and then look at your own. Is the same mind in you?”

Having “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” is not exactly a formula for success, at least not success as we usually understand it. It does not map out a path toward wealth or fame or influence or even popularity. Paul himself was incarcerated when he wrote this letter, not usually a situation in life that gets respect. What a Christian life looked like for Paul was risking your own ease, comfort, and security for the sake of showing Christ to others.

On the surface, there seems to be something wrong with this attitude. Is Paul saying we should just lay ourselves out like doormats to be trampled upon? There is a fair amount of so-called Christian teaching that has said essentially that, sending battered wives back to their husbands and servants back to their oppressive employers, but that is not what Paul is saying. Paul is thinking more about the natural human tendency to put ourselves first, to insist on our own entitlements, or the correctness of our own judgments, or the nobility of our own cause. Paul is really just saying “Get over yourself. Don’t be self-important. Try to see things from the perspective of other people, not just your own.” In Paul’s world that meant that men could no longer consider themselves superior to women, heads of households could no longer consider themselves superior to the household servants, the rich could no longer consider themselves superior to the poor, the people in leadership could no longer consider themselves superior to ordinary citizens. Paul says that Christians need to give up any assumptions of entitlement, any ideas we might have that we are more “deserving” than other people.

I’ve been thinking about the implications of these words from Philippians for the church today. The church of Jesus Christ, at least the mainline Protestant variety of it to which we belong, has lost its former status in American culture – not willingly, I admit, but that is where we find ourselves now. Most people pay very little attention to what we do or say. Increasingly, in many circles, to be a Christian at all is to be something of an odd person. We may sometimes have to explain why we are Christian and what we “get out of it.” This in itself should make us a little more humble, knowing that we no longer represent the “norm” of American culture.

No one will feel the church’s decline in status more acutely than our newly confirmed members. They are living, and will be living, in a post-Christian world. They more than any of us will need to come to terms with what being the church is all about in this time of waning influence of mainline Protestant Christianity. But they may also find – I hope they will find – that this more reduced position of the church in the world actually comes with some real opportunities. A church that is taking a path of humility might have some of these features:

  • Forming connections with people of other faiths and discovering what Christians have in common with them;
  • Doing more outreach to and with the community, not because it will bring in new members, but because it may be an opportunity to meet Christ in our neighbors;
  • Becoming involved in social justice movements, such as anti-racism efforts, not as self-righteous crusaders but simply as people who are trying to understand and form connections with people whose experience has been different from ours;
  • Working with other churches and faith communities to help protect our endangered planet.

I am sure our MPC confirmands, who represent the church of the future, will be able to think of other ways to live out their faith through the church.

Most of us know that from a purely practical and utilitarian perspective, not much of what we do as a church makes a huge impact on the world. Sometimes we struggle to believe that what we do is actually important, that it matters to someone and especially that it matters to God. But the church reveals its nature, follows this pattern of humility most closely through small, not always visible actions that don’t make a lot of difference to most of the world: things like taking communion to a homebound person, or a meal to people who are going through something difficult and sorrowful; telling a story to a child, or teaching a Sunday school class with only two kids in it; or the very act of praying itself, day in and day out, whether or not we ever have a sign that our prayers do anything.

Before I could be ordained, I was required to complete one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, which is supervised chaplaincy in an institutional setting, usually a hospital. I did my CPE at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, where world-renowned doctors and scientists conducted clinical trials of new treatments, drugs, and surgical procedures for a wide range of life-threatening illnesses. The patients I saw had things like cystic fibrosis, hepatitis C, advanced kidney disease, and other difficult-to-treat diseases and conditions. Along with the other student-chaplains, I was assigned to an interdisciplinary care team, made up of doctors, nurses, social workers, and other specialists. I had absolutely nothing to contribute to these meetings. I felt like a complete nonentity on my care team, as did the other chaplains on theirs. When we met with each other and our supervisors, we talked about how useless we felt, how much better we would feel if we could do something like start an IV, take someone’s vital signs, even sweep the hospital floors. We went to “our” patients and simply sat with them and gave them an opportunity to talk, if they wanted to; few of them did. Occasionally someone would welcome our prayers; once in a great while, someone would say that it had helped them for us to be there.

Christian work is like that, and I think that is the way it is supposed to be. Most of us Christians make small differences here and there, now and then. Sometimes the moment is right, and somehow, mysteriously, and through our small gestures of faithfulness, God comes on the scene. And when that happens, it means everything to know that we were there – not because of our great talent, or brilliance, or powers of persuasion, but simply because we put aside our preconceptions of who or what is important and simply chose to be there. A lot of what we call faith, and faithfulness, is just showing up.

To be able to do this, to put aside our egos and expectations, is to have something of the “mind of Christ” that Paul talked about. This is the work of the church, maybe the main work of the church.

Maybe this is where the joyfulness Paul talks about comes from.  

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

September 27, 2020

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