Here is the text of the sermon from 8-10-13:
This is one of my all-time favorite passages. Why? Maybe because it reminds me of the great scene from Star Trek II where Spock is embodying self-sacrifice. He’s just doomed himself in order to save the ship by exposing himself to massive amounts of radiation to fix the engines and get away from the bad guys. He sees his friend Jim through the protective glass and as he’s dying says, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” So maybe I like the passage because it sends me into geek mode. But I think another reason that I like the passage so much is that shows me the importance of not only Jesus death and resurrection, but his life.
We are not simply told to believe in Jesus, but to have the same mind as him, to live sacrificially as a servant. This makes sense to me because I’ve always thought the importance of Jesus is deeper than just how to get to heaven when we die, but how we are to live, even more, how the whole community that confesses Jesus as Lord is to live so that the kingdom of God can be made known on earth as it is in heaven.
For me this passage has always spoken of sacrificial and humble living. “In humility, value others above yourselves…don’t look to your own interests, but the interests of others…have the mind of Jesus who emptied himself and took the form of a slave.” The Philippians may have thought pretty highly of themselves as the city was an essential part of the Roman Empire. They were very wealthy and successful, like many in the United States today. So an ethic of humility and simplicity has always seemed necessary within the contexts of pride and material excess. This is an ethic that has a long standing tradition in Anabaptist communities.
I would hold my grandfather up in that mold of one who daily puts others’ needs in front of his own. He has always been very gracious with his time and gifts. One specific example: at his little airport in Lancaster, he bought several used cars and had them fueled up and ready to go for anyone who happened to fly in. They were free to use the vehicles for whatever they needed. He has been an inspiration my whole life and embodies what I have always appreciated most about this passage from Philippians.
As I have tried to live this way and figure out what it has meant to empty myself. It’s a daily struggle of questions. What do I need? What do I want? How do my decisions affect others? How can I minimize the negative impacts my decisions may have? It’s maddening how much one can mull over these decisions. There is more and more information out there all the time about how the products and services we buy have some sort of negative effect on the people that produce them or the environment. I find myself thinking that I could research products endlessly, but eventually I have to make decisions about what I buy, what I throw away, how I live.
I think I’ve come to a place that is good for me in which I am concerned about the repercussions of my decisions, but I don’t let them stress me out. I choose to ride my bike most days, but sometimes it is more convenient for me to drive the car and I am generally okay with that. This having the same mind of Jesus and emptying oneself seems like it’s about individual decisions. But if Paul was writing to the whole church, then is this a communal ethic?
This is where I get hung up, because we all make different daily decisions about our lives: whether to drive a car or ride a bike, buying local groceries or those that are shipped across the country, using cloth or disposable diapers… these examples are not quite the clear cut ethics of, say, the Ten Commandments. These are all important concerns for me as I attempt to live in a way that empties myself of the desires of materialism and comfort. But I wonder if they can or should be made into larger Christian ethical standards.
Many believe they are, I think of Ron Sider’s book “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” in which he notices the ways in which North American Christians have benefitted from the vast accumulation of wealth in the United States while people in developing nations continue to starve and suffer disease at alarming rates. Yet many have also taken a stand against Sider’s claims that American Christians ought to take responsibility for world poverty. One author took exception to Sider’s book and wrote a book of response entitled “Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators.” So it’s not a cut and dry issue.
Yet I find myself pretty regularly leaning away from these ethics being simply up to individual decisions. Maybe that comes from my Mennonite upbringing which emphasized the community above the individual, kind of like Spock. Additionally, I read these letters from Paul to the various churches giving them insight on living by the Spirit, worshipping God, and sharing together as the body of Christ. So I’ve come to a place in my understanding in which the attitude and practice of self-emptying is a communal Christian ethic.
But then it becomes a challenge for me to know how to respond to other Christians who make decisions I might not. What do I say to a friend who buys a brand new car right off the dealer’s lot or a family member who chooses not to recycle? Is this the kind of ethical issue that I need to confront or not? As I work through these things on my own, an unfortunate thing happens. I tend to pass judgment on those who make decisions like that, ones that are different from my own. That is such a waste of money. Don’t they care about the environment. Don’t they realize how much fossil fuel was burned just to get that here? If only they knew about the sweat shops that made their clothes. I know they may have their reasons, but I really think they are making a bad decision. It’s a position of judgment and self-righteousness. But I’m right, aren’t I? we are supposed to live simply and make self-sacrificial lifestyle choices, right? As good as my intentions are, my thoughts are filled with judgment.
I went somewhere with this passage that I believe began as a faithful reading of the text, but I ended up in a broken, sinful place. I missed the main thrust of the letter. I missed two main parts that fell by the wayside during my search for the truth, my search for righteousness.
This first main point is this. Paul’s main desire for the church is unity, so his invitation to empty ourselves and think more highly of others than ourselves, may lead me to a place of simple lifestyle and responsible consumerism, but the minute I allow that ethic to lead to judgments on others, I have totally negated my attempt at self-emptying. Paul wants the church in Philippi to work together to follow Christ. He has been dealing with other churches that have had internal struggles with arguments about all sorts of things. This frustrated Paul. He recognized that what Jesus did on the cross was to restore the covenant relationship between God and humanity.
For Paul then, the way in which God’s children follow Jesus most faithfully is by giving up the selfish mindsets and actions that lead to broken relationships. What God has joined together, let no one separate. The judgment I feel towards others is a breaking of the relationships that God has pulled together through Jesus. What I need to do in that situation is go back to the text. I need to empty myself for the sake of those around me. I need to consider others ahead of myself. How do I do that? What do I need to empty myself of? I believe in this case, it is the need to be right. I have always struggled with this need. I have always hated to lose. It probably made me a less-than-pleasant older brother growing up. I confess my need to be right and to be righteous. I don’t think I have to give up those ethical considerations that I had been working through, but I can’t let my need to be right about those things outweigh the call to humbly follow Christ in his example of total self-sacrifice.
The other thing that I missed was the nature of righteousness. As I just mentioned, I sought to be right, to be righteous. But Paul has made it abundantly clear in most of his letters that being made righteous was out of my hands. Jesus did that for me, did for all of us in his death and resurrection. So I am freed from the need to make myself righteous, to try to set things right between God and I. I can’t do it anyhow, I have to rely on Jesus for that. So while Paul says later in the letter that we are to continue working out our salvation, which could sound like it’s all up to us, he reminds us that it is God at work within us. Jesus paved the road that we walk. We must walk it, but we did nothing to create this path to God.
So I go back to this passage that has meant so much to me. I see in it many things, but above all, I see my desire to be right, and the judgmental attitude that follows. These things are exposed by Jesus’ ultimate, complete sacrificial act that I attempt to imitate, but can never duplicate. I hear Paul’s invitation to put others ahead of myself and I recognize the complexity of that invitation. I believe there it is a call to consider the lilies, a call to live simply and to use our resources wisely, for the benefit of others. I also believe that this ethic cannot come between me and other Christians. I must place others ahead of myself, even if we disagree on how to live and how to faithfully follow Jesus.
I invite each of us to hear Paul’s call and Jesus’ example, so that we might be motivated to empty ourselves of all the things that separate us from each other. Our desires for fame, our desires for wealth, our desires for comfort, our desires to be right, our desires to look good, and on and on. The example we are given is that of Jesus, who gave up all the power and prestige of divinity, became a slave, offering his own life for the sake of each of us. We cannot ever fully follow in his footsteps, but we are called to try, for the sake of the church, for the sake of the world. Day by day we have decisions to make and in the midst of those decisions are selfish and self-righteous desires that push and pull us away from unity, away from Jesus. I pray that we can take the time to name the desires that drive us and find ways to give them up, to look after the interests of others above ourselves. I pray that in this way we can live lives that shine the sacrificial, saving love of Jesus to all. To the glory of God, Amen.