15th Sun after Trinity
St Barbara’s 28.09.14
Last week, we began looking at the letter Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. In prison, facing a very uncertain future which would more than likely end in violent death, we got an insight into Paul’s attitude to prayer, to facing difficulties, and to life and death.
Well, in this next part of his letter, the focus shifts to the Philippians. “That’s enough about me,” Paul seems to be saying. “Now, let’s talk about you.”
The church in Philippi, compared to most of the other churches Paul wrote to, seems to be in good shape. Unlike in his other letters, Paul is not having to disentangle theological heresies, or having to separate warring parties that have broken out in the church. But the church is nonetheless far from perfect – there are significant differences and there are people in the church with very mixed motivations.
So he focuses on three key things for them to reflect on: unity, humility and activity.
How many of you still remember the opening ceremony of the 2012 olympics? It was an incredible spectacle involving thousands of people, all choreographed and drilled to arrive in the right spot at the right time, as we took a sweeping tour of Britain’s industrial history.
Or how many of you have seen a circus troop of jugglers, throwing knives and flaming torches to one another at record speed.
In both settings there is no place for egotism, for someone going off script and doing their own thing, wanting to have the limelight. The thing works because everyone works together for the common goal. Roles may be different, some may be more public than others, but the spectacle is in the whole.
Church life, Paul tells the Philippians, should be like that. His joy that he has when he thinks of them would be made complete if they would be like-minded, if they would share the same love, if they would be one in spirit and purpose. Not that they would all become the same, but that they would work towards the same goal, the goal of Christ being honoured in their midst. No one feeling a need to take the limelight, or just doing whatever pleased them. But working together with one heart for the one aim of glorifying Christ.
Unity never comes easily. It doesn’t just happen. It needs to be worked at, just as those opening ceremony performers put hours upon hours into rehearsals, so unity requires effort from each one of us. We need to step back from our own agendas or the ease with which we can put own needs first, and work together. Paul encouraged the Philippian Christians: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others…. Indeed do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”
Look to the needs of others and put them before your own. I wonder what that means for each of us, as part of St Barbara’s. Whose needs are you aware of that you could help to meet in some way?
Paul appreciates that what he is asking is hard, so he puts before the Philippian church an inspirational example.
If you have children or grandchildren of a certain age you may have come across a computer game called Minecraft. Even if you haven’t, you may have heard about as it was in the news a week or so back because it was recently bought by Microsoft for £1.5 billion. In the game you can create a world from scratch using the equivalent of computerised lego blocks. But although in theory you can make any kind of world everyone starts with a basic template in their mind of what basic houses and other buildings look like.
In the first century AD mediteranean world, it was not uncommon to create new gods and new religions, often for political or cultural reasons. And like with Minecraft, though in theory there was no limits on what could be made up, a standard template was almost universally applied – that of the all-conquering, militarily powerful, world-ruling hero. Thus, two of the biggest cults of Paul’s time were of Alexander the Great and the late Emperor Augustus, both recognised as human giants of their age, and now attributed with divine status. To be a God was to be like them, all-powerful, feared and adulated, bending lowly subjects to their will.
It is in that context that Paul writes that “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God (being in very nature God), did not regard equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” It is the very opposite of everything that divine beings were supposed to represent. A slave was the lowest of the low, sometimes not even regarded as human, but a mere piece of property to be bought and sold. And Paul stresses the point further. Jesus is not only a slave, but dies the most humiliating and ignominious of deaths imaginable. There is nothing glorious or remotely divine.
And yet it is this which so gloriously marks Christ aside as divine. Humility had never before been seen as a virtue. In Christ we discover it is now the mark of God himself. It is the very nature of God to lay his life down for the sake of others, to empty himself so that others may have fullness of life. In a world obsessed by status and power, and climbing the social ladder, Jesus showed the way of God, the way opposite to the way of the world.
In one of our mid-week home groups a number of people spoke of how it was this very thing, Christ’s humanity, his vulnerability, that made him attractive to them. But back then, far more people would have been shocked by this “weakness” and “lack of status” than attracted to it.
The Christian gospel has had an impact on our own culture. Those who brag about their accomplishments or treat subordinates with disdain are rightly frowned upon. That would not have been the case 2000 years ago. But too often the appearance of humility is not backed up by practice. We commonly speak of “false humility”.
For the church, with the example of Christ ever before us, we know what humility looks like, and as Paul urges, our attitude should be the same as Christ’s.
In the home, humility is the putting of the needs of our spouse or children before our own. Even as I wrote this sermon I was struck by how many ways I can find to put my needs first. I need to get this job done; I need space to do this. I need to have a well-earned rest. And make those choices in isolation from the needs of those around me.
In the workplace, humility is the recognising of the needs of those around us, even if that may come at the cost of promotion or advancement, or us failing to meet our targets to enable others to meet theirs.
In all areas of our lives, humility is the attitude of heart that encourages and challenges us to step back and put others first.
If you are like me, you may be thinking, how do I live like that? It goes against so much of my own human nature, and it goes against so much of our culture’s approach to life too. Well, the good news is that we have been given God’s spirit to strengthen and empower us, the God himself who has taken this route.
Imagine if, a few years ago, you had had to stand up to some minor injustice at work or in the community, and then you were told, but you’ll have Nelson Mandela to stand beside you, to guide you and encourage you, we’d probably have felt far more confident to take that stand. Or if, a few years ago, you had been asked to care for someone ill at home, but you were told, but you’ll have Mother Theresa to help you and encourage you, well the burden of that care would probably feel more bearable.
Well, Jesus Christ, the one who gave up everything, emptied himself, to serve the needs of others, is with us, by His Spirit, encouraging us, guiding us. So as Paul says, lets “continue to work out our salvation”, in other words, let’s put it into practice, and be a united and humble people this day.