15th Sunday after Trinity

Phil 1:12-30; Mt 18:21-35

St Barbara’s 20.9.2020

Rev Tulo Raistrick

If you were to go back 2,000 years and ask the people of the mediterranean world what greatness looked like they would almost certainly point you to two rulers, two men who dominated their day. The first was Alexander the Great, who by the age of 32 had conquered the vast majority of the known world, reached as far as India,  built an empire the size of which had never been seen before, and stamped the face of Greek culture on the ancient East. Bold, charismatic, adventurous, thousands gave up the safety of home to follow him. The other was Caesar Augustus, the nephew of Julius Caesar, who after decades of Roman civil war, the republic tearing itself apart, he declared himself emperor, and imposed a peace and established an empire that was to last a further 400 years.

Both these men had a unique connection to Philippi, the city to which Paul writes his letter. Alexander the Great was born and raised in the city, and it was from this city that he launched the military campaign that would take him across the world. And it was outside the walls of Philippi that Augustus defeated the army of those who had assassinated his uncle – Cassius and Brutus among them – and took the decisive step to establishing himself as the first Roman emperor.

If any city knew what greatness looked like, if any city could lay a claim to understanding the nature of authority, leadership, ultimate power, Philippi was it. This was part of its DNA, as much, say, as the Beatles are to Liverpool or steel to Sheffield.

So when Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi, steeped in this history of heroic leadership and military power and authority, what he writes must have totally dumbfounded them. For he writes of Christ not as one who stretched himself to the limits of human potential, who through his power and authority and greatness somehow managed to reach out and touch the divine and in doing so become semi-divine himself (after all, Alexander and Augustus were both worshipped after their deaths), but as one who gave up power and status. Who chose to freely and willingly give up a position where he was reverenced and worshipped; where he chose to give up a heavenly kingdom of adoring angels; where he let fall any authority he held as the Son of God. That this does not leave us totally bewildered is because we have had two thousand years to get used to it. At the time, to define greatness in such terms was almost inconceivable.

For it is not just that Christ steps down, rather than up, the ladder of status and power, it is how far he goes. Paul tells us he “emptied himself”, literally that he poured himself out until nothing was left. All that he could call on to give him special, privileged status was gone. He gave it up. He becomes human, allowing himself to be constricted and constrained, when all around him, the view of greatness is to burst out of human constraints, to be seen as almost super-human in ones abilities and achievements. He goes further – he becomes a servant, a slave, one who was not even recognised as human but as merely a thing, a piece of property in the eyes of Roman law.

But Paul is not yet finished. When the pursuit of greatness was about the pursuit of immortality, about one’s name, one achievements lasting through the centuries, Christ, the immortal one, chooses death, and at that, not a glorious, heroic death, but a death of a criminal, dying amongst criminals, in a backwater state in an unimportant corner of the empire.

Paul labours the point because when the Christians in Philippi proclaimed “Jesus is Lord” they did it in direct opposition to those who said “Augustus is Lord”. Paul was saying, “this is who we worship, this is our example of greatness”. Indeed more than that – this is what God is like: a God of utterly selfless, self-giving love, a God who will give up everything to love us. As Jesus shows in the parable from our gospel reading, a God who will give generously and abundantly, regardless of how hard we’ve worked or how much we’ve achieved, a God of unparalleled grace.

And then, as if that is not hard enough, to see God in such terms, Paul makes it that much harder still: our attitude, Paul writes, should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. That attitude of humility, of self-giving love, should be ours too. What does that look like? A few modern-day examples to reflect on, by no means perfect, but ones I hope will set you thinking.

The first is from a somewhat surprising source. Marcelo Bielsa, the Leeds United football manager, is widely venerated by some of the most successful managers in the game, even though he is not nearly as successful as they are. Much has been written about him in recent months, but the story that struck me most was that shortly after arriving at Leeds, he assembled his multi-million-pound-earning footballers to do a three-hour litter pick in the streets around the stadium. He wanted his players to experience how hard others had to work to be able to afford to go and see them play. He wanted them to give back; to value others; to learn humility.

As I thought about examples of humility I reflected back on my 15 years of working with an aid charity and two people came to mind. One was one of the CEOs I worked under. His job was to take the lead, make the big decisions, tell others what to do. And yet when he arrived in the job, he spent the first three months doing nothing but listening, and listening to everyone, from senior staff to the part-time cleaners, from big peer organisations to a tiny partner in Bolivia. This turned out not to be a clever management technique that was dumped the moment a new fad came along, but an attitude – a willingness to learn, to hear and value others, to recognise that he didn’t have all the answers, to serve and lead with humility – and it transformed the organisation.

The other was an Indian lady. In the days when offices had tea trollies (some of you may remember those), she would push the tea trolly around making people’s drinks. She would always stop and chat, and unbeknown to any of us, pray for us as well. It was only when she quietly left a few years later that we noticed how much of a difference she had made. The trundle and clinking of the tea trolley had meant more than tea; it had meant selfless prayer too.

Humility, self-giving love, can be shown by churches too.  I think of a church in south Wales I once worked with. They had got in touch because they felt they weren’t doing enough to serve their community. As it turned out, they were probably doing more than any church I had ever come across, but it was all hidden. Unbeknown even to them, they were known in the community simply as a church that cared. I provided them with clipboards and survey forms to go and do a community survey, but in some embarrassment, they reported back a few weeks later that they had failed. Only a handful of surveys had been filled in. The problem was that the people whose doors had been knocked on, when they knew they were from the church, had wanted to talk, often for hours, and the church volunteers had wanted to listen. In fact the whole system had broken down because the volunteers were going back to the same households the following week to listen more. The survey forms and clipboards had been abandoned. What mattered to this church was simply being there, hearing, caring. This was a church expressing humble, self-giving love as fellow neighbours, as people poured out the pain of what it meant to be living in the grinding poverty of an old mining town, riddled with unemployment and poor health. There was a beauty, a grace, in this church that I rarely found elsewhere.

These are just examples. I’m sure you can think of many more, and maybe today you may like to set aside time to think about those who have inspired you. We need examples of those who break the mould, who in Paul’s words, “in humility consider others better than themselves… who look not only to their own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

For when we talk about growing in love – love for God, each other, our community and the world – this is the kind of love we are talking about: humble, self-giving, generous love. This is the love that transforms us all. This is what true greatness really means.