Downward Mobility

Sermon by Rev. Drew Smith on October 6, 2002

(Philippians 2: 1-13)

This is a famous passage, this one before us. It’s considered the grandest hymn of Christ, possibly even a part of it. It was one of the earliest hymns of the church singing of the very nature of Jesus. The singing of Jesus’ humility, his obedience of a sacrifice, a hymn that focuses on that radical faith that we find in the New Testament.

The first part of the passage is Paul setting up the scene for this hymn that’s found in verses 6 through 11, a hymn, poem, or something of that nature. Some form of exalted prose. What Paul is calling and what he’s been calling in the first part of this letter to the Philippian church is calling them to be unified. Calling them to be one, a real call to unity in the church; the people gathered together. There was no such thing as denominations in that day. There was one church. It was the Philippian church, period, and Paul was saying “you people that are gathered together around Jesus, you folks that are tethered to Jesus, that you have in common together, Jesus, be unified; be one people.” That’s what he’s getting at at the end of verse 2. “Be of the same mind, have the same love, be in full accord and of one mind”, together; be unified. Then in verses 3 and 4 he says how. This is how; this is what you need to do in order to be one among you. He would be saying that to us in real life, not some amorphous church but to the people who are gathered here, sitting on these pews. This is what he would say, “You be of one mind, you care for each other in Jesus. This is how to do it -- humility”. The way to be unified, the way for you to be one people in Christ is to be humble, like Jesus was humble. Verses 3 and 4, “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”. He’s saying that the people in the pew next to you, behind you, they’re more important than you are. Their interests are more important to you than your own interests are. As you look and you see the people, the people you just passed the peace with, they’re the ones that are more important to you than you are to you. That’s what Paul is saying. They are the ones who are not there to serve you, but for you to serve. They’re there not for us to get from, but for us to give to.

I ran across the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great German theologian in the 40’s and 50’s. He wrote a book called “Life Together” and he gave some different principles for how does the community of Christ really live out what Paul is saying here; this humility, this caring about the interest of others more than we care about the interests of ourselves. He had seven different principles, but I’ll just focus on three. The first thing he said is something we hear regularly; ‘we’ve been given two ears and one mouth’ and that’s probably a good sign from God to us that we should listen more than we speak. Listen long and patiently so that we will understand our fellow Christians’ needs. The act of humility leads us to listen to the needs of one another; to be concerned for the needs of one another, whatever they might be. Our first goal in relating to each other is not to get people on a committee, or to get them on our committee, or to get them to do what we were doing so that we don’t have to do it anymore or anything like that. Our first goal is simply to listen to who they are; to what their concerns might be, what are their needs, what are their pains, what are their joys? The second thing that Bonhoeffer brings out is that humility causes us to listen and part of listening is to not speak. The scriptures are filled with that, the Psalms, the Proverbs, be slow to speak, quick to listen. Hold your tongue and Bonhoeffer says clearly “hold your tongue, specifically, when it’s tempted to say something unloving about another Christian, brother or sister. Refuse,” he says, “refuse to speak uncharitably about a Christian brother or sister”. Then, the last principle, he says, “cultivate the humility that comes from the understanding that all of us are like Paul, the greatest of sinners.” Cultivate the humility that Paul has that realizes we’re wrong. When we do that we’re free and won’t have to defend ourselves. We’ll no longer have to make up stories to try to defend ourselves in some way shape or form. We only live in the grace of Jesus Christ.

I encourage you in this moment to honestly consider your relationships with the other people in these pews. Open up your spirit to hear from God. Where are you in the wrong? Who’s the one that God is telling you to go listen to, to go sit with and to simply listen to? Who’s the one that the Spirit of God is putting on your heart to simply pray for them? You don’t like them. You plain and simple don’t like them and you never have. Well, that’s too bad. God has you in the same church and calling you to be unified so how can you pray for them? Who is the one to whom maybe you need to confess, that you’ve hurt them, you have spoken about them uncharitably outside of their earshot? Who’s the one to whom you need to confess, because of that? I really do believe that Paul had a purpose in his other writings as to why he put gossip in the same list as murder. It may not destroy them physically, but spiritually gossip destroys the unity of the body.

Please don’t just read over this and then move on, but honestly place yourself in a place where you will hear from God. Whom do you need to pray for, whom do you need to listen to, to whom do you need to confess?

Paul doesn’t just give us this call to unity, this call to give ourselves away, to avoid selfish ambition and conceit, to consider the needs of others, and just says ‘now go do that, it’s a good thing to do’. He then continues on, verses 6 through 8, and says ‘because that’s how Jesus is’. Jesus, here, is our example; that’s what he did. He didn’t consider his own interest first. Jesus is our example, He’s our hope. He went and did that, he cared for the interest of others before his own and he succeeded. He survived, and he’s our strength because he’s the one who lives in us now in the power of the Spirit so that we, too, may do the same. Hear these words again; this is the first part, (there’s some poem or hymn here) that Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians. “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”. What a powerful poem to consider the incarnation, that’s what he’s talking about here, what we call the incarnation, Jesus becoming flesh. He’s becoming carnal, in the flesh, that Jesus leaves the power and the prestige, the safety and the comfort of heaven. He doesn’t take that for his own advantage but gives up his rights and his privileges for the benefit of others. The Creator becomes part of the creation. The Mary, whom Jesus created, now is changing Jesus’ diapers and providing him the very milk that he needs for life.

It’s not just in a vacuum that Paul tells us to give up our own rights and privileges for the benefit of others, but he says that’s the way Jesus was. Verse 8 is really the key verse there. Jesus humbled himself and became obedient. It’s a humility, not just for humility’s sake, but because that is obedient to our creator. That’s what God wants us to do. It just may be, brothers and sisters, that the friends and resources, the wealth and the comfort, the security and safety that we enjoy are not for us, but they’ve been given to us so that we might give them away. It just may be that those resources and the power that we have is not for our own advantage but for the advantage of others.

What a great picture for this season as we enter into stewardship season. Consider how we use the resources at our disposal; the power, the prestige, the comfort, the safety, all that we have and follow with those resources, Jesus. Our own time, our energy, our money, our building, how do we follow Jesus, really; not just a token but really in using those resources, not for our own benefit but for the benefit of others? I think there’s great signs of hope there; such positive ways that you as a community use this building; you give it to others, for New Hope Korean Presbyterian Church which will meet later this afternoon; for the Mobile Aids Support Services that meets here regularly;. for the Boy Scouts that meet here regularly, for the Interfaith Hospitality Network that will house homeless families in this building, as we talked about last week. Those are great steps and great moves and things that we should really see how Jesus is using those times to help us to grow, help us to hear and see and experience God. I have something else for us to consider, just to consider. How does our building and locked doors fit in to this? Have you ever noticed how many locked doors we have here? Our front door, the door that everybody comes in, is mostly locked all the time. Our Chapel door is locked all the time, the library door is locked; even our playground is locked with a sign on it that says “Church Members Only”. As I was meditating, thinking about this passage, I had to wonder ‘how do those locked doors communicate the humility, the sacrifice, and the obedience of Jesus; how do those locked doors communicate that we care not about protecting our own stuff but we care about serving the needs of others?’ Now I know that’s a scary thing to consider and I’m not saying that we should go and unlock every door and all the rest but I’m saying it’s a question that we need to ask--how does that communicate, the humility, the sacrifice, and the obedience of Jesus? I know it’s scary as to who can come in and steal things, misuse things, abuse things, and destroy them if we don’t protect them, if we don’t control that. But let me ask you this, “Did that threat stop Jesus? Did the potential of him being abused, mistreated and destroyed stop him from his humble obedience unto God in his service to us?” Obviously not, because the potential was the reality for him. He was abused, he was mistreated, and destroyed. This humility and obedience isn’t just a nice walk ‘through the tulips’. It’s a serious act of faith. Foolish to the world, but an act of obedience under God. I think that’s why Paul goes on though, and quotes the second part of this poem. “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”. Jesus acted in complete humility, obedience and faith under God and the Father took care of him.

We, too, believe the same. We don’t protect our stuff, we obey God. We follow Jesus and maybe that means sometimes protecting certain things but that’s not our goal. Our goal is to follow God; our goal is to follow Jesus and that means humility, that means obedience, that means faith, the radical faith of the New Testament that believes that just like God lifted up Jesus, we believe that God will lift us up. We believe that Jesus now is highly exalted and is Lord. He is Lord now, not tomorrow, not when we die, but NOW. We obey Jesus NOW; we trust Jesus NOW.

Jesus has gone before us in humble obedience; in faith that the Father will provide and the Father DID. So, too will the Father take care of us. Therefore, we live the life of faith, and I believe that’s what Paul gets into at the very end of the passage, verses 12 and 13. “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”. We believe that God will take care of us just like he took care of Jesus. So, because that is our faith, we now live the life of faith, humility, and obedience. I think that’s what Paul is getting at when he says ‘we work out our salvation’. He’s’ not saying that we earn our salvation; he’s not saying that we work for our salvation; he says ‘we are living out our salvation’; we are experiencing our salvation. We are experiencing our salvation from the ways of the world; from the ways of fear; from the ways of greed; from the ways of selfishness, because we are working out our salvation, living out our salvation, as we practice faith, humility and obedience.

The rest of the verse, verse 13, is the last section of great encouragement because what Paul says is ‘for it is God who is at work in us’. It’s the Holy Spirit inside of us that’s causing that humility, that’s enabling that obedience, that’s nurturing that faith It’s the Holy Spirit inside of us that’s changing our desires and our deeds. The vision for you from this passage is that humility is really serving others, it’s caring for others needs before your own. Really loving the people you don’t like; forgiving the people who have hurt you; confessing your own sin of gossip. If that’s the issue from this particular passage give it to God. God is ready to work, to enable us to carry out that humility towards others. If the issue is with obedience where it’s selfishness; where we hoard; we want to protect instead of giving away; we want to use the things that we have for the benefit of others; instead we want to keep them, the fear that motivates us-- give it to God. He wants to work within us. He wants to change not only what we do, but also even what we think. He’s eager to do that for his own good pleasure. Jesus has gone before us. He’s lived that perfect life, a perfect life of humility, of obedience, of faith and the Father took care of him.

Let us together with one another, in unity around Jesus, consider how we might better follow Him, in humility, in obedience, and faith. Let us live out our salvation. 


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