Sermon: Pentecost 16, 1 October 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 1st October 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver


 (Exodus 17:1-7; Ps 78:1-4,11-16; Philippians 2; Matthew 21:23-32)

There was once a football competition with four teams. One team played as if they hardly knew each other, each member doing their own thing regardless of what the others were doing. Another team spent most of their time arguing with each other and refusing to co-operate. Another team was so impressed with their captain-coach that they left him to go out on the field by himself, and play as a one-man team. And then there was a team whose members worked together on their tactics, and worked as a team on the field. Guess which team won the competition!

Churches can be a bit like that too. Some can be full of individuals who have their own agenda, and don’t really care about the other members of the congregation. Others can be dominated by arguments and squabbles. Some churches seem to leave it to the minister to do everything. But there are others whose members see a better way to function as Christ’s church: the way to which Paul points in our reading from Philippians.

It seems that the church at Philippi had the problem of disunity. And when Paul seeks to address the problem, he doesn’t just tell them what they should be doing: he points them to Jesus.

Many experts think that Paul is quoting a popular hymn of the time in this chapter: you can see the words laid out as if it is poetry. It certainly presents some powerful teaching about Jesus, but the words are indeed poetic and the message is inspiring.

Paul tells us that Jesus “was in the form of God”: he was by nature God, with the greatness, the power, the glory of divinity. Jesus is indeed the second person of the Trinity. He is the very author of creation.

And yet he was willing to let go of that glory. He did not clutch his divine prerogatives to himself. In fact he let go of them, and “emptied himself”. He became a mere human being: one made to be dependent on God, one made to serve God. He did not pretend to be human, or simply disguise

himself as a human, as we hear in stories of some of the ancient gods. He became “truly human”, as we say in the Creed. The one who made us became one of us. The Lord of the universe became a servant.

Now when Paul wrote his letters, he wrote as a Christian who came from a Jewish background. The Old Testament scriptures were never far from his mind, especially as he considered how they pointed to the coming of Jesus. And I’m sure that as he wrote these words – or probably dictated them – he thought in particular of two passages from the Old Testament.

He would have gone back to the opening chapters of the scriptures, and the story of Adam, the first man. Adam was made in the image of God, reflecting something of the being of God. But he was not satisfied with the wonderful privileges of being human: tempted by the serpent, he grasped at the possibility of being “like God”, knowing good and evil in the way God knows them. He grasped at divinity, and as we all know, he was undone as a result.

And of course since his day, human beings have in our different ways sought to live independently of God: doing our will rather than his. We play at being God, trying to run our lives as if we were actually in charge. Jesus let go of privileges to which he was by nature entitled. Adam tried to grab hold of privileges to which he could never be entitled. Where Adam got it all wrong, Jesus got it all right.

But there is a second part of the Old Testament which Paul seems also to have had in mind. He was thinking of the section of Isaiah, from chapters 40 to 55, which we sometimes call the “Songs of the Suffering Servant”: about one who was called to serve God and his people by showing God’s light to the nations, and by suffering on behalf of God’s people.

Jesus was that servant: obedient, faithful, dying for the sins of the disobedient. God himself, in the person of Jesus, did it for us! His obedience took him all the way to the cross. For the rest of us, death is not an option: it comes to us all. For Jesus it was an act of obedience to his divine Father’s will, and it was an act of sacrificial love for the human race.

Jesus humbled himself to take on human existence. He humbled himself to serve others. He humbled himself to suffer for us. He humbled himself to die for us.

But it was not a grand death, an obviously heroic death, a death which had that hint of triumph about it. It was the death of a common unimportant criminal. It was a death of agony, a death of shame. A death in which he saw and heard people mocking him and making sarcastic comments and challenging him to save himself. The ironic and terrible thing is that he could indeed have saved himself, but he didn’t! Death was at the heart of his purpose. Jesus was obedient to death, even the death of the cross, for our sakes.

But of course, that is not the end of the story. Good Friday is followed by Easter Day. Christ’s death is followed by his resurrection. The apparent tragedy of Jesus’ crucifixion is followed by his triumph over the powers of death.

And Paul begins the second half of this hymn to Christ with a great big “therefore”. Our Rector the other day commented to me that when you see the word “therefore” in the Bible, it’s always important to ask what it is “there for”. “Therefore”, says Paul. The point is that the triumph he is about to describe is based on Christ’s humble service and obedience and sacrifice. Because Christ fulfilled his Father’s loving and wonderful purposes, “Therefore God also highly exalted him”.

Jesus, having done all that was required by his heavenly Father, has returned in triumph to his Father’s side. To him belongs the name that is above every other name. In Isaiah 45, every knee shall bow to the Lord. But now, Paul can say that “at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow”. For he is indeed “Lord”: Lord of humanity, Lord of the world, Lord over all Creation. And this is in fact to the glory of God the Father. It is not only humans who will acknowledge him as truly Lord: all of creation will acknowledge him.

In a sense, he is doubly Lord. He is Lord because of who he is by nature. But he is also Lord because of divine appointment: he has earned the title because of his extraordinary and uniquely humble service, not only of his Father, but indeed his service for all of us. He who is our Lord became our servant, suffering and dying for us.

Paul presents this extraordinary picture of Jesus not just to provide a important piece of doctrine. As so often in his letters, doctrine and life go together. Paul wants the Philippians – and us – not only to learn about Jesus, but to learn from Jesus.

As I said before, the Philippians apparently had a problem with disunity in their church life. They had their own agendas. They argued and competed with each other. They were unwilling to be servants of one another.

But Christians are called not only to be believers in Christ: we are called to be servants of Christ, and servants of one another – part of what it means to love one another. And this was something of a problem for the Philippians.

So Paul points them to a better way. At the beginning of the chapter, he pleads with them to give him the joy of knowing that they are united in genuine godly love. He says: “Be of the same mind, have the same love, be in full accord.” And he goes on to urge them to avoid acting on the  basis of ambition or conceit, and instead to live and act humbly.

They are to treat other people as if they matter more than themselves, and to put the interests of others ahead of their own. It’s a real challenge! And so he sets before us all the supreme example of Jesus, our humble Lord and Saviour. If Jesus was willing to sacrifice his rightful glory to become our servant and our Saviour, surely we must treat others with humility.

When churches have problems, you can be pretty sure that it is not an organizational matter. It always comes back to people. And so Paul calls his readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. Following Jesus has many challenges, including this challenging call to humble service. We have been forgiven, saved, through Jesus: but following Jesus still involves effort, commitment, sometimes going against our natural desires.

But with that challenge comes words of great encouragement: God is at work in us, enabling us to will, and to work for his good pleasure. Humility doesn’t come naturally to us. Humble service is not easy. It wasn’t easy for Jesus: and it is not easy for us. But Jesus has shown us perfectly how it works, and through the Holy Spirit God is at work in us.

Christ became our humble servant. In our personal life, our family life, in our church life, may his mind be our mind, his attitude be our attitude. May we put away those attitudes of self-importance and pride. May we be more concerned for the rights of others than our own rights. May we share in the triumph of Christ: the triumph of humble service.

Unity is based on love. To love is to serve. Christ has shown us the way. May we humbly and faithfully follow him along that path of humble service. Amen.                                                                           Paul Weaver