This sermon was preached yesterday, September 28, 2014, at St. Peter’s Church, Mt. Pleasant, SC. The audio of it can be accessed here.
The Alpha course started this past week, and Whitney and I are going through it, which I’m excited about because, as I shared with you all early last month, I tend to approach matters of faith from a fairly intellectual place. So I enjoy the kinds of conversations that we get to have in Alpha, and the questions that are asked, like “why is the Christian message any more authoritative and true in comparison to other messages that are out there?” Because there are a lot of alternatives, when it comes to what people think about the world and how they should live. There are a lot of other stories being told — some religious, some not — “what makes the Christian one any more compelling?” That question is on my mind a lot, even as a person of faith, and I’m going to get to talk to others about that every week for the next couple of months, so I’m looking forward to that.
Especially in the modern period of our Western history and culture though, we have tended to approach these kinds of questions largely from standpoint of trying to arrive at the right information. It reminds me of this time when I convinced a friend of mine who was pretty agnostic in his faith to go to coffee with me so I could basically tell him that I thought he really needed to read this book I had on Christian apologetics — that had basically answered all of my questions. I figured that if I could just convince him to read the book, he’d be persuaded just like me that Jesus really was God incarnate, and that the central Christian truth claims were all true. That is not what happened.
This is partly because, I think, many of these questions about the trustworthiness of the Christian faith cannot be fully approached from the standpoint of thinking. And even with some of the deep reasonableness of the Christian faith that I think we should rightly draw on, some of the questions I just mentioned are very hard to answer simply on the basis of evidence or argument. Remember what the Bible says about faith in Hebrews 11:1, just as one example: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” And again, that doesn’t mean it’s blind faith. But it’s faith nonetheless.
However, even if we could prove that Jesus was who we as Christians say he is, what would that do? If we could convince all the non-Christians in the world that our faith’s claims were the truest, would the sin and the violence and the hate and conflict in the world just all go away?
The book of James says, in chapter two, v. 19: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” This really throws into light for our ability as human beings to believe one thing supposedly with our mind, but live out something completely different with our desires and our actions. Nobody really doubts anymore whether smoking is bad for you, but people still smoke. We all know that healthy eating and exercise is pretty much a necessity for most people to be able to live a long life. Nobody’s really denying this. And yet, many of us don’t eat well or exercise.
Because here’s the deal: thinking something is true does not necessarily lead to change in your life. In fact, sometimes it even hinders change. Because our selfish and immature minds that we all have from birth — even when given good information — tend to just want to take security from the idea. This is why Paul says elsewhere in Romans 12, that our minds must be transformed. What is it about this story and this good news that Paul is announcing that can transform our minds?
So as we consider this passage Paul is writing to the Philippians, I propose we look not only at its contents — that is, not only at the information it gives us — but the form in which that information is presented, and see what that might tell us about the nature of Paul’s faith in Christ, and therefore also the way that we’re supposed to have faith too. So let’s look at it.
Notice the way the structure and shape of the passage changes in vs. 5-11, and looks more like a poem than a letter, with stanzas instead of just lines:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
There’s this celebratory and dramatic tone that suddenly begins here as Paul starts talking about who Jesus is, and what he did. Why the artistic and exalted prose? It’s like this part of the letter almost leaps off of the page and takes on a life of its own. In just a few stanzas, it tells the story of God’s relationship with the world that God created.
Maybe Paul writes this way because this proclamation, which is different from a definition or a theological treatise, about who Christ is simply cannot be captured in ordinary language. It has to be proclamation, confession, and testimony. There’s something more that gets said when the form of the statement is creative, is beautiful, has rhythmic structure, and musical movement: starts high, moves down low, and then goes back up again. Paul does this to evoke something in us. He does this to propel us into worship with him, and into a posture of being mesmerized by the story.
Because ultimately, the doctrine of the incarnation, which is largely what this passage is referring to — the claim Christians make that in Christ, both divinity and humanity are dwelling together and have been united in God — this doctrine, this announcement of good news is mysterious. Paul doesn’t try to explain the mystery of the incarnation, that Jesus was somehow fully divine and fully human. He doesn’t try to define it. He has to sing it!
There was a Danish physicist named Niels Bohr, who was a friend of Einstein, who puzzled over how something like an electron could simultaneously occupy several different states, assuming multiple positions or momentums or energy levels, and still be one thing. How could, for instance, an electron, be both a particle and a wave, and function both like both a particle and wave, two clearly different things — like humanity and divinity, like God the Father and God the Son. Bohr answered: “We must be clear that, when it comes to atoms, language can be used only in poetry.” Later on he remarked that if you study quantum physics and are not moved to amazement and wonder, then you aren’t studying quantum physics. So maybe, as Christians — in much the same way — we should say that if you study theology, and you aren’t moved to amazement and wonder by the doctrine of the Incarnation, then you’re probably not studying theology.
But not because the Incarnation is irrational. That an electron can function as both a particle and a wave is not irrational. It’s just incredible. The incarnation is incredible too. But the incredible thing about the incarnation is not just that it happened, but how and why. In other words, it prompts us to ask, what kind of human being does God become, what kind of live does that human being lead, and what does this tell us about who God is, and what God wants for us?
There’s a famous parable told by the 19th century Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called “The King and the Maiden.” And in it, thinking about this very idea of the doctrine of the incarnation, Kierkegaard talks about how this King has fallen in love with a humble maiden. Her beauty has captured his heart, and he longs to be with her. But because of his status as king, and because of her status as a peasant, and as a commoner, the king is deeply conflicted about how she could ever possibly love him as an equal in a genuine relationship. In some of his concluding remarks after telling this story, Kierkegaard says the following:
The unity of love [between God and humanity] will have to be brought about in some other way. If not by way of elevation, of ascent, then by a descent of the lowest kind. God must become the equal of the lowliest. But the lowliest is one who serves others. God therefore must appear in the form of a servant. But this servant’s form is not merely something he puts on, like the beggar’s cloak, which, because it is only a cloak, flutters loosely and betrays the king. No, it is his true form. For this is the unfathomable nature of boundless love, that it desires to be equal with the beloved; not in jest, but in truth. And this is the omnipotence of resolving love, deciding to be equal with the beloved…
See, God’s not just giving us new instructions. Of course some new teachings do come from Jesus, but other religions claim to have instructions from God too, or at least they claim to have some kind of special insight into ultimate reality. But the God of Hebrew and Christian Bible gives us God’s own very self in the form of a human being — not just a written word and not just a sacred text. And what kind of human? Here’s the really surprising part. A humble, common, ordinary, even lowly person — not a self-exalting one — not a royal, powerful, or highly educated person.
Ok, let’s go back to the question from a moment ago: what is about this story and this good news that can transform our minds, and get us to stop thinking at just a informational level? What is the force of this story that move from the level of understanding and tap into a much deeper, and visceral place where change can begin to take root in lives?
Remember again about how all this talk about humility and selflessness, Christ taking the form of servant — remember how this would have sounded to the Philippians:
For the people living in Philippi, they only know about the Greek and Roman gods, and about Caesar, who is also called a son of God, Lord and Savior. In contrast to Caesar, the New Testament writers give these titles to Jesus, which was a radical and politically dangerous thing to do. But it was also very strange!
The Greek and Roman gods — kind of like Caesar — they basically just do all the things pagans do, but better: they conquer, crush, dominate, win, feast, make love, manipulate and deceive. They get angry, they punish, they fight, they threaten. So how surprising and profound was it for them to hear that, unlike Caesar and the Empire, unlike the Greek and Roman gods, the God of Israel, and the God of Jesus Christ — the Creator of the Universe! — is a God that is generous, Paul says, and is a God that shows compassion and humility. Not a God that grasps for power and divine status — even though he had the right to!
And then Paul proclaims that Christ became obedient to death, even death on a cross! So if that wasn’t surprising enough, that God is humble and compassionate, now God even suffers and endures humiliation. This is part of what’s so scandalous to the scribes and Pharisees in the gospels.
But we shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook either! Because we don’t want to humble or have to suffer either. We want our God to come back now and win, and force everyone to do what we think they should do! But that mind, that very attitude, of grasping for power and honor and esteem for ourselves, is what led Jesus to bear the cross in the first place.
See, in Jesus, it is revealed to us, for the first time in history, that God doesn’t put people on crosses like Ceasar does. No, in Christ, God bears crosses. See, the gospel is a story about God taking the risk and the sacrifice of showing up in the flesh. It’s a risk and story that we’re all called to. And without risk, there is no faith.
This risk is one that we all shy away from of course. Because this takes real fearlessness. I heard someone say recently that safety is the greatest idolatry in our culture. I think this is probably true. Paul has bought into a different kind of safety, one doesn’t offer material security at all. What is it about the gospel that gives us the freedom to not put trust in these things? In other words, what is it about this story, and about this gospel, that has the power to transform our mind? I think it’s this: In this this story Paul is telling, in this poem he’s writing, this song he’s singing, we learn that, in Christ, we serve a God who has experienced and gone to the depths of human violence, betrayal, agony and defeat — so that nothing would escape his redemptive reach.
See, our faith won’t fully sink down from our heads and into our hearts if we’ve never received unconditional from someone else. And that’s exactly the kind of love that God demonstrates and extends to us in Christ. No other faith claims something quite like that. So we believe that this story is not only true: but that it’s beautiful and good and unique and compelling! It’s just something we think. It’s a story that has to be lived, and tasted, and felt!
It’s a story that gives great comfort on the one hand, but a great calling on the other. It’s comforting because, in the resurrection it assures is that, again, whatever is shameful, humility, painful, despairing or oppressive in any situation does not have the last word. But it’s also a calling to live without fear! With the grace and mercy of God is on your side, what is there to be afraid of? Risk something big for something good. Be bold, be courageous! Live with humility, selflessness and be empowered by Christ who loves you unconditionally.
This is one of the reasons we do communion — one of the reasons we return to it, again and again, is that we need to be reminded. If you’re like me, you need to be reminded very often, that these things we’re going through do not have the last word. The grace of God has the last Word, and that’s where we draw our strength.
But before we move to communion, I just want to ask: Where are you on this spectrum between Caesar is Lord and Jesus is Lord? Who is the real Lord of your life? Is it Fear, or it faith? Is it competition and performance, or is it unconditional love and acceptance? Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle, so maybe the better question is, in which direction are you moving?
Maybe you came in here today fully believing that the story was true, but you’ve been going for a while forgetting that it’s also good, and beautiful, and compelling, and something to trusted in and shared with other! Or maybe you’re new to this whole Christian faith thing or unsure about your commitment to the Church. Maybe you don’t know if it’s true, but you think it’s good and beautiful or intriguing. My encouragement to you then would be to let yourself be moved by this story. Take the risk, the leap of faith, of experimenting with what it would be like to live as if this story were true. Get to know some people in this church. Step into community with us, and see where it leads you. Try living with Jesus as Lord for a while and see what happens.
I want to give us a minute of silence just to respond to this question. This is a hard question. There’s so much to fear, it seems like. The weight of the world and the stuff going on in our lives can be so devastating. But that’s why Jesus came, and that’s why he says that in him there is peace. In this world we will have trouble. But Christ have faced the world at its worst and at our worst, and you have overcome the world.
May God give us faith then to trust in not only the truth of the story of the incarnation, as an idea, but in its goodness and beauty and mystery — that it would move us, transform our minds, and that we would trust in it as reality, and allow it to become the story of our own lives as well.