Easter 7 (NL4)
May 13, 2018
Last week we started working through the book of Philippians, and I told you a bit about the Philippian congregation, telling you that Paul really loved them, and was grateful for them, and that they had actively supported him while he was imprisoned. In fact, the part of the letter to the Philippians that we read last week even takes time to commend the Philippian Christians for their faith and service. Yes, Paul loved the congregation in Philippi – but that doesn’t mean they were without their problems! The part of the letter we hear today speaks to that.
One thing I really like about Paul’s letters to the various Christian communities he starts is that they show us that the Early Christians had some of the very same challenges and spiritual and personal struggles that we have today. Every single Christian community since the beginning has had their challenges because every single Christian community has been a collection of sinful people in need of God’s grace. After all, that’s why we’re here, right?
In today’s portion of the letter, we see that the Philippians were struggling with some selfish behaviors, and Paul urges them to be more humble. Selfishness and a need for humility… I can think of a time or two when these issues have come up in my life, and yes, even in the life of the church – can you?
So listen to the advice that Paul gives to this fledgling Christian congregation. Think about when you have needed to hear that same advice. Listen to the beautiful hymn that Paul includes in this letter, about how God “emptied” himself to become like us, and why such a move would matter to the particular struggles the Philippian church faced – and the struggles we still face, as the church, as families, and as friends.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well it’s finally springtime, and with spring comes that itch to do some spring-cleaning! In particular, I always get the itch in springtime to do some de-cluttering – all this stuff I have been collecting over the winter… okay, over the past several years… I am motivated to get it out of my life!
But it never fails: no sooner have I decided, “Today is the day!” than I start looking at my stuff and thinking, “Oh, but I don’t want to get rid of that because… And I can’t rid of this… And this I might need, you just never know…” Sound familiar? This is a challenge for a lot of us, I think: even though we have a desire to get rid of the junk in our lives, it can be really hard to let go. We want to hold on tightly to what we know, to what is familiar.
I’ve been thinking about all this in the context of Paul’s words to the Philippians that we just heard. He starts by urging them toward humility, telling them to “do nothing out of selfish ambition, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” He says to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” then quotes a beautiful, ancient hymn about how Christ obediently “emptied himself,” giving up all his godly glory to come down and be with us in the dirt and grime for a while, and, in the utterly selfless act of dying on the cross, brought us salvation.
This hymn Paul quotes is called the kenosis hymn, named for the Greek word meaning “empty.” As in, Christ’s self-giving humility was expressed when he “emptied himself.” So I started to wonder, is self-emptying the way for us, too, to find this humility that Paul encourages the Philippians to strive for? Is it a part of the Christian life?
Think again about that de-cluttering image. Getting rid of our physical stuff (emptying our closets, so to speak) is difficult, but even harder is letting go of the junk in our hearts – the emotional and spiritual stuff that bogs us down. Do you know what I mean by spiritual junk? Spiritual junk is… that thing that we just can’t forgive that someone did, or that thing we did to someone else for which we can’t forgive ourselves. It’s all those regrets we carry around with us – those things we missed the chance to do right. Spiritual junk is all the guilt – for not being a better parent, or son or daughter, or spouse, or friend, for the ways we’ve let down people that we care about, guilt for not being the Christian we think we ought to be.
Really, a lot of the spiritual junk we have crammed into our hearts comes down to one thing: pride. Pride is what keeps us from forgiving people – because we think as long as we can hold something over someone, we maintain some control over the situation, and keep ourselves safe from future pain. Pride is what makes us think that our actions or inactions are more powerful than God’s own mercy and grace. Pride is believing that God wouldn’t be able to take these broken vessels that we are, and use us to do extraordinary things in the world. Pride keeps us focused on ourselves – whether our best traits and moments, or our worst – and keeps us from turning our eyes toward God and toward the world to see God’s own marvelous hand at work.
What would it be like to de-clutter our hearts of all this spiritual junk? To kick pride to the curb?
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” Having thought about how hard it can be to empty ourselves – of both our physical and spiritual junk! – makes this statement all the more remarkable. Jesus had every reason to “grasp,” to hold tightly to all that he had. A seat at the right hand of God, a heavenly existence, pure bliss… yet he gave it all up, and for what? Us bunch of sinners?
Yes, us bunch of sinners! Even though we did nothing to deserve God’s self-giving love! This, God shows us, is what obedience, and humility, and above all, what love look like. This is what it looks like to live a Christian life: it looks like letting go of our judgments of others, our resentments, our regrets and guilt, all those things that would keep us from living a full and generous life. A Christian life looks like letting go of our assumptions about who deserves our help, love and generosity, and simply giving it, because that is what God commands of us. Being of the same mind as Christ Jesus means that we also practice self-emptying, doing our best to rid ourselves of all the pride that keeps us from kicking our junk to the curb. Once we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, there will be even more room then for us to receive Christ’s joy, to be filled up with that instead of with our pride.
But there’s another important part of the Christian life. Thanks be to God, that living a Christian life also means knowing and trusting that when we fail to do this – because try as we might, we will sometimes fail – God’s grace and mercy are bigger than our failures. It is absolutely worth the effort to clean out the closets (in our house and in our hearts!), but the reason we can even attempt this work with confidence is because we know that God is with us each step of the way, holding us up, empowering us, and forgiving us when we just can’t let go of some things quite yet.
God is at work in us, brothers and sisters, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. Let us lay aside the junk that keeps us from living the fullness of a life in Christ, so that we might serve our neighbors without judgment, forgive without resentment, give without regret, and love without guilt. And let us be confident that in doing this, we are indeed confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Let us pray… Self-emptying God, we hold onto so much junk that doesn’t at all serve us, or our neighbor, or you. Help us to let go of it, to empty our hearts of all that would keep us from you, so that there would be room instead to receive your grace and your joy. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.