Sermons

"Status Update for Christ": Sermon for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A

"Status Update for Christ": Sermon for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A

Oct 01, 2017

Passage:Philippians 2:1-13

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Pentecost

Category: Humility, Faithfulness

Keywords: faithfulness, glory, honor, humility, love

Summary:

In the letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes to a Church clouded by conflict. He asks them to "do nothing from selfish ambition, but to regard others as better than themselves." This was radical for both his time and ours. This sermon asks us to consider what humility in the name of Christ in a world that values glory might look like.

Detail:

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

When I was a history professor, I used to lecture about a specific culture--a civilization--in I would describe different characteristics of that culture.

One aspect that stood out is that the people of this culture lived with a "code of honor."

Honor sounds good, right? Today, we talk about being "honorable" people.

And on the surface level, the principles of the "code of honor" in this civilization I lectured about were good.

The philosophers of this culture taught that to be honorable, one had to pay your debts, appear to be dignified, have composure, and be brave in all things.

But on the other hand, honor then was also about glory. And glory was measured in how much you were recognized for your accomplishments and for your abilities. The general attitude of the society was that if you did something meaningful, it was only truly honorable and worthwhile if others gave you praise and recognition for it. Therefore, you should brag about all that you have done, at all times. Social position and power came through this complex web of honor and bragging and posturing.

So, what we often think of today as "honorable" behavior is a little too humble and tame compared to this older version of the code of honor. In fact, you can imagine, that in this culture that admired such glory and bragging and self-promotion, it was easy to have conflict.

And of course, if you did not live up to the code of honor in the exact correct manner... if you faltered in any way...you would be shamed!

The opposite of honor, in a civilization built on the appearance of living a dignified life, is shame.

And for those living in this culture, once shamed, you often felt the only option left was to defend your honor with conflict, insult, or violence. In other words, this "honorable" culture really became one of the most divisive, violent, and, ultimately, conflict-filled societies because of the self-preserving nature of this code.

So what was this culture I used to teach about?

The Roman Empire.

In Paul's letter to the Philippians that we heard from today, he is writing to a church he had established in the very Roman city of Philippi.

There is conflict in the church. Some of the leaders of the community have fallen out with each other. They are acting as if they are in the middle of a conflict of honor.

But Paul reminds this church community of something: they are not different aggrieved parties trying to save their honor in this world. They ARE the Body of Christ. As the Body of Christ, they should “be of the same mind, have the same love, be in full accord.”

As followers of Christ, this is not the place for discord and strife. This is the place for compassion and sympathy, says Paul.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, regard others as better than yourselves.”

"Regard others as better than yourselves!"

That is NOT what the code of honor asks them to do. That message is as countercultural now as it was then!

Paul was pushing a radical agenda in the Roman world of his day.

Again, according to the code of honor, Roman citizens, like the inhabitants of Philippi, were expected to promote themselves above others in social situations. Status was important. Humility was not considered a virtue.

But here is Paul saying to them: “in humility, regard others as better than yourselves.”

Paul goes on to quote an early hymn. This hymn was one that all of these early believers at Philippi knew and probably recited or sang at baptisms or at regular worship.

Part of that hymn says: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 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."

I love thinking about the early Christians reciting or even singing this hymn. But even more so, I like to think how radical this hymn is for this small band of Christians. They believed in this hymn. They believed even though they lived everyday in a Roman world defined by power and status. Those Christians at Philippi were in the minority. But they could sing this hymn together. They proclaimed that Jesus was in the form of Almighty God. Even so, they sang, Jesus did not take advantage of that power. Instead, he went the opposite direction. He emptied himself! He took the form of a slave. He was the obedient son—even unto death on a cross.

So, what about us? We don't have to work our imaginations too hard to make a connection between the ancient world and our modern world. Today, power and might and status are still valued too often more than what Christ wants for us.

In many ways we live in the new Roman Empire when it comes to the code of honor. We are often more caught up in "being right" than we are in being the "Body of Christ."

I was reading just this week that the majority of Americans who identify as Christians still think of themselves as Democrats or Republicans FIRST.

And this identity plays itself out on social media and in so many other places.

We move so quickly to using conflict as a crutch in our relations with one another. We use shame as a tool in our interactions with each other. It's part of our national ethos today. The code of honor from the Roman Empire is alive and well and thriving in the American culture. Social media demands that we check in with our "status," and then the comments come in to provide either affirmation, bringing honor, or contradiction and criticism, bringing shame.

I don't mean to imply that we shouldn't try to have civil discourse about controversial or divisive ideas. We should.  

But when we do, we should not start from a place of promoting ourselves above others.

Paul essentially told the Church at Philippi they were not Romans first or Philippians first. They were followers of Christ first.

We are not Democrat first or Republican first. We are not conservative first or liberal first. We are not even American first. We are followers of Christ first.

Paul gives us the example of Christ. We can sing the hymn. We know there is another way. 

Christ emptied himself, humbled himself in obedience. Paul tells us—the Body of Christ—to “let the same mind be in you that you have in Jesus Christ.” We know that we can enter this world of empire, of arrogance, of conceit, of status, and of power, and still be able to live in a manner worthy of the good news.

So as we enter back into the world today, let us humble ourselves, knowing that it is the only way to walk in the path of Christ.  AMEN