Paul writes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Easier said than done! By default, we are self-centered creatures, in stark contrast to our Lord. How can we change? In part, by keeping the gospel at the forefront of our thoughts and lives.
Sermon Text: Philippians 2:1-13
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
If you follow sports at all, this past week you heard the strange and shocking story about Miami Dolphins offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. For the past year, the veteran lineman Incognito has been harassing Martin, sending him literally life-threatening texts and voice messages… messages threatening his family, his mother… He’s insulted him using racial slurs. He coerced Martin into spending $15,000 of his own money to finance a trip to Vegas for Incognito and some teammates, a trip that Martin himself didn’t go on. Martin is a big, Hulk-like 300-lb. guy himself, but he was too afraid to stand up to his teammate. Can you imagine? No one on the team knew it was going on, apparently, until Martin unexpectedly left the team. When the bullying came to light last week, Incognito was suspended. Dolphins officials say he won’t play another down for the team.
Football is dangerous enough when you’re fighting your opponent on the other side of the ball. You mean you have to also worry about the people who are supposedly on the your side? With teammates like Incognito, who needs opponents?
What’s also come to light in the past week for naive laypeople like me is that Incognito’s behavior is just an extreme form of the kind of thing that happens in NFL locker rooms all the time. Veteran players want to protect their turf, their position, their paycheck, so make sure the rookies, their potential rivals, “know their place,” so they do humiliating things to them. Even though all these guys are making millions, teammates often act out of jealousy, rivalry, and insecurity toward other teammates. You’d think they could just swallow their pride and get along, right? They’re on the same team, after all!
But then again, why would we think that? Doesn’t our own experience confirm how hard it is for human beings to swallow their pride and “get along”?
Back in the nineties, when I was in sales at a large telecommunications company, one of my fellow salespeople photo-copied a monthly commission check that he’d received—it was something like $30,000. He framed it and hung it in his cubicle, for all passersby to see. One of my friends was indignant that he would have the gall to display that. “Think about the administrative assistants who pass by his cube. They don’t make $30,000 all year. Think about how that makes them feel!” Well, I couldn’t speak for them, but I know how it made me feel. It made me feel incredibly jealous! I wanted to make that $30,000 commission check!
There were plenty of good Christian people working at the company, but I wasn’t one of them at that time. And those of us who weren’t good Christians had a difficult time being happy for other people’s successes. When we heard about a colleague who landed a big account or made a big sale or won some kind of sales award, we would say things like, “Well, good heavens, if I had that territory, if I had that national account, if I were related to that person I would be successful, too!” “A trained chimpanzee could have made that sale!” We would look for reasons why that person didn’t deserve the success that came their way and resent them for it.
Believe it or not, this kind of selfish ambition, sinful pride, rivalry, jealousy, and conceit even happens in churches! Shocking, I know. It even happened in churches back in Bible times, even in the church at Philippi, the church that Paul is addressing in today’s letter. And if it makes you feel any better, Philippi was about the healthiest church that Paul writes to in the New Testament. It had the least amount of problems among all of Paul’s churches. Paul loves this church! Yet even there they have a problem getting along, being united instead of divided, being of one accord. And in chapter 4 Paul is going to refer to a couple of church leaders by name who are being divisive. In the meantime he tells the church: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Easier said than done, right?
Even among us United Methodist pastors! Every June, we tend to look over our shoulders to see which of our colleagues got appointed to the churches with the big steeples and which ones didn’t. And we compare our success to our colleagues. And, God help us, we are tempted to measure our worth based on things that have nothing to do with the true Source of our worth. And pretty soon we begin to confuse passion for communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ so that sinners can be saved with a passion for having lots of people in the pews. And if the numbers look good, then I’ll look good. And if I look good then I must be good. And maybe then people will notice me, appreciate my hard work. And, who knows, maybe the bishop will notice, too!
You see, at my sinful worst, I want people to notice me, to recognize me, to praise me, to award me, to honor me, to glorify me, to love me… more than I want anything else. And I can never seem to get enough of whatever it is I think will finally satisfy my ego. I imagine that I will be satisfied if only this happens, and then that happens, and then that other thing. But then those things happen, and I want more and more and more.
Clearly, something isn’t working. I’m not working. I’m broken. And I know why…
In last week’s scripture, Paul said that he was able to cope with suffering, hardship, and even death because, for him, “to live is Christ.” His life was Christ. His life’s purpose was found in Christ alone. Even if he lost everything else, including his own life, it didn’t matter to him because his life’s meaning wasn’t bound up in anything other than Christ. Paul could not be bullied, for example, by someone like Richie Incognito, because what could Incognito do to Paul? Paul fully appreciated Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” If you live your life like you believe that, who or what can touch you?
Some of you remember that movie The Untouchables, or even the TV show. Why was it called The Untouchables? Because Elliot Ness and his fellow federal agents were so committed to justice that they could not be bought off by the Mob. Bribes couldn’t influence or persuade or compromise them. They were “untouchable.”
Paul is untouchable because, unlike most of us, Paul had so oriented his life to Christ that he wasn’t afraid of dying—or anything else that might happen to him in this world. By contrast, we live in a culture in which most people are desperately afraid of dying. Even though most Americans believe in God, and most Americans believe in heaven, they obviously aren’t too sure they’ll go there when they die. Because they live as if this life is all there really is. So they try to find their meaning and purpose not in Christ but in the things of this world: relationships, health, popularity, money, material success, family, physical beauty… whatever else. As I indicated earlier, in my case, I often have a sinful desire for praise, recognition, approval.
The common denominator in all these things is that we place ourselves, our own wants and needs and desires, our own ego, at the center of our lives. And when we do that, we’re the opposite of untouchable: because whenever our ego feels threatened or is harmed, we get angry, we get resentful… we lash out… we fight.
That’s the underlying problem that Paul is addressing in today’s scripture.
Our ego, our distorted sense of self-worth, our self-centeredness, prevents us—the church—from being united the way Paul says we ought to be. Many of you, I’m sure, have seen the gospel tract from Cru, formerly Campus Crusade for Christ, called The Four Spiritual Laws. One page of the tract depicts the “self-directed life” versus the “Christ-directed life.” It shows a throne at the center of our lives. In the self-directed life, the Self sits on the throne. In the Christ-directed life, Christ sits on the throne. The Self, it says, is yielding to Christ.
It’s not a bad image, except we live most of our lives somewhere in between these two pictures—as Paul would surely agree. Christ is king of the universe, whether or not we acknowledge him as such; but learning to make him Lord and King of our lives… that’s not nearly as neat and clean and easy as this picture makes it seem!
But if we want to move closer to that second picture, we need to do the thing that Paul says to do in verse 5: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” Or, as the NRSV puts it, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” It means, think the way Jesus thought, or have the same attitude as Jesus.
Remember WWJD? Except it’s not do what Jesus would do in this situation, but rather, think the way Jesus would think about a particular situation.
So Paul gives us insight into the very mind of Christ. He says in verse 6 that though Christ was “in the form of God,” he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” In other words, Paul says that before Christ came to earth he existed with God in eternity. Not only that, he shared God’s very nature. He was “equal” with God. Since we Christians believe that God is Trinity, this should seem familiar to us: God by himself is a loving relationship of three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But even though Christ was equally God, he “emptied himself.”
The movie Argo, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture this year, begins by summarizing the history of the corrupt Shah regime. In comic book form, a narrator tells how the Shah would have his lunch flown in from Paris by Concorde jet each day, and how the Shah’s wife would bathe in milk each day. Amidst these ostentatious displays of wealth, of course, the people of Iran were going hungry. But I’m sure the Shah would say that as a powerful ruler, he was entitled to these sorts of privileges.
Jesus, the ruler of the universe, was not that kind of king. He emptied himself—chose to relinquish all special power and status and privilege associated with being king of the universe—in order to become a man, Jesus of Nazareth.
Let’s be careful: When we think of emptying, we think of something becoming less than it was. When God the Son “empties himself,” however, he doesn’t become less than God. Paul isn’t saying that first Jesus was God in eternity. Then, for about 33 years of Jesus’ life on earth, he ceased being God and became human, and then after that he resumed being God again. No, Jesus was always fully God, even as he was also fully human.
Think of it like this: Everything we see Jesus do in this poem that Paul quotes—emptying himself, humbling himself, becoming human, becoming a servant, dying on a cross—he does, not in spite of the fact that he is God, but because he is God. Whatever Jesus does, therefore, God does. As you look at God the Son on the cross, you should think: “This is the true meaning of who God is.”
So, if you imagine that you’re some hopeless sinner that God could never love or save or forgive, here’s some good news: Look at what Jesus does in the gospels: He’s not very picky about whom he chooses to love and forgive: a bunch of losers, lepers, outcasts, tax collectors, prostitutes, and killers. He forgives the very people who condemned him to die on the cross! If he forgave them, he’ll forgive me… and you. That’s who God is—“gracious… and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
And how is this forgiveness made possible? By God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, humbling himself and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. Christ lived the life of obedience to God that we couldn’t live, and he died the death that we deserved to die. Out of love, he willingly took upon himself all our sin, all our guilt, and received all our punishment—the cross met the demands of justice and demonstrated the power of love—so that we could be saved and live eternally with God. As Paul says elsewhere, “though [Christ] was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
I was deeply moved this week by a series of pictures from the Vatican. Pope Francis is shown embracing, blessing, and kissing this poor, wretched man, who suffers from a rare genetic disease called neurofibromatosis—the “Elephant Man” disease. His skin is covered in boils. He’s hard to look at. I’m sure he’s been made to feel like a despised outcast, an outsider, even a monster, his entire life. And Francis is showing us what the love of Jesus Christ looks like. Through the pope’s actions, our Lord is saying that even this man is a beloved and beautiful child of God.
Look at the picture again: Spiritually speaking, imagine that this modern-day leper is who you and I are before God, in our sickness, in our brokenness, in our sin, in our shame. Now see what great love God has for us—to reconcile us, to save us, to make us whole.
We don’t have to be a pope to share the responsibility to show people what the love of Jesus Christ looks like. That’s what our church is called to do. And even yesterday, at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning, our youth group went to the poor of Clarkston, Georgia, and did exactly what we are called to do. And they came back filled with ideas of how they can continue to to bless the beautiful children of God they found there.
The royal baby, Prince George, was baptized a couple of weeks ago. At his baptism, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, shared these words with the new prince, which come from the Church of Scotland:
For you Jesus Christ came into the world:
for you he lived and showed God’s love;
for you he suffered the darkness of Calvary
and cried at the last, ‘It is accomplished’;
for you he triumphed over death and rose to new of life;
for you he reigns at God’s right hand.
All this he did for you, though you do not know it yet.
Prince George doesn’t know it yet, but you and I do. Think of what Christ has done for us, Paul says. May it transform how we live, how we love, and how we serve.