We continue this week with a series on the apostle Paul's letter to the church in the very Roman city of Philippi. We think this church was mostly made of Gentile converts because this letter really doesn't contain any Jewish imagery or Old Testament references. This is a letter of consolation, written to help the church learn how to have joy in all circumstances. Last week we talked about how the healthiest practice of our faith is a practice of interdependence. This week's reading follows along that same theme, encouraging the people of the church church to live in a unity that is based in humility, with Jesus as the perfect demonstration. It contains some really famous verses that have become a significant part of our dogma about the nature of Christ. And while I believe most of the theology that has developed from these verses, I just want to remind you that they weren't originally written as an explanation of dogma. They were probably written as a song of praise in the early church. In fact, it sounds a lot like what we heard when we studied the book of John, so as you listen this morning, I invite you to see what connections you can make to the fourth gospel.
Scripture Readings Philippians 2:1-11
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." And all the research shows that 50 years later, that phrase still rings true. Because in fact, deep down, most of us actually want it that way. We may give lip service to "diversity" our commitment fails as soon as it gets uncomfortable for us. And while this is most definitely about race, it's not just about race. We want theological diversity until someone up front says something we don't already believe. We want new people to join our church, but only if they will do things the way we already do them. We want to work for justice, but only if it already fits in our schedules.
There's a natural human phenomenon called homophily that basically means birds of a feather flock together. It means we like to be comfortable and we're most comfortable with people who are "like us" (whatever that means to us). Technology is making it even easier to surround ourselves with ideas that line up with the perspective that we already hold. This means we are all getting more narrow-minded and less willing and able to interact with anyone who is substantially different from us. Let's be honest with ourselves: we're not talking about "those people." We all do this to some extent. And friends, we must beware of this because narrow-mindedness is not only ugly but dangerous, especially in the church. So what are we going to do about it?
Well, thankfully, this morning's text gives us the answer: We are going to be like-minded. Now I can imagine some of you saying, "Wait a minute. You just said that it's dangerous to surround ourselves with people who all think the same thing!" YES!
Here's the key: we can be like-minded without all thinking the same thing. And lest you think I'm playing with semantics, let me show you what I'm talking about in the scripture.
The Greek word "phroneo" shows up 10 different times throughout this letter to the Philippians. It's a verb that doesn't have a perfect translation in English, so we don't immediately catch the power of what Paul is saying here. "Phroneo" refers to an action somewhere between thinking and feeling. It's less cerebral than thinking, but more deliberate than feeling. It's an attitude, or a mind-set; it combines the activity of the heart and the head.
Let's see it in action. Paul says, "If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind or be like-minded, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind." To be in full accord literally means to be in sync in our souls, which is totally different than agreeing about theology or politics or music style or liturgy. It means to be united at a deeper level, beyond the categories that usually separate us.
Which begs the question, "Well then WHAT is it that unites us, if we don't all think the same? What is the common bond that makes our souls in sync?" In this passage Paul goes on to quote what we think is an early hymn about Jesus. Just as Paul encourages us to let our esteem others surpass what we have for ourselves, he reminds us of the ultimate example of Jesus, who had every reason to esteem himself and yet chose sacrifice instead. And as a result, the Bible says, "God gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD."
I'm thinking about installing a plaque here next week. The inscription is going to read something like this: "Hear the good news! When everything was falling into disorder, the ultimate power who orders our whole existence restored the world. Providence has sent a savior for us and our descendants. The savior puts an end to war and sets all things in order—the son of god who fulfills all the hopes of earlier times!" This plaque is going to have a picture of a man's face on it and the picture is going to be surrounded with titles like, Lord, Savior, Prince of Peace, Son of God, Redeemer, Lord of History, God of Gods. And my question to you is, whose picture is going to be on that plaque? Jesus is the obvious answer, right? Of course. I'm not trying to trick you.
Now, what if I told you that a plaque like that already exists ... from the year 6 BC. Which means, even if our dates are a few years off, that plaque was still made long before anyone had heard of Jesus of Nazareth. So whose picture is on that plaque? The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus.
This morning's reading ends with the declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord. And honestly when most of us hear that phrase, it's kind of just theological static <static noise>, right? Other than knowing it's a traditional Christian proclamation, it may not carry deep meaning for you. At most, it means that Jesus is the boss or the master, which can have connotations that aren't always healthy. Here and now in the 21st century we've really only heard the title Lord in connection with Jesus, so it's just dogma to us.
BUT when Paul wrote this letter to the Christians in Philippi, nobody said "Jesus is Lord." However they did say "Caesar is Lord." They said it all the time. We think they walked around greeting each other with it, probably not unlike how those in the Nazi regime greeted one another by saying, "Heil Hitler." Caesar is Lord.
Remember a few weeks ago when Paul was in Athens and saw that the people were practicing all kinds of different religions? One of those religions, in fact one of the most important ones, was the cult of the emperor. The plaque I told you about is an early example from 6 BC but by the time Paul was writing to the Christians in Philippi, the cult of the emperor was in full swing throughout the whole Roman empire. And it's the one everyone followed. Enforcing the worship of the emperor was one way that order and unity were maintained in Roman empire. You could follow other religions too ... but only if they don't conflict with the cult of the emperor. Because everybody knows that Caesar is Lord: the one who claimed the allegiance and loyalty of subjects throughout his wide empire.
And what kind of empire was it? Roman culture was very regulated and very hierarchical. Caesar was at the top, followed by property-owning, free, married men from the dominant race. Then in descending order of importance everyone else existed to serve the interests of those men and prop up the system that keeps everyone in their place. Caesar was the symbol of this whole system, and Caesar did not hesitate to use astonishing violence to keep that system running.
Let's be very clear: a system like that goes against every single thing that Jesus came to teach us. We need to be saved from that system. We need to be healed from thinking that we are inherently less than than anyone else because of the circumstances of our body, like race, sex, age, ability, or orientation. And we need to be rescued from the temptation to use whatever kind of power we have to keep other people down. Jesus came to save, rescue and heal us from this. And so when we say that Jesus is Lord, we are saying that Caesar is not. We are saying that we will not follow the way of empire, the way of violence and discrimination. We will follow the way of love and self-sacrifice. Because Jesus is our Lord.
Do you see how this was and still is a declaration with massive political implications? Political but not partisan. This is not religious dogma. This is revolution. When we choose to declare that Jesus Christ is our Lord, we are making a bold declaration about how we choose to live in this world and about what is NOT our Lord. Nationalism is not our Lord. Money is not our Lord. Power is not our Lord. Fame is not our Lord. Sex is not our Lord. We reject all the other cunning things that vie for our allegiance and live in the counter-cultural reality of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
In his life, death and resurrection, Jesus shows us what true Lordship is. When you consider the courage and strength that it takes to put yourself in harm's way to protect someone else, using violence is clearly the weaker choice. When you consider the generosity that it takes to let your esteem for others surpass the esteem you have for yourself, chest-thumping is clearly the selfish choice. When you consider the confidence that it takes to let others take charge, grasping at power is clearly the insecure choice. Jesus shows us what true Lordship is, which is why we freely choose to give God our allegiance and loyalty.
And to bring things full-circle, THIS is how our souls are in sync. We are like-minded in our common commitment to the lordship of Jesus. Jesus can be our Lord whether we are black or white, Republicans or Democrats, gay or straight. Many different ways of thinking can come under the umbrella of Jesus is Lord. We trust that with Jesus as our Lord, the Spirit of Truth will guide us in the way of living that best reflects the Kingdom of our Lord in this place and this time. My wise mentor Sue Kennedy once told me, "You don't have to look like me to look like Jesus." The confession that Jesus is Lord does not make us the same; it makes us one. Amen.