Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2017 (Proper 21A)
Text: Philippians 2:1–18
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
When Paul writes the Philippians, he does not have nearly as many admonitions as he does for most of the churches to whom he writes. He does, however, urge the Philippians toward humble unity. Through Baptism into Christ, all Christians are united in the body of Christ. In that unity we are most humbled and with that humiliation we are most exalted.
Oneness in the body of Christ means not thinking more highly of yourself than your neighbor. The Church has been described as one beggar telling another where to find bread. Neither you nor the person sitting next to you has anything to give or even to sustain yourself, but we encourage one another to seek Christ who can and does sustain. This thought is seen in the words Luther had scribbled on a piece of paper in his pocket when he died. We are all beggars. Elsewhere he referred to himself as a maggot sack, confessing that there was nothing good in him and he would one day die and his body rot because he was a sinner.
In scripture we hear this thought from Isaiah when he writes that all our righteous deeds are filthy rags. Everything we do is tainted with sin and even if it looks good in the eyes of the world it is worthless for us. It earns us nothing. No, no one is righteous, not even one. And so we must call out with the Psalmist that God would lift us up from the pit. For we all like sheep have gone astray and like the prodigal son we long to fill our bellies with the slop meant for pigs.
We are tempted by the garbage that the world is serving. Hugh Hefner made millions selling sex without marriage or meaning, founding an empire on pornography and advocating for sexual permissiveness and many others sins. But the cost to our society is so much greater than the millions made by Heffner and his kind: children without fathers, homes without love, and empty promises to fill the emptiness; and Christians have succumbed to the temptation just like the rest of the world. We still have not learned to take to heart St. Paul’s words: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. We run to fill our own desires and end up more empty than when we began.
Yet when Paul urges the Philippians away from selfish living, he does so speaking with joy. There is a joy that comes from walking humbly in the unity of the Body because it draws us closer to Christ. All real unity is not found in how low we make ourselves, but in the unity found in Christ’s humility. By joining us in our flesh, Jesus draws us together in our poverty.
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God. We are not brought into the unity of God’s Kingdom by our works or worth, but it is gifted to us in Christ as we lose our lives for his sake. For Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me.” “I tell you that all who have left homes or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields on account of my Name will receive 100 fold and inherit eternal life.”
Clinging to your own life, your wealth, your reputation, your privileges and earthly rights, your desires of the flesh—you cling to what is empty and powerless, but in losing your life to the cross and giving up all that the world seeks after, your emptiness is filled, because Christ emptied himself for you.
Our sin casts us down from the heights of paradise, but Jesus came down to be the very center of our lowliness. He was born in a stable. In life He had no place to lay His head. He is the lamb of God who bore all our sin. In truth He is the Chief of Sinners though He knew no sin, for He became sin for us. We consider him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace and with His stripes we are healed. Because He did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was made man and being found in human form he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
So if you want to see the center of human depravity, the deepest depth of sin and sorrow and emptiness, look to Jesus on the cross. There you see yourself, not your own suffering, but your own emptiness, your fallenness, your separation from God. It is there that Christ in His flesh assumed in the womb of the Virgin Mary becomes one with you. He who took on your sins to fulfill all righteousness at His baptism bears the weight of every sin, of all the shame, of the wretchedness of your life, your death. All of that is yours. Christ did not cling to His glory, but stooped to pick up your sin and brokenness and took it with Him to the cross. All that is yours is on the cross, yet, you are not on the cross. It is in your place that Jesus prays:
I am a worm and not a man. Psalm 22:6; ESV
My days are like smoke and my body burns like a furnace. Psalm 102:3; ESV
It is for this that Jesus is exalted. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
And Christ’s exaltation is your exaltation. Jesus is exalted for His humility that we, who are joined to Him in lowliness, might also share in His glory. Jesus is the Chief of sinners who is exalted to fill all things. In dying, Jesus procures life. In making Himself nothing, He gives you value and meaning. He who did not come to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many now has dominion over all things. But He is no less united to His Christians now than when He was on the cross. So if you would see yourself as you are, look to Jesus’ exaltation. For you too will sit in heaven, and are now seated there as Paul tells the Ephesians: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:4–6; ESV).
Thus your life now reflects Jesus’ glory as you work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. To work out your salvation does not mean to accomplish it for yourself, but live in a manner befitting the salvation Christ has won for you. Your life now flows from Christ’s life and his work for you. You were buried with Him and raised with Him through baptism. With fear and trembling, with the utmost humility, for you know that there is nothing good that comes from you, live in a manner worthy of the gospel that gives you life. But do so confidently, knowing that God is at work in you. He who created the world out of nothing and saw that it was very good, takes your nothingness and works for good. Therefore even though you are capable of nothing good, you are nonetheless God’s instrument for good to your neighbor. You are God’s gift to your neighbor because the Spirit of Christ is at work in You.
Do not grumble or complain. But be blameless and innocent as Christ has made you both blameless and innocent. For though you walk in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, Christ has made straight your path. Be glad and rejoice in each member of the body of Christ. Love and serve one another, for Christ has served you and continues to serve you.
To God be the glory. Amen!
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria