Empty is Full

A Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 21 – Year A – 28 September 2014

John Edward Miller, Rector

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, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 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.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.     – Philippians 2:1-13

 The Collect

 O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Try, if you will, to imagine the apostle Paul sitting in a prison cell near the end of his life. The consensus of biblical scholarship places his whereabouts in Rome; the date is about the year 62. He is jailed because of his controversial views and subversive priorities. In the Roman Empire there was no “god” but Caesar, and Paul would not bow to such a lord. Moreover, he taught others to confess Jesus as Lord, and those who did were being organized into outposts of a revolutionary organization called the ecclesia – the church. The emergence of this early church was a thorn in the Caesar’s side, and Rome was reacting with oppression and destructive force.

Nevertheless, Paul persisted in his missionary work. His trust in the grace of God – a gift that had saved the wretch that he was – inspired his ministry to the Gentiles, even to his last days in Roman custody. Today’s text is an excerpt from a letter Paul composed in captivity. It is addressed to the young church at Philippi, in the region of Macedonia. Paul was fond of the Philippian congregation because it was his first church “plant” on European soil. He was also grateful to the church because they had sent him a gift by way of a friend. So his occasion for writing was to express his thanks for their loyalty to him and to their Lord. But Paul also wrote to encourage the new converts to stay on the beam with respect to his teachings about the gospel of grace. His deep desire was for them to remain focused on the purpose of the church and its ministries,

Paul knew that the Philippians’ neighbors regarded them as a colony of aliens, and would like nothing better than to re-absorb them or eliminate them from the midst. In this atmosphere the new followers of Jesus needed bolstering, and this letter contains one of Paul’s most memorable summaries of the Christian faith. Preparing the people for that creed-like nugget, Paul reminded them of the importance of persevering as a unified body. He said, “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.”

Paul pulled no punches; he came out and said it. He warned the Philippians that they would have to stand their ground against aggression, and strive side by side to stay together.  Their opponents, he said, would try to intimidate them into submission. In other words, what Paul promised those new Christians was that life for them would be difficult. There would be no guarantee of happiness or satisfaction. Accepting Jesus Christ as the Lord of life leads to a cross rather than to bliss. Christians, said Paul, differ from the world at large because their standard of excellence does not look like success; it looks like total failure. Paul used a shocking image to define that standard. In the second chapter of his letter, he offered the Philippians preposterous notion – that of the godly Messiah pouring himself out, humbling himself, and taking the form of a slave.

To Gentiles and everyone else, slaves were the lowest of the low. They had no social standing, no rights, no power, and no prospects for improvement. And yet that is precisely the form that Christ Jesus chose to take. He came among us not as a person of prestige and greatness, but as one who serves. That is the mind of Christ; that was his approach to all people. And that is the one mind that Paul commends to his fellow Christians at Philippi, as well as to us today. It is the tie that binds us together as the church, and it is our identifying mark [the sign of the cross on our forehead] as a people who are “Christ’s own forever.”[1]

“He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” For Paul this is not only a description of who we are, but also what we are to do. Pouring oneself out for Christ’s sake is the basic paradigm of ministry. It is selfless, humble, service to God and one’s neighbors. It is about giving rather than keeping; it is about running on empty rather than filling up.

But, if service is the basic model – the “one mind” unifying the church in belief and action, why does it often appear that it has been discarded, passed over, or forgotten? It is clear that something has happened, and that there has been a cultural shift. The model (the Christian ethos) has changed dramatically – one might even say that it is diametrically opposite of the frame of mind Paul commends. When did the paradigm of the church shift from serving to being served? What did the mission of the church become consumer oriented? Why are people “shopping” for churches, asking “what’s in it for me?”

In the collect last Sunday we prayed, “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; . . . .[2] Another word of wisdom tells us, sic transit gloria mundi, “thus passes the world’s glory.” It means that we are living among things and people that are passing away. All humans know this, and the religious responses to that fact have been varied. One faith teaches that we can rise above and detach from the world, while another counsels us to seek salvation from it by hoping for eternal refuge and peace. Still another religious quest attempts to stave off forces threatening one’s future by placating the divine power(s) through prayer and sacrifice. There are other religious impulses that support us as we attempt to improve conditions on earth by enlightened thinking and social reform. The variety of religious experience is wide; however the common thread uniting the disparate religious motives is the drive for security, solace, and support, a drive that is fueled by the need for control over life’s limits with one belief system or another.

Faiths may share similar values, such as: compassion, just treatment of fellow humans, the importance of showing respect and kindness, and the realization of the need for mercy. This makes dialogue and common causes possible, but it does not make all faiths the same. Christianity still stands apart from the spectrum of religions. It is not about satisfying the individual’s needs and desires; it is about giving up those things for the sake of others. That is not a popular impulse. Acknowledging this Paul writes, “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”[3] Jews regard the idea of God’s messiah having no power to defend himself as scandalous; Gentiles regard a religion that promotes the good of others by serving them rather than ourself – whether that takes the form of Christ’s self-sacrifice or ours, as complete nonsense. What kind of religion has a God that shows strength in weakness? What sort of faith believes in a Son of God that came to serve rather than to be served?

If we read Paul, or follow the pattern of Christ’s action in the gospels, the answer is plain: the Christian faith does.

However, that is not how we are conducting ourselves now; that is not the current mind of Christian people. We encounter this change in perspective all the time: people are searching for meaning; people long for spiritual enrichment; people want the church to be convenient, fun, and relaxing; people want the church to provide them with a service that will help them get through the week. They are looking for something to strengthen them and make life worth living.

That reminds me of a story told by a New England minister in a sermon on the priesthood of believers, one of Martin Luther’s major themes. He said that a pastor was greeting members after church. A parishioner approached him to shake hands, but also to comment on that morning’s service. He said, “You know, Pastor, I didn’t get much out of worship this morning.” Without hesitation, the pastor replied, “That’s okay. We weren’t worshipping you.”[4]

I’m grateful for that vignette; it about sums up the cultural challenge that Christ’s church faces today – especially in the western world. The mind of our current culture is consumerist. It is me-centered, and its desire is to be served, and served well. In that culture the church now competes with other organizations for customers. Its product is aimed to please. If it doesn’t, the consumer will move on to another vendor for something new and exciting that entertains and satisfies our appetite. The problem is that the church is neither Disney, nor Amazon.com. It doesn’t promise a magic kingdom or the world of material goods at the touch of a screen.

I recall an economics teacher stating quite casually that we humans are creatures of unlimited needs and desires.  A free economy acknowledges and draws upon our insatiable nature. A function of marketing in that economy is to locate the areas of greatest longing and to provoke dissatisfaction with the status quo, and making us long for a new and better product or service. It works all the time: Apple says that its iPhone 6 Plus is “bigger than bigger,” and millions of units were sold in its first week of existence. That same dynamic affects us in the church. “Same old, same old” doesn’t stimulate the imagination nowadays, even though the sameness we offer is the “same mind” commended by the apostle Paul – the one that proclaims humble service. That is, and always will be, the purpose of the church. Ministry means, “service,” and liturgy is literally “the people’s work.” There is nothing in either of these essential Christian words that depends on “the state of the art,” on anything “trending,” or on the “new and improved” in the world of technology, user-friendly spirituality, or audiovisual delivery systems. The church’s motto was once, semper idem, which means “always the same,” and which refers to the unity of its mission and ministry. Today, however, it is too risky to proclaim such a thing. We find ourselves scrambling to apologize for being “boring” and out of date, and embracing the latest thing to attract people and keep them satisfied.

The 1st century church and the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century were counter-cultural movements. Both pushed back against the prevailing cultural standards of their respective eras. Paul was largely responsible for the development of the early church, and Luther’s rediscovery and appreciation of Paul’s letters was the driving force of the Reformation. I think it’s high time for the church go back to the well and take Paul seriously again. He was the first interpreter of the gospel message. He summed it up in decisive and instructive letters to the church. Today’s text was originally addressed to Macedonian Christians at Philippi, but it remains fresh and clear. Paul, my friends, is speaking directly to me and to you, to all of us gathered here at St. Mary’s Church. Taking the form of a slave is about giving instead of getting, losing instead of keeping. It proclaims that self-emptying is the way to fullness of life.

The church’s ministry of service is based on Jesus Christ. That should go without saying, but if we do not say it, it will be lost in the shuffle of a competitive culture.  Christian ministry is what we are called to practice. But to do so, we need re-immersion in the story of Jesus, and the witness of those like Paul who extended his gospel to the nations. The saints need equipping; the body of Christ needs feeding and care and loving nurture to do its work. That’s where this mission outpost comes in: we are committed to provide what this community of believers requires to be servants. We who are called to be priests to one another, and to serve a world dying to be loved, must have a steady diet of education in Scripture and Christian thought, guidance in ethics and moral decision-making, support in the form of prayer and pastoral care, and inspiration to look at life with the eyes of a servant. In short, if Jesus is love incarnate, then the church is love equipped, organized, and sent out into the world.[5]

We are a community of faith that worships and learns together, welcomes all people, and serves the needs of others in gratefulness for God’s love and grace revealed in Jesus Christ our Lord. That is who we are, and that is our mission. Let us strive side by side to become the people we are called to be, having the mind that was in Christ inform our ministry to one another, and the world. In the name of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let it be so.  Amen.

[1] This reference is to the Holy Spirit’s sealing of the newly baptized with the sacramental water, marking them as Christ’s own forever. See page 308 in The Book of Common Prayer, 1979.

[2] This is an excerpt from the collect for Proper 20, The Book of Common Prayer, 1979.

[3]1 Corinthians 1:23.

[4] The Reverend Michael Hintze, “The Priesthood of all Believers,” a sermon delivered at Our Savior Lutheran Church, Westminster, Massachusetts, August 20, 1995.

[5] This is an adaptation of William Sloan Coffin’s definition of the church.