Let Us Work Out Our Salvation

The sermon from Sunday, October 1, 2017 on Philippians 2:1-13 – 

The text tonight comes from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, which is generally considered to be the first Christian community in Europe. The city of Philippi was a proud Roman colony, so Jesus’ followers there gathered in the deep shadows of the empire.

This is a community Paul knows well. He has visited it and developed a relationship with its people. Scholars think he probably went to Philippi around 51 or 52 AD, so roughly 20 years after the death of Jesus.

This letter to them is thought to have been written about 10 years later, around 62 AD. Paul remains close to this community and they have in turn supported him financially and spiritually.

Paul writes from prison. We’re not sure which prison, but we know that he faces uncertainty. He has hope of release, but there is also the possibility of execution.

He hopes to see these people again, but he doesn’t know if it will be possible.

We know Paul’s letters are always instructive – he is always talking to particular communities, to their own joys and their own challenges. Sometimes he’s angry, as in Galatians, and sometimes he’s affectionate and rejoicing. We see more of that side here.

This passage is dense with meaning, particularly about the path of following Jesus.

People often don’t realize that these letters were written before the Gospels, before those texts that actually tell the stories of Jesus. So for this community at Philippi, Paul is offering clarity about the life of Jesus and what it means for his followers.

And then, as usual, the question for us becomes – what truths might it speak to us in our moment.

Let’s start with this first part.

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.

You know, there’s a lot of talk about unity these days. We’re supposed to put aside our differences to unify around the flag, around the national anthem, around a particular candidate, around the institution.

Well, there’s a problem with that – and the problem is that that sort of forced unity tends to happen on the backs of people who don’t fit with the program.

It happens at the expense of black and brown and disabled and queer and trans and poor and non-English speaking and Muslim and immigrant people.

Unity usually means ‘y’all hush your being divisive because your words reveals the reality of how divided we are.’

It reveals the illusions. We who have power would prefer for everyone to live in those illusions.

The illusion of unity – when it masks oppression – is violence.  

So Colin Kaepernick, for example, is doing our country a favor. In addition to standing up to the systemic racism that has characterized our country from its very beginnings, his courage holds up a mirror to the shortcomings in our community.

He is diagnosing the problem for us – and the question is what we do with this knowledge.

A pastor at a large, conservative suburban church recently said “I don’t mean to be insensitive here, but . . .” First of all, if those words ever come out of your mouth, it’s probably best to stop talking right then. Am I right?

He went on to suggest that some folks – and we know which folks he’s talking about – can just “get on boats and leave” because they speak back to enshrined white supremacy embodied in our culture and in our systems.

That’s problematic period, but it’s especially problematic coming from an institution – the church – that has as its duty to speak truth to power, not to side with the powerful against the marginalized – though so often that is what the church does.

Preaching unity and uniformity when that unity is built on the silencing of oppression makes the false lure of unity the enemy of justice.

The teachings of the Scriptures are above all teachings of justice and of mercy.

In Philippians, Paul is speaking to a community of equals. The early, early church was premised on radical equality.

That doesn’t mean everyone is exactly alike. People can be, should be different, can be gloriously diverse, and yet be equal.

Or at least in theory that’s possible. I trust they did a better job of it in the community at Philippi than we do today in our church communities. That was a part of the mission of the early church.

Given that we today do NOT treat everyone as equal, given that we live in a world that privileges some at the expense of others, I think that for our day – the better interpretation of being of the same mind, having the same love, being full accord, and of one mind – the way of encouragement in Christ, consolation in love, sharing in the Spirit, and compassion and sympathy – is not through the illusions of unity but through the commitments of solidarity.

Where there is inequality of power, the path of Jesus calls us to solidarity with those who are marginalized.

Solidarity is an active practice of putting ours hearts alongside the heart of another.

It is about actively seeking to reach beyond our own power to understand the situation of another. It is about facing our own privilege and admitting it.

It calls for accountability, for speaking truth to power with love.

To be in solidarity with the marginalized is to listen. It means when you have power you stop talking and listen.

And when marginalized people tell you what they need to get free, you ask what you can do to help instead of telling them they are wrong or over-sensitive. Or telling them what you think they need.

Instead of putting Colin Kaepernick on a boat, the act of solidarity is to listen to what he is saying and to let it change us and how we do things.

Solidarity does not suppress voices of the marginalized. It instead amplifies them.

This next extraordinary passage – thought to come from an early hymn – tells us something of how we are to be changed.

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.

Again, this is being said to a community of equals, which what the realm of God looks like, but not what our world looks like.

If there are ways in which you have more power than others – because of your skin color or your gender or your income level and so on – then humility is an especially important lesson. It is a prerequisite for solidarity.

We are told here to check our own motives – are we doing things to feed our ego and our private ambition? Or are we caring about others and reaching out to our neighbor?

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.

This is quite a testimony about Jesus. Let’s take note that the use of the word ‘slave’ in that context is not an endorsement of slavery or enslavement. To people of that time, that would be understood as the opposite of seeking power and being powerful.

So Jesus sets an example by refusing to reach for personal power and profit.

Jesus doesn’t glorify himself. We hear in this passage that Jesus was exalted because Jesus was humble.

Jesus emptied himself, setting aside the constant pull for self-gratification. Jesus fed, Jesus healed, Jesus taught, and Jesus confronted the powers of empire and religious corruption.

Paul offers this example of Jesus to a community trying to figure out how build their lives around following Jesus, around learning how to do this work in community.

Humility after the example of Christ will leave you with a heart open to understanding, to making sense of your own experience, and to connecting with the experience of your neighbor.

It challenges our cultural story of individualism as a supreme virtue. It reminds us that exploitation of another is the ultimate act of sin.

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.

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling – there’s something really important going on in this phrase and it ties into what we just said.

Paul is talking about salvation here in terms of the community. So often when we speak about salvation, we see it through our cultural lens of individualism.

Salvation through that lens becomes all about ME. It’s a personal experience, devoid of larger context.

What we see here, however, goes deeper than that. It is the work of the community to work out salvation. This is not the classic “have you been saved?” line we hear so often.

This is about a community transcending its preoccupation with exploitation and self-glorification in order to empty themselves and live after the example of the Jesus.

This is about humility and relationship and rejoicing (there’s a lot of mention of joy and rejoicing in Philippians).

This is about rejecting exploitation of others and ensuring a genuine equality and equity among all people.

That, my friends, remains the call upon us today – because I don’t know how well the Philippians pulled it off, but I sure know that we still have work to do today.

In a world where we heed the suffering of Texas and Florida, but not of Puerto Rico, where we gouge the Earth for profit, where we allow people to go hungry, where we deny people adequate shelter and medical care, where we reject the stranger rather than provide hospitality, and where we sacrifice the bodies of black and brown people on the altar of a profit-driven mass incarceration system, we stray mightily far from a community of salvation.  

The hope here – in this beautiful witness from Paul – is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Here this again –

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.

This is Paul’s witness to our lives and to the lives of our community.

There is work to be done and we can do it.

We can pattern ourselves after the example of Christ and begin to see the world as it is and our duty to God and to our neighbor.

This is our work in this world and we do it together.

This leads us to the witness of the table on this World Communion Sunday. This shared table is a living embodiment of God’s love for us and our enduring fellowship with one another. Let us join together in Communion.

[which leads into the invitation and liturgy of Holy Communion].

Amen.

 

Image is a quilt from the Gee’s Bend community, retrieved from http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55660

 

 

 

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