Brave and Unflinching about Love – March 13

A sermon based on Philippians 3:17-4:1
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 13, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Our Lectionary reading is a snippet from a letter Paul wrote to the church in Philippi from prison. When he wrote it Paul had reason to believe it might be his last letter before being executed. Yet, the letter has a “dominant tone of thanksgiving, joy and lack of worry . . .” and a sense of clarity 1. Earlier in the letter, as a part of that clarity, Paul set out who Christ was to him and the church; and noted that following Christ caused him to suffer “the loss of all things,” in order to “gain Christ and be found in him,” with faith.

Paul also pointed out that THAT faith enabled him to not look back and to press forward toward “the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul then asked that those in Philippi “be of the same mind” and to “hold fast to what we have attained.” Paul meant that he and other Jesus followers had been striving to be like Christ and in Christ. And that’s what Paul is referring to in our reading when he asks the Philippians to “join in imitating me” and observe the good example of others. It’s not a conceited demand, but a humble request. It’s not about Paul, but about Christ and following Christ whole heartedly.

Because the Gospels are first in our Bibles and have long served as our primary source about Jesus, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Paul and the churches he wrote to didn’t have the Gospels. They were written decades later. So, Paul was, for the churches he wrote to back then, a primary source– if not the primary source– of Christian stories and theology. Paul likely learned what he knew from communications and hymns shared by word of mouth, and maybe in rare writings long lost to us. Simply put, Paul couldn’t point to the details of Jesus’ life in the Gospels so what he did was relay what he knew from word of mouth, hymns and maybe some lost writings.

Back in Philippians 2 Paul recited a hymn to summarize what was known about Jesus and Christian theology and then indicated how they informed and influenced his faith and his actions. That very early hymn, called the “Christ Hymn” or the “Hymn of Christ.” is found at Philippians 2, verses 6-11. Here’s the Inclusive Bible translation:

“Christ, though in the image of God, didn’t deem equality with God something to be clung to– but instead became completely empty and took on the image of oppressed humankind: born into human condition, found in the likeness of a human being. Jesus was thus humbled– obediently accepting death, even death on a cross! Because of this, God highly exalted Christ and gave to Jesus the name above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee must bend in the heavens, on the earth and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God: Jesus Christ reigns supreme.”

Ancient Greek does not translate directly into an English hymn form. Fortunately, in the nineteenth century Caroline Noel wrote a poetic English version which later became the hymn “At the Name of Jesus,” which we’ll sing in a bit.

The version of the hymn Paul sets out summarized three stages of existence for Christ, preparation for a human life; human life and death; and the post-Easter exaltation by God. The hymn ends explaining how Christians are to respond to Christ. We are to fully and completely honor Christ as ruler– replacing every other lord with Christ whether that ruler be Caesar or other false idols of power, wealth or material things. Jesus Christ alone is to rule our life– to reign supreme.

In Philippians 3 just before our lesson Paul points out what the proper response looks like, “the loss of all things,” in order to “gain Christ and be found in him” with faith. (3:8-9). What it doesn’t look like is what Paul addresses in our lesson. He calls Christians not following Jesus properly “enemies of the cross of Christ” because, in essence, they don’t apply the words of the Christ Hymn to their own lives, to their own way of being. They don’t strive to live as Jesus did, nor by extension as Paul did. Instead, they make gods of things. Paul references the god of stuffed bellies, the glory of their shame and their minds set on earthly things.

The enemies of the cross were not following a way like Jesus that sides with oppressed humankind and remains humble– obediently accepting even death on a cross! They didn’t manifest signs of that Way like Paul did suffering “the loss of all things,” in order to “gain Christ and be found in him” with faith. They didn’t press forward toward “the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Consequently, they were not being “of the same mind” as Paul and holding “ fast to what we have attained.” In other words, Paul was referring to people who claimed to be followers of Jesus, but actually avoided and seemed to hate doing the things that Jesus did on the Way to the cross. They did not like what it took for Christians to be like Jesus on His Way.

Paul didn’t mean followers of Jesus must want to be executed, or not take care of themselves and be fed. He meant followers of Jesus must not avoid or hate to do the things Jesus did that got him executed on the cross, nor were they to make gods of things or earthly power. They must do what Jesus did, like Paul was doing and did, even though it may lead to loss of things; to discomfort; or even to imprisonment and execution.

Unlike people in Paul’s day, we now have the Gospels which provide many details about what Jesus did, what he taught, how he lived and was crucified and died, and yet survived as a continuing experiential presence with us, in us and through us. 2. Although Paul only had snippets of details about Jesus and we have so much more, the ultimate Truth about Jesus’ Way is, though, summarized in “The Christ Hymn” Paul recited. Jesus “took on the image of oppressed humankind: born into human condition, found in the likeness of a human being. Jesus was thus humbled– obediently accepting even death on a cross!”

We know from the Gospel accounts that Jesus’ Way– that way he took to the cross– was about caring for the well-being of others, that is to say Jesus Way is all about love. I’ve mentioned before my shorthand way of describing Jesus’ Way is that it’s about believing in God who is love, loving love, and being love. Paul adds that Jesus showed, and Paul’s own actions showed, it requires being brave and unflinching about that love. That’s what Jesus’ Way looks like. Jesus’ Way in the Gospels and Paul’s letters never looks like avoiding or hating the things Jesus taught and did. It never looks like skirting or watering down love. It never looks like making gods and lords of Caesar or other false idols of power, wealth or material things. To Paul those who did such things as Christians were enemies of the cross. They didn’t make Jesus their Lord. Christ didn’t reign supreme in their lives.

There were – and are– Christians who do not make Jesus their Lord, who don’t let Christ reign supreme in their lives. They make lords and idols of prosperity, prejudices, politics, politicians, power and even the pages of the Bible, those other things reign supreme in their lives and faith, not Jesus. The lesson from Paul today is that Christians need to bend their knees and proclaim to the glory of God that Jesus Christ is what reigns supreme in their lives– and live like it does . . . with LOVE. Hopefully that doesn’t mean suffering for love of others, especially to the lethal extent that Jesus and Paul did, but it does mean a willingness to be brave and unflinching about that love. Christians need to believe in God who is love, to love, love, and to be love bravely and unflinchingly. AMEN.

Endnotes
1. Borg, Marcus, John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul, p 207
2. Feasting on the Word Commentary, Vol 2, Year C.

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