Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity Sunday 28 September 2014 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity Sunday 28 September 2014

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

TRINITY 15   HIGH MASS   September 28, 2014

Readings:  Ezekiel 18.1-4; Psalm 25.1-8; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32   

When I was in Rome to preach earlier this year, I visited one of the city’s less-well-known holy places. It is a small convent chapel close to the Anglican Centre where I was staying. Beneath it is a chamber believed to be the cell in which St. Paul was imprisoned. (As I am a prebendary of St. Paul’s Cathedral, I thought I should pay my respects.)  If this is true, then the letter which Paul writes to the Church in Philippi may well have originated there.

 It is the most affectionate of Paul’s letters, reflecting the deep relationship between the apostle and the church he had founded: his first on the mainland of Europe after the vision recorded in the Acts of the Apostles of a man of Macedonia saying, “Come over and help us.”  In spite of his circumstances it is also a joyful document. Paul speaks of the his imprisonment enabling him to preach the gospel.

Writing from prison, Paul would remember that his time in Philippi had included a spell in jail after arrest and a beating on the orders of the magistrates. On being released he refuses to go quietly and demands a public apology from those who had beaten a Roman citizen.

Philippi was not just another Greek  city. It was a Roman colony.  After Mark Anthony and Octavian had defeated the assassins of Julius Caesar there, the city had been settled with Roman veterans and farmers from Italy.  Its people were Roman citizens and had a number of privileges associated with that. Situated on one of the major trade and military routes of the empire, it was an island of Rome in the midst of a Greek culture. Its civic and religious life would be marked by the cult of the divine emperor.  Paul, who faces death for undermining the cult, writes to a community which,  while probably not facing official persecution, lives with that constant suspicion and threat which hangs over minorities seen a threat to the unity of society.  

Paul has just told the Philippians that if they order their common life “in a manner worthy of the gospel,” remaining steadfast in the face of suffering, they will secure their salvation.  That salvation entails that they manifest a particular common life.

 Paul appeals to them personally as he begins to spell out its character.  

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, and 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…. Let the same mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus.”   (2.1-4)

Read aloud in Greek, these “ifs” they have a rhythm which conveys Paul’s personal passion. On the page in English they might suggest the opposite: that he is uncertain of the bonds they share in Christ. But the question is really a rhetorical one: “if”  means “since.”

 Paul shares all these bonds with the Philippians because they and he are “in Christ.”  This has communal and political consequences:

  •  Being “in Christ” means citizenship within a realm shaped, determined and ruled by Christ;
  • This he writes to the people of a city whose citizenship is shaped, determined and ruled by the emperor.

 The benefits or blessings that they share by virtue of their common commitment to life in Christ  are:

  • encouragement
  • consolation of love
  • fellowship in the Spirit
  • compassion and mercy.

All apply to the community and not just to individuals. This is how a community whose common life is founded and sustained by the crucified and risen Christ should live together.

These characteristics of life in Christ require a community for their proper expressions; they can only really be shown in relation to others. 

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Paul uses the same Greek phrase several times (Romans 12.16; 15.5; 2 Cor 13.11 and Phil 4.2.) It speaks of the unity that is achieved by coming to hold the same perspective, by seeing things the same way. This is not just about ideas; equally important is that such a common perspective will generate, direct and sustain a particular course of action. If they are to pursue a common course of action, such as standing firm in the Spirit, they will need to be “like-minded.”

If they are to see, as Paul does, that God’s salvation is found in remaining steadfast in the face of opponents, they will need to read the ways of God as he does.  If they are to order their common life “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” they must share a common perspective. Paul  asks for both a common way of thinking and a common pattern of action flowing from that thinking.

The passage demonstrates an inseparable link between way theology and ethics. Theological belief, the way we think about God, leads to ethics, the way we live.  Neither can exist without the other. 

The core of Paul’s argument is the hymn-like passage which Paul quotes

“who though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something the grasped,

but emptied himself,]

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death –

even death on a cross.”

Everything before and after it depends on this.  They are to “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,”  because this is the way Christ acts.  And the one who was “in the form of God” demonstrates to us both that “form of God,” what God is like, how God behaves, and what human beings made in the image of God are to be like, how they  are to behave. 

In Scripture, God is revealed through what God does. Here we find that God is revealed through what Christ does. Christ is “in the form of God,” so our is attention focused on what he did. Christ reveals himself in his gracious actions – in his refusal to exploit his rights, in his self-emptying, in his self-humiliation, and in his obedience, even to the point of death. And because he is “in the form of God,” his actions reveal not simply his own character or nature, but what God is like as well. 

Christ’s exaltation by God, in the second half of the hymn,  is the vindication of Christ’s actions, not their reversal or undoing. It is because he is humble and obedient that he also is Lord.  His exaltation is God affirming that in Christ’s actions we have the perfect revelation of the love and compassion of God. To acknowledge this Jesus as universal Lord is to accept as Lord the humble, obedient figure on the cross. This revelation of God’s nature confounds all our expectations  and turns our preconceptions upside down.

And this also speaks to us about what it is to be human. To most people in Philippi, and the world of which it was part,  this would have been something new and shocking. Divinity was about power; the kind of power exercised by an emperor who did see himself as equal to God.  Divinity was not to be seen in humility, or compassion and mercy, much less in the degradation of the cross, endured by Christ, the new Adam, who did not grasp at equality with God, and in his life and death remakes humanity.

Schooled by Christianity, our culture until a century or so ago, thought humility a virtue for all; even if not everyone was very good at practicing it.  The ancient world did not see it this way.  In a rigidly stratified social order, in which people ‘knew their place,’ humility was to be practiced by the lower orders towards their superiors. They must not get ‘ideas above their station.’ But humility on the part of the powerful was a sign of weakness. It undermined the divinely-ordained social order.

In an age and culture which no longer looks to a divinely-ordained social order, the idea and practice of humility was set aside in favour of the exercise of power and the will. The one who humbly took the form of a slave was abandoned in favour of the proud super man who exalts himself, whatever the cost to others; who takes life rather than gives it.

So that mind which we have in Christ Jesus remains as counter-cultural now as it was in the time of Paul and the Philippians. Paul’s words to them about the vital importance of living a life worthy of the gospel remain as important as ever. Even if we do not live in a hostile totalitarian society, we do live in one which sees human fulfilment in possession rather than sharing.

Because this passage upsets our normal assumptions about what God is like, it has a radical effect on our understanding of what God expects from us. Instinctive human attitudes are turned on their heads. Those who confess Jesus as Lord should not be looking for status or power; nor should they be acting from “selfish ambition or conceit”  Instead we should be humbly considering others better than ourselves.  Because we are concerned with the interests of others, we will be of one mind and purpose, “having the same love” and of one accord.  In stark contrast to the modern spirit of encouraging competition and rewarding those who claw their way to the top, Paul insists on mutual concern and service. We are to take the self-giving of Christ as a model of Christian behaviour. We are to be more concerned with coming to a common mind with others than with airing our own opinions. We are not to see the benefits of his passion as prosperity, security and status in this world.

The Eucharistic Sacrifice we celebrate this morning and Sunday by Sunday is not just a spiritual resource to get us through the week, it is the dynamic process which forms us, as community and individuals,  in that mind which is ours in Christ Jesus.