Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Follow the Leader

Philippians 2, 2-24-16
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Christ the rock of our salvation. Amen.

Have you sent your hand-written letter yet? Last week we were encouraged and challenged to send a hand-written letter to someone who is important to us. If you have, let us know about it, and if you haven’t, it’s not too late.

We talked about hand-written notes last week because we are reading through Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Philippi. But instead of being a federal offence like it is now, reading Paul’s letters to the churches he planted are somewhat like blog posts or community bulletin boards - regarding specific people and situations, but also for the general benefit of the whole community.

Philippians 2, which we heard tonight, comes at the end of the “warm up” that was the beginning of his letter, and now he is ready to play hardball, to dive head-first into his message to the Philippians about unity and humility, obedience and submission. Which are pretty good things to think about in Lent.

It’s not as clear from this letter what ARE some of the concerns at this congregation – because frankly, ALL churches have issues of one kind or another – but some have guessed that Paul was addressing questions about leadership and community looks like. Paul at the beginning of chapter 2 makes it very clear what kind of leadership practices would give him joy– being humble, practicing unity, and sharing the mind of Christ.

Starting at verse 5, Paul beautifully integrates into his letter what is considered to be one of the very first hymns of the Christian church, called the Christ Hymn.  He uses this hymn to more fully explain the kind of leader that Jesus was – who could have exploited his divine status to the fullest, but instead used his form of God to become the form of a human person. The ruler of the universe became like a slave, a human being under the dominion of inward passions and exterior forces. 

The point that Paul is trying to get across to his people, and to us, is that THIS is the kind of power that we should be trying to imitate. The self-sacrificing, self-emptying obedient role that was so counter-cultural then, and is so counter-cultural still. For the divine form to take on human form, for the exalted to be completely obedient, for the immortal to take on mortality and death – especially to be subjected to a death that was reserved for slaves and criminals, is pretty hard to wrap our minds around - even now, after these words have been read and re-read for nearly two thousand years. 

THIS is the kind of obedience that Paul expects us to have as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus – to have Jesus’s same mind about what the form of true and eternal strength and power takes. The form of an empty vessel. The form of a slave. The form of human weakness, subject to the power of death. The form of death, even death on a cross.
And this Lord, this Christ, this Jesus is the one we are supposed to imitate. Not in the way that we sometimes think about the word “imitation,” meaning “fake” or “artificial,” like comparing Cheese Wiz to the real stuff. Rather, he means imitation like Simon Says or follow the leader, only grown-up style.

This is a daunting task. But to show that all hope is not lost, Paul lifts up examples of people he knows attempting to follow where Jesus leads. There is Timothy, his loyal and young companion, and there is Epaphroditus, who struggled through illness. Paul also included himself in that list of examples, but makes sure that we know that he is making himself an offering to God for the sake of the faith of the community at Philippi.

We can’t follow these greats in the faith by ourselves, pulling our own bootstraps.  That’s why Paul reminds his readers that it is God who is at work in us, as he writes in verse 13. But there ARE things he suggests that we CAN do (and AVOID doing), with the help of God – to avoid complaining and arguing with one another, to seek out and hang on to the word of life. These are things we do together and act out the salvation that Jesus has already given to us.
Our salvation is not just what happens to us beyond our death, but also in living in the here and now. And Paul exhorts all of us, not just the individual person “you,” but rather the collective group “you” - as they might say south of here “Y’All” or “All Y’all.”  Or, “Yous guys,” nearer to where I come from. We are not in this alone, following Jesus and shining out by ourselves. We are all shining Jesus’ light together, as one.

When I worked at the Lutheran camp in Wisconsin, I would use verse 14 and 15 on our late night camp-out hikes in the woods. I would make my cabin of eight teenaged girls march out into the clearing with me, read these two verses, and turn off the flashlight. In the darkness, they would look up and see the stars, and go, “whoaaa.”

There is a whole lot of darkness in the world, both in Paul’s time and in ours. The way that Jesus leads us through that darkness is going to make us shine like those little pinpricks of light in the heavens. If we were alone, it wouldn’t make much of a different. But there are quite a few of us, shining the light of Jesus in a dark world. We may not be imprisoned for it, like Paul. But we’re gonna get noticed. We’re gonna be wondered at, and thought to be weird or backwards or misled. But it is Jesus who is shining out in us and leading us, to the glory of God our father. 

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