A sermon on Philippians 2:1-13 by Nathan Nettleton
The only bone in my body I’ve ever had broken is my nose, and I’ve had it broken three times. That won’t surprise most of you because you probably already think of me as someone who all to frequently sticks his nose in where it is not wanted. And the truth is, that is how two of the nose-breakings occurred. Violence was being threatened against someone, I stuck my nose in, and the violence occurred with my nose as the target. Well, for an anxious five minutes the other night, Margie and I thought I was about to get it broken again for the same reason. We were on a city-bound tram and there was a bloke obviously intent on terrifying a few passengers, particularly young women. I’d guess from his manner that he was fuelled up on amphetamines, and he was snarling various nasty threats and carrying on about being an associate of various violent underworld figures, most of whom were actually dead. When he moved a step beyond the verballing and actually poked a girl between the eyes in imitation of blowing her head off, I stood up and told him to lay off her. The obvious consequence of that was that for the next four or five minutes, until he got off, it was me that he sought to intimidate with threats and fists pressed against my face and the like. It was all rather unpleasant, to say the least.
Now one of the things that was interesting about that experience, reflecting on it from a safe distance later, is the inner conflict that I experienced between three different ways of acting. Of course, I’d already given up the option of staying right out of it when I stood up and, as he sneeringly intimated, made a hero of myself. But once I was in, there were still at least three options open to me and competing inside my head for supremacy; three images I could model myself on.
The first was to model myself on him and, in some ways, that’s the one that comes most naturally. I could reciprocate the threats and try to out-intimidate him. I was bigger than him, and there is no doubt that I can win most rational verbal arguments, but there was nothing rational going on here and I knew well enough that that approach would only hasten the broken nose.
Somewhat coincidentally, just two nights earlier, I had seen a martial arts instructor demonstrate a relatively simple approach to fighting fire with fire in just such a situation. His demonstration was about trying to defuse the situation first, but it was also about the quick delivery of a knock-out combination if the assailant ever struck out, and so while I had no experience on which to base any confidence that I could do it, that martial arts instructor was the second image popping into my head. Could I model myself on him? Probably not, but it was so recent that it was pretty tempting to think I could try.
The third model also involved trying to passively defuse the situation, but in this one, if the bloke did strike out at me, the approach was to simply take it without any attempt to reciprocate it. Just absorb the attack in the hope that by doing so, no one else would get attacked. I like to think that in this one, the model is Jesus, and I’d also like to think it is the one I would have gone with, but since the bloke never did throw a punch, I have no certain way of knowing what I would have done. I know that in my head the desire to model myself on Jesus was winning, but that I was also aware that I couldn’t work out how to do it. I wanted to find a Jesus-like way of communicating to the bloke that I believed he was better than he was behaving, and that I believed that he could rise above this and become a real man. But I had no idea how to communicate any such thing, so all I had was the decision of whether to hit him or just get hit. And so the only thing I succeeded in doing was keeping his attention on me for five minutes so that no one else got targeted. Better than nothing, but a pretty lame imitation of Jesus.
In the reading we heard tonight from his letter to the Philippian congregation, the Apostle Paul urges us to imitate Jesus. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he says.
“Jesus who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grabbed at,
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.”
Now it is quite clear to me that I didn’t make much progress in having the same mind that was in Jesus the other night, but these words from Paul do suggest that I was at least on the right track in thinking that Jesus could be my role model in such a situation. We evangelical protestants have been rather wary of talking about imitating Christ, because we’ve been worried that it might lead to some sort of attempt to save ourselves through works instead of faith. We’ve been similarly unsure about what to make of the story in tonight’s gospel reading (Matthew 21:28-32) which commends one brother for doing the right thing, even though he openly rejected his father’s request. But as I observed in myself the other night, the question is not whether we will imitate anything, it is simply which available role model will we imitate.
Paul is quite deliberately describing Jesus in very accessibly human terms here. Jesus is not “a god”, far removed from anything we could ever aspire to. Instead it is precisely as a fully human being that Jesus shows us what it means for him to bear the likeness of God. And one thing that is really striking about this is how the description alludes to the image of Adam and Eve and compares and contrasts Jesus, the new human, to the image of the first humans. Have a look at this with me.
Do you remember the line the serpent in the garden used to tempt Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. “Eat this, and you will be like God.” Adam and Eve made a grab for equality with God. And what does Paul say of Jesus? “He did not regard equality with God as something to be grabbed at.” Adam and Eve got too full of themselves and rejected their place as servants of God. Jesus emptied himself and took on the form of a slave. Adam exalted himself, and became disobedient unto death. Jesus humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Adam and Eve’s path leads to the degradation of their humanity, of the image of God in which they were created. Jesus’s path of sacrificing himself to the world’s crazed lust for violence leads to his exaltation as the new human before whom every knee shall bow.
The Apostle’s point is clear. These are opposite pathways, but they are both open and available to us. The Jesus pathway is not reachable only by gods. It is the pathway of humanity as it was created to be. We can model ourselves on the old human, on our earliest forebears and all who’ve followed their way since. Or we can model ourselves on the new human, Jesus the Messiah. We can make a grab for the things we imagine to be the trappings of divinity: power, honour, status, control, demanding the respect of others, making a name for ourselves. I think my friend on the tram the other night was, in his own twisted way, making a grab for such things. Or we can empty ourselves, relinquishing power, disregarding honours, releasing control, and offering ourselves as servants for one another and for the life of the world.
This is the way of Christ. It is the way of salvation. It is not earning salvation by works. It is just what faith looks like. When I’m faced with someone on the tram embodying the world’s violent hostility, do I put my faith in the way of Jesus or in the reciprocation of the violence. This is where we find out what we actually believe in, deep in our guts. Or hopefully, as happened for me, we don’t have to find out. Our daily prayer to be saved from the time of trial was answered for me this time, and my faith was not tested to the full. Whatever I hope I might have done, I’m very grateful that I didn’t have to find out whether or not I would have been able to follow through on it.
But the call of the gospel is clear. Jesus offers himself as the one who stands in the pathway of deadly violence and returns only love and forgiveness. Thus is the cycle of perpetual violence broken and the pathway to fullness of life opened up and modelled for us. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Though you have been created in the image of God,
do not grab at equality with God
but empty yourselves,
and claim nothing but the opportunity to serve one another.
and walk the way of the cross,
even in the face of hatred and violence.
For only by following Christ and putting your faith in his pathway
will you be united with him in his resurrection
and exalted with him above every name
in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
For at the name of Jesus
every knee shall bend,
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.