The Church of the Changed Mind
| Philippians 2:1-13
||Sun, September 28, 2008
Rev. Ed Searcy
|* On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of West Burnaby United Church
“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.” This is not the way we imagined a sermon on the 100th anniversary of a congregation to begin. If there is any encouragement, any consolation, any compassion? We gather to thank God for abundant gifts of love and sharing and sympathy. Paul sounds uncertain, even sarcastic. To be fair, there have surely been Sundays after worship or Wednesdays after a board meeting when the pastor or board chair one or two or more of you may have felt like saying “if there is any encouragement in Christ ... make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” It is a good thing that the letter to the Philippians is short. It means that its easy to read it all. One thing comes clear when you read the whole letter to the Philippians: Paul really loves this church. He has no doubt that it is encouraged by Christ, consoled by love and that it shares in the work of the Holy Spirit that is breathing compassion into its life. He speaks with a gentle warmth to build up a small congregation that is living through difficult times. He speaks to you.
In the first chapter he invites you “to live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). We are well schooled by a culture that prizes the individual. We hear the word “you” in the Bible and assume that we are each being addressed personally. Unlike French, Greek or Hebrew, English does not distinguish between you in the singular or in the plural. Paul says “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”. In Greek he is speaking to “y’all”, to the congregation as a single body. Live your life as a congregation in such a way that the gospel of Christ will be obvious. Paul knows that we learn to live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ the same way we learn to play a team sport or to participate in a dance troop - not on your own but by living the gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation within the company of disciples called the church. Paul has one hope for the Philippians and for the Uhillians and for the West Burnabians: that our life together be shaped entirely by one desire - the desire to be relevant to the God we meet in Jesus Christ. Relevant. It comes from the Latin word that means to raise or to lift up the matter at hand. For Paul it is crucial that the church’s life is not irrelevant to the central matter at hand - the gospel. When the church lives a life that is irrelevant to the gospel of Christ it lives in a way that reveals that it has put the gospel down. Paul claims that the most relevant thing that the church can do - that it must do - is to be of a common mind when it comes to the gospel of Christ lest its life together become irrelevant to God.
What does a common life worthy of the gospel of Christ look like? Paul answers: “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 interest, but to the interests of others.” This is radical politics. This kind of life makes the church dangerous to the social order. Paul does not simply argue for equal rights. He goes further. He does not say to regard others as your equal but to regard them as your superior on the social ladder. Are you a conservative? Treat the liberal in the pew next to you as more esteemed. Are you a progressive? Regard the evangelical whose theology you do not share as one of higher status than yourself. Are you a Baptist congregation in the neighbourhood? Rank the United Church down the street as more faithful. Are you a one hundred year old United Church? Think of a billion Romans Catholics as closer to God. This is a radically different social politics because all ranking is tossed out. All members of the church are to rank all other members more highly than themselves. This is not a matter of the submissive submitting and the dominant dominating. This is a practice of mutual submission, in which no one is to dominate and all are to humble themselves. Humble. It is from the Latin word “humus”. It means earth. It is the root of the word humiliate and also of the word human. We come from the earth. We return to the earth. We cannot avoid being humbled by our humanity - being humiliated by our frailty. A common life worthy of the gospel of Christ looks like humans who live humbly, knowing that their sisters and brothers are humble humans, too.
It is easy to forget that is the heart of our life together. How quickly our desire to be relevant to the world’s ways leads to amnesia about the Way of Christ. Soon we are prideful about our righteousness, about our closeness to God, about how relevant we are. In truth, our very certitudes about how right we are can blind us to our irrelevance to God, the God we meet in Jesus. This past Thursday evening at University Hill we were working on a one sentence description of our life together. We came up with these words to describe our congregation: “Rediscovering the Way of Christ for the sake of the world.” It means that we realize that we forget the gospel way. It means that we are not over-confident in assuming that we already know Jesus’ path. It means that our life together is always about rediscovering the Way of Christ.
Paul goes on, saying: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Another translation reads: “Let this be your pattern of thinking, acting, and feeling, which was also displayed in Christ Jesus”. And another puts it this way: “Base your practical reasoning on what you see in Christ Jesus.” It is a plural you - “y’all”. Paul is saying that the church’s common mind, its common sense, is to mirror the common sense of Jesus Christ. Changing the way a community thinks and acts does not come easily. Yet Paul is convinced that this is the very thing that the world longs for, the very thing that makes the church relevant not only to God but also to the neighbourhood. It leads me to make this modest proposal. Since the inter-urban line is long gone and the street car stop that was named “West Burnaby”has long since disappeared I wonder if it might be time to consider a name change for this congregation? After all, you have changed your name once before. Sixty years ago Henderson-Jubilee United Church became West Burnaby United. Perhaps on this one hundredth anniversary you might consider a new sign outside this sanctuary. One that reads: “The Church of the Changed Mind”. It is sure to cause people to stop and ask “Changed? In what way?”. You will be letting them know from the moment they step inside the door that the gospel of Jesus Christ does not confirm our beloved biases. You will be reminding one and all that the good news of Jesus upsets and transforms and converts even our self-evident common sense - especially our self-evident common sense. That is what it means to have a new common mind. It means to have a new common sense.
Pattern your common sense on Christ Jesus, says Paul. Jesus Christ, 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.” This is the Way of Jesus Christ. It is a journey of descent from on high to be with those who are very low. It is the way of letting go of privilege and advantage. It is the path of “kenosis”. This is the Greek word that means self-emptying. Jesus negates his claim to be God. He gives up his divine identity. He writes “null and void” across his photo ID that reads “Son of God”. Jesus becomes a slave, the lowest rank on the scale. He humbles himself. He is obedient to God. He dies a nobody - humiliated, tortured and erased by the empire. A church that is relevant to Jesus Christ will look like this, says Paul. It will not make great claims for itself, boasting triumphantly. It will not cling to a position of supremacy through pride in being more orthodox or more inclusive or more biblical or more contemporary. It will humbly live as God’s slave. It will desire obedience to Jesus, not independence to do as it pleases. It will accept social ostracism, even persecution and suffering if that should come. It will seek to go down the social ladder, not up. It will have a very peculiar form of common sense.
Imagine how odd this upside-down common sense appears. In the world of ancient Philippi every child learns to highly exalt the one whose name is above every name - namely the Emperor. They are taught to idolize Caesar. It is not unlike the world we inhabit where children are schooled to idolize the rich and famous, to dream of one day winning the lotto in order to, surely, live happily ever after. They grow up breathing in the common sense that self-worth is measured by the size of your pay cheque or by the impressiveness of your resume or by the image you project and so carefully protect. Notice how counter-cultural that little church in Philippi is as it sings praise choruses to Jesus whose name is now above every name: Jesus, who is the subject of scorn and derision; Jesus, whose way is a path of mutual humility; Jesus, who teaches his apprentices to place our trust in God and not in our pet projects or nifty programs or bright ideas or shiny reputations. To sing “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend ... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” is to join in the jubilant chorus from below that is sung by all who have been humbled by life and who have been brought low by the world and who imagine that they are surely lost and forgotten, humiliated at the bottom of the heap, failures in life, abandoned by God. Yet not forgotten, not failures, not lost but instead found by the God who awaits there in Jesus Christ who humbles himself to be with and for them. It is the gospel, our salvation.
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” writes Paul. Working out your own salvation means participating in the church of the changed mind. Don’t kid yourself, it is work. Have you noticed? Noticed that God has placed someone in this very church that you are quite sure does not really belong here. Someone whose theology, whose politics, whose tact - or lack thereof - is enough to make you wonder if you belong here with them. Guess what? This is the work of your salvation. In treating those you look down upon with esteem, in humbling yourself below them with Christ your common sense is changing. And they are the work of your salvation because as they humble themselves below you with Christ, treating you with esteem, their common sense is changing, too. Soon you begin to realize that this is the one beloved community where everyone else thinks of you more highly than they think of themselves. And it is the one community where you think of everyone else more highly than you think of yourself. It is as if you are living in the presence of Jesus Christ. Which, of course, you are. Changing your mind as a congregation is your daily, weekly, yearly work together. It is what makes you relevant to God and to neighbour. It is also God’s work in you. In Paul’s words: “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Your subversive common sense - your new perspective of others now seen with Christ from below - is a sure sign that the Holy Spirit is up to something miraculous for the sake of a world of souls. Souls that have been stepped on. Souls that have been left behind. Souls that have been tossed aside. Souls that have been judged unworthy of love and of time and of care. But in the church of the changed mind no longer stepped on, instead lifted up. In the church of the changed mind not left behind. In the church of the changed mind not tossed aside. In the church of the changed mind judged worthy of love and of time and of care. Thank God. Thank God.