September 27, 2020
A video of this sermon is available here.
Note: The gospel lesson for this Sunday is Matthew 21:23-32, and should be read immediately before this sermon.
Imagine the frustration those priests and elders must have felt in the gospel reading we just heard! Jesus was always catching these leaders in their own words, making them look foolish in the eyes of the people. They liked the respect shown to them in the streets and the markets. They loved being the ones in authority. And here was this unschooled carpenter, teaching right under their noses, sounding like he knew God more intimately than any human possibly could.
We just heard Jesus describe two sons, who are each given the same direction to go work in their father’s vineyard, and the connection between authority and obedience becomes clear. One says he will go, and doesn’t, while the other refuses, but then changes his mind, and does what he was told to do. “Which did the will of his Father?” Jesus asks. The answer is obvious. The one who went to work, even after he said he would not.
What prompted Jesus to tell this parable? The Temple leaders gathered around Jesus hadn’t been able to answer the question he had asked them about John the Baptist’s authority. They got into an argument among themselves trying to come up with an answer that would appease the crowd and uphold their own honor, but that wasn’t possible. So they said, “we don’t know.”
What they meant was, “We aren’t willing to commit. We don’t want to look bad in front of the people.” So Jesus uses this parable to teach that appearances can be deceiving. It isn’t what we say, it’s what we do that shows our commitment to faith. It isn’t our lip service God wants; it’s our repentance. It isn’t our fancy words; it’s our obedience that matters to God.
There is a difference between power – having the strength of will or muscle to accomplish something – and authority – being authorized to act by one who holds the actual power, the “author.” But sometimes, authority comes from a different direction. Instead of being handed down from above, it gets “handed up” from below, from people who submit themselves to another’s authority by their obedience.
Like the two sons in Jesus’ parable, it’s what we do, not just what we say, that matters. How often do we fail to commit, for fear of being ridiculed? How often do we fool ourselves into believing that the way we like things is the way God wants them?
Or maybe we just aren’t sure that Jesus is the Way the truth and the Life. We waffle, and instead of confessing that Jesus is Lord, we bear a different kind of testimony.
By our silence, we tell the world that we aren’t so sure Jesus is worth the kind of whole-hearted commitment he asks of us. If our identity truly lies in Christ Jesus, we acknowledge his authority with our obedience.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he quotes an early hymn of the church that describes Christ’s authority perfectly. Pay particular attention to verses 5-11.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. – Philippians 2:1-13
Jesus has all authority in heaven and earth. Christ received his authority directly from God, and in obedience he humbled himself. Christ’s authority also comes from those who call him Lord, who seek to do his will. We are learning about identity markers, or how we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ. Today’s passage contains the central teaching of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippians on this very theme. So let’s take a closer look, beginning with the very first word: “If.”
This little word carries a slightly different meaning than we might expect. Paul doesn’t question whether or not there is any encouragement, consolation, sharing in the Spirit, compassion, or sympathy in Christ Jesus here. He’s sure of all these things, or he would have used a different word that also means “if.”
This “if” means “since” or “because.” It assumes that what follows is true. So, since there is encouragement in Christ, since there is consolation from love, since there is sharing in the Spirit, and compassion and sympathy, then there should also be unity of mind and spirit among those who call themselves Christians.
Paul is reminding the Philippians of the reality in which they already live, and calling them to be who they already are in Christ. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he writes. Be who you are. Be imitators of Christ (1 Cor 11:1).
There’s a difference between an imitator and an impersonator. An impersonator pretends to be someone they are not. An imitator adopts the attitudes and behaviors of the one being imitated, reflecting that person’s image into the world. Imitators of Christ reflect his humility and obedience to God the Father.
This brings us to the ancient hymn to Christ that forms the core of Paul’s message. Paul may have written this hymn himself, but it’s more likely he was quoting something that was already circulating among the churches. Either way, this hymn stands as one of the earliest creeds, or statements of belief, of the Christian church. If Paul was quoting an earlier source, as preachers sometimes do, it was to enforce this central idea he wanted to get across.
The hymn is in two stanzas, and the second stanza moves in the opposite direction of the first. The first describes how Christ was equal with God, but humbled himself in obedience, even to dying on the cross. It tells how Christ came down, as far as death.
The second stanza reverses that movement, and elevates the crucified and resurrected Christ to the highest heaven, where he reigns over all. Paul’s point is this: if Christ could humble himself to such a degree, shouldn’t his followers imitate that same humility? If Christ gave up all his power to become obedient, shouldn’t we follow that example? And if we do, will we not also be raised up like Christ, to be one with the Father?
To follow Jesus is to go in the opposite direction of normal human desire. Since Adam grasped that first piece of fruit, humans have been trying to elevate themselves. Being made in God’s image wasn’t enough for Adam and Eve, they wanted to know what God knows. They wanted to be God. That’s what the tower of Babel was all about – people trying to elevate themselves to the heavens. And what happened? They were brought down, and scattered.
But Jesus goes the other direction. Instead of climbing up, he lowered himself, even to the point of death on a cross. It is only here at the foot of Christ’s cross where we can find the way that leads us upward to eternal life. It is only at the foot of the cross where we can find grace.
You see, the point Paul makes is that we cannot do this thing called discipleship on our own. We will surely fail if we try to live as Jesus lived and love as Jesus loves in our own strength alone. It isn’t possible. We can only follow Jesus by the grace of God. And we can only receive that grace when we bow in humble obedience to confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Humility comes hard for us human beings. We take pride in our accomplishments, our positions of power, the things we accumulate. But that pride is what creates dissension and arguments in the church. That pride makes us territorial, protecting our ‘turf.’ It sets us up as thinking our preferences are more important and valid than the needs of others Christ calls us to serve.
It isn’t what we do, but who we claim as Lord that makes us disciples of Jesus Christ who transform the world. Following Jesus is not something we initiate – it is a response to God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. “Therefore,” Paul writes, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (v 13)
To will and to work for God’s good pleasure is to accept that God is at work in us, doing his perfect will through us. This is our calling as Christ’s disciples. Our purpose, our life’s meaning, is found in this one thing: naming Jesus Christ as Lord. The ancient hymn still sings, “So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (vv 10-11)
May it be so.
NOTE: This sermon has been updated from an earlier version preached in 2017, and titled “Discipleship 101: This Is Jesus.” It was published on this blog October 1, 2017.