Helpful, constructive criticism is often difficult to come by for a preacher. Thank God I have a wife who is more than capable. Her view accorded with my own feelings about this sermon, that it was not tight and to the point. I think the asides (all those parentheses below–like this one!) were just distracting. And when I thought about them, it seemed I was trying to tie some off-the-cuff comments on contemporary “relevant” events into a rich, complex theological point that I should have just left speak for itself. And that point is this: at the end of Lent, we must be ready to recognize that Jesus does something for the world that we can never do, regardless of how hard we try to repent–Jesus inaugurates through his faithfulness, and in a way that only someone living at his time could do, a new way of being human before God.
John 12:12-16; Philippians 2:5-11
We’ve been asking ourselves this Lent, what must we give up? Some people give up things like chocolate or alcohol for the 40 days, and then enjoy gorging themselves on them come Easter. I’ve done that. It may do some good. It is like a test of will, I suppose. Or it confirms the old adage: absence makes the heart grow fonder. But this kind of giving up has nothing to do with the repentance we are called to during Lent. Recall that Jesus’ message was very simple: “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” This repentance, in response to Jesus’ bringing the Kingdom near, is about shedding your sin and adapting the good spirit revealed in Jesus. Now once you shed your sin, you’re not supposed to take it back up again after Easter. So every Lent we should be looking inward for ways we can become a better Christian outward, to God and to others, and these changes we make are supposed to be permanent.
So we talked about giving up our fear of death, and social media, and too much attachment to our religious ideas and spiritual experiences personal, and our sins; none of these are absolutely necessary. But we also remembered the higher life to which we are called, a life like Christ’s, for the whole world. These are all good, permanent changes to make, and there are many more besides.
Now, Lent is almost over. But why stop? Why shouldn’t we repent all year long? (I know that’s what you were secretly hoping for.) Well, it’s exhausting if you do it well; we are creatures with limits of attention.
But more importantly, too much turning inward, like we do at Lent, is not a good thing. It can make you a naval gazer, turned in on yourself. It shouldn’t, but it can fill you with guilt and regret and discouragement. But we are not called to be introspective individuals dolefully dealing with our own issues. No: Because first of all, we are a church, and our most important work as the Body of Christ is that which we do together. But secondly and more importantly, we are more than our work, whether we are working on ourselves or working as a community. Two weeks ago we read in Ephesians chapter two: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Remember that? In Lent we have been doing hard work, and really it is God’s work in us, but it’s still work. Now maybe you think that the church is here to promote good works and good values. Yes, absolutely. But today we especially recall that works and values are not at the heart of who we are.
Neither would you want to sum up who your family is by listing all the jobs and chores that you all do. Jessica teaches classes; I run a church; Silas sets the table… Yuk. Even your family’s ethos doesn’t get to the heart. The heart of your family is the celebratory love that unites you all, whether that happens around the dinner table, or during a family vacation, or just play time. And in the midst of that celebration the parents might tell the story about how they fell in love and committed to one another, for that is the very origin of the family’s love. Usually there’s a first move by one spouse—was that so?
So also with this family. Who we are is not just what we do, our work. In fact I’ve been wondering recently whether we should even have a “mission statement.” Mission statements are fine for corporations; they are what they do. There is no celebration of love for its own sake at the heart of a corporation. But at our heart is a celebration of the love that we are. And at Easter, we tell the story of how all that love first began: how Jesus made the first move, and took us as his bride.
So who we are as a church is not what we do, as might be stated in a mission statement; it goes back to who Jesus was and what he did, and even further to who God is and what God did. At our heart is telling this story, and worshipping the God who brought that story to us. Now, when we worship we are doing something, yes, but fundamentally what we are doing is passively acknowledging and thanking and offering praise for what God did in Jesus, and so what Jesus our savior did for us, did in our place, what he did as a substitute for us.
Now I might lose some of you with that language—those who have a hard time conceiving how Jesus could do something for us. You might believe he was a good guy but basically a person just like us. That’s fine. My point can be made more simply: everything good about us goes back to a divine destiny that lies deep in the heart of all that exists. You and I did not set that destiny. God set it, and God is that destiny. That’s a useful way to put it without even mentioning Jesus. But if you join me in the adult re-confirmation class, I’ll make the case why I think it’s better to explain that destiny with the story of Jesus. (Shameless promotion)
Paul in our passage from Philippians does just that; he tells us about how our destiny and calling was set by God before we were born—maybe before creation—and he does so with a short story about Jesus. Well, it’s kind of a story about Jesus. And it’s famous, because Paul is apparently quoting a hymn or poem that the Philippians already knew, making this passage perhaps the earliest piece of Christian poetry. And strikingly, it doesn’t tell a story about Jesus like we find in the gospels.
The story seems to begin before Jesus was born (and my Greek reading buddy, Peter, helped me understand that scholars disagree wildly on the interpretation of this passage): “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited [or grasped at], but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness [or having become like a human being].” It sounds like Jesus was equal with God or had a chance to be equal with God, but instead emptied himself, taking a human form, the form of one who serves. “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.” As Peter pointed out to me, this is the reverse of Adam and Eve, who were created in the image of God but grasped at taking God’s place; and we all do that, for the story of Adam, a Hebrew word which means “human being,” is just a story about humanity, about us. Remember that Adam, we, after disobeying and gobbling our way to knowledge of good and evil, had to be prevented from eating of the tree of life and living forever, which would have made us like gods. (And our technology might get us there yet!)
Jesus does the opposite. Whether before or after he was born, he realizes that he is God’s very image, but instead of trying to rule, he decides to serve, and instead of grasping at ruling forever (perhaps like a certain Russian leader we know), he serves, even though it will lead to his own death.
In this way, Jesus redefines what it means to be human before God. Human beings have always thought about God or the gods. Even when we don’t pray or believe in literal divine beings, we’ve always found the idea of infinite power, infinite control, to be tantalizing; that power seems to lie within our very impressive human potential. We’ve so often said to ourselves, if I could just acquire power, I’d be able to do some real good. (Because of course we think we know what is good and what is evil.) The infinite idea of divinity, of unlimited potential, is deeply implanted in us, and it is one of our greatest temptations.
Now you might not get all this from reading your favorite passage in the gospels, but I think still the passage in Philippians is getting to the real heart of the gospel story. Jesus rejects that temptation of power once for all, even though he himself knew how deeply God is implanted in us. And so he begins a new way of being human, a new way of living as the image of God—the way of service, obedience, humility before God, even when that costs you your own life. Because when you live in obedience to God, conflict is inevitable. What the gospels show us so well is how obedience and humility before God makes Jesus anything but obedient and humble before the forces of idolatrous power that he confronted, whether it was the divinized Romans or those Jewish leaders who collaborated with Rome to gain power over of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was these Romans and their collaborators who physically and historically killed him, but it was Jesus’ defiant obedience to God that forced their hand. Jesus made clear his challenge to them by his paradoxical act of riding in like a King, but humbly on a donkey.
This humble, defiant obedience is what God had in mind all along for us human beings. But that’s not how it generally has worked out. Our human awareness of infinite potential has been used horribly wrongly. Not all the time. Each of us has acted the way Adam originally lived; his story is our story. We sometimes act in the innocence of natural obedience, like when we are naturally loving to our children or our parents or loved ones. But we all also grasp at power and equality with God, and the great powers that swirl around our globe especially do this, and claim to do it on our behalf.
So you do a little good here and there. We all do. We’re not pure, unadulterated sinners; that’s an absurd piece of bogus pessimism that some conservative Christians still hawk. But can you, with your small and occasional good acts, set a new course for all of humanity? Even if you thought you could, your next step would be to become famous and powerful so that everyone can see how good you are and strive to become like you. Maybe you’d post a youtube video of yourself and try to amass lots of hits. And then you could start the world’s largest megachurch, attended by 10s of thousands. Thank God Jesus didn’t have to do it that way. He lived in a time and a place when Jews and others were ready for a new humanity to dawn; they (unlike people today) were looking for a messiah. But Jesus did not advertise himself as the Messiah, boasting, “I am the one!” He just showed obedience to God and served as a vessel for God’s healing and prophetic power, and people couldn’t help but see him as the Messiah. And they thought he would take power and rule over them, and destroy their enemies, and force everyone to do good. (Now, that does sound a little familiar to the authoritarian and even fascist tendencies at loose in our world today.) They were dying to proclaim him king in that false image, that image of kingship taken from our old, power-mad humanity.
Instead he showed obedience unto death, even death by the cross, death by the execution that Romans devised to flaunt their ghastly, demonic power. Jesus, by his own obedience, but also just as much by how the great powers reacted to him, redefined what it means to be human before God. / Now, you can repent all you want to. We can strive to be good people. We can try to fix the gargantuan problems of our world (and come up short) and we can try to master the most petty flaws in our secret souls (and still fail to do so perfectly). But we can’t redefine, for the benefit of all humanity, what it means to be human before God. And we have absolutely no need to. Because Jesus did that, as well as it could be done. To follow Jesus, in the end we need to do nothing at all. We simply say Amen to this new humanity shown in him. (And even if we fail to do that, what he did still stands as valid for all time.) So our work is done; let us, like the disciples, just step back, quiet down, and watch Jesus do what only he can do; and watch the world expose itself in its godlessness as only its most blasphemous representatives can so do. That is our ‘agenda’ for Holy Week.
Were that all, of course, we wouldn’t be here. We never would have heard of this obscure Jesus, squashed like a bug by the Romans, to whom only a small crowd of Jewish bumpkins called “Messiah,” according to their mistaken notion of the word. But “God highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” God made it known that the humanity Jesus reshaped and redefined into the way God intended, was the right one. Hopefully we can live out that new humanity in our small, flawed way. But right now all that remains for us to do is to join all the other knees of all the powers and weird, unseen, even demonic forces out there, as the Philippians poem puts it, “in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” and simply believe in the good news, and confess in our worship that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Questions for further thought:
I’ve read studies recently that claim that often 50% or more of people in congregations like ours believe that the point of church is be promote good values and service. Have I made a convincing case that this is not what is most important about being a church?
Is it part of your spiritual practice to simply recognize what God has done, not only for yourself, but for all of humanity and all of creation? Where and how do you do that?
Why do we need to recognize that our destiny (or purpose, or goal) has been set by God, not by ourselves? Why do you think it might be better to explain that by telling the story of Jesus?
What else could we use to state who we are besides a “mission statement?”