Sunday 26 • 1 Oct 2017

Exodus 17:1-7
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Rev. Prof. Clive Pearson

Some years ago now – actually last millennium – I was the minister of a congregation in Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand. It was quite a well-heeled congregation poised between the city’s most exclusive suburbs and one of its more working class areas. At the time of my induction there were 3 former vice-chancellors of two universities, six professors, a number of lecturers, several CEOs, and a significant body of feminist thinkers and activists. They would later tell me that I learned very quickly!

They were a very articulate bunch – so articulate that they knew exactly why they disagreed with each other. Those first view parish council meetings would always take me by surprise. I knew there would be a bone of contention somewhere – but I wasn’t sure exactly which bone it would be. And I was younger – by a decade or more – than the respective power blocs ; I was sometimes left feeling like I was the ‘boy’ at the behest of others more powerful in so many ways than myself.

In the course of time that congregation was transformed: they began to sing hymns that were a mix of what had been handed on to them from another time and new ones that spoke about the life of faith in today’s world. They created their own hymn book. They also participated in a series of short term studies over a number of years that wrestled with how the Bible came into being, how we might understand various gospels and epistles today, and how we might relate to the mosque at the end of Riccarton Road.

Faced with divisive debates throughout the church on same sex relationships we set up a small team of members who met with one another every Friday afternoon for several months: all points on the spectrum were represented and we devised and published a booklet, “Good God, they’re gay” – a compendium of stories, biblical interpretations, prayers, hymns and liturgies.

We distributed around 4000 copies and the World Council of Churches came to hear of it: they were fascinated that such a book should come out of a congregation rather than a synod or assembly working group -and so they asked one of our members to go over to Geneva to facilitate conversation in their head office.

And then about halfway through my time there the government of the day passed some legislation that was rather provocative. They cut the welfare benefits to some groups of people most in need. They also put into place a time of waiting for those most affected before they could receive a benefit again. And so for a period of time some folk in the wider community had no access to funds for power, for food, for basic necessities.

It struck me as being rather immoral – and, of course, the number of people who would turn up on the door of the manse (which looked a bit like a school class room) began to increase. It was time for a series of studies and sermons on faith and economics – it just so happened that on one occasion the Governor of the Reserve Bank was in the congregation (but the die was cast);

and, after one such sermon, one of those CEOs came around to the manse on my Monday off and presented me with a year’s subscription to the Economist magazine. But despite those overtures it was difficult not to get out of one’s head and mind the general drift of what the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, had to say about justice and the care for the most vulnerable – and then there was Jesus himself.

And that matter of who Jesus is came to the surface in the most surprising way. The government was seeking to get the moral support of the churches for its stand. One of the conservative lobby groups – the Business Round Table - invited over from the United States a Roman Catholic priest-cum-theologian by the name of Father Robert Sirico.

Father Sirico wanted a much more business like approach to the gospel. He believed that the contemporary welfare system led to moral decay. Now was the time to emphasize personal liberties, personal responsibility and, not surprisingly, a faith that accommodated free market principles – all of which is fine, except what are you going to do with the folk knocking on your door who have no access to benefits for 6 months and are in dire need.

Under the wing of the Business Round Table Father Sirico distributed a very glossy pamphlet to every minister in placement in the church throughout the country. And that was very generous of him and them – except that the kind of Jesus he was proclaiming did not seem to bear too much similarity to the one that I was familiar with in the gospels, let alone the great hymn to be found in Paul’s epistle to the church at Philippi –

That is the hymn which Paul puts to use when he is seeking to advise the Philippians to live a life in keeping with our tweet from last week: only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ who did not count equality with God, a think to be grasped, 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. 

Within the life of the Christian faith so much depends upon how we understand who Jesus is and how we picture him, how we represent him, and how we talk about him. It is absolutely critical; it is foundational – and, so with this spirit in mind, I read the glossy pamphlet that was sent to every minister free of charge. Father Sirico had effectively portrayed Jesus as a CEO with the disciples as members of the board.

I was shocked – and so wrote an op.ed for the Christchurch Press objecting to such a portrayal. It was published under the heading of ‘Local Minister Joins the Fray’ which would have been accurate, had not the article come directly under another one to do with Saddam Hussein and George Bush and the First Gulf War. But a point was being made.

In times of political upheaval, social upheaval, when churches are uncertain about the way ahead, the default position so often is to call for a strong leader, a powerful presence, someone who knows exactly what they think and they know how to cut through the opposition and secure the way ahead – as if there is ever only one way ahead.

Jesus may not have been a CEO, his disciples may not have been members of the board, but so often we seem to run this risk. I have seen at work in a number of church councils around the traps. Except …. Except …. In the wilderness Jesus was tempted in a variety of ways that in the cultural context of his day would have been seen as desirable –

Except he said no to the blatant seizure of power; except that in Mark’s gospel he speaks of the need to ‘bind the strong man’; except that he tells his disciples that they should not exercise power and authority over others like the Gentiles do, but should do so in the spirit and way of a servant.

All of which brings us back to this letter of Paul’s to the first church he set up in mainland Europe, and did so in the home of Lydia, a seller of purple, a woman of some means. This is an epistle to a church for which he has much yearning; he is comfortable in their presence, albeit at a distance, for he himself is in chains, and is unsure whether he will live or die. He longs to be with them for they have undergone some suffering as well – and it is into this kind of setting he makes a connection between how we should live our lives and how that should reflect the kind of Christ we proclaim.

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: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  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 interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus.

Paul is being very strategic here. What follows – that passage about Christ not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped – is reckoned to be an early Christian hymn. In other words, Paul was not the first to write these lines: they already existed and may well have been already widely known in church circles. Maybe. What he has done is seek to illustrate the point he wishes to make by way of the words of a hymn they know.

And the key word in the hymn and the advice he gives them by way of introduction is the word ‘humility’. It is, of course, a word, a virtue that can easily be understood. For those who like to be outspoken, for those who like to throw their weight around, humility can seem to be like thinking of yourself as a bit of a door mat, of not wanting to stand up for your rights and the very opposite of robust strength, power and authority. For some can seem like that – while others know how difficult it can be to attain.

The best exemplar of that difficulty was Benjamin Franklin, one of the revolutionary fathers of the United States. Franklin was a well-known polymath: he seemed to be an expert in everything. Look up Wikipedia. He was an author, a printer, political theorist, politician, statesman, civic activist, diplomat, scientist, and inventor of such things as bifocals and the lightening rod.

Towards the end of his life he wrote an Autobiography. At one point along the way he recalled he sought to improve himself – in other words, work on his character and so he identified twelve virtues that he wish to own and appropriate himself. The young Franklin was , it seems, something of what we might call ‘a know-it-all’. And just as he was about to complete satisfactorily his twelve virtues a Quaker friend, noting his capacity to intervene in an argument and go for the jugular, suggested that he should add a 13th virtue – and this was the virtue of humility.

To his credit Franklin took on board the friend’s suggestion and began to wrestle with humility. And then it happened: he nailed it. He wrote in his autobiography that he had mastered humility and he was proud of that achievement. Tongue in cheek Franklin had acknowledged how difficult it is not to think less of our selves but to think more of others.

Humility is not a widely canvassed virtue in the public arena: we rarely describe our politicians and those CEO who earn such big sums as humble. In the competencies for effective leadership we rarely, if ever, list humility. And, when we seek to call a minister, we are not like to say that we wish to call someone who is humble (though no doubt we greatly appreciate that fact if that is what we end up with). Humility is an underplayed virtue; it is not one which seems to insist on being noticed and praised.

And yet here we have in this great hymn Christ Jesus being humbled and Paul calling us to imitate the humility of Christ. It is an astounding confession. In the world in which Jesus lived humility was not a virtue. The word of course is closely linked to humus – in other words, the Latin word for ground, the earth, soil; it is closely linked to humiliation – with all its associated sensations of shame and disgrace.

In the case of this hymn Christ is humble in two ways: the first is through his becoming one with us, through his becoming human and sharing our nature. Here we have the humility and lowliness of God entering into our world – and coming not us as some cosmic dictator. Here humility is drawing alongside the other, the vulnerable , the fragile, the all too human which is us; that is one dimension of the humility of Christ.

And the other is his willingness to be obedient, to the will of God, even though that is a costly way. It is only through this way of humility, this pathway of descent, that Christ is then raised up and exalted high by God. It is way which is not weak; it is one that in this case of Christ is full of mercy and compassion and a courage that is contrary to appearances.

Paul bids the church at Philippi to be humble: in other words they are to live lives in the sight of God, mindful of the example of Christ; they are then called to live out that lifestyle with one another, and, in humility, think of the interests of others before claiming too much for themselves. Now that of course is not an easy ask. You only need to remember the parable of Benjamin Franklin. And it doesn’t mean letting others taking for you granted and letting them run all over you. That is what we might say is a category mistake.

What does lie within our power though is to think about how we represent Christ; what kind of Jesus do we privilege? What is it about him that attracts us and which we might wish to imitate? That is not a bad task to set ourselves very now and then; it is very easy to be tempted to conjure up a Jesus who is rather unlike the Jesus we find in the gospels – and indeed in a hymn like the one Paul put to use in his epistle to the church at Philippi.

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but humbled himself.