Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
September 28, 2014
Woody Allen has observed that 80% of success is showing up. If we don’t show up because we don’t think we have anything of great significance to contribute, the result is nothing.
Roger Lovette, a Baptist pastor in Alabama, wrote that his son went to Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains Georgia to hear Jimmy Carter teach Sunday school, and found this notice in the Sunday bulletin, “Rosalynn Carter will clean the church next Saturday. Jimmy Carter will cut the grass and trim the shrubbery.” The Christian Century, September 20, 2005, p. 20
A story is told of George Washington when he was chatting with the French General Lafayette and a slave walked by and tipped his hat and said, “Good Morning, General Washington.” Washington immediately took off his hat, bowed to the slave and responded, “Good Morning Sir, have a good day.” Lafayette asked, “Why did you bow to a slave?” Washington smiled and said, “I must be as much a gentlemen as he.” (undocumented, drawn from First Christian Church, Duncanville, TX newsletter - http://www.fccduncanville.org/userFiles/3335/9-24-14_news.pdf)
Exalted living is humbly giving ourselves for others in congruence with Jesus.
To fully appreciate the passage we read from Philippians 2:1‑13, we need to know that Philippi was a Roman colony in eastern Macedonia. Its citizens were proud that they were treated as if living in Rome itself, and were highly loyal to the Emperor, who was Nero at the time. They saluted each other in the street with “Caesar is lord,” to which the person greeted responded, “The lord is Caesar.” This was a huge challenge for the Christians whose central affirmation was “Jesus is Lord,” which was considered disloyal if not treasonous.
Verses 5-11 seem to be a hymn that celebrated the faith of the early Church. It may have been written by Paul, but I (and others) think the church in Philippi may have already known it, so Paul could use it for teaching about exalted living. It works as a hymn in Greek but is structured like Hebrew poetry, so may have been translated from Aramaic. It gives us a clearly focused portrait of Jesus.
To encourage us not to look for our own interests but the interests of others, Paul said to have the same mind as Jesus when he humbled himself even to death on a cross for our salvation. This went way beyond encouraging us to follow Jesus’ example the best we can. He was telling us to let the mind of Jesus work in us so we live Jesus from the inside out.
The content of the hymn is also deeply rooted in the Hebrew prophets, such as the Servant Song in Isaiah 53. In God’s divine economy, humiliation is the path to exaltation. Exalted living is humbly giving ourselves for others in congruence with Jesus.
Matthew 21:23-32 gives us Jesus’ own perspective when he was confronted about his authority during Holy Week. On what we call Palm Sunday, he had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, symbolic of the humble king in Zechariah 9:9. The people proclaimed him “son of David,” implying royal authority and the prophet from Galilee, implying divine authority. With these shouts of acclamation echoing in the Temple, he drove out the merchants. Blind and lame folk came to him, and he cured them. With children running and shouting in the Temple, Jesus taught those who gathered. The next day the Temple leaders were ready and waiting for him.
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
Jesus was not evading the challenge of the Temple leaders. His response with a question and a parable were typical rabbinical. Jesus pointedly aligned and identified himself with John the Baptist. He was completing the mission John had started and handed over to Jesus. So Jesus claimed for himself the same authority as John. If the Temple leaders said John’s authority came from God or heaven, they’d be acknowledging Jesus was making the same claim. If they said John’s authority was human self-appointment, they’d have to call John and Jesus false prophets, which not only would land them in trouble with the people but expose their own hypocrisy.
Jesus’ parable of the two sons is just complex enough to prevent a simplistic equation of the Temple leaders with the second son and the tax collectors and prostitutes with the first. By affirming John as coming in the way of righteousness, Jesus not only claiming to do that too, he overtly told the temple leaders that when they saw the tax collectors and prostitutes repenting and being baptized by John, they should have recognized God was redeeming the least likely and changed their minds and repented too.
With this mission, Jesus overtly claimed authority from God in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
On April 30, 1944, a year before he was executed, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who poured out his life at the hands of the Nazis because he refused to allow the church to be the tool of oppression, wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge: “The church is the church only when it exists for others. … The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. … It must not underestimate the importance of human example which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 2nd ed., ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 203-4.
Sometimes we exempt ourselves from the challenges of past heroes because we do not feel we are in such cataclysmic circumstances. To paraphrase Woody Allan, in ordinary circumstances, 80% of faithfulness is showing up. No opportunity is too humble to be given for others.
An effective interim journey between pastors depends of not looking to your own interests but to the interest of others. Your Search and Call Committee will not be looking for a new pastor who will suit your personal preferences but one who can lead you in the way of righteousness so those who may seem unlikely to you can be transformed by Jesus.From exuberant celebration to unquenchable grief, empathetic presence is what people value most, not profound principles, not heroic deeds, not sensible advice. As Henri Nouwen used to say, “The way to show someone how valuable they are is to waste time with them.” Exalted living is humbly giving ourselves for others in congruence with Jesus.