Saturday, October 04, 2014

Forgetting Ourselves

Forgetting Ourselves
Philippians 2:1-13[1]
I find it interesting that the people who study social trends in our culture identified the generation that came of age in the 1980’s as the “me generation.” After the oil shortages of the late 70’s ended, the decade of the 80’s was a time of unprecedented prosperity for many in our country. What were once luxuries became necessities. More and more homes had microwave ovens and personal computers. Cars became increasingly more “loaded” with features, which also “loaded” the price tag. For the first time, “Upward Mobility” became clearly visible, as couples with two careers and no children began buying cars and houses that were more expensive than anything their parents ever dreamed of owning. There were a lot of people living “Life in the Fast Lane.”[2]
And yet, I’m not sure calling that age group the “me generation” is fair. Yes, it was an age of excess, but I think to some extent they got a bad rap. It seems to me the truth is that every generation has its own version of self-serving behaviors. We may not acknowledge that our actions are self-serving, even to ourselves. But the sages and prophets throughout the centuries have been able to see through our disguises and have pointed out that being self-serving is fundamental to the nature of what it means to be human. They’ve done so, and they’ve called us to a different way of living, a way defined by setting aside our selfish obsessions and serving others.
I believe that’s a major part of what St. Paul was telling the believers at Philippi in our lesson for today. He used the example of Jesus humbling himself, emptying himself, ultimately giving up his life for us all as the pattern for the kind of “mindset” that defines the Christian life.[3] And on the basis of Christ’s example, he called those who professed to follow him to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 1:12). That may sound strange to those of us who are used to hearing that salvation is a gift from God. But I think what St. Paul had in mind was that our salvation is a process by which we are continually being conformed to the character that Jesus Christ exhibited in his life.
If you’re wondering what that looks like, I think Paul answers that question at the very beginning of the lesson. I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message: “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care--then do me a favor: ... Don’t push your way to the front; .... Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. ... Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand” (Phil. 2:1-4). When you hear it that way, it sounds like quite a challenge!
So, if the sages and prophets are right in pointing out that we all are fundamentally self-serving, then how do we accomplish this feat of “forgetting ourselves,” or “putting ourselves aside”? It might seem like that kind of conversion, a transformation that runs to the very core of our being, would be impossible for us to achieve. Who of us ever really ever gets past our selfishness? And yet, even in the midst of the challenge Paul proposes, he reminds us that “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Or as the Contemporary English Version puts it: “God is working in you to make you willing and able to obey him.” In other words, salvation is still something God does in us, even when it comes to “forgetting ourselves” and serving others. It is God’s marvelous and mysterious work of “conforming us to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29).[4]
And yet, even though this is God’s work in us, we still have a part in “working out our own salvation.” Some call our part in this ongoing conversion process “becoming what you are in Christ.”[5] Or as another translation puts it, this is a matter of “putting into action God’s saving work in your lives” (Phil. 2:12, New Living Translation).  It is always true that salvation is a gift that comes from God’s grace and mercy. But at the same time it is also true that we have to respond to God’s grace.[6]
Again, if you’re wondering what it means to “put into action God’s saving work in your life,” then I think we have to go back to what St. Paul’s point was in the beginning. He calls us all to “put ourselves aside.” He calls us all to move beyond the selfishness that is our fundamental nature. He calls us all to get past our own self-serving behaviors. And I think the essential clue to how we do that is found in his description of what Christ did. St. Paul says that he “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7). That might make it as clear as mud for many of you. Just how does one “empty oneself”? In Jesus’ case, he did so by surrendering his rights and claims and giving his life for us all.[7]
I think that the key to all of this is a matter of surrender.[8] At some point in life, if we’re going to get past our inherent selfishness, we have to surrender. We have to surrender what we think we want out of life. We have to surrender the willfulness of thinking we should get our own way. That opens up the door for us to be grateful for life as it is. It makes it possible for us to be thankful for the new life God is working out in us continually. And it seems to me that when we become grateful people, then we can follow Christ’s example in the way we live and interact with those around us. Then we can “put into action God’s saving work in our lives.” Then we can “forget ourselves” and serve others.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/28/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] For further details, see the Wikipedia article, “Me Generation”; The phrase “Life in the Fast Lane” is the title of a song recorded by The Eagles on the album “Hotel California,” Asylum Records, 1976
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.1:517; 4.1:635.  Cf. also J├╝rgen Moltman, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 103, where he describes this in terms of “selfless service” that follows the example of Jesus’ sacrifice. See also Morna Hooker, “The Letter to the Philippians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:499, where she points out that this kind of humility was not viewed as a virtue in the Greco-Roman world, but rather as a kind of servility.
[4] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (DBW 4), 282: “To those who have heard the call to be disciples of Jesus Christ is given the incomprehensibly great promise that they are to become like Christ. They are to bear his image as the brothers and sisters of the firstborn Son of God. To become like Christ--that is what disciples are ultimately destined to become.”
[5] Cf. Morna Hooker, “The Letter to the Philippians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:499
[6] Cf. Hooker, “Letter to the Philippians,” NIB XI:512: in Phil. 2:5-11 Paul outlines “the gracious action of God in Christ, but that gracious action demands a response—what Paul elsewhere describes as ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom 1:5). The Philippians are to complete what God has done by living it out in their own lives.”
[7] Jesus’ ultimate surrender came in facing his impending death with the prayer “Not my will but thine be done,” and by dying with the prayer, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” both of which reflect ultimate trust in God. Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 144, where he paraphrases the latter prayer as “it is up to you, God, what becomes of me, and I am willing to have it so.” Cf. also Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, 122: Jesus’ whole life “was characterized by self-surrender, self-renunciation, and self-sacrifice.” Cf. further Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 360.
[8] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 9, where he observes that our encounter with God moves us “beyond the sphere in which we have some mastery….” Cf. also Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 8:  “To finally surrender ourselves to healing, we have to have three spaces opened up within us--and all at the same time: our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body.” Cf. further Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could not Be a Christian, 185-86.

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