Monday, April 04, 2016


Philippians 2:5-11[1]
I think it’s fair to say that a life of service in the name of Christ is not an easy path. After all, his path led him to a brutal execution. If we set out to follow him expecting to experience only joy and blessing, I’m afraid we may be deeply disappointed. The reality is that many who serve others in the name of Christ can find themselves facing not only frustration and discouragement, but also exhaustion and burn-out. This is true not only for pastors but also for anyone who takes seriously the call walk in Jesus’ footsteps. When you give so much of yourself to so many people, you can find yourself feeling empty at the end of the day.
The truth of the matter is that this is a feature of human life that is not restricted to the church. It affects people of all classes, in all walks of life, engaged in a variety of vocations. You give of yourself on behalf of those you love, or on behalf of those you work with, or on behalf of total strangers, and it can leave you feeling empty. When you stretch that kind of experience into days and weeks and months and years, it can make you begin to wonder why you even get out of bed in the morning. The simple fact is that life can be challenging and hard and draining at times. And there is no “free pass” that exempts those of us who follow Christ and trust in God from experiencing that emptiness.
I think, however, that our lesson from St. Paul for today might give us some inspiration here. In the context of this chapter of Philippians, Paul is trying to instruct the Christians about how to live together in community with one another. He urges them to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” and to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil 2:2-3).[2] Paul sums up the kind of relationships he wants to see in the church in terms of imitating the same attitude Jesus displayed (Phil. 2:5).
I find it interesting when Paul spells out what that looks like, he quotes what was probably an early Christian hymn.[3] In fact, the believers in the church at Philippi may very well have been familiar with this hymn. I also find it interesting that this hymn about Jesus only actually refers to two acts Jesus took: the act of “emptying himself” to become human, and the act of “humbling himself” to die on the cross. If we want to know how much we’re to give up in service to others, Paul points to these two acts that reflect the incredibly generous and giving heart of Jesus, as well as God himself.
Scholars have debated for centuries what exactly it was that Jesus gave up when he “emptied himself.” I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that question in this life. But it seems, however, the main point is that Jesus was equal to God, and rather than clinging to that status as something that was his by right, he gave it up to come among us as a servant in order to redeem us all.[4] If that were as far as it went, Jesus would be the most amazing example of self-sacrifice. And yet there’s more: not only did Jesus give up everything to come among us, he also “humbled himself” by obeying God’s will to redeem us all through suffering love.[5] Jesus chose to surrender himself to one of the cruelest means of death ever devised.[6] And so, at the end of his life as at the beginning, he made the choice to sacrifice himself in a way that surpasses our ability to understand or imagine.
If you’re like me, you may be thinking that’s a pretty hard act to follow. You may be wondering how any of us could ever hope to even come close to the kind of loving sacrifice that Jesus made not only by choosing to come as one of us, but also by giving up his life for us all. I must confess there have been times when I myself have asked God how I could keep sacrificing and keep serving when Jesus “only” hung on the cross for six hours. When you think about a lifetime of “taking up your cross” and following Christ in a life of sacrifice and service, it can be an intimidating prospect.
I think one of the practical questions we face is how we can maintain the energy and the motivation to continue following Jesus’ example, as demanding as it can be. I think our expectations may play a significant role in how we experience a life of service. If we expect recognition or reward for our service, we are probably setting ourselves up for serious disappointment, if not flat-out defeat.[7] Rather than expecting any kind of return for following Jesus’ example, I think at least a part of the answer to this question may be to view a life of service as fulfilling and meaningful in and of itself.[8] We don’t derive our sense of satisfaction with our lives from what we get from our service. We simply offer it because following Jesus is the way to find true life.
We can all face times in our lives when the challenge of living out our faith can seem overwhelming. That’s when we can look to Jesus for encouragement and inspiration. His willingness to give up his rights to come among us as a servant inspires us to do the same in our relationships with others. His death on the cross not only brings us forgiveness and new life, it also serves as an example for us to follow.[9] I will not pretend that seeking to follow Christ in either of these ways is easy or that it will bring any special recognition. We do it because that’s what Jesus called us to do. And as we answer that call and follow his example, we find that giving ourselves away in service to others can leave us not empty but fulfilled in a way that no other life endeavor could possibly match.

[1] © Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/20/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Morna D. Hooker, “The Letter To The Philippians,” New Interpreters Bible XI: 515-16, where she summarizes Paul’s intent: “Those who confess Jesus as Lord should not be looking for status or power; nor should they be acting from ‘selfish ambition or conceit’ (2:3). Rather, they should be humbly considering others better than themselves. And because they are concerned with the interests of others (2:4), they will be of one mind and one purpose, ‘having the same love’ and of one accord (2:2). In stark contrast to the modern spirit of encouraging competition and giving rewards to individuals who get to the top, Paul insists on mutual concern and service.”
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Philippians, 39: “Paul is quoting a hymn which arose in another context to address another problem, perhaps a Christological question. Christological hymns and confessions are not uncommon in Paul’s writings and they seem, by internal structure and relation to their literary contexts, to be quotations from a common store of materials used in the worship of Gentile Christian churches (I Cor. 8:6; II Cor. 8:9; Col. 1:15-20, and others).”
[4] Cf. Hooker, “Philippians,” NIB XI:507. She points out that there is an implicit contrast with Adam in this part of the passage: “Christ, who was ‘in the form of God,’ might well have claimed the privileges of equality with God as his right, but did not do so. What Adam desired, Christ was content to forgo.” And yet she also rightly observes (ibid., 508), “Christ did not cease to be ‘in the form of God’ when he took the form of a slave, any more than he ceased to be the ‘Son of God’ when he was sent into the world. On the contrary, it is in his self-emptying and his humiliation that he reveals what God is like, and it is through his taking the form of a slave that we see ‘the form of God.’”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, 40: “Christ entered into this humiliation and this forsakenness so that he could become a brother for the humiliated and forsaken, and bring them God’s kingdom. He doesn’t help through supernatural miracles. He helps by virtue of his own suffering—through his wounds. ‘Only the suffering God can help’, wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his death cell. God always helps first of all by suffering with us. …The God of Jesus Christ is the God who is on the side of the victims and the sufferers, in solidarity with them.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:164-66, where he summarizes the New Testament references to this theme. He says (ibid., 166), “The story of Gethsemane (like the story of the temptation at the beginning of the Gospels) shows two things: first, that we have to do with His genuine human decision; and second, that it is a decision of obedience. He chooses, but He chooses that apart from which, being who He is, He could not choose anything else.”
[6] Cf. Hooker, “Philippians,” NIB XI:509. She says, “More than two thousand years of Christian piety have obscured from us the shock and horror with which these final words would have been heard by their original audience. Crucifixion was the cruelest and most shameful of deaths, and there could be no greater contrast with the opening lines of the “hymn,” or with the exaltation that follows.”
[7] Cf. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, reprinted in Ministry and Spirituality, 155-56. Nouwen warns that many of those who base their Christian lives on the search for visible results “have become disillusioned, bitter, and even hostile” to the faith “when years of hard work bear no fruit.” He advises that our ability to continue to serve others is not based on the results we see, but rather on the hope that is firmly grounded in Christ’s victory over death itself, which demonstrates “that there is light on the other side of darkness.”
[8] Cf. Craddock, Philippians, 42: “Christ acted in our behalf without view of gain. That is precisely what God has exalted and vindicated: self-denying service for others to the point of death with no claim of return, no eye upon a reward.”
[9] Cf. Craddock, Philippians, 42: “The central event in the drama of salvation is an act of humble service.”

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