This is a transcript from the March 1, 2020 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
This morning, I want you to imagine with me that we are caught up in a world pandemic. I'm not talking about the Coronavirus, and yes, we are making plans we'll roll those out in the weeks to come. I want you to imagine something much bigger than what we're talking about. It's bigger than the SARS outbreak. It'd be bigger than the 1918 flu. This is the kind that took place in the first and the second centuries, and the mortality rate was such that anywhere between 25 and 50% of the people who would catch it would die. Imagine just how absolutely devastating that would be, and in fact, it did happen.
Historians aren't sure exactly what it was that caused this, their best guess is that it might be something like smallpox. Imagine that the stories are coming and whole cities are wiped out, that people would come across whole battalions of people of the military and they are just dead in the field with no wounds. Imagine a world where no one has any idea how any of this gets transmitted, the terror that comes through.
I was thinking about that this week when I was thinking about our sermon and it seemed like our conversations this week, and the last several weeks around our own, on the cusp of pandemic, are about what we would do and how we would do it. Given all the tools we've got, take all those away and now deal with that because that's exactly the situation that the Roman world found itself in.
Imagine the fear that comes in and the typical standard response would be to flee, flee the city, flee your friends, flee the people who have it even in your own family because it is just out of the terror of that. This is not just imagining, one of the writers of the day talking about similar plagues of their day in the Greek world said, "They died with no one to look after them. Indeed, there were many houses in which inhabitants perished through lack of any attention. The bodies of the dying were heaped on top of one another. Half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets, flocking around fountains in their desire for water."
Then imagine that there is one group that's going in the other direction, even as everyone is fleeing away, there's another group that is moving back in and caring for and staying with their loved ones, and these would be the followers of, what was derisively called, the followers of the Galilean, who stayed with people, and not only their own family and their own friends but then we begin to extend that comfort and care to other people.
This is the world that is described by the way in a book called, The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark. The subtitle is, How the Obscure Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. What he is proposing as a sociologist and just doing charts and walking numbers and all, is he's proposing that the rise of Christianity could be attributed to nothing more but nothing less than a group of people who were taking Jesus seriously.
That we should care for one another and we should help each other, and we should love including our enemies and care. What he does is he goes back and he's talking to different people and he says, yes, 25 to 50% of the people would die but you could cut that number dramatically with just simple care. Somebody there to make sure they had clean water and food and a blanket and just human comfort, you could drop that number by two thirds.
Now imagine a world where in one hand, half the world, twenty-five to half the world is dying, and then two thirds less are over here. The questions that people would ask, "What kind of God is this? What kind of people are this?" He said it's not that charity wasn't known in the Roman world. It's known in every world, but it was never tied to their religions. In the religions of the day, there was this idea that you could appease, and you could appeal to a God and God might give you a favor, but was never tied to any ethical demand because the gods had no ethical demands on people, they had no idea of love.
He says, here's this new idea, and it was taking the Judeo Christian world and bringing it to here and that now you have this thing where the demands of God demands now a highly ethical response, and that's part of what it meant to believe in this God. It would change everything, and he says, "These were revolutionary ideas."
These were revolutionary ideas because in fact, then people would begin to wonder, what kind of God is this that actually loves people? Because the old gods didn't love, they weren't even capable of it. Not only that, but they loved people, but then they demand that if you were going to follow that you would love others and you would give yourself and you would even sacrifice because that's the kind of God that this was. What kind of a God is this?
It's the kind of God that's reflected in our passage this morning, and what we're going to be reading is, it's in your bulletin. It's Philippians chapter two verses one to 11.
"If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing of the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete, be of the same mind, have the same love, be 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." This part's bolded because this is the memory verse that I'm hoping that we will take to heart and meditate on through the next several weeks as we get to Easter. "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus."
The title of this series is, "What was Jesus thinking when he was talking about all these things?" It helps to know what Jesus was thinking if we're going to have the same mind. What mind are we supposed to have? He describes it further when he says, "Who being in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited 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."
What we are reading, and if you look in your own Bible, it will be set off as if it were poetry. We believe, scholars believe, and the reason it's done that way is because we believe that what Paul is quoting is one of the ancient hymns. That he's referring to hymn that people would have sung and chanted every time they would have gotten together. He's referring to what they already know about how this God comes and empties Himself and becomes human in the form of a slave and even to the point of death on a cross.
"And therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name so that the name of Jesus, every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord for the glory of God, the father."
What kind of a God is this, and while we're pondering that the key to this hymn, the key to this passage, and the key to understanding how people could run in the opposite direction in a time of great peril has to do with the word emptied. "Who being in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself." The Greek word is actually, kenosis. You can amaze your friends and family at the next party.
Kenosis means to empty. It means to let go of it. It means to give away, and at the heart of this hymn, in the heart is this understanding of, if you want to understand the mind of Christ, this is what you got to understand, that this was what Christ was doing, that Christ was not grabbing hold of and clutching the idea of divinity and clutching all the trappings that go with power and authority, but chose to give and to empty. If you don't understand that then you can't possibly understand how Jesus is later washing his disciples' feet, imploring his disciples, says, "Listen, if you're going to follow me, you better learn to be servant of one another." You'll never understand, and we can never grasp why Jesus is talking all about the little ones and what you did or didn't do to the least of these you did to me. We can never understand why there is such a big emphasis on forgiveness, or how the first could become last and the last could become first.
Without kenosis, almost none of what Jesus does make sense. With kenosis and that understanding that that's the thread, suddenly it holds together everything from the cradle in Bethlehem, right to the foot of the cross in Jerusalem. Now it begins to make sense when we understand and grab hold of this, what Jesus was doing, what was in the mind of Christ and why it was happening.
It had to do with emptying. It is this idea that there are now two different versions of God. There is the old gods of the world, God, 1.0 and the gods who sat on high and were impervious and aloof, and were about power and authority like Zeus or Jupiter, depending on where you were at the time and what point in history, and now God 2.0 a different way of coming at God is Jesus. That this is a God who stoops, who bends, who serves, who bleeds, who dies and loves. Depending on the God that you have, you will come up with a whole version.
You will have a completely different understanding of faith. You'll have a completely different understanding of yourself as well because it is still true that what we worship, what we adore, that's what we become. What we are attracted to and entranced by that begins to shape and form us. Can you see how, depending on which God you have and the version of God, 1.0 or 2.0 would dramatically change the way you saw the world. It would medically change the way you saw yourself.
"Have this mind," Paul says. "Have the mind of the one who doesn't sit on high and does aloof and is all about power and authority and control and might. Have the mind of the one who empties and gives because that's God. Whether it's in the Old Testament or the New Testament, it's the same God who empties, who cares for the orphan and the widow and all of creation, and is concerned, and pour self out."
As you're doing that back up to this other part of this same passage, because in this passage if you'll look, I actually changed a word that from the translation that we have in there. It is the passage, "Who though He was in the form of God, or who because He was in the form of God." What I put is just, "Who being in the form of God," which is actually pretty close to the original Greek, but some translations have said, "Who though He was in the form of God," even though He was like this, He chose to do this, but it's just as accurate to the text to say, "Because He was God, because He was in the form of divinity, He chose to do this." Which one is it?
The answer's yes. It's both. They both work and it depends on where you're coming from. If you're coming from a God 1.0, if you're coming from humanity 1.0 where the whole point is to be godlike and you want to emulate your god, and you want to gather authority and power and control and that's what the good life looks like, when it's your ego that's in the way, the old self, the old humanity, the flesh, all the different words that the Bible uses, they're all pointing at the same thing. Then you use the word though.
If you come at it from God 2.0, if you come at it from humanity 2.0 that this is the very essence of God, then you'd say, "Well, it's because he was in the form of God, of course, He would do this. This is what God does."They both work. It depends on what point of view you're coming from, but the message is still the same. It is to give yourself away, and that Jesus is giving us not just a new and more accurate understanding and picture of who God is, in the same motion, He is also saying, "This is what the new humanity looks like, by the way, this is who you are created to be, by the way, this is what should shape your life."
Why is this important? It's important for a number of reasons, including you may have also heard that this is an election year. You may not have heard that, but there's people who are even discussing politics, and in that politics it is more than a little polarized, and people are wondering what are we supposed to do with this, and how do I enter my faith in those kinds of conversations?
Here's what I want to say, that the conversations that are there are good as long as they're about the right thing, because at the base of this, if this is what Jesus is showing us, what Jesus is saying is that people matter, all people matter. There are no people for whom they matter more or they matter less. It doesn't matter whether they are immigrants or whether they are the sick or whether they are the poor. It doesn't matter if they are special needs or if they are hungry or if they are children, they all matter. As soon as you begin to go with the old God version of the old humanity and then you've got some who are more worthy than others. What Jesus did was bring all that, that everyone matters. All humanity matters.
The conversations can and should be about how do we care for these people? There are Republican answers and Democratic answers and Independent answers. There's conservative, there's liberal, there's progressive, there's socialists, there's all kinds of different answers. Those are to be debated as long as the question is how do we, not if we should. Because at the core of the Christian understanding is that all people matter and you don't get to start from the point of, well, some people are going to matter more and some people get to matter less. That's humanity 1.0.
What Jesus has done, He's brought everyone all together and says, "Now you have to have a different set of conversations. It's not a matter of if, only how." And the second thing then it says is, how are we to embody this? How are we to go about this? If it's still the old model, if it's still a humanity 1.0, well, then I can condescend and I will give a little bit of myself even though I don't have to, even though it's about power and control and I've got some, well, so I'll give a little bit over here because I will condescend to that.
It's even though. If it's because I'm in the image of God, and this is who God is, then, of course, I give myself away. That's what it means to be truly human. Now I'm cooperating with God, not condescending to the situation. I no longer need to appease God and somehow get God to look on me with favor or other people. I no longer get to pretend that anything I'm doing is anything other than giving myself away and cooperating in this world with what God is already doing.
Now, how we going to work that out is, I mentioned this last week and I'm going to mention it throughout lent. There's a practice and the practice has to do with our two hands that are now thoroughly washed and with all kinds of alcohol rinse, and as we do that, the first hand it has to do with the five acts or the five expressions of gratitude every day. At least five expressions of gratitude every day. What are you grateful for? Write it down. Get in the practice of it. Don't be just doing it mindlessly or unconsciously. Talk about it at the dinner table, find a friend or with your life group, talk about what have been those things. Get in the habit of noticing and expressing at least five things every day.
Then with the other hand, what are five acts of generosity, of kindness, of giving myself away, of emptying myself for the sake of others? Where can I give my time, my energy, my attention? Where can I walk across the street, and even though I'm a very, very busy person, because there's very busy things going on, can stop and listen? Where does it take me to the people who are in grief and in sorrow? How will I express myself and give myself away? This is a line that's very subjective. Only you will know when you've crossed it because you know where you would normally stop.
Five acts of gratitude, five acts of generosity, small things, but these are the small things that prepare us for larger acts. These are the things that can prepare us so that when the big things come, we are moving in the right direction. These are the things that as we do them, they begin to shape the way we think. It is through our habits and our actions that we begin to take on the mind of Christ, who, because he was God, who of course gave Himself away, and then calls us to do the same so that we have not only the mind of Christ, but we begin to bear the image of the new humanity.