A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on September 25, 201

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Philippians 2:1-16

Who do you think is the greatest person of all time?  What is the measure of greatness?  Is it conquering the most land throughout one’s life?  Is it having power and authority over a lot of people?  Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years with a heavy hand, getting rid of all who would challenge his power and authority.  Earlier this year, he commanded his troops to attack demonstrators who protested against him, which led to a Civil War and eventually to his loss of international recognition as Libya’s ruler.  When reporters finally examined Gaddafi’s deserted compound, they found that his sons lived a life of decadent luxury, while terrorizing and torturing their house servants.  Gaddafi called himself ‘the Brother Leader’, ‘Guide of the Revolution’ and the ‘King of Kings’, but would we consider him great?

As Christians, what is the measure of greatness?  How can we become great as followers of Jesus?  Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 20:25-28: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus taught his disciples that the path of greatness in the kingdom of God is to imitate Him in being a servant.  In today’s Epistle lesson, the apostle Paul exhorted the Christians in Philippi to imitate Christ, to have the same mind, the same attitude as that of Christ in order to promote unity and harmony within that church.  Paul then recited a familiar hymn to drive home his point, and this is how Pastor Eugene Peterson puts that hymn in today’s language: “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what.  Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.”

Imagine that!  The very son of God, who could have lived a life of luxury at God’s right hand with the power of a legion of angels at his command, chose not to take advantage of his position or cling to the privileges of his divine status.  Instead, he took on the status of a slave and became a human being even to the point of dying on the cross.  In the ancient world, no one could conceive of a “god” acting this way, and no one would use the word “great” to describe a slave.  Alexander the Great was “great” because he was a powerful conqueror of the known world.  Alexander the Great was considered a “god” because he ruled the world, not because he was a slave to all. 

Because Christ was able to let go of what was rightfully his, because Christ humbled himself by all worldly standards to identify with the lost, the least, the losers and the last.  As a result, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 

And what are the implications of Christ’s identification with us human beings have for us?  Dr. Peter Hammond eloquently delineates the implications in this way:

[Jesus] became like us – that we might become like Him.
He was rejected – that we might be accepted.
He was condemned – that we might be forgiven.
He was punished – that we might be pardoned.
He suffered – that we might be strengthened.
He was whipped – that we might be healed.
He was hated – that we might be loved.
He was crucified – that we might be justified.
He was tortured – that we might be comforted.
He died – that we might live.
He went to hell – that we might go to heaven.
He endured what we deserve – that we might enjoy what only He deserves.[1]

Amen?  Do you really believe this?  Do you really believe that in Christ, we are fully accepted, forgiven, pardoned, strengthened, healed, loved, justified, and comforted?  Do you really believe that, because of Christ, we might go to heaven and enjoy what only Jesus deserves? 

There is a way to know whether you truly believe this or not.  In today’s passage, Paul tells us that if we truly believe this, it will show in our attitude and behavior towards others and towards life.  If we truly believe that we are fully accepted and loved by God, then we will imitate Christ’s attitude by not grasping for acceptance and love when we feel rejected and hated.  If we truly believe that we are divinely forgiven and pardoned, then we will imitate Christ’s attitude by forgiving others when we are wrongly condemned and punished.  If we truly believe that we are strengthened and healed, then we will not lash out at others when we feel weak and whipped.  If we truly believe that in Christ, we have infinite worth and value, then we will freely humble ourselves and become a servant while letting go of selfish ambition and vain conceit.  You will no longer feel a need for praise and exaltation of the world; instead, you will trust that God will raise you up just as God raised Jesus up, both from the dead and in stature and status.  Jesus became like us . . . even to the point of identifying with the lost, the least, the losers and the last of this world . . . so that we might become like Him.

If only more Christians would resemble Christ more . . . what a difference the world would be!  No, that’s a wrong statement for me to make.  The right statement is, if only I would resemble Christ more, what a difference the world would be!  I confess that I’m still a slave to selfish ambition, vain conceit, and I look down on some people and consider myself better than them.  I need God’s grace and forgiveness!  And let me be really clear here.  I . . . we cannot do any of these things as a way to earn God’s acceptance or approval, to merit God’s forgiveness and salvation.  No!  We are empowered to imitate Christ or become like Him because of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit already at work in our lives.  That’s why Paul writes: If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion . . . in other words, if you have the presence of God already within . . . then, Paul says, make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.  God’s salvation is a free gift, but once we receive it, we are invited, encouraged, exhorted and commended to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, in other words with reverence, respect and humility, knowing that it is God who works in us according to God’s purpose.  And when that happens, I believe that we as a Christian community will experience a like-minded unity, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.  Because then, we would do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility we would consider others better than yourselves.  Then, each of us would look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others.  We would willingly give up any privileges we think we have in order to stand in solidarity with the lost, the least, the losers and the last of this world, just like the way Jesus Christ did for us.

Author Phil Harrison wrote a parable to illustrate this idea.  It goes something like this: The other day I had a dream.  I dreamed I arrived at the gates of heaven, heavy-shut, pure oak, bevelled and grafted, glinting sharp in the sunlight.  St. Peter stood to greet me.

            “You’re here,” he said.

            “I am,” I said.

            “Great to see you–been expecting you,” he smiled. “Come on in.”

He pushed gently against the huge door; it swung silently.  I took a couple of steps forward until, at the threshold, one more step up and in, I realized I wasn’t alone.  I looked back and saw my friends, but they hovered behind, silently looking on.  None spoke.  I realized only I could speak.  I looked at my friends: some were Christians, some Muslims, some Jews, some atheists, some gay, some greedy, some drunkards, some slanderers, some swindlers.  Some God knows what.  I stopped, paused.  A hesitant St. Peter looked at me, patiently, expectantly.

            “What about these guys?” I asked him.  “My friends.  Can they come?”

            “Well, Phil,” he replied, soft in the still air, “you know the rules.  I’m sorry, but that’s the way things are.  Only the right ones.”

I looked at him.  He seemed genuinely pained by his answer.  I stood, considering.  What should I do?  Then I thought about Jesus, who was labeled the outsider, the glutton and drunkard, the heretic, the criminal, and I knew exactly where I belonged. 

            “I’ll just stay here then too,” I said, taking my one foot out of heaven. 

And I’ll tell you, I’d swear I saw something like a grin break across St. Peter’s face, and a voice from inside whispered, “At last.”[2]

May the Spirit of God grant us an attitude the same as that of Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen

[1] http://www.frontline.org.za/articles/greatest%20man.htm.

[2] Adapted from a parable written by Phil Harrison, cited in Peter Rollins, The Fidelity of Betrayal, p. 171-172.

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