Rennie Memorial Presbyterian Church
September 28, 2014; Ordinary 26A
I’m a sports fan.
I don’t actually watch football anymore due to the issues of long-term brain trauma among its former players, but otherwise I’m either a fan of many sports or at least curious about them.
I’ve been a big baseball fan ever since Hank Aaron was on the verge of breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record. I lived in Lawrence, Kansas, for four years, and college basketball is huge there, like nowhere else. I confess I’ve never quite understood hockey, but I do enjoy sports like tennis and golf.
The newest sport to come under my fan inquisitiveness is soccer – you know, what the rest of the world calls “football.” It’s not as if I’ve been unaware of it before, but aside from the occasional World Cup I, like many Americans, didn’t pay a whole lot of attention. That changed a little over three years ago, when I went to a match in Kansas City, in a brand new stadium for that city’s team in Major League Soccer. The fancy new setting, the crowd, the rising and falling tension of the match itself, all of these worked together to get me hooked. Since then I’ve attended a few games of the local side in Richmond, that plays in a lower-level league, and I have tickets to a major-league match in DC this weekend. So I’m following it pretty closely for someone who’s only been into the game for a few years.
I’m still learning the game itself, but I have picked up on a few things. One of those is that for the most part, soccer embodies the whole concept of “teamwork” in a way that few other sports do. Yes, all sports of that sort make some claim on “teamwork,” and many times such sports justify their existence (particularly among youth) on the skills of “teamwork” that they are supposed to teach.
In fact, though, many “team” sports are a series of individual matchups at heart. The batter and pitcher are a classic example of such an individual contest within a team contest, but football relies on such matchups too – lineman blocking lineman, wide receiver against defensive back, and so on. Basketball comes closer to that kind of widespread teamwork, but it’s a much smaller sport – only five to a side, versus the eleven per side on the soccer pitch.
While occasionally an individual player will make a stirring dash down the pitch with the ball, sliding in and out of defenders and thrilling the crowd with a miraculous strike, in most cases it takes a remarkably coordinated effort of those eleven players to advance the ball against the defense. Players are crossing, sprinting out to the wings, dropping back or sprinting forward. The ball swings from side to side, sometimes struck into the middle for an attempt to split the defense, or crossed from one corner in front of the goal for a teammate to intercept and strike – with feet, head, hip, anything but hands – into the goal.
For the defense as well, overall team coordination is a must. If one player gets too far out of position in trying to intercept a cross or steal the ball from the other team, a hole is opened that the rest of the team has to try to plug before an opportunistic opponent sends the ball into the back of the net.
I can’t help but think that the Apostle Paul, not above athletic references and metaphors himself, would find something to appreciate about the intensity of coordination required in this sport. This is a man who, after all, has quite an interest – an obsession, some of his readers probably thought – with the whole idea of unity of purpose and coordination of effort and energy that he saw as the necessary, irreplaceable requirement for the still-developing church to survive and function in a world that ranged from indifferent to hostile.
In some of his letters he compared the church to a body – an instrument that requires intensive and continuing unity of effort and coordination to function at all. If one member of the body suffered, in Paul’s view, all of the members of the body suffered with it. The body could not be whole, could not move and work and function as a whole, if any one part was hindered or wounded.
Here in Philippians, Paul’s tack is slightly different. Following an extended discussion of the nature of Christ and of life in Christ, Paul instructs his hearers in Philippi on the idea of unity. The language he uses echoes his instruction in other letters such as the Corinthian correspondence and the (later) letter to the Romans without being exactly the same. Here Paul speaks of the followers of Christ as “be(ing) of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
Now a naïve reading of a passage like this can cause us modern readers to be discouraged, quite frankly. It doesn’t take much of a look around to see that there is not much evidence that we are of the same mind or have the same love. Wars and rumors of wars multiply faster than we can count. Our political sphere is thoroughly polluted with contentiousness. We don’t even have to look outside our own denomination to see disagreement , but if we do we will see that no corner of the church seems immune to disunity and aggressive hatred instead of love.
Furthermore, scripture itself shows us that the people of God don’t have a whole lot of history of oneness and love. Today’s Exodus reading offers a rather stark example of the people of God – in this case, the Hebrew people freshly delivered from enslavement in Egypt – falling into disunity and quarreling rather quickly. So severe was the rancor that some of those people were rhapsodizing about how much better off they’d be in Egypt, apparently forgetting that they were living in bondage there. To be blunt, it seems as if Paul is living a pipe dream in the passage from Philippians to suggest the kind of unity he describes.
As the passage continues, though, what Paul is up to becomes clear. This talk of love and oneness, we see, is not cut off by itself. Our unity, our oneness is motivated by much more than a unified effort to score a goal or win a match. All of that talk depends on one thing: only Jesus Christ.
From these initial instructions Paul moves on to speak to the virtue of humility as a principal attitude towards the world. Paul would have his readers not think too highly of themselves, and even that one should think of others more highly than one thinks of oneself, looking out for their interests before one’s own. Seriously, what can he possibly be thinking? Of course, Paul is thinking of Christ.
Finally, he brings it home to about the only way that any of this talk can even begin to make sense. And he does so in the words of what appears to be a hymn. The extended passage in verses six to eleven appears to be a hymn of the very earliest Christians, one which Paul borrows and quotes as his way of – first of all – appealing to the Philippians through a hymn they already know and – secondly – encapsulating the mind of Christ as best as human words can possibly do.
It is a beautiful bit of poetry, to be sure. Even in English the words are of tremendous power and eloquence. Even more so they are words that bring to light the unbelievable, unspeakable, unthinkable model that Christ has lived:
n being equal to God, being God, but not clutching to that equality with God, but rather emptying himself – Godself – and taking on the form of a servant – a slave – born in the body of a mere human being;
n being in that human form – remember, this is one equal to God we are speaking of – being so humble as to submit to such a radical obedience to the will of God as to bring death upon himself – and not just any death, but the most humiliating and excruciating means of death known to the Roman Empire at the time;
This self-emptying, self-humbling Jesus was then, as the hymn continues, exalted above all names in heaven and on earth.
This, then, is how we are able – the only way we are able to live at all as Paul implores the Philippians to do: not merely to try to imitate Christ, but to be inhabited by the mind of Christ. Our own efforts will never get there. It is God who is working in us even to make us want to do it, much less to actually do so.
Now there are a couple of cautions that need to be emphasized about all of this instruction that Paul has laid out here. For one thing, Paul’s instruction in verses three through five has been rather badly abused historically. Rather than being taken as an instruction that even the powerful are mandated to live in humility and to seek out the welfare of others before their own, it has been a club with which the wealthy and powerful have bludgeoned the poor and oppressed even further into humiliation and despair. This is an abomination unto God, no matter whether it is done by a feudal lord over his serfs, a nineteenth-century slave owner over his slaves, or a modern corporate oligarch over his employees. Look to your own humility before God. Those who would use this passage to oppress others have no part of the mind of Christ.
Second, and perhaps paradoxically, this instruction only works as issued to the whole body of Christ; Paul is not prescribing any kind of individual self-improvement program here. It is instruction to the whole body of Christ, not a prescription for any one believer. We humble ourselves to each other, and are in turn built up by one another. We, all together, work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, to use Paul’s curious phrase in verse twelve.
Evidently Kierkegaard liked that phrase.
Finally, one more caution: to take this counsel, to be truly inhabited with the mind of Christ, to live in the radical unity that comes of being in the mind of Christ, will set you apart. It will probably draw attention to you. Some of that attention may not be pleasant. To live in radical submission to one another, truly inhabited by the mind of Christ, won’t be popular with everybody out there. But there is that instruction, to live in the same love, to be in the same mind, the mind that was in Christ Jesus, and that is what being the church, the body of Christ, is all about.
For the mind of Christ, thanks be to God.