In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”. What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time? Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” On October 13 we talked about the virtue and practice of Humility. Scriptures included Matthew 23:1-12 and Philippians 2:1-11.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:
I’d like to start this morning by sharing one of my all-time favorite memories of Christmas. In the mid-1980’s, before we were parents, Sharon and I spent a day buying clothes for a student at a prestigious private school where Sharon was doing some research. This young lady was a “scholarship” kid who lived in what thirty years ago we called “the projects”. Most days, she did well at school, but the last Friday of every month was sheer torment for her, because it was “dress down day”. That meant students were free to shed their uniforms and wear whatever they wanted to. I think that Maddy could tell us something about how nice it feels to be able to choose your own clothes for a day every now and then.
The problem was that this student didn’t really have any other clothes that were nice enough to wear to that school – so she just wore her uniform on those Fridays. And, because kids are kids, she got ripped apart on those days, and was teased mercilessly. Because my wife is one of the kindest, most generous people I know, she decided that we’d go school shopping for a high school girl. We bought a couple of bags of clothes, and got a youth group member named Tom Taylor to dress up in my Santa suit and deliver the goods. It was wonderful to hear Sharon narrate the scene she witnessed on the next “dress down day” at that school.
Now, the Gospels don’t record that Jesus ever had to deal with a posse of “mean girls”, but there was a group who consistently targeted and criticized him for being “not like us”. They looked at Jesus and they scolded and mocked him, saying, “What’s up with those losers you surround yourself with? And how can you justify spending your time in that way? And that stuff that you eat? And the people you eat it with? For crying out loud, Jesus, you are embarrassing us. You are so out of it. How dare you think of yourself as one of us, Jesus.”
But Jesus looked at that crowd – we know them as The Pharisees – and shot right back. “Those guys? Please. Oh, they may think that they’re all that. And they’ve got the right uniforms on – their prayer shawls and beads and scripture boxes – but there is no substance there. They don’t have a clue. They were born on third base but they walk around like they just hit a triple.”
And then he looked at those who were following him and issued a call to humility. “Don’t be like that,” he said. “You are to take the lowest place. You are to see yourselves as students, not teachers. You are to serve each other.”
It’s hard to talk about humility in the church – or anywhere, really. I mean, if you talk about yourself as someone who is humble, you probably aren’t. I’m reminded of the time that the congregation surprised their pastor at the end of one Sunday worship service. They announced that he had been voted the “Most Humble Pastor in America”, and then they presented him with a medal having that inscription. The next Sunday they took it away from him because he wore it.
As we continue this series of messages on “The Dress Code for Christians,” what does it mean for us to be people who wear humility in our relationship with each other?
Let’s look at a case study: the situation in the First Church of Philippi. Things were rough there. We don’t know exactly what was going on, but it’s clear that the place was simmering with conflict. Plenty of people were really irritated with each other. Paul names two adversaries in chapter 4 of this letter, and so it may be that folks in church were taking sides in this dispute. Maybe some of the folks were running around saying, “Well, I’m on Syntyche’s side” and others were saying, “Why is that person being so mean to Euodia?” It could be that what had started as a personal argument was polarizing people in the congregation.
Or maybe there was some conflict around the idea of what made someone a “real” Christian. Some folks insisted that you couldn’t follow Jesus unless you bought into all of the Jewish Law first, and others insisted that there was no impediment to following Jesus – nothing at all.
And it could have been that some people there were irritated at Paul – they saw him as playing favorites, or as being too close to some people while being distant from others. Whatever the cause, the content of the letter makes it plain that there was some genuine conflict in the church. I know, I know, it sounds difficult to believe, but it’s right there in the Bible so I guess we’re going to have to accept that it’s possible for people to argue with and even be petty with each other at church. Go figure.
So Paul addresses this conflict by constructing a theological argument. He begins chapter 2 with a sentence that strings together a number of clauses that all begin with the word “if”. In the Greek, it is ei. You heard it a moment ago: “if you have any encouragement… if any comfort… if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…”
Now, in English, when we use the word “if”, it’s often in a conditional clause: “If it rains on Saturday…” It might be gonna happen, it might not be gonna happen. We won’t know until Saturday. But the Greek language allows for an understanding of “if” as a statement of fact. Something like, “Look, Andre, if I’m your friend – and we both know that I am – then…”
My point is that Paul is not wondering whether there is encouragement, comfort, commonality of purpose, or compassion to be found in Jesus – he is affirming FOUR TIMES that we all agree that those things are rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ. So he starts this case study by reminding them of what they all know.
In the second verse, Paul goes on to tell the Philippians what ought to happen. And once again, he re-states the goal four times: be like-minded (this does not necessarily mean that he expects them to agree on everything or vote unanimously, but rather that they are to work toward having the same attitude, or to be looking in the same direction); have the same love for one another; be of one spirit (the literal Greek there says “share the same soul” or “share the same breath”); and be of one mind.
You may think that he’s stretching to make it come out to four by repeating the word “mind” twice in this list, but I’d like to suggest that in repeating the word phroneó, he is actually getting that word into their heads so he can use it again in verse 5. He calls his congregation to have the same mindset, the same view, to have a commitment to seeing things… how? To seeing things the way that Jesus saw them. “Be like Jesus,” Paul says.
And then the old Apostle does something that you’ve done a hundred times. Do you know how sometimes you have something to say, or you want to tell me something that is true, and you’re not quite sure how to put it into words, and then you think of a song that says it exactly right? You want to remind your spouse of the way that you love her, and so you play “your song” on the car radio. You are grief-stricken at the cemetery and all you can do is just stand there while “Taps” is played. You are searching for something true to say at church and the best you can do is say, “Well, Amazing Grace, right?”
That’s what Paul does in Philippians 2. He either reminds them of a song that they’ve sung before or he writes a new hymn on the spot. The purpose of this hymn is to point to the humility of Jesus.
So what did humility look like when Jesus wore it? It begins, Paul says in verse 5, with a mindset. He repeats the word phroneó as a means of affirming that Jesus, in the mystery of his pre-existence within the Trinity, decided something. Jesus chose to submit himself to the overall purpose and intentions of God.
Now that choice, that mindset, led Jesus to a specific course of action. When Jesus decided to align himself with God’s purposes, that meant that he was setting down the pathway of obedience. In this case, obedience means that he yielded his rights, privileges, or place in line so that he might be better able to see, hear, and simply be with people like us. Obedience for Jesus meant the setting aside of one possible reality in order to fully embrace something else.
Of course, every action has a consequence. According to the hymn that Paul sang, the result of the action that Jesus took was his death. He suffered pain that he did not deserve because he had chosen to act in obedience.
However, that action also produced fruit. Yes, Jesus died, but that was not the end of the story. The end result of Jesus’ decision and action was that the entire creation would come to the realization that Jesus, not Caesar, not me, not you, is Lord.
So what? What are the implications for the people in Philippi? Or for the people in Crafton Heights?
Paul is calling us, as the people of God, to recognize that humility is a part of the uniform that we wear as Christians. Like any other garment, we must choose to put this thing on.
Paul begged his friends in Philippi to see that humility is a willingness to accept that God, in Jesus, is at work in each life. In my life. In your life. And in affirming that God is at work in my life, I must of necessity acknowledge that the work is not yet complete. I am a work in progress. And since I am not yet finished, I cannot (as the Pharisees did) present myself to you or anyone else as a final product. I am still being molded, shaped, and used as I seek to stay on the path of obedience.
And if God is at work in each life, then God is moving not only in my life, but in yours. I must acknowledge that you are being molded and shaped by the power of the Spirit that flows through Jesus.
And if THAT is true (and it is), then it is preposterous for me to think that somehow you are in your finished form. I am not free to treat you as someone who is too high and lofty for me to reach – someone who is out of my league. And neither can I regard you as one so lost that I shouldn’t even bother reaching out to you.
Like Paul, I’m not above quoting a song lyric that says something meaningful and important. The late Rich Mullins wrote these lyrics:
My friends ain’t the way I wish they were
They are just the way they are
And I will be my brother’s keeper
Not the one who judges him
I won’t despise him for his weakness
I won’t regard him for his strength
I won’t take away his freedom
I will help him learn to stand
And I will, I will be my brother’s keeper
When Paul tells his friends in Philippi, or when he speaks to us through the letter to his friends in Colossae, that we are to wear the uniform of humility when we come to church, he’s saying that we are to look to Jesus in obedience and to each other mercy and kindness. That’s what Mullins is saying when he says he is his brother’s “keeper”, not “judge”.
John Ruskin was a leading thinker in 18th century Britain. He got to the heart of the matter at hand when he wrote,
“The first test of a truly great person is their humility. I do not mean, by humility, doubt of one’s own power…[but really] great people… have a curious… feeling that… greatness is not in them, but through them… and they see something Divine… in every other person, and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.”
Humility, therefore, is not thinking less of yourself, but simply thinking of yourself less as you act in kindness and mercy toward others.
Beloved, this is the truth that comes to us from scripture this morning, the truth that echoes through the streets not only of Philippi but Crafton Heights: if your baptism means anything, it means that we are called to care with and for each other in demonstrable, observable ways; that we are charged to invest more in the means of building each other and the whole Body of Christ up than in tearing it down; that anyone who would wear the name “Christian” is by implication someone who is learning every day to adopt the mind of Jesus.
 Fred Craddock, Interpretation Bible Commentary on Philippians (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985) p. 35.
 “Brother’s Keeper”, David (Beaker) Strasser | Rich Mullins, © 1995 Kid Brothers Of St. Frank Publishing (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.) Universal Music – Brentwood Benson Publishing (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.)
 https://ldschurchquotes.com/john-ruskin-on-humility/, edited for inclusivity.