SERMON Lectionary 26a 2017
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
“Let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was 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.
Therefore, God has highly exalted him
And given him a name that is above every name,
That at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow,
And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of the Father.
One has to be of a certain ripe age now to remember a marvelous television personality of the fifties and sixties, a Roman Catholic Bishop with the delightful name of Fulton Sheen. Bishop Sheen had his own half-hour TV show in those days; in Dallas, it was on at 5:30 in the afternoon every Sunday. He swept onto the set in his gorgeous ecclesiastical finery like Loretta Young (I know I’m dating myself!), and spoke eloquently of faith and life, and had a profound impact on his audiences (and on me). Perhaps some of you remember him.
Thanks to the new world we can now binge watch every episode of LIFE IS WORTH LIVING if we want to. I watched an episode on my phone on Saturday, and it happened to be about this particular passage of scripture, originally a hymn, in the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the church people at Philippi (Philippians 2). Bishop Sheen said that this may have been the earliest, specifically Christian hymn in existence. The letter to the Philippians was written before the gospels. It’s almost as if Paul breaks into song while he’s preaching. It happens – it happened famously to President Obama after the Charleston killings, when in the middle of his speech, he began to sing Amazing Grace from his heart. (Remember what it was like when the president had a heart?). Anyway, if that’s what happened, if Paul was jumping into a song at this point in his letter, then Paul was probably singing a song the church already knew. Bishop Sheen suggested it functioned like the creed in the services.
At the name of Jesus every knee should bow
And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
There’s another story from Bishop Sheen that I actually remember from the show all those years ago; I think it takes us into the meaning of this magnificent hymn. Looking back now I think the good bishop must have been channeling Luther that day.
Bishop Sheen spoke of visiting a leper colony in Africa. Leprosy is very rare now, so in case you don’t know, it can have alarming symptoms, and if untreated can cause the body to turn white, develop skin lesions, and to decay, with fingers and toes falling off. For centuries it was by superstitious people regarded as a punishment for sin or heresy, and so victims of the disease were usually excluded from society, often consigned to closed camps called leper colonies. (Have you ever thought about how much cruelty and injustice is caused by superstition?)
Bishop Sheen spoke of visiting such a leper colony, taking with him a supply of small crucifixes as gifts for the victims. As most of us would be, the bishop was repulsed by the appearance of the lepers, and at first he couldn’t bring himself to touch them. (Remember, people didn’t hug in those days the way we do now) Instead of handing his gifts to them, Bishop Sheen said that he (and he made a gesture like this) he dropped the crucifixes into their white, broken, decayed, outstretched hands. When he looked down and saw the crucified body of the savior lying in their broken, diseased flesh, he was overcome with disgust at his own pride, and, weeping, opened his arms to embrace the lepers, his silk cape covering their wounds.
Dear friends, this is who Christ is to us. Into our wounded hands God has laid the cross of his son. Our God is a suffering God who has been here and done our whole ghastly, messed up thing. Jesus took upon himself the most hideous suffering, in order to reach into our suffering, to touch us the way Bishop Sheen touched the lepers, with tenderness, humiliation, and love. As the old hymn says, the cross of Christ is the emblem of suffering and shame, and it is precisely there that God comes to find us.
Such is the message of the first part of the hymn. It leads directly to the cross: he became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Hear what comes next:
Therefore God has highly exalted him, and given him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father.
What Philippians 2 teaches so magnificently is that the cross is laid in the hands of our suffering and furthermore that it comes to us with a promise, a really glorious promise. So for now, let the same mind be in us that is in Christ Jesus, a mind like Bishop Sheen’s in his moment, a mind full of tenderness, humility and love, a mind that has absolutely no fear of disease or death. Have a mind that is free of judgment, free of fear, full of love. The mind of Christ.
What would our lives be like if we completely stopped making judgements of others, if we didn’t feel anger, if we didn’t feel fear, if we were absolutely certain of where we are going. From what I can tell, that is the life of faith.
The Lutheran angle on this is the way it takes apart the way we human beings typically operate with God, whom we imagine as one who keeps a tab of right and wrong with a bag of rewards and punishment; the overall assumption is that we get what we deserve.
Well … here’s a news flash … the great gift of the gospel is that we don’t get what we deserve. There is nothing about us, any of us, that deserves unconditional love, but that is what we get, that is what the gospel promises. “For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” That’s what unconditional love means.
So what that meant for Luther was that the whole mercantile system of penances and penalties, indulgences and dispensations, fees and fines, confessions and absolutions was … useless, phony, wrong. Luther probably found a good scatological German word.
It was useless for Luther, and phony and wrong for us, because God’s grace doesn’t depend on us or anything we do. We have God’s grace only because God is a gracious God, just as there is light on earth because there is a sun pouring it on us. God’s love is like sunlight; it pours out of God’s heart all the time in every direction like the light of the sun. If you don’t see it, take the bag off your head.
So God’s love fell like sunlight one day on Bishop Sheen. The mind of Christ was in him. What Paul sang, what Bishop Sheen embodied, and what I am trying to preach to us this morning is this: Let the same mind be in us that also was in Christ Jesus. Let us as Christians, be of one mind, the mind of Christ, a mind that is free, fearless and loving.
May God in his infinite grace and mercy make it so.
Let us pray.