For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.
(Preached on Sunday, October 1, 2017)
What a beautiful thought from the Apostle Paul. What a comforting thought. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. We like to think this is true, after all, the Bible says it, and so it must be true. Right?
But then we look at the world around us, and it is extremely difficult to hold onto this thought. More often than not, our world seems abandoned of God. Where is God on the island of Puerto Rico now 9 days after Hurricane Maria has devastated that land? Where is God as African-American men and women and children continue to be gunned down by police officers and every single one of those shootings continues to be ruled by the judicial system as a “justified shooting”? Where is the evidence in our world that race relations, and ethnic relations, and cultural relations, and international relations, and male-female relations, and employer-employee relations, and human relations are improving because of the work and influence of God?
Civil rights leader and former Georgia congressman, Julian Bond, while delivering a graduation address at Susquehanna University, quoted someone who safely escaped the catastrophe of the World Trade Center on 9/11: If you’d seen what it was like in that stairway, you’d be proud. There was no gender, no race, no religion. It was everyone helping each other. Bond went on to say, But away from that stairway – in America’s streets – there is gender, there is race, there is religion. What a sad commentary this is about our society. It takes a tragedy such as the World Trade Center attacks to force us into sharing a “common mind.” Paul’s greatest wish for the Philippian church and for us today, was that we should have one mindset … that of Jesus.
That is a really nice thought from the apostle, but again, it just seems to be an incredibly high bar to reach. It is like challenging us to be a great homerun hitter like Giancarlo Stanton; or a great quarterback like Dan Marino (and we know how that has worked out for the Dolphins!); or a great trumpet player like Louie Armstrong; or a great storyteller like J.K. Rowling. To have the same mind in us as Jesus had seems like an impossible standard he is setting for us. And even though he suggests God is working in us to bring this about, it seems very unreachable and we have serious doubts about God being present and doing this work.
Henri Nouwen writes that we are called to be fearless people in a fearful world. He admits that the many events of life so easily pull us in all directions and make us lose our souls. But when we remain anchored in the heart of God, rooted in God’s love, we have nothing to fear, not even death, and everything joyful and everything painful will give us a chance to proclaim the Kingdom of Jesus. This is what Paul calls the Philippians to remember. He reminds them that the way to survive in the world is the way Jesus did, so he encourages them to have the mind of Christ, to be like-minded to Jesus.
This is a bold statement. We are not only to follow Jesus, to believe in him, but also to imitate him, to make the moves of his life part of our lives. That is what it means to be anchored in the heart of God, rooted in God’s love. But we stumble over this idea because we just don’t feel the presence of God in our lives strongly enough to give our hearts and our will over to God.
In our search for the surety of the presence of God we are like the old man who owned a donkey. One day the children of the village saw him out riding upon his donkey and they asked him, “Old man, where are you going?” He replied, “I have lost my donkey and I am out in search of him. Have you seen my donkey?” He was riding on his donkey, looking for his donkey!
Contemporary novelist Evan Drake Howard reminds us: We don’t always feel God’s presence, just as we don’t feel the sun on a rainy day. But the presence never grows dim, and the confidence that it is there and will shine again keeps us hopeful. This is the truth about life: God is at work in us. That is why Paul exhorts us to work out our own salvation. Not that we are to do it all on our own, nor that it is all up to us. No, he is calling us to join with the spirit of God which is already at work within us, bringing our lives more and more into conformity with the life of Jesus.
But we are not robots. God will not override us. We do have a part to play in our own salvation, in bringing our lives into conformity with the life of Jesus. Paul offers guidance for how to do this through the ancient hymn of the church about the life of Jesus which he quotes in verses 6-11. The section that begins You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think equality with God as something to cling to…. This is one of the earliest known professions of faith of the earliest followers of Jesus. It is the story of salvation in Jesus in three parts: the incarnation or his self-emptying action; his obedience (death on a cross) and his exaltation (resurrection and ascension).
Through his self-emptying, Jesus demonstrated just how far God was willing to go to re-establish and rebuild the divine-human relationship which we continually fall short of living fully. God was willing to take on human form and limitations and freely embrace humanity in body, mind and spirit. That is going way beyond halfway to build and nurture a relationship with us. In his self-emptying Jesus does not see equality with God as something to be used for his own advantage, but as an offering for others. No matter how great he was or is, no matter how privileged, no matter how royal his status, Jesus did not cling to that, but made sure none of that got in the way of building strong, deep, long-lasting relationships with humanity. Jesus’ radical obedience and service to others, even suffering and death on a cross are the ultimate expression of his self-emptying.
What we see is that Jesus’ life calls us to move from a life of exploiting our own rights to one in which we are willing to relinquish our rights for the sake of God’s mission. Second, Jesus’ life calls us to move from a focus on self-preservation to a life shaped by the cross. Finally, Jesus’ life points clearly to the paradox of sacrifice. In God’s economy, one gains life by losing it. One receives by giving. The highest calling is to servanthood.
And as Paul reminds us, all this is possible not because we are exceptionally good people; not because we have the talents and skills to make it happen; but because God is at work within us to bring this about. But God’s transforming power is subtle in the sense that it requires receptivity. It is not a call for us to try harder, but rather for us to die more fully to our old modes of existence. Moreover, Paul’s concluding words are addressed not to individuals alone but also to a community of Jesus followers. The way of Jesus is not a solitary existence, but one embodied in community. It is in community that we most clearly experience the presence of our hidden companion, God, who is at work within us, giving us the desire and the power to do what pleases God.