please read Philippians 2:5-13
Earlier this month I read in the news that Air Canada will now be charging a modest fee for checked luggage on flights to the U.S. The move is intended to raise more revenue for the cash-strapped airline. But travellers are now deterred from taking lots of baggage on their journey.
With the threat of a so-called double-dip recession looming, the catch word now is “austerity.” You might have heard of European governments, such as Italy and Greece, implementing austerity measures to curb debt and get a grip on their government finances which are adversely affecting world markets. Austerity basically means cutting back, doing with less or without, simplifying. You could imagine, austerity is not very popular.
Whether it is a flight you are taking on a journey somewhere, or the journey of daily living, or even the spiritual journey – the journey of faith – it nevertheless seems we are being called to reconsider our limits – limits on spending, limits on self-gratification, limits on our ego desires and wants.
Indeed, can we but see the silver lining in doing with less, the healing and wholeness it could bring to our complex and material-rich lives? What could happen should we embrace the more “simplified” life?
Our egos, certainly, get in the way. Our human nature doesn’t like this. We compulsively want more. We have a built-in ‘inflationary’ tendency, bent on incessant action, accomplishment, acquisition. We don’t want to hear the advice that counsels: “The sky won’t fall down if you stop trying to hold it up for a little while.” The markets, experts say, need to periodically correct themselves, because the bubble will burst if self-regulation on the parts of governments, businesses and individual households doesn’t happen. And I would add – in our personal and faith journeys as well.
The scripture from Philippians written by Saint Paul is one of the oldest texts from the New Testament. It is a poem, a hymn, yes even a creed, sung and read by early Christians whenever they met to affirm their faith in a God who chose to self-limit, to be humbled. The hymn can be divided into two sections, with two very distinct movements in each.
The first movement is downward. A very baptismal image of being immersed in the waters, of being submerged, “drowned”, going under. No wonder this hymn was often sung in early Christianity at baptisms. This movement is of a God who chose to go from glory to downright humility and death.
… Jesus Christ, 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 … he humbled
himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
It is this movement that Christians today are being called to follow.
Whether it is a call to simplify a lifestyle overdrawn on itself; whether it is a call to reassess our appetites for more; whether it is a call to slow down in a hectic life; whether it is a call to understand anew the true meaning of “success” in God’s eyes – whatever the case may be, we are called to follow in the WAY of Jesus.
In fact the early Christians weren’t identified as “Christians” until much later; in the first decades after Jesus ascended to heaven, they were called “followers of the WAY” (Acts 22:4). Which WAY, or whose WAY, you might ask? The way of Jesus, of course. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the truth, and the life …” (John 14:6)
The word, the WAY, implies a journey. And on this journey we need to “travel light” – such was the great theme title of a recent Canadian Lutheran Anglican Youth (CLAY) gathering; “travel light”. Followers of the WAY, the journey we are on, necessitates that we follow Jesus best by travelling lightly – not hectically, not burned-out, not wanting always more and more and more – but by acknowledging our limitations, respecting them, divesting our lives of everything that is unhealthy – and we know what those things are for each of us, deep down, I believe.
We can’t begin to move up, unless we first go down. What goes up, must first have moved down, right? Easter can’t happen without Good Friday. The journey, the WAY, of Jesus – life in him – reflects this cycle of dying and rebirth, of going down and coming up.
A journey defined by the WAY of Jesus implies movement. On the other hand: inertia, remaining stuck in OUR way, when we remain intransigent, when we insist on our OWN way – doesn’t track with this. The new thing we so desperately want for our lives, the answer to the question, the way out of a difficult situation, whatever, doesn’t happen unless we take the risk and move in some direction, to begin with. If we decide not to do anything, it ain’t gonna work.
The car can’t be guided by the steering wheel unless it is first moving; the car can’t turn unless the wheels are rolling. God can guide us only when we are rolling, at least a little. Whatever the context of our lives, we must acknowledge the change that IS happening already.
Because in order for something good to happen, something first must die. In order for us to move on in a direction that IS healthy, life-giving and life-promoting, something has to stop. The prophet Isaiah
Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:18-19)
The promise of God, as the Psalmist in our reading today emphasizes, comes to us anew. The grace of God, the mercy and power and guidance comes to us once we have reached this vulnerable, honest, transparent, true “bottom” point – this desert place – in the rhythm, movement and journey of our lives.
God guides the humble in doing right and teaches his ways to the lowly.
The first of all the beatitudes that Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount is,
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
Poverty is a word closely associated with “austerity” – a place in the desert of our lives when we have but no other option than to fall on our knees at the throne of grace and mercy, at ground zero, divested of all our ego pride and pretention and persona and bravado … and wait upon the Lord.
The second section from verses 9 through 11 in the Philippians text – the early hymn/creed of the Followers of the WAY – then announces the glorious movement upward out of the ashes.
In the movement upward, Jesus is celebrated as who he truly is – the exalted One, the Son of the Living God, to whom “every knee should bend” (v.10). In the movement upward out of death and in rebirth Jesus is glorified for his true identity, something he never really was without, truth be told, even in and during the downward cycle to the cross. Jesus was always Jesus. And it is the action of God the Father to re-instate him, so to speak.
This is the encouragement of Saint Paul to us who choose to follow in the WAY of Jesus: to be who we are. Not to be who we are not. Not to imitate someone else whom we may admire or be jealous of or compare ourselves to or covet for whatever reason. Not to go beyond the limitations of our being. “Let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ Jesus … who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself …”
Who are we, then? Beloved children of God, loveable and loving, created each of us in the very image of God (Genesis 1:27). So, be bold in who you are in Christ!
Be who you are. The approach, however, can be summarized in the phrase: Less is More. By the spiritual practices of praying release, of forgiving, of showing mercy, of letting go of anger, guilt and fear – less is more. Not popular. Not easy. It is truly the “narrow way” to enter the kingdom (Matthew 7:13-14).
Nevertheless, in this movement of the WAY of Jesus we discover less will be more. We will discover that indeed, as Saint Paul writes earlier in Philippians –
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you
WILL bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ (1:6).
Not our way, not our work – but God’s. The good work you do in Christ’s service IS the very work of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.