Weekly Preaching: World Communion Sunday

September 25th, 2017

October 1. World Communion Sunday. It's tempting to speak thematically, although for me, the discipline of accountability to a text presses me toward better preaching than vaguely meandering on a theme, even a beloved one like the idea of communion everywhere. Inevitably, the text for the day will serve well enough. I’m choosing Philippians 2:1-13, which will compel me to highlight not the world so much as the world’s Lord.

The Gospel, Matthew 21:23-32, has surely been preached upon well by a holy host of clergy. But for me it feels like, with the end drawing near, Jesus in a bit of a cantankerous mood. This is not his best “a man had two sons” story. Jesus clearly isn’t interested in the kinds of churches we spend our lives in, which so blandly are defined by the old “a nice place where nice people do nice things with other nice people.” It’s the kooks, the suspect, the sketchy, the people that church people would deem irreligious: this is the band of followers Jesus would gather. If I were pressed to preach on this, I’d lean back toward that Tony Campolo story about the late night diner birthday party for Agnes the hooker. Or St. Francis (whose feast day will be Wednesday October 4), who touched lepers and befriended Muslims.

Exodus 17:1-7 is rich with possibilities. Back on September 10th, I preached on Exodus 12, the Passover text. We used the occasion to teach our congregation about Judaism’s practices. Same here: by luck of the lectionary draw, this Wednesday is the beginning of Sukkoth, the Feast of Booths, commemorating the wilderness wanderings. Jewish families create little shelter-like structures in their homes. It's fascinating. Talk to a rabbi, see if you can get invited over for a glass of wine. In the sermon, tell about your visit.

This business of demanding proof should draw many people in. Anselm, Aquinas and a host of brilliant people have devised proofs for God’s existence. Logic can’t bend the will or the heart, though. As we’ll see in Philippians 2, Jesus ‘proved’ God by utterly ungodlike actions: being humbled, debased, abused and killed. There. That’s the only proof you get.

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Like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), the people are thirsty. This story figures prominently in the rest of the Bible. Psalm 81 and 95 remember and issue dire warnings based on it. “O that you would listen to me, Israel! Do not be stubborn as you were at Meribah.” As C.H. Spurgeon put it, “Let the example of that unhappy generation serve as a beacon to you; do not repeat the offenses which have already more than enough provoked the Lord.”

I suspect that this story lay in the background of that mystifying moment in John 7:37-39. The festival’s climax was reached when the people gathered around the waters from the Gihon spring flowing into the Pool of Siloam at the foot of Mt. Zion. The priest would dip a golden pitcher into the water and carry it at the head of a procession of singers and wavers of palm branches up hill to the Temple precincts. After marching around the Temple seven times, the priest would pour the water out on the ground. Jesus, in that year narrated by John, stood to the side and said to those who could hear, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.”

Philippians 2:1-13 is one of the high water marks in all of Scripture, almost a creed-like distillation of the entire story of redemption. As Karl Barth noted, “A text like this can hardly be approached with sufficient care and concentration, for it offers so much is so few verses — a little compendium of Pauline testimony.”

Little things charm me here (and so does the big thing…). “If there is any encouragement…” A big if indeed! Clearly the if implies what there should be, what the church should be about, what we all crave: encouragement, consolation, love, sharing, compassion, sympathy. From these, the possibility of “being of one mind,” so elusive for us, even in church life, inevitably follows. Where in our culture will you be told “Regard others as better than yourselves”? It is curious, since we seem quite naturally to do two weird things constantly: we harbor dark feelings of insecurity, suspecting others have it better, scanning Facebook with envy, etc; but we then pass snarky judgment on others as if we’re superior, no more than a kneejerk reaction to our sense of inferiority. Paul wants neither, only the clarity that is humility. Humility is simple honesty.

“Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” No politician since John F. Kennedy (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”) has ever uttered such words, and neither have advertisers. And then the last two verses! Can you hear the paradox? “Work out your salvation, knowing God is at work in you.” Do I work? Does God work? Do I work and then realize God’s the one doing it? “End of faith as its beginning”?

But then the glorious climax! To be one with Jesus, we ponder his story in the words of what scholars think was an early Christian hymn. What a terrific hymn! I close my eyes and try to picture a couple of dozen Christians gathered in somebody's home in Antioch, or after hours in the marketplace in Philippi. What was the tune? What did their voices sound like together? (I like in preaching to raise such questions, just to tease the imagination; no need to take it further.)

Translators differ on how to render the very beginning of the thing, but I feel sure I know the right way. Should it be the familiar “Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself”? or the equally valid “Because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself”? God didn’t temporarily suspend being God, masquerading as empty, humble, obedient and slave-like for a season. God, in Christ, showed us God’s heart, what it always has been and will be like. His wasn’t to grasp (can we picture Adam and Eve grabbing that fruit? or Prometheus seizing the fire of the divinities?), or to consume, but to be emptied, poured out, “born.” God thought I want them to know and love me, so I’ll do this: I’ll become an infant, totally vulnerable, dependent, the antithesis of power. Maybe then they will be tender toward me and each other.

As von Balthasar wrote, “In the Incarnation, the triune God has not simply helped the world, but has disclosed himself in what is most deeply his own.” Infancy, and crucifixion: this is God. Paul moves into glorification, but as Barth reminds us, when the crucified one is glorified “the abasement is not washed out or cancelled — it is he [the crucified one] who is exalted; it is to him the great name is given; it is of him who abased himself that all that follows is said.”

This downward mobility, this life as emptying, will be ours the closer we are to Jesus.

I will speak of St. Francis, not only because he is the patron saint of peace in our broken world, but because his to-do list every day was to be one with Jesus in this humble self-emptying. He shed his wealth, he consorted with the lowly, and he even prayed to share in Jesus’ wounds; his prayer was answered with the mysterious wounds he experienced in his hands, feet and side.

The eloquence of the hymn writer in Philippians 2 (or of Paul, or both) is mind-boggling and inspiring... and it calms you down considerably. “At the name of Jesus, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.” This is what will happen, is already happening in a partial, anticipatory way when we gather for worship, when we imagine joining hands with fellow believers all over the world on this communion Sunday.

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I’ll be preaching and standing behind the Lord’s table on Eastern Standard Time and I will remind my beloved people what I learned from a sermon by Albert Outler (in his sermon, “The Table of Our Lord,” preached at Highland Park UMC in 1969):

“This particular Sunday began twenty hours ago at the International Dateline in the western Pacific — and the earliest celebrations were in palm-thatched chapels in Fiji, Samoa, and Micronesia. Then, as the day fled westward round the globe, other Christians in other countries gathered in their churches to invoke the living presence of Christ in his sacrament and to receive his healing power in their hearts and lives — in Japan, the Philippines, Asia and Australia; in Turkey and Greece and Russia; in Africa, Europe and the Americas — Christians of every race and color, of all languages, dress and custom, in every conceivable circumstance of life and fortune. Christians, we now know, are a minority in the world, but on such a day as this we loom larger than usual because of our self-conscious community, generated and sustained by this universal sacrament of God’s love in Christ.”

This lovely riff reminds me of something Mark Noll (The New Shape of World Christianity) wrote about the nature of worldwide Christianity, and it fits flawless into the way Jesus “was born in human likeness and found in human form.”

“Christianity appears more and more as an essentially pluralistic and cross-cultural faith. It appeared first in Asia, then Africa and Europe. Immediately those who turned to Christ in these ‘new’ regions were at home in the faith. When they became believers, Christianity itself became Asian, European and African. Once Christianity is rooted in someplace new, the faith itself also takes on something from that new place. It also challenges, reforms and humanizes the cultural values of that place. The Gospel comes to each person and to all peoples exactly where they are. You do not have to stop being American, Japanese, German, or Terra del Fuegian in order to become a Christian. Instead, they all find rich resources in Christianity that are perfectly fitted for their own cultural situations. It is by its nature a religion of nearly infinite flexibility because it has been revealed in a person of absolutely infinite love.”

There are deep political implications. When the early Christians said “Christ is Lord,” that was politically subversive, for it implied “Caesar is not.” And let me suggest that this business about Jesus emptying himself has implications for how we as clergy lead, in preaching and everywhere else. Here is an excerpt on this text from my new book, Weak Enough to Lead:

Hudson Taylor, a pioneer English missionary to China, was onto something: ‘God chose me because I was weak enough. God does not do his great works by large committees. He trains somebody to be quiet enough, and little enough, and then he uses him.’

The liberation in learning you are weak enough to lead is twofold. First, it is always theologically truer to say I am weak and broken than I am strong and capable. This isn’t self-recrimination, wallowing in self-pity, and clinging to negative messages absorbed in childhood. It is the joyful clarity that humility brings, and the holy bonds we discover with others. We need not wait for the physical collapse of someone before noble things happen. We are all broken already. Let the outpouring of mercy begin.

And second, when we lead out of our weakness, we are very close to Jesus, who was handed over, silent before his accusers, meek before his attackers, and inert as he was laid in the tomb. Jesus led with nothing but love. When Jesus led in weakness, he was not pretending, as if playing out some divine charade. What we see in Jesus is who God truly is. I’m fond of what may be the better translation of Philippians 2:6: instead of ‘Although he was in the form of God he emptied himself,’ we should read ‘Because he was in the form of God he emptied himself.’ Indeed. It was precisely because he fully was God and transparently unveiled the heart of God that Jesus came as a humble nobody and consorted with nobodies, and laid down his life, bearing shame and abandoning all privilege. Michael Gorman called the cross ‘the signature of the Eternal One.’ The Christian leader, while properly interested in things running smoothly, staff relationships, and bottom lines, is above all else obsessed with Jesus, wanting not just to please or follow him, but even to be like him, to be one with him.

So leaders embrace their inevitable weakness, their created limitations, and are unafraid to share and live out of that weakness…

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