Scripture readings: Ex. 17:1-7 and Ps. 78:1-4,12-16 (or Ezek.18:1-4, 25-32 and Ps. 25:1-9) Phil. 2:1-13; Matt. 21:23-32 Sermon by Martin Manuel from Philippians 2:1-13
Sharing in Jesus’ Incarnational Living
Each year, Time (magazine) names a Person of the Year. In 2014, Time gave that award not to an individual but to the group of people who fought the deadly Ebola virus in Africa. Time said they “risked and persisted, sacrificed and saved.” Here’s a video about them:
(on YouTube at https://youtu.be/7t9VRBaOjlY)
The sacrifices made by these Ebola fighters remind me of Jesus. I’m not suggesting they are equal to Jesus, but in them I see a reflection of Jesus, the “person of all time.” In the sermon today, we’ll see how Jesus both modeled incarnational living and now, through the Holy Spirit, works to mold his followers into those who share his incarnational living.
The background of our text today (Philippians 2:1-13) is the story of early humanity told in Genesis where, in chapter three, we find the narrative of humanity’s fall. Similar to Ebola’s devastating and fatal effect upon people, the human race contracted the “disease” of sin when Adam and Eve chose to pursue their own interests, desires and ambitions over trusting their Creator. There was no escaping the consequences for this rebellion through their own efforts. Only the intervention of God, the healer of this disease, could save them and all humanity who joined in their rebellion against God.
Of humankind’s healer, Philippians 2:6-7 says this:
[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (vv. 6-7)
Though divine by nature (fully God with the Father and the Spirit), Jesus nonetheless chose to act unselfishly, assuming human nature. In doing so, he did not cease being divine, though he did leave behind the glory, powers and privileges of being God. It would be considered remarkable n our world if a person of royalty descended to the status of a slave. But that would be a small thing compared to what the Son of God gave up in order to be God incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (v. 8)
Jesus didn’t stop his descent at becoming a human servant—he went all the way into ignominy, including the humiliation of crucifixion. When our court system convicts a person of a capital crime with a place on death row, they are treated as the off-scouring of society. Jesus was sentenced to the most dishonorable and shameful capital punishment in Roman and Jewish cultures. Ironically, this self-sacrificial death of a divine-royal, turned human-servant, saved the human race, as Isaiah wrote:
He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isa. 53:5)
Resurrected from the grave and ascended to the place of glory with his Father in heaven, Jesus is now recognized by his followers for his love-motivated, self-sacrificial act:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9-11)
Although not yet fulfilled, the Bible records the divine promise that all humanity will bow to the glorified, exalted Jesus, acknowledging him as Lord over all, even if some may refuse to trust in him as their Savior.
A call to follow Jesus
The apostle Paul wrote these inspirational words not only to encourage people to place their trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior, but also, as Paul notes in Phil. 2:5, to follow his example of humble service to others:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. (Phil. 2:5)
Jesus’ mindset, which flows forth in what we might call incarnational living, soars far above the natural human way of thinking. Paul knew that he was proposing a bar far too high for his readers to leap and clear, but he suggested a start through their reflection on the benefits they already had derived from Jesus’ incarnation:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Phil. 2:1-4)
The believers in Philippi could relate to Paul’s exhortation. Being in spiritual union with Jesus Christ greatly encourages, and experiencing his love deeply comforts. Sharing in the Holy Spirit binds the believers into a close-knit, loving community. The community created by Jesus, through the Spirit, is one of infectious tenderness and compassion, and Paul says it is necessary for them to live together accordingly. How? By replacing selfish, ambitious and arrogant behavior with humble, others-first ways of thinking and behaving.
The Ebola fighters, many of whom not only are medical professionals but devoted Christians, exemplified this behavior in putting others’ interests before their own. Dr. Jeremy Brown, the man clad with white protective headwear in the center of the Time magazine cover in the video, is part of Eternal Love Winning Africa (ELWA), a Christian ministry. Others, including medical volunteers from Serving in Mission (SIM), Samaritans Purse, and Doctors Without Borders, stepped into a gap of desperate need where governments and health organizations were absent. They endangered their lives in the process, to stop the epidemic, thereby saving much of the human population from exposure to Ebola. As Dr. Kent Brantley said in the video:
We live in a global community. We need to recognize that people on the other side of the world, they are our neighbors, and we need to treat them with love and compassion and respect just like we do the person who lives in the house next door.
We who are not medical professionals may not serve in the midst of a life-threatening epidemic, but we do encounter humans who need love, compassion and respect. Let us join Jesus in incarnational living and serve them accordingly.
Christ at work through the Holy Spirit
Jesus has shown the way and given us reason to charge forward in following his example, but it takes more than inspiration to make us like Christ. For that reason, Paul closes with an exhortation that includes reassurance that the divine help we need to accomplish incarnational living is readily available:
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. (Phil. 2:12)
Sometime before writing this, Paul had shared the message of the gospel with a small group of women who gathered to worship on a riverside near Philippi:
One of those listening was a woman named Lydia… The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message… she and the members of her household were baptized. (Acts 16:13-16)
Lydia and others in her household responded to Paul’s proclamation of the gospel by committing, through baptism, to a life of following Jesus.
As Paul and his team continued to share the gospel in Philippi, the operator of the city jail asked Paul and his co-workers:
“What must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house… he and all his family were baptized. (Acts 16:30-33)
The jailer’s family joined Lydia’s household as followers of Jesus being discipled by Paul. This, the start of the church at Philippi, came about as a result of Paul’s proclamation of the gospel and the church members’ response of obedience to his message. It was this obedience to which Paul refers in his letter, calling on these new believers to even greater devotion to following Christ in his absence. How would they do that? And what did their obedience have to do with “working out salvation”? To answer that important question, we must read further what Paul says in Philippians 2:
For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Phil. 2:13)
Paul is not saying that our works somehow earn or complete our salvation. To the contrary, he is clear to state that the accomplishment of God’s purpose (our salvation) is the outcome of God working in those who trust in Jesus. Paul alludes to this earlier in his letter:
He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:6)
Notice who began the work, who continues it, and who carries it on to completion—God! These words would be empty platitudes if Paul meant that the real work of salvation was ours. Putting his statements together, we see that the Holy Spirit within believers is doing the work—molding each into the likeness of Jesus. And we are called to participate—to cooperate. The believers in Philippi did so by obeying Paul’s instructions when he was with them. And now he was urging them to continue their active, willing participation with the Spirit in his absence.
As we see in Acts 16, they did respond to Paul’s message—they did believe in the Lord Jesus and were baptized. When persecution led to Paul’s earlier-than-planned departure from Philippi, Paul met with them and “encouraged them” (Acts 16:40), knowing that persecution lay ahead for them all—suffering that would add endurance to the gifts that the Spirit was granting them.
What Paul summarizes in Philippians 2, he elaborates elsewhere in the letter. In 3:9 he says his personal intention was about “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” Paul clearly did not consider his obedience as a work that accomplished or somehow added to his salvation. Only the Savior, through the Spirit, can do this saving-perfecting work. Exercising faith in Christ’s righteousness, Paul considered his responsibility as being to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (3:14). Explaining our participation, through the Spirit, in Christ’s ongoing work of salvation, he adds, “All of us…who are mature should take such a view of things” (3:15).
By “press on,” Paul meant not looking back or standing still. The journey of those united to Christ by the Spirit is forward, involving continual growth in knowing and following Christ. Paul wrote the believers in Philippi to encourage them to keep up that journey even though he was not there with them. He wanted them to be careful and conscientious about their obedience, always trusting in God for salvation and letting nothing distract them along the way. That is what he meant by “working out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
Throughout this journey, God—Father, Son and Spirit—works through grace, calling and opening minds to respond to the gospel (like Lydia), leading believers to live a life of trust in Jesus as Savior (like the Philippian jailer), and helping believers participate with the inner work of the Holy Spirit as Paul urged the whole congregation. The outcome of this journey is the ever-growing mind of Christ at work molding each person.
The Father, Son and Spirit work the same in Jesus’ followers today. Christ in us, by the Spirit, does within us what Christ did and still does: living life incarnationally—a life that is humble, unselfish and actively, sacrificially serving others.
Jesus Christ modeled incarnational living by his life of love-motivated self- sacrifice, humbling himself, going from glory to servant-hood to sacrifice. Jesus in us by the Spirit lives the same incarnational life. We are called to a lifestyle that exhibits the mind of Christ toward other humans; living in unity with those with whom we share union in Christ; not allowing our natural drives, ambitions, and interests to dominate us; having others’ interests and well-being at heart in all we think and do.
The Ebola fighters exhibited this attitude in their unselfish service and sacrifice to care for and help fellow-humans stricken by the disease. That attitude, starting in Christ-centered ministries in Africa, and spreading first through Christ-centered charitable organizations and on into medical staffs in Africa and in the United States, helped stop the spread of the deadly disease.
Although most of us are not workers in medical fields, we can recognize in the Ebola fighters the example of Jesus, and also the molding Jesus does, by the Holy Spirit, in those who follow him into incarnational living.