Equipped for a mission-focused
Journey With Jesus

Sermon for October 1, 2023 – Proper 21

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 5045 Undercover Jesus
Michelle Fleming

There’s a TV show called Undercover Boss.  Maybe you’ve watched it before. The show revolves around a high-ranking executive or business owner who goes undercover as an entry-level employee in their own company, taking an alias, changing their appearance, and making up a back story. These undercover bosses work in different locations with their unsuspecting employees, and they learn a lot about their own business and their employees.

If we think about Jesus’ incarnation, we might compare it to God showing up in an unexpected way. No one would suspect a craftsman from Nazareth with his questionable parentage and birth story. In Matthew 21, an altercation between the chief priests, elders, and Jesus shows us  that they almost blew his cover:

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.  Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why, then, did you not believe him?’  But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for all regard John as a prophet.”  So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
Matthew 21:23-27 (NRSVUE)

It might be more accurate to say that they did figure out he was the Son of God undercover, but if they acknowledged that, they might lose their power and authority over the people. Undercover Jesus was not the Messiah they had expected. He didn’t look rich or powerful, and he certainly didn’t exert his authority over the common person as they did. Jesus went out of his way to disrupt their authority. So when Jesus asked them where John got his authority to baptize, they lied and said they didn’t know.

Jesus learned a lot about his people that day, just like undercover bosses learn what it is like to walk a day in their employees’ shoes – their joys and their struggles. The chief priests and elders let their expectations blind them to the Son of God standing right in front of them. Jesus taught that those who repented and turned back toward their Father would be first in the Kingdom of God, while those who stubbornly resisted divine love wouldn’t understand the peace and joy that was theirs all along.

Think about the expectations we have for the way God shows up in the world. Do we resist the peace God wants us to have because we think God should show up in our lives in a certain way? Holding fast to expectations doesn’t allow for the mystery of God to unfold in our lives in the way God deems best. We need to let God do his work in our lives because we can trust that whatever he is doing is for our good. God may be working undercover in ways that are far beyond anything we could imagine.

May we let go of expectations that keep us captive to unhelpful thoughts about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Instead, may we be open to the mystery, love, joy, and peace of God.        

I’m Michelle Fleming, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 • Exodus 17:1-7 • Philippians 2:1-13 • Matthew 21:23-32

The theme for this week is the problem of expectations. Psalm 78 recounts the miracles of the exodus, and when we read of the miracles God performed there, we can wonder why we don’t see similar miracles today. Exodus 17 offers the example of the Israelites’ grumbling when there was no water, basing their belief in God’s presence (or lack of it) on their external circumstances. We’re a lot like them. The gospel reading from Matthew 21 provides another example where Jesus did not meet the expectations of the chief priests and elders. Our sermon text, found in Philippians 2:1-13, explores how differently the kingdom of God works in the world by looking at the mind of Jesus Christ.

Giving It All Away

Philippians 2:1-13 (NRSVUE)

You may have heard of “The Giving Pledge,” a philanthropic organization set up by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet that invited billionaires to commit to giving away the majority of their wealth either during their lifetime or in their wills. While Gates and Buffett have given away billions, they still have plenty left. However, back in 1984, long before The Giving Pledge, one billionaire made it his goal to die broke. His name is Chuck Feeney.

Born in New Jersey to Irish American parents, Feeney started earning his billions in 1960, when he co-founded the retail shop Duty Free Shoppers located in many airports. He lived a frugal life and developed the concept of “Giving While Living,” donating in a significant way to charitable causes to see the positive impact while alive. Over a forty-year period, Feeney was able to donate anonymously more than $8 billion through his foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies. Forbes magazine called him “the James Bond of Philanthropy.” Though he set aside $2 million in retirement funds for he and his wife Helga, he gave away 375,000% more than his net worth. In 2020, Atlantic Philanthropies closed, its mission complete. Now 92, Feeney lives with his wife in a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco that has been described as similar in size to a “freshman dorm room.”

We rarely see this kind of intentional generosity among human beings unless we consider the example of Jesus. Intentional generosity and a willingness to give it all away characterized Jesus’ life on earth. This way of living doesn’t happen naturally for most people, but as Paul points out in our sermon text, Jesus lived an abundant generosity of spirit that often brought him into conflict with the religious authorities of his day. Let’s read Philippians 2:1-13 to figure out why.

Read Philippians 2:1-13, NRSVUE


The “Christ Hymn” found in Philippians 2:5-11 is a favorite among believers because it reminds us of Jesus’ willingness to be one of us to the point of death on the cross, as well as giving us the promise for eternity held by his resurrection. Today’s Revised Common Lectionary reading, however, provides us the larger context the Christ Hymn appears in.

Paul encourages believers to embrace the mind of Christ:

Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Philippians 2:2, NRSVUE)

From there, Paul indicates that this mindset is humble and concerned for others’ wellbeing:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4, NRSVUE)

Paul is persuading the Philippians that Jesus provides a pattern for us to follow in the way we think about ourselves and others, and then he demonstrates how that affects the way we live our lives. He shows how humility influences our ability to achieve unity.

Humility Defined by Jesus

It’s unfortunate that religion has turned into a quest for personal moral perfection, one that often aligns itself with capitalistic goals of success and wealth. For Jesus, success was found in letting go – letting go of his status as God, and letting go of the cultural norms and expectations that hurt people. Jesus embraced a “spirituality of descent,” as explained by American priest and author Richard Rohr:

Spirituality is about honoring the human journey, loving it, and living it in all its wonder and tragedy. There is nothing really ‘supernatural’ about love and suffering. It is completely natural, taking us through the deep interplay of death and life, surrender and forgiveness…Authentic Christianity…shows us how to give away our life, how to give away our love, and eventually how to give away our death. Basically, how to give away – and in doing so, to connect with the world, with all other creatures, and with God. (The Universal Christ, 216-217).

Not only did Jesus let go of his divine status as the Son of God to become human, but Jesus’ “giving away” culminated in his death on the cross:

Who, though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8, NRSVUE)

Though most (if not all) of us will not face death on a cross like Jesus, we are called to die daily to the self, the egoic part of us that breeds “selfish ambition or empty conceit” (Philippians 2:3). This daily dying to self is not asceticism or abandoning all joy in God-given human activities. For example, Jesus was called a glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11:19). Also, keep in mind that Jesus exhibited an abundant intentional generosity with everyone he met, but especially those who suffered under cultural oppression, such as the sick, women, and children. Theologian, author, and Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault describes Jesus as possessing a “messy, freewheeling largeness” of spirit:

Abundance and a generosity bordering on extravagant seemed to be the signatures of both his teaching and his personal style…As we look further, that extravagance is everywhere. When he feeds the multitudes at the Sea of Galilee, there is not merely enough to go around; the leftovers fill twelve baskets. (The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind, 69-70)

We can consider other recorded statements from Jesus that mirror this extravagant generosity:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32 NRSVUE)

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Luke 6:38 NRSVUE)

This abundant intentional generosity, which Jesus defined as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), is an expression of humility that conveys the heart of God. American Christian historian Diana Butler Bass says that “Jesus uses these terms to explain how he embodies a way of being in this world [that is] so close to the heart of God that God can be known in and through Jesus” (Freeing Jesus, 165-168)

Butler Bass goes on to explain that “the way, the truth, and the life” are relational words, Jesus’ method of interacting in the world. These words are not maps, techniques, philosophies, or dogma. Instead, they reflect humility as an expression of Divine Love. Understanding how to live loved and loving in an intentionally extravagant way is key to the next part of Paul’s pattern: achieving unity.

Unity Fueled by Humility and Grounded in Love

Because how we think impacts the way we live, it’s important to begin from a position of humility that comes from a generous love. Philippians 2:5 encourages believers to have the same embodied way of moving in the world as Jesus did:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:5 NRSVUE)

That mindset of Christ involved giving himself fully into life and death, but in our case, this mindset is not something we “work up” on our own. Paul’s wording of verse 12 can be confusing if the proper context is not understood:

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work on your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12)

Some might think that the wording “work on your own salvation” implies we have to earn our righteousness or salvation. But if we remember the context of Philippians 2:1-13, Paul is discussing the connection between humble, abundant, loving generosity and unity. Paul wants believers to recognize that unity is only possible if they embrace the humility and extravagant love Jesus showed others and then express it themselves. Also, let’s note the word we translate as “work” in verse 12 is from the Greek word katergazomai which implies “finish” or “fashion.” In verse 13, he establishes that this extravagant love originates with God and flows to us and through us:

For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:13 NRSVUE)

Without God working in us and through us, achieving unity with others through humble, generous love isn’t possible. Rather than letting selfish ambition or conceit drive us, we can think about Jesus’ pattern and way of living embodied in the world. We also can reflect on Chuck Feeney’s words: “Our giving is based on the opportunities, not a plan to stay in business for a long time.” Let’s consider the opportunities we have each day to live generously, extravagantly, and lovingly with others.

Call to Action: This week, take some time to praise God for the love and humility Jesus showed us. As we look for ways to love others as Jesus loves, look for the chance to treat yourself and others with extravagant generosity. Though we’re quick to think this involves money, consider also the extravagant generosity of allowing yourself to rest when tired or giving someone a kind word when they’ve messed up or are discouraged. Give thanks to God for the grace lavished on you.

For Reference:
Bass, Diana Butler. Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence. HarperOne, 2021.
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. Convergent Books, 2019.

Let’s Speak Jesus w/ Dr. Chris Green W1

Video unavailable (video not checked).

October 1 — Proper 21 of Ordinary Time
Philippians 2:1-13, “The Name Above Every Name”

CLICK HERE to listen to the whole podcast.

If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot. And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

Follow us on Spotify, Google Podcast, and Apple Podcast.

Program Transcript

Let’s Speak Jesus w/ Dr. Chris Green W1

Anthony: Let’s get to it. We’ve got five pericopes that we’re going to look at from the Revised Common Lectionary here today.

And we want to start with Philippians 2:1-13, I’m going to be reading from the New Revised Standard Version. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 21 in Ordinary Time, which falls on October the 1.

If then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus, who, though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God exalted him even more highly and gave him the name that is above every other name, 10 so that at the name given to Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work on your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Chris, this is one of my favorite passages of scripture in the entire collection. It’s a sweeping Christ poem. And I’m just curious, what are your Christological thoughts that you would like to share from this text?

Chris: Yeah, obviously you have the hymn, and maybe I’ll circle back to that, but two comments first to set the table about the very end, this “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

I think we can easily mishear that as work out your salvation with a sense of risk, with a sense of the precariousness of your salvation, but that’s not at all what Paul intends. Like this, the language of fear and trembling in Scripture is language associated with the coming near of God.

So, it’s the coming near of God that brings about the fear and trembling. So, this is not anxiety about the precariousness of our standing with God. It is an overwhelmed-ness at the nearness of the God who’s come to us. So, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling is Paul calling attention to the fact that God is at work in you, and he says that explicitly.

We just tend to not notice that the fear and trembling is the natural response to the fact that it is God who is at work in you. And it’s precisely because God is at work in you, that you can work out your own salvation. And this is the Christology, right? That in the communication of attributes in Jesus, where the divine and the human are communing with, in him, because of him.

So that he personally is drawing together all that is divine and all that is human, making it his and then making it ours. We can work out our own salvation because it is God who’s at work in us, right? I sometimes put it this way, it’s a bit simple, but I think it makes the point that salvation is not 100% God and not at all mine, 0% mine.

And it’s not 50 / 50, some God and some me. It is entirely God and therefore entirely mine. That is a 100% God and therefore a 100% me. Which is why in Galatians, Paul identifies self-control as a fruit of the Spirit, as the culminating fruit of the Spirit, that where God is most at work, I am most enabled to be what I know I need to be and want to be.

And I can work out my salvation. We can work out our salvation. Because God is at work in us. So, I think that’s a note about the end of the passage.

At the beginning, Paul says something that’s hard to hear. Do nothing from selfish ambition, regard others in humility, regard others as better than yourselves.

And it’s so easy to mishear that. It’s easy to mishear that and think there was something unhealthy in Paul. It’s easy to mishear that and think we’re being called to practice some kind of subservience or some kind of a way in which we are down on ourselves in order to exalt God. As if God’s glory comes at my expense, my humiliation.

Or that the only way I can live in community is if I’m sacrificial in a way that’s harmful to me. You’ve pastored, and I’ve pastored. We’ve seen these dynamics up close in which there are unhealthy ways of living together in community and there is selfishness, of course. And then there’s also a kind of bad selflessness, a way of not having enough of a sense of self to follow the boundaries that need to be followed.

I think what’s key here, Paul is not calling for any kind of unhealthy domination or subservience. The key is in that call to humility—in humility, regard others as better than yourselves, not humiliation. And this is where I think everything becomes clear in what he says about Christ, that the humility we’re called to have is not the humility that is actually humiliation, in which we get dominated by other people and then call that holy.

But it is to have the character of God so that we can genuinely delight in other people the way that God delights in them, right? The way in which this is the Jesus who washes the feet of Peter, even though Peter protests and says no. I should be washing your feet, right? Peter wants to work in a world in which he knows how the hierarchy functions, like who’s in charge and who’s meant to follow orders.

And Jesus overturns that, right? I’m among you as one who serves. So, this humility of God revealed in Jesus Christ means that God is regarding us as his betters, right? He says the Gentiles lorded over, but I don’t lord it over you. Like, I am among you as one who serves. Who is greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? I am the one who serves, like I’m coming to you.

And they’re overturned by his Lordship and authority in their life. It’s too humble. They can’t track him most of the time because of how humble he is.

So, I think all of that is background for what Paul is calling for here from the Philippians and from us. So those two things said, to come to the hymn then—Bonhoeffer is so helpful on this point, and I learned this from him, that the incarnation is not a humiliation for God, that the incarnation is a revelation of the humility of God. But it’s not a humiliation for God. So, when we talk about kenosis—and I do think we need to talk about kenosis—we don’t need to hear that as God humiliated himself in order to prove something to us or to set an example for us.

The Incarnation is not humiliation. It’s revelation. What’s humiliating—and this, again, I’ve gotten from Bonhoeffer—is death on a cross. But he becomes obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, and that is humiliating. And he’s willing, in love for us and in solidarity with us, to go to that extent. But that humiliation exposes the wrongness of the world; it doesn’t reveal something essential about God. The Incarnation reveals God. His submission to death, even in humiliation, the shame of the cross, it shows his devotion to us. It shows his absolute commitment to our good. And it exposes the absurdity of the powers of the world. It puts them on display in the language of Colossians.

So, I think it’s helpful to make that distinction. That the incarnation is a revelation of the humility of God. It’s not a humiliation. It’s not undignified of God to become human.

I was teaching last night an old catechism, and I won’t call out the tradition where this catechism comes from because it’s a disaster.

The catechism is …

Anthony: Name it, Chris.

Christ: No, no, no. It’s part of my own history. It’s a Pentecostal catechism so it’s a part of my own tribe, my tribe’s history. And makes two dramatic mistakes, I think really damaging mistakes, and I pointed this out to my students. The first one is the catechism opens by talking about God but doesn’t talk about Jesus. It has one question about Jesus, but all it says is that Jesus is the Son of God manifested in the flesh, but there’s no theological content to the statement.

And to your point about beginning with Jesus, like when we start to talk about God and Jesus as an afterthought, something has gone terribly wrong. And we’ll keep going wrong all the way through the rest of catechism, because when we come to angels and human beings and sin and redemption and eschatology, if we have misconstrued God because we haven’t seen his glory in the face of Jesus Christ, then we’re going to misapprehend everything else, misconstrue everything else that’s true. That’s exactly what happens.

The other thing that happens in this catechism that I would call out here is that it is specifically seeing this God as being concerned for his own dignity. So, it identifies what it calls God’s moral attributes that constrain his person. So according to this catechism, God cannot do what he personally wills, except by harmonizing, this is their language, harmonizing his moral attributes, which are love, justice, power, and wisdom and dignity.

And dignity—and I pointed out to the students this very passage. And I said, what are we talking about when we talk about God’s dignity if we’re not talking about it in light of Philippians 2? What do we mean when we say God is concerned for his own dignity? Philippians 2 seems to suggest something very different.

Anthony: Yeah, and when we look at the face of Jesus, we see the Son of God, Son of Man being obedient.

Even to death on the cross, which you pointed out was humiliating. And so, we’re talking about the Son of God’s obedience, but as we live and move and have our being in him, we’re called to obedience. But that, man, that feels like such a prickly legalistic word, especially for somebody like me who comes from a legalistic past, but is it legalism? Tell us more about obedience.

Chris: It isn’t. There is a kind of pseudo-obedience that is dominating, that does require a kind of subservience from us, a slavishness from us. Jesus’ obedience reveals—and of course we see this in the saints and the prophets, the people of God who are faithful—that obedience is actually joyful.

There’s a chapter in—forgive the self-promotion here, I will have to repent of this sin—but there’s a chapter in Surprised by God book on obedience, in which I try to work this out a bit, that obedience is a source of joy. In fact, it’s the way in which we learn how to be ourselves.

And I draw on in that chapter, I draw on this image, a painting. It’s called, I think it’s called the Banjo Player. And it shows this older man teaching this young boy how to play the banjo. Tanner is the painter. [The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner] And this boy is standing; the man is behind him. They’re both holding the banjo and the boy’s hands are under the man’s hands. And the man is directing the boy’s hands to the notes that have to be played on the banjo.

And so, he’s being taught a lesson. He’s learning to obey, but he’s not simply obeying his father or grandfather, whoever it is. There’s a way in which the instrument is obeying him and that his obedience to the master, the teacher, is bringing about an obedience of the instrument to his own hands. And what’s coming from that is music. What’s coming from that is joy and dance and life. That’s what obedience is, and of course there are times in which obedience is hard, like the act, you know. It requires we see this in life in Jesus.

This is what’s happening in Gethsemane. Hebrews makes this clear as well, that Jesus is learning through obedience and learning through what he suffers. He’s learning how to obey in ways that bring life to us, but even though that’s difficult, it’s not working against the integrity of his humanity.

And it’s not working against the integrity of his calling. It’s bringing music. It’s bringing joy. And if we can hear obedience that way, that nothing God requires of us is anything but our good, even if in the short run, I can’t see it that way.

And of course, this is to go back to the catechism. Luther’s catechism is so helpful here when he talks about the Ten Commandments. Like when we see what God is forbidding, we need to hear this as what God is making possible for us, right? By telling us “no” to adult adultery, he’s saying yes to the joys of lifelong marriage, right?

These joys won’t come to you unless I forbid those things. So, God is protecting these joys that would be lost on us. So, I think even when we obey, by God telling us, no, you shall not, even that is about learning to play the banjo. It’s about learning to make the music that we actually want to make.

Anthony: Yeah. That’s so beautiful. For the joy set before him, he was obedient even unto the cross, right? And I again I go back to being Christocentric. We look at Jesus. Who he is, what he has accomplished on our behalf and in us, that he would even die while we were still sick in our sins, in the depth of despair, he would rescue us.

Obedience is just—God, thank you! It really is the Eucharisto. It’s the thanksgiving of his goodness. Of course, we want to please him. Of course, we do. Yeah.

Chris: Because pleasing God is what brings pleasure in the world, right? So, God is not just one more person in my life that I’m trying to curry favor with. God is the source of all light and all love and all joy and all peace. And when I’m true to God, I’m being true to my neighbor. I’m being true to the world; I’m being true to myself.

Back to that point about where the Spirit is, there is self-control as well as love and joy and peace and goodness and all that comes where the spirit is allowed to abide. And obedience is a yielding to that, right? It’s accepting that in order for this music to be played, I have to play it this way.

But of course, that’s exactly what I want to do. But that is not destroying my will to get his will done. That’s not God’s purpose. My will is formed by being aligned to his will.

Anthony: Man, I would like to do a whole podcast on this Christological song. It’s so beautiful.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • Can you think of some unspoken expectations we hold for the ways we think God should operate in the world?
  • How does clinging to expectations about God take away the joy and peace that is ours in Jesus Christ? How do we set up ourselves for disappointment in this way?

From the sermon

  • How do you react when you hear about someone like Chuck Feeney who lived a frugal life and made a goal to “die broke?” Is that feasible?
  • The sermon talks about Jesus’ way of living in abundant, extravagant, intentional generosity and compared Chuck Feeney’s outlook of “giving based on opportunities.” How might we live in humble, generous love that looks for daily chances of expression? What are some practical ideas?

Leave a Reply

© Copyright 2024 Grace Communion International

GCI Equipper Privacy Policy