Rebecca Heilman
(Philippians 2: 1-11)

My brother has more recently learned the power of imitation with his 5-year-old son. My brother is the kindest, most lovable person you’ll meet and he also has a strong sense of humor. He is dry and witty and often tells jokes with curse words interspersed. It’s just who he is. When I was child, I looked up to my brother as if he hung the moon and more. Everything, and I mean everything he did, I did. He didn’t like cheese as a child, I didn’t like cheese. He played the saxophone, you bet it, it was my dream to play the saxophone. Anything my brother did – words and phrases, actions and dreams – I was never too far behind. So you would think having a younger sister of six years who was constantly a step behind him, he would learn that his words impact those around him.

Well, my brother learned quite quickly how much of an impact he has on his own child. He learned he could not talk like he was used to talking and he could not tell crude jokes that he was used to telling when his son reached the point of verbal communication. My nephew copied every single word my brother said and even though my brother tried to be careful, there were just some words that had already been ingrained into my nephew’s brain. One day, in preschool, my nephew walked into his classroom, was enjoying his coloring and then accidently spilt his crayons on floor…the frustrated words that came out of this child’s mouth, made every teacher stop in their spot and stare. Not only did my nephew get a gentle talking to that day, but my brother as well.

The power of imitation is something we all know, we’ve all had to learn. It’s how we’ve learned to speak, whether it’s the good words or the bad words. It’s how we’ve learned to act and often how we learned our moral compass. Imitation is how we can learn to dance and sing and draw and even write our letters.

Imitation can shape our communication skills, it can be the finest form of flattery and it can shape our entire selves to the core of our being. And so, it’s no wonder that Paul is asking us to imitate Christ Jesus in our Philippians passage today because Paul knows the power of imitation and the power that it has in bringing hope to a community. Paul is writing to his beloved community in Philippi and he is writing this letter from a prison cell. And yet, even though, he is sitting in the pit of a prison, we are surprised to hear his message as kind of chippie, joyful, and encouraging towards the church of Philippi. Paul is pleased with what the church has been doing in Philippi, considering all that they were up against.

And so in this letter, Paul, through gentleness and encouragement is taking a more pastoral role. Philippi is under the Roman hand, which means they were surrounded by a Roman culture, a Roman administration, a Roman discipline, and a Roman influential religion of paganism. It’s believed that the Philippi church faced persecution and were constantly up against the society around them. They were receiving political, social, and religious messages from all over the place and Paul is reminding them to look inward at the church of Jesus Christ.

There is a fear of division written between the lines of this letter, a fear of disunity, a fear of all that is going on outside of the church will leak into the congregations. But Paul has confidence in the church of Philippi. Paul writes, if then there is any encouragement in Christ, you’ve got it! And if any consolation from love, you’ve got it! And if any sharing in the Spirit, you’ve got it! And if any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete because you’ve got it! Paul is not doubting the Philippians. He is not questioning if they have these qualities, in fact, he is quite certain of it. As Fred Craddock, a New Testament Theologian, writes, On the contrary (outside of Paul’s usually angry letters to Christian churches), “he is not only affirming them but is building his call from progress and maturity upon those very faith and life experiences.”[1] And so even though, the church of Philippi is receiving all of these mixed messages, they also have everything they need right there within them.

Friends, this might sound familiar. It is particularly challenging to feel hope during this current time. We are in the midst of mixed messages when we are at our most divided. We are finishing up a contentious election where we’re discovering just how truly divided we are as a nation. We’re in the midst of a pandemic where numbers are higher than ever throughout our country and there is disagreement on how to move forward. We are polarized to the point that even Christians are at odds on the basic message of the Gospel. The messages we receive daily come from all over and they are dividing, baffling, and exhausting. We read one thing on our friend’s social media post and hear another on numerous news outlets. We’ve lost friends over opinions and even feel the division in our families. We can’t even be in the same room as our friends because of this virus, which makes it even harder to communicate. Our love ones are sick and some are dying, people are feeling unheard, unseen, unrepresented. There is a gridlock and we are exhausted by following the rules, by Zooming for every single human interaction, by cleaning our groceries, by not be able to hug someone who’s in pain. We are looking for messages of hope, of confidence, of support, of love, all over the place because gosh, we’re exhausted by fear and the worry of what might come next. Beloved, our collective problem is that we are looking elsewhere, wherever we desperately can, for a hopeful message and all this time, we’ve had a comforting message right here at our fingertips, in the church, in Christ, in God our creator.

Trust me, I know it hasn’t been easy to see this message with the chaos around us. Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz knows something about this as well. You all know the classic story, hang in here with me. Dorothy is hit in the head by a flying item caused by a twister. And so, she falls into a deep, passed out sleep, where she awakes in another world. A world full of munchkins, witches, rainbows, flying monkeys and a talking lion. She’s desperate to find her way home, out of that world that doesn’t make any sense to her. Apples are thrown at her by trees, fire is thrown at her by a green witch, she’s kidnaped by flying monkeys and then drugged by poppies. She’s ready to go back to the world she knows. They eventually find the great wizard of Oz, who they put all their hope in and even he can’t help her get home. In the end, after the long journey on the yellow brick road, Glinda, the good witch, reminds her that everything she needs, to find her way home, was right there inside her all along. It was never too far from her, it was right in the center of her heart, soul and mind. Dorothy just had to see it for herself.

Paul is trying to reveal the same to the church of Philippi. He is confident they have all the right tools ingrained into their spirit – they have the encouragement, the love, the compassion, the sympathy, the joy – all the good things we talk about, when we talk about Christ. They have the humility and the ability to imitate Christ Jesus who gave them all that they need. Paul wants the church of Philippi to know that the comforting, hopeful message to face all that is around them is right there in the church, in their belief in Jesus Christ, in the core moral compass of what it means to be Christian. It’s right there in all they have been taught, all they know to be true, all that they imitate.

This is when Paul writes the great Christocentric hymn to remind the Philippians exactly who God is.  He states, that Christ took his role as God seriously. As seriously as emptying himself, taking the form of the lowliest person in the Roman empire, a slave. Paul tells the Philippians that Jesus humbled himself to the point of death so that God could then exalt him. And by God doing all of this – creating God’s self into the lowly of lowly and the highest of high – we should then call Christ, Lord – centering all that we know about Christ and God to be true. Fred Craddock writes again, “In the foreground lies a church distracting itself from its witness by discord and individualism, apparently marked by self-serving behavior. In Paul’s judgment what the church needs is not a scolding but a reminder of the event that created and defined their life together.”[2]  What makes the church the Church is the “in Christ Jesus” mind. What makes the church the Church is the “in Christ Jesus” humility. What makes the church the Church is the “in Christ Jesus” love.

Friends, we’ve been imitating Christ Jesus and all that Christ represents for years. We know what it means to be church and we know what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ. It means welcoming the children, comforting the sick, advocating for the poor, welcoming the stranger, embracing the different, and always centering our lives in love and humility. What is so powerful about this passage and Paul’s gentle intentions is that we are not alone. We have the tools to help us talk to the opposing side and see humanity. We have the tools to help us be compassionate towards injustices. We have the tools to remember that God emptied Christ’s self to the form of the lowliest of slaves and to the highest of God. And when our tools aren’t working or when we are exhausted by using them, we have a community to remind us again and again of why we are here, why we are church, why we follow Jesus Christ.  And so though, right now, when the mixed messages might feel hopeless, scary, exhausting, confusing, we’ve got a comforting message to turn to. A message that give us the tools to slowly bridge our divides, seek justice for the oppressed, and to find our grounding. We know what it means to be church and we know what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ. It’s been in us all along and so now all we have to do is go out into this world, yes, this messy world, and represent to others the same mind, the same love, being in full accord and of one mind as Christ has taught us to be.

Pray with me, Loving God, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen.

 

[1] Fred Craddock, Philippians: Interpretations: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 35.

[2] Craddock, Philippians, 42-43.

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