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Sermon for 8 October 2017

 


Philippians 2:1-13 

I love it when a new word has to be conceived to describe a new craze.

One that I came across recently is the "humblebrag”. This is something you will find on the internet, usually social media, when someone is trying to disguise bragging with a very thin layer of false humility. You would never own up to "humblebragging”, of course – it is something that someone else might call you out on lest you become too conceited without even knowing it.

No idea what I’m talking about? Well, thankfully, American comedy writer Harris Wittels has made sure that the most egregious examples of backhanded immodesty don’t go unrecognised. He has set up a Twitter account called @Humblebrag and here are a few of the most fabulous examples…

Stephen Fry on Twitter: "Oh dear. Don’t know what to do at the airport. Huge crown, but I’ll miss my plane if I stop and do photos…oh dear don’t want to disappoint." #humblebrag

Emma Watson, star of the Harry Potter movies, also on Twitter:"It’s been 10 years but I still feel so uncomfortable with being recognized. Just a bit shy I suppose." #humblebrag

Meryl Streep, committing not just a humblebrag, but an oscarbrag on awards night:"When they called my name, I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, ‘Oh no! Oh come on, why her? Again!'” #humblebrag

For the next few weeks, we are focussing our attention on Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi – a gorgeous piece, quite unlike any of his other letters. The letter doesn’t flow in the way that the others do; instead it’s a series of little vignettes all tied together with a kind of poem about Jesus in chapter 2.

I’ve been lucky enough to bag that poem to preach on today and my only hope is that you don’t embarrass me with the usual praise that I get for my sermons. #humblebrag.

This passage in chapter 2 is known as the Kenotic Poem.Kenosis is the word theologians use to describe how Jesus emptied himself and became human and this Kenotic Poem is the best remedy to the humblebrag that there is. Let’s find out why.

Paul’s aim is simple: to encourage the Christians at Philippi to imitate Christ’s humility. But why does Paul need to tell them to do that? Well, it’s because the culture in which the Philippians were operating had an eye-watering sense of pride and status, which Paul wanted the followers of Jesus there to combat. To get an idea of the level of pride that the Roman Empire had in itself, listen to this extract from a letter written by Emperor Julian:

"These impious Galileans, they not only feed their own but ours also, welcoming them with their agape (love); they attract them as children are attracted with cakes. Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given affect to their pernicious errors."

He clearly doesn’t like these Christians, but why? He writes:

Each of these things, I think, ought really to be practiced by us. It is not sufficient for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia without exception. Either make these men good by shaming them, persuade them to become so or dismiss them.

If Emperor Julian had a Twitter account, he might say something like:

Lovely to see the Christians feeding the homeless – such an inspiration to us Romans. Come and see our new £3 million homeless shelter. #humblebrag

 It’s not the simple fact that the Christians are doing good works, which gets up Julian’s nose; it’s more to do with how humble they are as they go about their work – it grates because they’re genuine in their humility and that exposes a real inadequacy in Julian’s own motives.

But Paul’s instructions about humility are not simply to practice it because that’s just what Christians do (though it is); his vision of humility is much richer and deeper than that. What Paul presents us with is what we might call a paradox of power, God’s power, not exercised in the way that the Romans or indeed we might expect. To set up the paradox, he draws on ideas from Genesis. He writes:

Let the same mind be in you that wasin Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited…

He doesn’t mention Adam by name, but it’s clear that Paul wants us to make the connection between what Adam did and then what Jesus did. Both Adam and Jesus had the opportunity to snatch at a God-like status and, of course, we know that this is just what Adam did. In the creation allegory, we are told that Adam was tempted to eat of the tree because it would make him like God – what a status to possess, who could refuse? 

Imagine if Adam had a Twitter account:

'Ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yummy, but knowing everything is such a drag #humblebrag'

 

Paul wants the Philippians to claim a different status, after the example of Christ, who also had an opportunity to abuse his equality with God, but chose instead to clothe himself in flesh, become human and experience all that it means to be mortal, even death. R S Thomas puts it beautifully in his poem The Coming:

On a bare Hill

a bare tree saddened

The sky. many People

Held out their thin arms

To it, as though waiting

For a vanished April

To return to its crossed

Boughs. The son watched

Them. Let me go there, he said.

"Let me go there.” Not, "Let me stay here in this seat at your right hand where I mean something, where I feel like I matter.”

So, what is it about humility that Paul wants the Philippians and us to understand? Well, the first thing to say is that this paradox of power, which he presents, is not some dodgy doctrine of self-hatred, instead its about helping us to come to a healthy understanding of where our real status comes from as Christians. Unlike worldly power, our significance doesn’t come from currying favour with those who can exalt us, by doing good things. What an exhausting existence that would be - only being as powerful as your last humblebrag.

By comparing Adam and Jesus, Paul unmasks the ways of power and possession as illusions and leads us forward to see that life is not about gaining power; it is about losing it. Paul tells us that through his emptying of himself, Jesus is paradoxically given the name above all names. But how does that work? How can emptying yourself result in an exalted status? Well, what Paul knew and what Jesus knew is that our dignity doesn’t come from anything that we can humblebrag about; our dignity comes from God and from God alone and that dignity is not something we can earn.

Humility for Paul is not about thinking less of yourself, far from it. Instead it is understanding that who and what we are is a gift of grace and that’s the paradox of power: Jesus’ status as the name at which every knee would bow was given to him and we have dignity, we have a place, but it’s not because we earned it, its because, like Jesus it is given to us.

The thing is, once we have freed ourselves from the illusion that we can gain power for ourselves, we are, quite ironically, free to do the things we would have done, previously motivated by a desire to humblebrag, but this time as a loving response to the gift of God’s grace. Paul writes, "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Why? Because our interests are already sorted!

The things we do become motivated by something purer when we come to understand what Paul meant when he wrote: "…it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

So, in this beautiful part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he calls them and us to a new and Christ-like humility, not a humblebrag, designed to elevate our position in the eyes of those who we can convince to listen to us, but a humility in knowing that we alreadymatter, so there’s nothing to gain from doing good things, other than to show others that they matter too.

And if we could Tweet that, we might say:

"Just heard that God loves me and I didn’t earn it. I also heard that he loves you too. Amazing." #humble

Going deeper

1. When has the church been successful/unsuccessful in modelling the humility that Paul describes?

2. What might the humility that Paul describes look like in your own life?

3. How can we encourage others to know that God's grace is for them/to live with humility??

 

Posted: 08-10-2017 at 15:14
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