Rev. Teri Peterson
1 June 2014, Easter 7, NL4-39
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion 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 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 in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that someone I knew from my clarinet-playing days had just been appointed principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic. He’d already been principal at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and had played at President Obama’s first inauguration, and was well known as being one of the best clarinet players of our time. And still it caught me off guard a bit—to think that someone my age could be in such a prominent position in such a competitive arena. Of course, when Ingrid and I talked about it she noted that we’re not young anymore—people our age are doing amazing things all over the place, as they should be!
Then this weekend, several young clergy women were talking about how it feels now that some of our classmates seem to be pulling ahead of the pack on the career ladder, with people our age and younger getting called to be senior pastors at large churches. One person started a conversation wondering why some people climb that ladder while she doesn’t—even though she feels called to one day be in a big church.
Church size is also pretty common conversation among both church members and pastors—we all want our churches to grow, to be successful in the eyes of the world, to have plenty of money and more than enough people to do great things. Often those conversations involve comparing one church to another, wondering how to be like others, how to copy what they’re doing or climb the size ladder.
Meanwhile, I was thinking about Paul’s teaching in the second chapter of Philippians. Remember he is writing from prison, to a church that is thriving under Lydia’s patronage and leadership. Last week we heard him exhorting us to remember our place in God’s vision: we are workers, not master builders, sidekicks to the greatest hero. Now we hear him telling us to think of others as better than ourselves, to love indiscriminately as Jesus did, and to be of one mind with both Christ and one another.
The phrase “of one mind” or “the same mind” has nothing to do with how we think, or what we believe. It is about attitude: how we approach things, our way of being.
In other words, it feels like Paul is speaking right into my budding jealousy of those other 30-somethings who are doing amazing things and telling me I need an attitude adjustment. Not to mention a reminder that I really didn’t like to practice the clarinet!
I doubt I’m the only one who needs this kind of attitude adjustment, though. Our culture teaches us to stand up and stand out, to get noticed and be a leader. Paul couldn’t have written more counter-cultural or difficult words if he’d lived down the street from us. And to top it off, when he says “you” that’s a plural you, not an individualistic, singular you. So he says to us:
Y’all have the same attitude among you as Jesus had. Y’all love the same way Jesus loved. Y’all think of others as better than yourselves. Y’all turn off that selfish ambition and seek the greater good. Y’all look to the interests of others, not your own desires. Remember that Jesus was obedient to God all the way through his life and death. The Body of Christ, and all the members of it, need to do the same.
That is indeed an attitude adjustment.
It has often been noted that those of us who follow Jesus are often not very much like him. Gandhi famously said that he loved Jesus, but Christians were another story. Yet we also know that when a rabbi called someone to “come, follow me,” they did so because they believed the student could become like the teacher. We know that Jesus entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation, of healing, of speaking and living the good news of God’s love. And today we hear Paul’s words, asking us to have the mind of Christ, an attitude of obedience and humility, a posture of love and unity…and it kind of seems impossible.
It’s so much easier to work for what we want. It’s so much easier when we know we’ll be rewarded, with recognition, or thanks, or money, or power, or admiration. It’s so much easier to look after ourselves and offer the leftovers to God and our community. It’s so much easier to point the finger than to be part of a solution. It’s so much easier to talk about people than to them. It’s so much easier to make assumptions and judgments than to think the best.
Spiritual teachers say that one of the most important things for us to learn is a prayer for indifference. Not in the negative apathetic sense in which we usually use that word, but in the sense of being indifferent to everything but the will of God. In other words, we need to learn to pray not for what we want, but for what God wills. You may remember that even Jesus had to learn this by practice: in the garden, just before his arrest, as he looked into the shadow of death, he prayed “if it is possible let this cup pass from me…yet not what I will, but what you will.” To be indifferent to everything but God’s will is to truly not be tied to one outcome or another, as long as it is God’s direction. If we have been given this gift, we are able to participate in things that may not be our preference, to walk a path we might not have chosen, because we believe the Spirit is moving the Body is moving in God’s direction. To let go of our own preferred or desired outcome makes listening for God’s call easier…but of course it’s crazy hard to let go! This is why the spiritual teachers say we need to learn to pray for indifference—to ask God to make us care more about what God wants than what we want, to ask for the gift of seeking the good of the whole before our own good. Sometimes we may look into our hearts and see that we really desire our way, and that is an opportunity for us to pray again to be made indifferent to everything but the will of God.
Here is some good news in the midst of this challenge. Just at the end of today’s reading, Paul reminds us of what he told us last week: It is God who is at work in us, enabling us to will what God wills and to work for God’s glory. We don’t have to do this with our own willpower—indeed, we can’t. We are able to pray for indifference, and to see others as better than ourselves, and to look death in the face knowing that resurrection is on the other side, and to love as Christ loves, because God enables that in us. We couldn’t do it under our steam, but the breath of the Holy Spirit makes this all possible.
I suggest we, in this part of the Body of Christ, take up this challenge. For the month of June, pray each day for an attitude adjustment. Ask for God’s help in letting go of our own will and seeking only God’s will instead. Rather than praying for us to climb the church ladder, or to be like other churches, or even for the church to grow: pray for the church, the Body of Christ, to be indifferent to everything but the will of God, and then for the courage to work for God’s will rather than our own. We may just find ourselves aligned with Christ—the one who was obedient even unto death, and then was lifted up for God’s glory.
May it be so.