Colossians 1:15-20; Phil 2:6-11
Series on the PC(USA) Foundations
Elizabeth M. Deibert
We’re in our second week of a series on the Foundations of the Church. Last week we talked about our purpose, our mission. What are we doing? This week we move to Who’s in charge? We are making our way through the opening of our new Presbyterian Book of Order . Our Book of Confessions, part A of our church’s constitution has not changed – that’s the collection of creeds and confessions that we as a denomination reliable expositions of what we are called to be and do, written at various points in history. But part of our constitution has changed, the part that guides our governance, and it is the theological opening of it that we are considering in this five week series.
I remember a little girl once saying to me that she wanted to be a pastor like me, because you get to be the boss and only have to work one day/week. Yep, being the pastor is really cool. Relaxing all week, then showing up on Sunday and everyone knows you are the boss! Ha. Well, not exactly. Who is in charge around here? There are several right answers to that question. There is pastoral authority, no doubt, as the little girl rightly surmised, but in our Presbyterian tradition, it is the session who is charged with the leadership of the church, the elected session of ordained elders, led by the pastor. But the real right answer to our question “Who’s in charge?” is that Jesus Christ is the Head of the church. The church came into being through him, relies on his power for its faith and life, its unity and mission, its order and discipline. Jesus Christ is in charge here, and it is our job as representative leaders of the church to figure out as the bracelets of the popular bracelets of 1990’s said, “What would Jesus Do?” WWJD
Today we read two of the oldest and most important passages in the New Testament, both are about the unique person of Jesus Christ. Both were used in the early church, probably as hymns, which the congregation sang together to rehearse their faith.
Most scholars consider these two passages the earliest creeds of the church, long before the Nicene Creed of the the 4th Century and the Apostles Creed, adapted from the 2nd to the 8th centuries. It is likely that these two pieces of liturgy were what united the early church in their belief about Christ, as they recited together these words in worship, much as we do in our affirmation of faith each week by which we unite our faith with that of our forebears and our sisters and brothers in the PC(USA) and around the world.
Uniting ourselves with common words is significant. On the day before Rob Tuite surgery, Richard and I gathered with Kim and the three kids, along with Rob’s sister and brother, whose church experience is Roman Catholic, in the ICU room next to Rob’s because we could not all fit in his room, so full it was of medical equipment keeping him alive. We touched the wall nearest his head and I led the group in prayer, ending of course with the Lord’s Prayer. Knowing that “forgive us our trespasses” would flow out of their mouths, I went with that version of the prayer. These words of the Lord’s prayer united us in that moment at Rob’s bedside. He is doing amazingly well, by the way, now completely off the respirator.
Having a common language to articulate our faith is very valuable. The scripture we are reading today was the common language of the first several hundred years of the church, and has shaped much of what we believe in the generations of church which followed.
Our first reading, Colossians speaks of the supremacy of Christ, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Christ was present in creation, and his sustaining and reconciling power is over everything in heaven and on earth.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
If you can affirm this passage, you believe in a doctrine which was pivotal in the early church and still is key today: the divine nature of Christ. He was more than an amazingly loving and powerful human being. Fully human, fully divine as the Nicene says. Muslims and Jews believe Jesus was fully human and a great prophet. Christians believe he was as divine as he was human. Immanuel – God with us. True God from true God. Some people today are troubled by the thought that God would require the death of his son to rectify the relationship with us. But believing in the full divinity of Christ helps us out of that problem because Christ is God, so it is God’s own willingness in Christ to suffer for our sakes which rectifies the relationship. Who will not affirm that the sacrificial love of Kim Tuite, standing by Rob’s bedside, exhausted from the strain of caring for him, not to mention the kids, is not sacrificial love? Who could argue that Peggy and Bob, spending all kind of time, energy, and resources to try to help their son Seth to get his kids back out of foster care was not sacrificial love – no matter what happens in the end. Nancy Hogue, going to the nursing home every day to see that her dad’s end of life was dignified, that he received the care he needed. Sacrificial love we can see in many of your relationships. Sacrificial love to the extreme is what we mean when we talk about the blood of the cross making peace.
And that leads us to our next passage, which says more about the self-emptying life of Christ. Christ, who was the most high God, willingly accepted a lower position, taking the place of a servant and being obedient to the will of God.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.
9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (NRSV)
Some modern Christians worry about our emulating Christ’s pattern of self-emptying. They are rightly concerned about the abused spouse taking too much mistreatment in the spirit of self-sacrifice. Despite that concern, which needs to be addressed in particular situations, the doctrine of kenosis, self-emptying, is still valuable to us, maybe even more valuable as more people become unabashedly self-driven and lacking in generosity toward one another. Sacrifice is good in so much as it brings out the good. If you are sacrificing so that an abusive person can continue to be mean, that’s not love. A better way to describe the act of Christ Jesus in this text, then, is to emphasize his absolute obedience to the divine purpose for his earthly life.
Instead of taking what he could have had on his own Jesus chose the path that fulfilled God's will, and followed that path to the end, difficult though it was. For this willing obedience, then, God exalted him to the highest place.
(Sandra H. Polaski, www.working preacher.org)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who poured out his own life at the hands of the Nazis because he refused to allow the church to be the tool of oppression, wrote: The church is the church only when it exists for others. . . . The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. . . . It must not underestimate the importance of human example which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus.
We live in a society dominated by rights-activism, permeated with the philosophy of "me first," and molded by the corporate ideals of efficiency and success. The Church must remember that demanding one's rights and privileges may be popular, even necessary in some cases, but if it does so at the expense of Christian unity and love, it is not Christian! The Body of Christ must refocus on Christian humility.
We must make service to others, perfect love in action, our primary responsibility. An attitude of Christlike humility does not demand rights or protect its own interests; it seeks servanthood. (Dennis Bratcher, www.textweek.org) This is the kind of servanthood – to run up the steps of the burning Twin Towers to save others, or to risk your life in Hurricane Irene to guard the lives of others.
Jesus challenged those whose lives needed to be challenged. He assertively spoke truth to power without holding back. He overturned tables in the temple, called people to account for their hypocrisy. But he also knelt and washed his disciples feet, even those of Judas, who would betray him and Peter who would deny even knowing him. He submitted to death without a fight, because he loved us just as he loved himself.
In these two passages of scripture, we see Christ’s greatness in two forms – his exaltation and his lowliness. I turn to the word-smithing of the Presbyterian committee which composed A Declaration of Faith, “We recognize the work of God in Jesus power and authority. He did what only God can do. We also recognize the work of God in Jesus’ lowliness. When he lived as a servant and went humbly to his death the greatness that belongs only to God was manifest. In both his majesty (Colossians) and his lowliness (Philippians) Jesus is the eternal Son of God, God himself with us.” (4.3) slide
In understanding the Head of our Church, Jesus Christ, we understand whom we are called to be. Followers of Christ should have the same obedience to the divine will--whether that leads to suffering and humiliation for Jesus' sake, or to God-given boldness that challenges systems of oppression, or to radical peacemaking that refuses to accept that unjust structures cannot be changed. In whichever position Christians find themselves, they can fulfill God's plan for their own lives, as Jesus did, because they know that in the end Christ reigns over all. (Sandra H. Polaski, www.working preacher.org)
Christ is in charge, not us. This is the church of Jesus Christ. This is the Word of the Lord. This is the Christ’s table, not ours. As followers of one who gave his life for the sake of love, we are called to give sacrificially – to give up our rights for what is right. To give up our willfulness for God’s will. To give up being in charge even of ourselves and let Christ be in charge. When we joyfully submit to his Lordship in all aspects of life, then we are taking the necessary steps of becoming true Christians. “Not my will, but thine be done.” Who’s in charge? Not me.