Sermon by Stephen Linton 07.03.2021

Approaching the Cross… with my ambition

By Stephen Linton (7.3.2021)

 

Philippians 2: 1 – 11

Let me begin by asking you a question.  Is it good to be ambitious?   Because, on the one hand, being ambitious can encourage us to achieve something that we would otherwise avoid doing:  some big project perhaps, or running a marathon, or learning a new language or to play an instrument.   But on the other hand, ambitions like that may be frustrating, as for whatever reason we don’t achieve what we were hoping to do.   And so we can be left disappointed.

So as Christians I wonder if we have any ambitions with regard to the spiritual side of our lives?   Yes it’s good to be back in church again, to see our church friends, maybe to meet in a small group.   But what about more challenging ambitions?   Do we see our spiritual lives as resuming the previous pattern, once the pandemic is over, or are we wondering what new things God may have in store for us?   Something different?   Something challenging?   What does God want us to do with the rest of our lives?

As we move through Lent towards Good Friday and Easter, we are in a sense drawing closer to the Cross, just as Jesus did as he made his way up to Jerusalem.   So are our ambitions affected by our time in Lent as we prepare for Easter?

And to help us think about that, we’re looking at this passage from Philippians, Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, which in my New International Version has a sub-heading, ‘Imitating Christ’s humility’.   Now did I say that we were to think about ambition?   But here we read of Christ’s humility.   What relevance has that, humility, to our secular or spiritual ambitions?

Paul is writing from prison to a church who were probably having a bit of hard time.   You may remember that it was in Philippi that Paul and Silas were thrown into jail after a riot and a beating.   Those new churches that were established on Paul’s missionary journeys faced opposition from different groups:  from those whose livelihood was affected;  from the Roman authorities who regarded Caesar as a god to be worshipped; and also from local groups of Jews who rejected this new teaching.   And Paul writes from prison, where he spent 2 years in chains.   He writes from isolation to those facing opposition.   Yet his message is one of great support and encouragement.   He writes in v1 of the encouragement of knowing Christ, of his love, and of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

So the first thing we can take away from this passage is a message of encouragement.   We too are in some ways imprisoned or having a hard time, with all the pandemic restrictions, isolated, unable to see friends and family and maybe feeling oppressed by the ongoing crisis.   Paul writes of the encouragement of knowing Christ, comforted by God’s love for us all, inspired by his Spirit, and aware of the compassion and love of others.   He encourages us to be like-minded, encouraging each other, showing God’s love to those in need.  

And above all, he tells us that the pattern we need to follow is to imitate Christ Jesus.   And there follow six verses, vs 6 – 11, which are set out in modern versions of the Bible as verse rather than prose, and it’s likely that Paul is quoting a very ancient Christian hymn or liturgy.   It sets out in poetic form what Paul calls ‘the mindset of Jesus’.   It tells us that though Jesus was in very nature God, he was willing to put that nature aside.   And there follows a series of steps, from being part of the essence or nature of God, to becoming man, made, we read, in human likeness, and taking the nature of a servant.   And not just that, being willing to humble himself, and willing to die.   And not just that, being willing to die on a cross, often described as the most painful form of execution devised by man.

And the verbs here are all active, not passive:  Jesus did all of this willingly, it was not imposed upon him.   He made himself nothing, he took the nature of a servant, he humbled himself, he became obedient to death, even death on a cross.   He was born as a baby, accepting all the limitations that that involved.   And then he lived as a poor carpenter’s son, and then an itinerant preacher, with no home of his own.   His friends were poor fishermen, he associated with the outcasts of society.   He upset the religious leaders of his day, so much that they conspired to have him killed.

But Paul in this passage doesn’t stop there:  he tells of God exalting Jesus, so that he is now Lord of heaven and earth and one day will take his rightful place as our Lord and King.   So this short ancient hymn leads us from the incarnation, through the crucifixion, to Easter and to Ascension Day.

And today we remember that Jesus did all this for you and for me.   As later we take communion we are remembering all that, and identifying with it.   As we take bread and wine, we are communing with Jesus who gave his body and blood for us.   And we do so with thankfulness.   And we offer ourselves in his service, to be a living sacrifice, as we ask God to send us out to live and work for his praise and glory.

So what does all this say about our ambitions?   Paul tells us to imitate Christ’s humility.   Our ambition is not to be about our self-interest, but in the interests of others.   In humility to value others.   To seek to serve, to serve God and those around us.  

How does that work out in practice?   We are told to imitate Christ’s humility.   Is it wrong, then, to be ambitious?   Well yes and no I suggest!   Yes it’s wrong to have ambitions that purely seek our own advancement against the interests of others.   To have that cut-throat attitude of ‘me first’ without thought for the consequences.

But it’s also wrong to have a false humility, drifting through life with no aims or ambitions.   What matters is that our ambitions need to be in line with God’s way and God’s will for our lives.   As we leave a communion service we ask God to send us out in the power of his Spirit to live and work for his praise and glory.   That’s ambitious!   To seek to serve God in our daily lives outside of church, during the coming week, not for our self-interest but for God’s praise and glory.

Practically speaking that means that in our secular lives we are to seek to follow God’s ways.   We are to show God’s love to those we meet.   We are to seek to mould our society in God’s way.   To be a mouthpiece for truth and justice.   To model godly character in the way we live and speak.   And to practice the presence of God in our daily lives.   And that may affect every aspect of our lives, our work and leisure, our career or retirement, our friends and relationships, our lifestyle and use of resources.

Our ambition is to follow God’s way day by day, to see him more clearly, to love him more dearly, to follow him more nearly.   Or in the words of St Francis, to be instruments of God’s peace, to bring God’s love, pardon, faith, hope and joy to a needy world.   One of the ways we can imitate Christ in our daily lives is to seek to be practical expressions of God’s love in our community, in our homes and at our place of work.   Jesus sought out those in particular need.   And similarly our churches should be seeking to show God’s love in practical ways.   Perhaps through the local food bank; or other voluntary agencies.   Looking out for those in need of help, especially at this difficult time.  

So as individuals are we ambitious to serve God where he has placed us, responding to God’s call to serve him?   Asking God if he is calling us to be involved in some of these ventures?   Imitating Christ by showing God’s love to those we meet.

And what about our ambitions as a church?     I think that all churches are facing big questions as the country emerges from the pandemic.   Will congregations return to church?   How does online church fit into our mission in years to come?   Will people prefer to sit at home and pick and mix from numerous options available?   Will we be committed to what our local church is doing?   So as you look to the future for your church here at St Mark’s, are you seeking God’s vision and how you fit into it?   Our ambition should be to seek and follow God’s will for us.   So you will know of the plans for a new associate minister to be appointed at St Peter’s who will then become your Vicar and bring with him or her a group of people who will join you as full members, not as occasional visitors.   That’s in order to help you to grow God’s church in this place and this part of our town.  

Now for some of you that will be challenging or even threatening; but for others it may be good news.   Of course there will be a year for that vision to develop, but even now we can be asking God to show us what part he has for us to play in this new vision for God’s work here.   Praying for God’s encouragement during another year of a vacancy.   And looking forward expectantly to a new era in God’s service here at St Mark’s.   That’s what our ambition should surely be:  to serve God where and when he calls.

So our passage today brings us encouragement:  Paul writes of the encouragement of knowing Christ, comforted by God’s love for us all, inspired by his Spirit, and aware of the compassion and love of others.   So the first thing that we learn is that before we look to what we can do for God, we need to know how much we are loved by God.   And then in response we are to be like-minded, encouraging each other, and looking to the interests of others, rather than allowing our own problems to overwhelm us.

 And willingly and faithfully to follow God’s way, as Jesus did.   Imitating Christ, our Lord and Master.   And to do all to the glory of God the Father, inspired, guided and empowered by his Spirit.

 

Let’s pray.   The prayer of St Francis: 

Lord make Me an instrument of Your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love.   Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.   Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.   Where there is sadness joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console
To be understood, as to understand.   To be loved. as to love.
For it's in giving that we receive   And it's in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.