October 1, 2017/World Communion Sunday
Every time he turns around, the Israelites are complaining about something else. No matter that he brought them up out of the land of Egypt, breaking Pharaoh’s oppressive hold on them. They seem to have forgotten about how the waters of the Red Sea separated for them to pass through, rushing back to cover Pharaoh’s army.
Now, it’s water that they’re whining about, and as far as they’re concerned, Moses is to blame. Everything bad that has happened to them, every mile they’ve walked through the desert, every hunger pang, every thirst – Moses’ fault!
Moses has had it! He cries out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people?” What, indeed. What was it about this people that made Moses stick with them? What was it about God’s call that made Moses continue to put up with this grumpy, cantankerous, peevish bunch of people?
Paul’s first words to the church at Philippi make it clear that they must be doing many things right. He addresses his letter “to all the saints in Christ Jesus” – saints not meaning those holy and devout folk long dead who have been canonized by the church, but all of those people called into new life by Christ, people still living who are striving each day to live as Jesus taught, people who are working “out their own salvation with fear and trembling.”
“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:3-5). The church people of Philippi exhibit all of the traits of a community built on the gospel of Jesus Christ. They encourage one another in following Christ. They love one another. They share their spiritual gifts to nurture one another. They exhibit compassion and sympathy for one another.
“Paul is not raising any question or doubt about the quality or genuineness of the Philippian’s faith and life.” Indeed, he affirms that in their love and care for one another, they demonstrate true koinonia, the fellowship of those for whom living is Christ.
But he also reminds them that they have work yet to do. That work centers on their holding to the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. In addition to their encouragement and love and sharing and compassion and sympathy, Paul reminds them that they must be united in their work. That will require them to adopt the attitude of the Christ who emptied himself, becoming entirely receptive to God’s divine will.
“Christ emptied self, served, and died – without promise of reward. The extraordinary fact of Christ’s act was that at the cross, the future was apparently closed.” Jesus hung from a cross with no assurance of resurrection, no promise of life to come, but in total and complete self-sacrifice. “Christ acted on our behalf without view of gain. That is precisely what God has exalted and vindicated: self-denying service for others to the point of death with no claim of reward, no eye upon a reward.”
“Not my will, but your will be done,” Jesus said as he hung from the cross. Not what is in my best interest. Not what I might want to do. Not how I might choose to spend my time. Not how I may want to respond to a request for help. Not if I feel like showing up for another church meeting. Not whether I’m interested in teaching Sunday school. Not my will, but your will be done.
That is the message that Paul wants the Philippians to hear. You’re doing so much right, he tells them. But this self-serving behavior, this discord and individualism, this pettiness has to end.
Instead, Paul calls for them to put on a cloak of humility. That is not a virtue that was celebrated in Paul’s time; it is not a virtue that is celebrated in our time, either. The attention and the accolades go to the person who stands out, who captures our attention, not the shrinking violet who works behind the scenes but never gets any credit.
God exalted Jesus Christ, Paul says, because he “emptied himself.” He became a human being. He took the form of a slave. “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
Paul’s letter to the Philippians reminds us that following Christ might not always be easy. It requires more of us than the “feel good” stuff that often comes naturally. Being of the same mind of Christ Jesus will mean taking risks, “emptying of self to the degree [we are] overcome by the needs, pains, hopes, and desires of others.” It means stepping up to our prophetic role in the world. “It means making a conscious decision to become reflections of Christ in our actions and reactions to life.”
The story of the Israelites is the story of a people who constantly wavered in their commitment to God. Despite God’s claim on their lives, they would stray again and again, becoming obsessed with their own concerns and ignoring God. Again and again over the forty years of their wandering through the desert they would complain to Moses – We’re tired! We have no food! We’re thirsty! And time after time, God would respond to their complaints. The God who freed them from slavery would never abandon them, but would direct them on their journey, provide bread for them to eat, produce sweet flowing water from the rock at Horeb.
God called them “my people,” “the children of Israel.” Like children, they would continue to fall into petty squabbles and discord and self-serving behavior. But God did not give up on them. Finally, in one great moment of grace and humility, God in Jesus Christ would take on the form of one of them, walk among them, wash their feet, give them bread to eat and wine to drink. This Jesus would also ask people to follow – asks us to follow even now. It’s not about you, he reminds us; it is about a hurting world. It is about the man dying of hunger and disease and seeking relief, the child escaping persecution and seeking refuge, the immigrant fleeing the ravages of war and seeking a home.
So we must answer. Can the world see Jesus in me, in you? Will we turn our attention from ourselves to the world around us? Will we decide to follow Jesus?
 Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Philippians, 35
 Ibid., 42
 William Greenway, Feasting on the Word A/4, 114
 Gilberto Collazo, Feasting on the Word A/4, 114