The High Stature of Downward Mobility

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
May 13, 2018

Philippians 2: 1-13 (CEB)
Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:
6Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
7But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
9Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
10 so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
11 and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
12 Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.

A mother was preparing a pancake breakfast for her little boys, Kevin and Ryan. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mom saw the perfect opportunity for a moral lesson. “Now, boys,” she said, “hold on a minute here. Let me tell you: If Jesus were sitting here, he would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.’” The two children sat silent for a moment. Then the five year-old, Kevin, turned to his younger brother and said, “Okay, Ryan, you be Jesus!”

It’s our human nature. We want to be first. We are driven. We want to be successful, and wealthy, and powerful. At the core of the great “American Dream” is the desire to be upwardly mobile. We want to achieve for ourselves a better life than our parents had, and we want to build for our children a better life than we have. The problem is, there’s sort of a saturation point for success. We are beginning to see this in our society as the middle class shrinks and the number of poor grow while the wealthiest are only getting wealthier. If someone is to be upwardly mobile, then someone else will likely experience downward mobility. If Kevin is going to get the first pancake, then it means Ryan has to settle for the second pancake. In a world where we want to build better, more stable lives, and to do the same for our children, it’s tough to think of settling for second, isn’t it? We all want to be better off. We want our children’s lives to be better than our own. No one likes to go backwards. No one wants to be worse off than they were before.

No one, it turns out, except for God. Against every human expectation, in contrast to every cultural norm, against all presumptions of what a deity is to be, God actually chooses downward mobility. We are talking about the Lord of the universe, the creator of all things, the ruler of all time and space, remember. And God CHOSE to become a lowly human and to live on earth. It’s a reality, a truth, I think we have grown accustomed to, and so the sheer magnitude of God’s incarnation is often forgotten. But if we have forgotten, this passage from Philippians is a beautiful reminder, a call to see again (or maybe for the first time) how radical this God is, who came down to earth to walk beside us.

But that is the God we worship. This God who, in the person of Jesus, emptied himself, becoming a servant, in order to fully inhabit humanity, to fully incorporate human life into divine life. In the ancient world, power and dominance were signaled by upward mobility, victory, control. They worshipped gods like Zeus and Ares—celebrated for their ability to hurl thunderbolts and win cosmic battles. For Paul to lift up this God who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave”, who took on flesh, and suffered, and died—it went against all the values of the ancient world. And our world too. We do not worship a “kick butts and take names” sort of God. But what this passage reminds us is that we worship a God who loves us limitlessly. A God who loves us and longs for us so much that he enters into our reality, becoming fully human, submitting to all the joys, triumphs, burdens, and sorrows of human life, even unto death.
Yet…yet…here is what is really amazing—in a complete twist of logic, God’s downward mobility is the source of Jesus’ ultimate exaltation. And ours, too. Because God took on flesh and came and lived among us, and died our death, we can live eternally with God. God valued our humanity over God’s own divinity, so much so that he became human so we could share in the divine. And God did that because God loves us.

So, Paul says, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other.” “Complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love.” In light of God’s self-giving love, the love we’ve been talking about, we need to take a minute to explore what Paul is saying here as he opens this great Christ hymn because I think it’s easy to misunderstand the idea that Paul is trying to convey. Some translations say, “be of the same mind.” This is no shallow call. It’s super easy to surround ourselves with people of the “same mind” as ourselves—people who think like us, believe like us, agree with us, and so on. We can always find people who will reinforce our own values, and biases, and agendas. But what Paul is calling us to here is not that—the key to being “of the same mind” is what follows, “having the same love,” and we can have the same love without necessarily agreeing with one another.

Friends, God loves us so much that he came down to meet us where we are, to be of our mind, to understand our lives. We are called to follow that same pattern of love—downward, outward. We are to humble ourselves, to make ourselves second rate. We are to have compassion for those in our community, to seek to understand and sympathize with them in such a way that we are of one mind—not necessarily because we think alike or even believe alike, but because we love alike, with the very love of Christ. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once asked, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?” We are united in love, even when we may not be uniform in our thought. This is what it means to have the mind or attitude of Christ.

As much as Paul is emphasizing unity as he writes to the divided church in Philippi, he is also emphasizing humility, that downward mobility. That’s really at the heart of this passage as Paul describes how God set aside the powers of the divine in order to take on the flesh of humanity. And because God humbled himself in this way, God understands our life. God has been here. God has walked in our shoes. God in Christ Jesus knows our reality. God’s own self shows up in our messy, complicated lives. And it’s because of God’s humility, God’s willingness to empty himself and walk among us, that when life is messy and complicated, we can know that God will show up. One of my great seminary professors, Dr. Amy Oden writes this: “This God does not withhold love until we rise to a divine level, but rather stoops to our level, scoops us up in all our messiness and makes us part of God’s own Life, the Triune Life, where we are healed and saved.”

“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….” Everything, everything in our world today says we should be moving “up, up, up.” So we surround ourselves with people who will build us up and reinforce our own aspirations and ideals. But the problem with upward mobility is that other folks are getting trampled on. God doesn’t work this way. In Christ, our exaltation comes only when we humble ourselves; when we put the well-being of others above our own, and guide one another on the path of upward mobility in Christ alone.

Today, our society celebrates Mother’s Day. It’s a beautiful day for us honor our mothers and give thanks for their role in our lives. It can also be a difficult day—for hopeful moms who struggle with infertility, for those whose mothers are gone, or those who never knew their mothers, or those whose mothers were dysfunctional or even abusive. But one of the things about most Moms is that they would do just about anything for their kids. I know Moms who work two or three jobs to earn money so their kids can go to college even though they didn’t have that chance themselves. I know Moms who have watched their children die of cancer and they wished every moment that cancer could have attacked their body instead of their child’s. I know Moms who have stayed up all night for days on end, holding their colicky baby, because if that baby was bouncing around in Mom’s arms, she was comfortable. I know Moms who quit their jobs when they learned their child had a developmental disability—now they stay home to advocate for their child and help them at home and at school. This is what parents do, out of sheer love, they set aside their own interests, their own goals, their own upward mobility even; all to make a better life for their children.

It’s the same thing Christ does for us, giving up everything, even his own life, so that we can have a better life. And now, Paul says, “Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” In the same way that we love our families and our kids, we are to love God’s people in this world—and that’s all people. In the same way that Christ humbled himself, even to the point of death on a cross, we are to set aside our own self-serving interests and care for the concerns of others. We are to have the same attitude as Christ himself and to seek to understand one another even as Christ understands us—to such a degree that we are of the same mind. And amazingly, it is the promise of God in Christ Jesus that in our humility, we will be exalted “to the glory of God the Father.”

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