The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Every Knee Must Bow: A Sermon delivered on September 28, 2014

Sometimes I have the opportunity to deliver sermons in the course of my training for the diaconate. When I do, I post the text, as delivered--mistakes and all.

God is here, and Christ is now.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

5Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
 Philipians 2: 5-11

Today’s Epistle has been, not unlike Paul himself, all things to all people. Some focus on the three verses I just read to you —that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and every tongue confess Him Lord—and create a Christian triumphalism—we’re right and you (pretty much every one else in the world) is wrong, and you’re going to have to admit it, one day, not that it will do you any good, because you’ll be in Hell. (Seriously, people do believe this, and not just the fundamentalists we all like to be sure we know better than—even Thomas Aquinas held this view, calling it a “forced confession” from those under the earth, in Hell, that is, where they would remain.[1]

Others prefer to focus on the obedience of the Son to the Father, on the sacrifice made by the second Person of the Trinity merely by becoming human. As C.S. Lewis once phrased it, in one of his less felicitous moments, “think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.”[2]

But I’d like to suggest that we have to read the passage as a whole, not seize upon one thought or another. What is the whole passage saying to us?

Two writers, over 1500 years apart have something to tell us, I think. Origen who lived from about 185 to 354, found hope for all people, Christian and pagan, in the verses Aquinas relied on because, as Aquinas says, “when he heard that every knee should bow, which is a sign of subjection, he believed that at some future time, every rational creature, whether angels or men or devils would be subjected to Christ by the allegiance of charity.”[3]

By the allegiance of charity, of course, Origen meant love—caritas. Origen believed that, God would win every soul not through force but through love. That in the fullness of time, when we all come face to face with God, and truth is fully revealed, we will each of us know fully, and accept the Divine Love, which we now only see, to steal a line from St. Paul, through a glass, darkly. Subjection to Christ, for Origen, is about realizing our true selves, our best selves.
Charles Gore, who lived from 1854 to 1932, taught that Christianity was first and foremost a way of life—he called it, like the early Church, simply “the Way.” He emphasized the importance of loving our neighbor, concretely by assisting those in need, and in seeking a more just social order. Gore used today’s passage to explain the importance of lives of service as an integral part of the Way. Gore taught that Jesus as He lived among us, emptied himself of the attributes and powers ascribed to the divine. He explained that:
God can express Himself in true manhood because manhood is truly and originally made in God’s image and, on the other hand, God can limit himself by the conditions of manhood, because the Godhead contains within itself eternally the prototype of human self-sacrifice and self-limitation, for God is love.[4]

If Jesus, who was equal to God the Father, nonetheless was willing to abandon all that that means, to come among us as one who serves, even to the point of giving up His own life, and did not count it loss—surely that tells us something about the nature of the God we pray to, of the Jesus we call Christ? And that, Gore says, surely gives us a pretty broad hint as to how to follow Him—to love one another, and to serve, as He served.

That’s why we bow our heads at the name of Jesus in the Liturgy—not out of superstition, not out of fear, but out of awe. Awe that we could be so greatly loved, that God Himself could give up everything that makes Him God, just to live among us, and show us the way to an authentic life. And what does that authentic life look like—how do we walk the Way? It’s not about repression, or suppression, or depression—it’s about love. Loving God and our sisters and brothers enough to dedicate ourselves to treating them as we would wish to be treated. Finding our gifts, and learning how we can use them to bring abundance of life not just to others but to ourselves.

Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? How do we live up to that? How is this Gospel of service “Good News?”

Today’s Gospel shows us that we don’t have to get it right at the very beginning. The two sons asked by their father to work in the vineyard are a lot like –well, me. Sometimes, I’ll eagerly agree to do something, and then when it comes time to actually do it—usually at an unholy hour in the morning—then all too often the Spirit is willing, as Jesus himself observed, but the flesh is weak. On the other hand, sometimes I’ll be asked to take on one more thing, and feeling sorry for myself refuse. Later I may think better on it, and change my mind.

Sometimes we are the yes-sayer, I think, and sometimes we are the son who says no, but then thinks better of it. But here’s the thing—both sons are loved, and so are we. Progress, not perfection is what’s asked of us. By being here in this community, we start off on the Way, walking it one step at a time, becoming closer with God and our brothers and sisters as we do so. And over time, as we do so, we find that what started as with a fair amount of doubt and uncertainty will become an irresistible invitation to walk the Way with Jesus, through service to our sisters and brothers, not because we are forced to, but because in doing so, we will make up our souls on our journey to union with God.


[1] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians, (Trans. F.R. Larcher, O.P. 1969), at ch. 2, 2-3.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952), at 155.

[3] Aquinas, supra.

[4] Gore, The Incarnation of the Son of God (1891), at 162; see also id. at 159-161; Temple, AN ERA IN ANGLICAN THEOLOGY at 30-35. The centrality of the kenotic theory to Gore’s theology is posited and helpfully explored in Chapman, Gore, Kenotic Theory and The Crisis of Power, 3 Journ. Angl. Stud. at 203-205.

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