by Daniel Harrell
This has been a bad week: from the winter that won’t quit to Senate gun debates and a shaky stock market, from the horrible fertilizer factory explosion in Texas to the horrific Boston Marathon mayhem that played out like something from a Scorsese movie. As one website put it, “Maybe next time we have a week, they can try not to pack it so completely to the freaking brim with explosions, mutilations, death, manhunts, lies, weeping, bloody gunfights and lockdowns. You know, maybe try to spread some of that total misery across the other 51 weeks in the year. Just a thought.” None of it ever makes any sense. Dawn and I knew people who knew each of three victims killed at the Marathon on Monday. For such a large city, Boston can be a pretty small town. We know people who knew Sean Collier, the MIT police officer. We have friends who were at the hospital when Richard Donahue, the wounded transit cop was brought in and the first bombing suspect too. We know folks who lived down the street from the house with the boat.
My former church in Boston held a prayer gathering downtown on Tuesday. It was a full house. Then President Obama spoke to a packed South End Cathedral on Thursday. I find it fascinating and strangely comforting that the initial impulse of so many people following tragedy—believers and nonbelievers—alike, is to pray. Rather than fretting over “where was God” or how he could allow bad things to happen, the initial impulse for many is to rush to where they believe God can be found. That we do so instinctively turn to God in our troubles, and for some only then, may suggest why Scripture has God allowing the troubles he allows. We realize afresh every Easter season how the spring bloom of resurrection and eternal life emerges solely from the fertile soil of suffering and death. Paul joyfully expressed this disturbing gospel truth to the Philippians as he sat chained in a Roman prison. Jesus himself, King of kings and Lord of lords, is crowned only once he submits to death on a cross. This is God’s glory, Paul writes, a strange and redemptive reality that shines at the center of the Christian faith.
This morning marks our third in a sermon series: “verses from Philippians most likely to be cross-stitched.” From his Roman imprisonment to what was likely the first church in Europe, Paul penned words that have become framed favorites among believers for centuries. We began with chapter 1 and verse 6: “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Last Sunday we looked at verse 21: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” This morning brings us to chapter 2:5-11 and one of the grandest Christological expressions of all Scripture. These inspired and inspiring verses soar in their praise of Jesus Christ as the lowly turned lofty Son of God whose name, in fulfillment of all prophecy, spurs every knee to bow and every tongue to confess his Lordship.
While Paul hoped for release from prison and a return trip to Philippi, he knew chances were good he could end up executed for refusing to worship Caesar as Lord. Paul wasn’t worried about dying—to him that was gain—but he was worried for the Philippians. Like any church comprised of sinful people (which is every church), it risked division and rancor from within. Paul appealed to the unity that was already theirs in Christ, even if they had yet to fully experience it. He writes, “If there is any encouragement in Christ (which there is), any consolation from love (which there is), any sharing in the Spirit (which there is), any compassion and sympathy (which there is), then make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind—the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
By “one and the same mind” Paul meant that mindset of abject humility that drove Jesus to the cross. While admired, such humility is rarely sought and often begrudged as hazardous to your psychological health. In a culture where self-confidence and ambition are paramount, Paul’s admonition to “regard others as better than yourself” is just plain bad advice. Still, Paul lyrically points to Jesus’ humility as the hallmark of virtue, who despite being God in the flesh never considered equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself for our sake and became a slave, regarding us as better than himself, as impossible as that sounds. Maybe it came easy for Jesus. If you’re equal to God you can act as humbly as you choose and still be God.
Harder for us ordinary schmoes. For us to regard others as better than ourselves is a sure recipe for life in loser-land. Be a doormat and you’ll get treated like one. “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus said “only those who humble themselves will be exalted.” But this simply isn’t practical. Christian scholars have tried to lessen the impact by insisting that by “humble yourself” Jesus only meant that you acknowledge your intrinsic “creatureliness.” Since the English word humility is related to the word human, both deriving from the Latin word humus, meaning ground or earth, to be humble is to remember where you came from, that you are “dust and to dust you shall return,” that the meek shall inherit the dirt. On the one hand this punctures any inflated sense of self-worth or conceit, but on the other hand, it also can become a rationale for self-conceit or used as an excuse for self-centered behavior. When we choose badly we’ll often plead, “I can’t help it, I’m only human.” And then of course, there’s the observation about how it really doesn’t do much good to exalt the humble anyway. People don’t remain humble long once they’re exalted. The genuine article is hard to find.
Then again, we watched on Monday as scores of Bostonians, with little concern for themselves, ran toward the explosions, assisting the bloodied and injured in humble ways that were nothing short of heroic. The same with the way an entire whole city willingly abandoned the streets to make space for the bravery exhibited by scores of law enforcement personnel, police who then humbly discounted their bravery as just doing their job. It was another glimpse of the beauty that can emerge from intense sorrow and tragedy—a beauty which the Bible labels as the power of resurrection.
I talked to a number of Boston friends this week, and read the Tweets and Facebook posts of others. One of whom, named Steve, is a big Marathon fan, having run the race himself five years in a row. Steve is an assistant church facilities manager and a good athlete, but far from what you’d describe as an elite runner. The joy of competition or setting a good time was not what got him to run 26 miles. What got him running was the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a local hospital devoted to eradicating cancer in children. Thousands of weekend runners raise money running the Marathon every year. This is another reason the Boston Marathon is so sacred. The ones who run for charity are never the elite runners, they cross the finish line a couple of hours after. It was mostly them and their supporters who were harmed by Monday’s bombing, and who remain fearlessly determined to run again next year.
For Steve, his passion for children’s cancer comes from the cancer his daughter Caitlynne contracted when she was seven. The good news was that her tumor was localized in her right leg. The bad news was that her leg had to be amputated. Steve and his wife Doreen were totally devastated, as were all of their friends. And yet we all rallied, including the Boston Red Sox and their Jimmy Fund, coming alongside their whole family with prayer and support, because that’s what people instinctively do when tragedy strikes, believers and nonbelievers alike. Steve and I were remembering this week the hours spent on the say of Caitlynne’s surgery. She not only survived, but thrived, thanks to all this support and to a remarkable piece of surgery performed at Children’s Hospital.
Out of sheer gratitude for all of this, Steve started running the Marathon to raise money for other kids. And each year, during the last mile, Caitlynne ran with him. She’s 18 years old now and has received a full ride to Boston University. It is another glimpse of the beauty that can emerge from sorrow and tragedy—the power of resurrection.
The resurrection of Jesus turned tragedy on its head. Suddenly loss now meant gain, leastness meant greatness, being a loser meant being a winner, death meant life, ankles become knees, and humility became the epitome of strength. It sounds crazy, and by itself, humility is crazy. But humility is never meant for humility’s sake. Christian humility serves the cause of love. It was love for sinners that caused Jesus to humbly set aside his right to exalted grandeur, and it is this same love, this same mind, that spurs us to humbly regard others as better than ourselves. Humility orients you away from delusions of self-importance and frees you to love courageously as Jesus modeled. “We love,” the apostle John famously wrote, “because God first loved us.”
Despite all the horrors that engulf our world, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. Love never fails. Jesus’ love even conquered death, so we cannot lose heart. God who began his good work among us will bring it to completion himself. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Christian hope translates life’s tragedies into a beautiful tapestry of redemption, pointing toward that day, when by grace, all things will be made new and love remains. Confidence in that day gives us courage to live humbly in the present—as justice gets done against perpetrators of evil, as comfort is blanketed on those who mourn, as prayers are instinctively offered for peace, as doctors reconstruct bodies as previews of resurrection itself, as thousands run marathons to raise awareness and money for these causes, even as our own Innové project refashions profit-making business into the making of beauty and peace and justice and grace in the world—everything humbly done to serve the cause of love which is the cause of the name that is above every name and before which every knee and ankle that serves as a knee will bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.