by Daniel Harrell
If this passage sounds recently familiar its because you’re remembering Jeff Lindsay’s sermon from New Year’s Eve Sunday from these same verses. Following in last fall’s series on light, Jeff focused on Paul’s encouragement a few verses later that we “shine like stars in the world.” As far as this this morning’s passage, he did point out the awkwardness we Protestants feel at being told “to work out our own salvation” since as Protestants we’re all about being saved by grace alone. Tack on the “fear and trembling” part and the verse feels like a throwback to a pre-Reformation recipe for medieval Catholic guilt. “Fear and trembling” is an idiom long associated with divine judgment, setting up Philippians 2:12 as a legalist’s dream verse, and most likely the basis for another idiom that many people think is somewhere in the Bible; namely, “God helps those who help themselves.” Legalistic types worry that salvation by grace alone is nothing but dangerous permission to slack off when it comes to obedience. Work out your salvation yourself or you’re doomed.
Normally I’d wait a little longer before returning to a passage to preach, but you can’t do a sermon series from Philippians and skip this one. I was tempted to just replay Jeff’s fine sermon, but that would make me a slacker. So instead I’m working it out with fear and trembling myself. This the fourth in a series I’ve entitled “verses from Philippians most likely to be cross-stitched.” Philippians ranks as a favorite book in the Bible due to its prolificacy of memorable exhortations. We began in chapter 1 with: “God who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Then we looked at: “Living is Christ and dying is gain.” Last Sunday brought us to chapter 2 and the collection of verses where Jesus is praised as the humble then exalted Son of God at whose name every knee will bow and every tongue confess his Lordship. This morning’s passage, well-known though it is, is less likely to be subject to needle and thread. It’s not nearly so much endearing as it is confusing.
Verse 12 begins with Paul commending the Philippians’ reputation for obedience. They are Christians who hear the word of God and do what it says. Obedience derives from the Greek word “acoustic,” which while placing an emphasis on hearing, also means that to hear something clearly is to heed it too. Good behavior is evidence of good listening. Likewise bad behavior results from selective hearing. Paul sits chained in a Roman jail and worries that the Philippians’ obedience may falter, especially given that it hinges on their humble and selfless love for each other. Nobody wants to hear about humility. While admired in others, it’s rarely a virtue you seek for yourself. Modern advocates of the importance of high self-esteem would go so far as to deem humility to be hazardous to your psychological health. In cultures devoted to self-confidence and personal ambition are paramount, Paul’s admonition that we “in humility, regard others as better than yourself” is bad advice.
Yet as we read last Sunday, Paul lauds Jesus’ humility as the hallmark of virtue. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus ,” he sang, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Humility and human are tightly entwined, both deriving from the word humus meaning ground or dirt. Some say humility is therefore all about “remembering where you came from;” but Christianity tends to shovel a little deeper. We all come from the dirt, Scripture says, made of the dust of the ground. But Scripture also insists that you are dirt, ruined by the sin in your life. No one can stake a claim to righteousness based on his or her own obedience, for as Paul wrote elsewhere, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
This severe, self-effacing character of Christian humility led the great theologian Karl Barth to equate it to a “startled [self-]consciousness of having nothing to assert in one’s favor.” To be so startled by our own deficiency may be what Paul meant by fear and trembling. You work out your salvation without any confidence that you can actually pull it off. On the one hand this feels like a set-up for more religious guilt, but on the other hand it does keep away any temptation toward selfishness and conceit. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul uses fear and trembling to describe his inadequacy in preaching the gospel so that he has to rely on God’s grace. In 2 Corinthians 7, fear and trembling describes the Corinthians’ own obedience at hearing the gospel taught by Titus, realizing how they too needed God’s help to do it. In Ephesians 6, fear and trembling describes servants’ regard for their masters, analogous to the way we are to regard Christ as Lord. Fear and trembling is not so much quaking and shaking in the presence of God (though some of us could probably use a little more of that), but to that startled self-consciousness at our own scarcities and weakness. We’re just not as fabulous as we sometimes like to think ourselves to be.
At a graduation ceremony in Wellesley, Massachusetts last year, the English teacher giving the speech began by shocking the cap-and-gowned seniors. He said, “Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same. All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special. You are not special. You are not exceptional.” Really? I’m not special? I’m not amazing?
Imagine anybody ever saying that about a high school class in Minnesota! Every child is above average, right? Especially here in Edina as I understand it. The English teacher’s speech was so shocking that a video of it went internet viral. He had to go on television to defend it. He said, “In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another — which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.”
Just because somebody says you’re amazing doesn’t mean that you are. You have to do something to prove it. Applied to Christianity, God may love you just as you are, but that doesn’t make you amazing. It makes God amazing, which is why we sing about amazing grace. But to sing about grace without it having any effect is only hypocrisy. You can do nothing to earn your salvation, but you still must do something to prove you received it. Paul doesn’t say to work for our salvation, but he does say work out your salvation. Exercise it. Over and over, here in Philippians and elsewhere, Paul pleads with believers to live lives “worthy of the gospel,” worthy of grace, humble lives that look like Christ’s life. Not for humility’s sake, but for the sake of love. It was love that caused Jesus to humbly set aside his equality with God for us and it is love that spurs us to humbly set aside ourselves for others.
The Toronto Star ran an obituary for Shelagh Gordon, a 55-year-old woman who died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Given how so many obituaries read like résumés, Shelagh’s denoted nothing by way of extraordinary accomplishments. All it said was that she had been a loving aunt and a special friend. Surprised by so meager a mention, a newspaper reporter decided to explore a little more deeply and see what such an ordinary life looked like. She crashed the funeral and interviewed Shelagh’s friends. It turns out that Shelagh Gordon didn’t have a great job, she wasn’t married and never had children, so she wasn’t successful in any traditional sense. All she did was love people. And the people she loved couldn’t stop telling stories about her kindness. If Shelagh noticed your boots had holes, she’d press her new ones into your arms. When you casually admired her coffeemaker, you’d wake up to one of your own. A bag of chocolates hanging from your doorknob would greet you each Valentine’s Day, along with some clippings from the newspaper she thought you’d find interesting. It was said that Shelagh made people around her feel not just loved but coveted. Hers was not list of achievements, but a legacy of relationships.
Funerals serve as tearful goodbyes to a departed person’s life, but as the reporter found, funerals are also lenses through which we assess our own lives. Some fear and trembling can show up here too. We hear of such humble and loving people and wonder how we could ever measure up. What makes a life worthy? We easily ascribe value to the amazing: To the Bachs and the Bonheoffers, the Mandelas and the Mother Theresas, people who’s lives changed the world in extraordinary ways and influenced millions. But Shelagh was an ordinary woman who only a few people ever knew, each of whom had their worlds changed in ways a Mandela or Mother Theresa never touched. She changed them by loving them deeply and personally, in simple and ordinary ways, inspiring them to do the same to others though she probably never realized it. The reporter concluded, “Her life revealed that it doesn’t take much to make a difference every day — just deep, full love —and that can be sewn with many different kinds of stitches.
So many of you gushed this week about last Sunday’s memorable Innové Award presentation. It was great. Amazing even. A number of you said it was the best thing you’d ever seen happen in church. Extraordinary. But when you stop and think about it, the things we’re trying to do with Innové are actually pretty ordinary: feeding hungry schoolchildren, making a college experience possible for a handful of students with disabilities, teaching men to be good boys, providing some clean water and interest-free loans, some fresh produce on a bus. In the vast scheme of things these are fairly unremarkable, except that these humble and ordinary acts, done with love, are the epitome of the gospel God calls us to obey.
To call last Sunday amazing reminds me of a Sunday last year when one of you gushed about a sermon I preached. You called it perfect. Talk about fear and trembling. I wasn’t sure what to do with that, I should have quit while I was ahead. I hope I just said thank you and praise the Lord. Though at the risk of sounding cheeky, I told you how I wish I’d said something along the lines of “it’s too soon to tell.” That’s because the true measure of sermonic perfection can only be the effect it has on our life as a congregation afterwards. The same with last Sunday. Describing last Sunday as amazing doesn’t mean that it is because while all these ideas we celebrated and funded are good things to do, we haven’t done anything yet. We haven’t fed any kids or made an interest free payday loan or loaded a bus with with fresh produce. We don’t even have a bus to load. We still have something to prove, and this should humble us and even make us a little scared. We still have to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. This is our obedience, and from obedience, no doctrine of grace can save us. In Jesus’ famous parable of the talents, where two stewards entrusted with their master’s money had increased its worth, a third steward gets sternly castigated by his master for burying his allotment in the ground. The steward put forth fear of the master as his excuse, not wanting to mess up what his master had given him. However the master quickly retorted how if the steward truly thought the master to be as imagined, the steward’s fear would have motivated him to get off his butt and do something. As it turned out, the steward wasn’t afraid. He simply didn’t care. Thus the master branded him “wicked and lazy” and cast him into the darkness to weep and gnash his teeth.” The moral seems to be this: refuse to work out your salvation and your salvation may not work out.
This should humble us, and even make us a little scared. Not scared of God, I am sure, but scared of ourselves and of the says we can so easily sabotage our salvation. Which is why Paul tacked on the cross-stitch worthy news of verse 13. We can work out our salvation because in the end it is God who does the work in us, hand in glove as Jeff put it, enabling both the desire and the effort to do what pleases the Lord.” What God demands, God provides. His spirit inspires both the will and the deed, the desire and the effort. As Karl Barth put it, “Salvation, the promised final deliverance that the Christian as such awaits, claims the movement, the activity, the work, the life of the whole person. In the reality of the kingdom of Christ, everyone who [will be] there [then] puts their future salvation into practice [now].”
God is the one who works in our work to provide both the will and they way. This humbles us too. Because God is at work, we praise the Lord instead of ourselves, which keeps us humble. “As for me,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “God forbid that I should boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live,” he said, I’m dead as dirt, “but Christ lives in me.” The same with us. Do you see any humility or willingness to place the interests of others ahead of my own? That’s not me. I’m dead as dirt. That must be Jesus in me. Do you see any loving my neighbor as myself? Do you see me forgiving people when they wrong me? That’s not me. Do you see me regarding others as better than myself? Serving them with ordinary and beautiful acts of love everyday? That’s not me. That must be Jesus in me. Jesus at work in us, enabling both the will and the work for his good pleasure.