Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 25 September 2011
25 September 2011 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon Theologian
We have just heard the mandate for a revolution: a moral and religious revolution; a social and even political revolution if we truly grasped the nettle of it. It was there in the epistle: ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves… Let your mind be the same as Christ had…who - though he was in the form of God - did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but humbled himself and, in human form, became a servant.’
Paul wrote this to early Christians in the Roman colony Philippi, a place steeped in the culture of ancient Rome and Greece. It was a culture which, with only a few exceptions, simply did not rate humility and service at all: it considered humility a moral weakness, not a virtue; a culture in which self-worth was found in public acclaim, being upwardly mobile, having others serve you. Paul utterly reverses this: the highest worth is found in serving others, not being served. This isn’t the humility of a doormat he’s commending, letting people walk over you for no good reason. It is the tough call to set aside our own ambitions in order to be of real service to others. In the ancient world, this was an almost unthinkable reversal of values.
But that was only the half of it. The basis for this moral revolution was an even more radical theological revolution: a reversal of how we think of God. We are even to imagine God Himself as a servant: ‘Christ though he was in the form of God, humbled himself, took the form of a servant’.
To convey the force of this the 19th-century philosopher Soren Kiekegaard told a parable. He began it in the conventional style of a fable: ’There was once a King of incomparable wealth and power who fell in love with a poor Maiden’. But then the parable grows in realism. This King is not just a cipher for power. He’s a real person who wants real reciprocal love. He realizes that any approach he makes to the girl as a superior of royal status would skew a real relationship from the beginning. So he disguises himself as a social equal, as a servant himself, to meet and woo her like that. But even that won’t do. Putting on old clothes and speaking with a false accent is only to act as a servant. He needed really to become a servant. Just so God does in Christ: ‘Though he was in the form of God...he did not regard equality with God something to be exploited’ – instead he lived truly as a human, not just in disguise but in reality. And it is through that act of humility and service, as Paul makes clear elsewhere, that God has real relationship with us.
Yet even that doesn’t quite convey the full measure of what Paul is saying. It may still sound as though it’s only a strategy God adopts, as though God is still in Himself way above this sort of messy immersion in humanity and does this only as a temporary expedient. In fact this self-denying human experience of God is actually part of his eternal and essential character. A mistranslation in Paul’s letter has masked this. The original Greek does not read: ‘though he was in the form of God’ he did this’; but simply ‘being in the form of God’, he did this. In other words, it is not in spite of being God that God becomes a true servant for us: it is as God: it is His essential nature.
All this would have been blasphemous nonsense to most hearers. In a world where the supreme aspiration was to be upwardly mobile and to be served, a world where an Emperor like Vespasian wanted to become a god to have more power over people, this story of a true God who became a human servant was absurd: it would deny the very greatness which made Him God. In fact, says Paul, it is precisely this humility of God which is His true greatness. And if God finds his worth like this, how much more should we! All of us, even emperors and political masters, will find our real worth not in having power over others, but in serving them: counting others of to be of worth, including those who do not have power the prestige. Such was the huge and subversive shift in moral, social and political practice which this theology required. It was, not least, a direct critique of the Emperor…
Has it had effect? Not always, sadly, not even within the Christian church itself. But it has left some imprint. Something of it has filtered down through the centuries of Christendom and enlightenment, to change priorities. It has helped to shape social policies in law and health and education, challenging them to serve all equally, not favour just the rich and powerful. It is still an ideal against which we test our policies in principle, even when they fail in practice. It has also shaped countless personal lives of people who live out lives of hidden and often heroic service, people who genuinely see the worth of others more than themselves, and who act on it. You will know people like this. Though they may wish to hide it, the moral and spiritual power of their humility and service is so real it becomes luminous. Cherish such people when you do meet them. They are the truly great ones.
So this revolution has left its mark. But is it now fading? Especially in our personality and success-driven public life? Can it survive at all as a moral ideal when its religious basis is believed by fewer and fewer? I do not know how our society will develop; nor, I suspect do the many pundits who generalize about the state of our society. But I do know this. This way still rings true. The worth of service does trump the satisfactions of mere power and prestige. This is the only way we will really flourish. This is the only way that will finally be vindicated, the way to which ‘every knee must finally bow’, as Paul concluded. And that is because, in the end, it is not just a human ideal struggling forlornly against all our other human needs and instincts. It is a deeper truth than that. It is the essential character of God Himself.