September 25, 2011
I wonder when, if ever, there were that many clergy in clerical collars, at a meeting of Madison’s City Council. I didn’t count the total Tuesday night, but I’m guessing there were at least ten. Why were we wearing collars? As a show of piety? No, of course not. We were wearing them to identify our selves and also to make clear what our offices were and what the nature of our authority was. Clergy aren’t the only ones who do that sort of thing, even if we are particularly prone to it. Most of us on occasion like to assert our authority, to make clear that we have power, and that we deserve to be heard.
The question of authority arises in every form of human community, but perhaps it is most problematic in religious communities, in which, by their very nature, human authority is bound up with the divine. We see that in all of our readings today. In their different ways, these texts confront us with the problems and possibilities of religious authority.
In the reading from Exodus, the Hebrews are complaining again. They were complaining last week as well. In last week’s reading, things seemed so bad, that they told Moses they would have rather died in Egypt than to be brought out into the wilderness to starve. In response to their cries, God provided them with food—manna and quails. This week, the problem is water and again, in response to their complaints to Moses, and Moses’ complaints to God, there is miraculous provision of water.
The text’s insistence on the Israelites complaining is more a theological point about the Israelites than it is historical. The authors of Exodus want to portray the Israelites in the wilderness as complainers, or here we see them called quarrelers. They are depicted as ungrateful, even callous recipients of Yahweh’s grace. Whatever God did for them was not enough. But the challenge is not only to God; it is also a challenge of God’s chosen leader, Moses. It isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last during the wilderness sojourn.
We might buy the idea that a group of people led out from Egypt into an unknown and inhospitable territory would call into question the sanity or the judgment of the one who led them. We might expect them to demand of him that he provide for their needs. Though we see a few examples of Moses’ shortcomings, for the most part, he is depicted throughout the Pentateuch as the ideal leader of the Israelites—with a direct line to God, and is also a role model for later leaders.
One of the themes in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus is to present him as something of a new Moses. We see traces of that in today’s gospel. To understand it fully, we have to know its larger context. It occurs after two very dramatic events in Matthew’s gospel: Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple. Whatever else those two events might have signified, they certainly were a clear expression of Jesus’ authority and self-identity. He was challenging both the political and religious leadership of Jerusalem, so it was quite natural, even obvious, that that leadership would confront him with a question about his authority.
Jesus turns this challenge to his authority back onto his interrogators. He asks them about the authority of John the Baptizer. When they refuse to answer, he refuses to answer their question. Then he tells them a story, asking them to reflect on its meaning. The point of the story, and the challenge to his questioners, is to get them thinking about forgiveness. John’s baptism was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. In that sense, it, too, was a challenge to the religious leadership of the day. But Jesus uses this story to stress the kingdom of God’s openness to all—sinners, the outcast, and reviled. It is also a story about response—how did Jesus, and John’s hearers respond to the message they heard? Did they accept the grace and forgiveness that was offered them? Or did they turn away and reject it?
Philippians is rather unique among the authentic letters of Paul preserved in the New Testament. It is written not in the heat of conflict as Paul wrote to the Corinthians or Galatians, nor is it written in response to some specific questions as in the case of I Thessalonians. Paul is writing to a well-established community with which he has a good relationship. In today’s reading, Paul seems to be focusing on ethical instruction but suddenly he shifts gear. We think the words in the center section of this reading are not Paul’s but rather come from an early Christian hymn. But even the reason he quotes the hymn isn’t clear, for the phrase that is translated, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” might also be translated “let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ Jesus.” The distinction between was and have has to do whether Jesus Christ’s actions in the hymn are meant to serve as an example for the Philippians, or whether Christ’s actions make possible the unity and ethical behavior of the Philippians. We might put the difference as between Christ as example or as enabler.
Whatever the case, this hymn is a profound reflection on who Jesus Christ was and is. Its every phrase is pregnant with meaning, and open to interpretation. “who though he was in the form of God” Does this mean he was God, or he was in the “image of God” that is, human like us? He emptied himself, being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death.” In the hymn, those actions of Christ’s earthly life, humility, obedience, self-emptying, become the basis for God’s response: Therefore God has highly exalted him. Here the resurrection is meant, and the hymn concludes with statements about how human beings should respond to Christ. Every knee should bend, every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Some of this language may sound familiar to us from our own liturgy, but do we see a connection between ourselves and our ethical behavior, and our common life as the body of Christ, with our confession of Jesus Christ as Lord? If we do, I should think it is based in that word obedience, but Paul is driving at something deeper. What we do is not only a response to the commands of God, or to the teachings of Christ. What we do, and he has in mind specific things, especially our life together in community, what we do is a response to our confession of who we understand Jesus Christ to be. It is not just or not primarily that we confess Jesus Christ to be Lord. It is also the way that Jesus Christ is Lord. Those words, emptying, humbling, obeying characterize Christ’s actions in the world; they are who he was, and how he was.
For Paul, they are also who we ought to be and how we ought to be. Paul’s vision of Christian community is profound and alien to us. We are the products of centuries of historical change that has emphasized the values of individualism, freedom, and self-sufficiency. Paul rejects of all of that. For him, to live in Christ is to live with others in community. His favorite metaphor is the body, but here when he appeals to Christ, he is emphasizing that kind of behaviors that are necessary for realizing community. Few of us, if we are honest with ourselves, would agree that to be members of this parish, or indeed any congregation, requires that we empty ourselves, or humble ourselves.
To hear these words across the centuries is to be challenged again by a very different understanding of what human beings are and ought to be, and what it means to be a Christian. So what do we make of this? Is it enough to list the attributes Paul describes and urge one another to adopt them? Surely not! Have the mind that was in Christ Jesus—