April 17, 2011

Canadians are preparing for a federal election on Monday, May 2, 2011. This morning’s sermon suggests that our faith should be the basis for all our decisions, including how we respond to complex ethical dilemmas, and how we choose to vote. The Presbyterian Church in Canada does not support a particular party or political agenda, but it does encourage Presbyterians to engage with the issues and be a part of the process.

On the website of the Presbyterian Church in Canada you will find several election guides that may assist you as you study the issues and consider the options. They also provide some helpful questions that you may want to put to your candidates, particularly related to the issues of poverty and justice.

Matthew 21:1-11
Philippians 2:5-11

I was thinking a lot about the federal election as I was preparing my sermon for this morning. I was thinking about the political rallies and the crowds of people waving signs and hoping to catch a glimpse of, or shake hands with their favourite leader. Not that Canadian politics has any really charismatic leaders like Obama once was in the United States. I’m not sure what’s worse… to get really excited about a leader and then to turn against him when he doesn’t manage to satisfy all your desires, or to just not get excited about anyone at all.

On Palm Sunday, we are invited to join with the cheering crowds who greeted Jesus as he entered the city of Jerusalem so many years ago. They must have heard some great things about the prophetic new leader, and they were pinning their hopes on him to lead them out of oppression, poverty, and despair.

But as we wave our palm branches today, what are we thinking? We know what happens next for Jesus – how his popularity suddenly drops in the polls. Some were likely disappointed that he didn’t take the city by force. He chose a donkey instead of a steed, and so even with the support of the crowds, a military take-over was not on his agenda.

Others might have hoped that he would at least fight for some reforms in the religious systems of the day. He preached against the hypocrisy of following the letter of the law and ignoring the needs and concerns of the people. He confronted the religious leaders and their corruption. And when he drove the money-changers out of the temple, some of his supporters must have thought that he was about to do something really big!

But all the while, the rumours and the lies were spreading. He was dangerous. He was blasphemous. He was doing the work of the devil, opposing those who were in power. He was breaking the rules, and he must be stopped.

Most of those who had betted on him to be a winner lost interest when he seemed to have no success. Others turned their anger and disappointment against him and joined in the new chorus of insults that had begun.

And though Jesus must have known where this turn of events was leading him, he didn’t run or hide, and he didn’t even fight for himself. He didn’t try to change his message to something that would be more popular with the people or with the leaders. He was who he was to the end. And I, for one, believe that he was the very presence of God with us in the world.

The apostle Paul uses the poetic words of what might have been an early Christian hymn to express what Christ did for us in the world:
Christ Jesus,
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.

Unlike so many in our world today, Jesus was not grasping for power. Not only did he willingly let go of the popularity that he seemed to have won as he entered the city of Jerusalem… but as Paul suggests, his very coming into the world to share our humanity demonstrates his willingness to let go of power.

Christ was with God. Christ was God. And he emptied himself. He humbled himself, and was born as one of us.

And Christ didn’t come down to our level so that he could rule over us. Even as a human person, he wasn’t grasping at power and prestige. Instead he came to serve, and to teach, and to show us what God is like… to show us what we can be like as God’s children, as people who are created in the image and likeness of God.

Taken out of its context in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, this poetic hymn sounds a lot like an early Christian creed. It’s a Christological creed. It declares what Paul and his Christian friends believed about Jesus the Christ… That he was God, that he humbled himself and was born as one of us, that he was rejected by people, but God raised him up to live and reign in heaven with God…

But I don’t think Paul wrote the hymn into his letter to the Philippians just to make sure that they knew what to believe about Jesus. Paul may have thought that believing the right things was important, but he also knew that doing the right things was critically important.

Chapter two of the letter begins with Paul encouraging the Christians at Philippi to live together in humility and love. He writes:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

He might as well have told them to pause in each and every situation and to ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?” He wrote, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus didn’t grasp at power. He emptied himself. He humbled himself. He became a servant, and lived and died for the sake of others. That is the model for living that we must follow as well. In stark contrast to the modern spirit of encouraging competition and giving rewards to individuals who get to the top, Paul insists on mutual concern and service.

Paul’s words are a terrible indictment of the lives and attitudes of many who have called themselves “Christian.” How many of us have really taken the self-giving Christ as a model for Christian behaviour? How many have been more concerned with airing our own opinions than with coming to a common mind with others? How many church leaders have seen their own role in terms of position and power, and have forgotten that true honour comes to those who “make themselves nothing”? How many have been prepared to take on the role of a slave?

As a church, we may enjoy the beautiful poetry of the passage about Christ and his self-giving love for us. But we cannot ignore its implications for our lives. We cannot detach theology from ethics, God’s gracious act from the divine demand that follows.

If we keep on reading in Paul’s letter… if we do not stop at the end of the hymn, we will not miss Paul’s conclusion. We must take the example of Christ to heart and start living like him in the world. We must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in [us], enabling [us] both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

It’s easier said than done though, isn’t it? And so often in Paul’s letters, the instructions about how we should live and show our obedience are general and imprecise. We are told to live “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” and we sometimes wish that he could have been more specific.

But Christian obedience does not mean living in accordance with a set of rules; rather, it means responding in the appropriate way to the self-giving love of God. The vision that Paul provides us with is, in fact, far more valuable than any set of rules would be.

Christians in the modern world are faced with innumerable ethical dilemmas, which multiply each year with advances in science and medicine. We cannot expect ready-made answers to these modern-day questions in the Bible! But Paul always went back to first principles.

He says, “This is the gospel. This is what God is like. This is what God has done for you, and this is what God expects you to be like. Work out what that means for yourselves!”

So we need to go back to first principles too: What is the Christlike thing for us as a Christian community, for us as individual Christians, to be doing? How do we respond, in obedience, to what God has done?

The answers to these questions are not necessarily easy. In any particular ethical dilemma, we may well find Christians sincerely supporting opposite viewpoints.

If someone is apparently in an irreversible coma, is it more “worthy of the gospel” to preserve life by continuing treatment or to allow the patient to die?

When a tyrant like Hitler arises, is it right to resort to war in order to put a stop to his atrocities?

What is the Christlike approach to using fetal tissue in medical research, in order to prevent disease?

How does one balance the advantages and disadvantages to societies and environment when “development” seems to clash with “conservation”?

After careful study, consideration, and prayer, Christian communities may come to conclusions about some of the complex issues of our time. But we do not tell people how they should vote. Even if Christians could come to agreement on all the issues, there would still not be one party that could fulfill all our priorities and concerns.

But whether we are grappling with particular issues or deciding how to vote in the upcoming election, what may be most important is that we approach all such problems in humility – not thinking that we know all the answers.

Let us not make our decisions or cast our votes out of selfish self-interest. But let us do so in love, looking to the interests of others, and not seeking to exploit what we consider to be our rights.

Paul does not give us precise guidelines about what to do in particular situations, but he has given us a very significant hint. The basis for all our actions is our life in Christ.

As we wave our palm branches and raise our voices to praise Jesus today, let us do so, not because we are sure that he will become the winner and do something great for us. But let us do so because he is our Lord and we are ready to follow his way. The humble, self-giving, suffering way of Jesus is the way that we have chosen. May the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus, and may God’s kingdom come. Amen.