A matter of grammar…and life.
A sermon for Adel Parish Church, 27th September 2020.
Philippians 2: 1 – 13
Mrs Battye is a good teacher, although she’s very weird…Mrs Battye’s a good teacher because she’s very weird…
These two statements may illustrate the differing opinions of my pupils. They also illustrate one of the challenges of teaching children to write well…explaining the difference between although, but, so, because…and why it matters.
The rules of grammar are often beyond the grasp of young children, but they understand examples. There wouldn’t be much point telling them, ‘if we use although it suggests something unexpected…if we use because it gives a reason’. We could however have a fruitful discussion on whether my weirdness helped or hindered my teaching…
I was reminded of that wrestling with grammar as I studied the reading for this week, and the various ways of translating it.
This morning we heard what is thought to be an ancient Christian hymn – describing how Christ, who is God, became human. I’ve heard that passage many times – usually in the version we had this morning. It tells us that Christ, ’though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.’
Though…although Christ was in the form of God. I think that’s the picture I’ve always had…something unexpected. Jesus is God, almighty, powerful…and yet despite being God he somehow chooses to give up all that power and might to become human.
But this week I’ve looked at other translations – I’ve found that word ‘though’ isn’t there in the Greek…so we could miss it out. You’re now probably thinking you didn’t come to church for a grammar lesson…but bear with me. It’s really quite exciting!
If we remove the word, ‘though’, we get something like, ‘Christ, who was in the form of God, didn’t see this as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.’
That suggests Christ didn’t go against his divine nature in order to come to earth and save us…he did it because this is what God is like.
So the passage could go…‘Christ, because he was God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and was born in human likeness.’ That’s what God does – he doesn’t cling onto power.
That’s a mind-blowing thought. God who takes the form of a slave…not although he is God, but because he’s God. A slave…someone whose life is entirely in the hands of others.
So when, in the wilderness Jesus is tempted to use his power to make others follow him, he’s being tempted to follow his human nature. He’s being tempted to find his identity and authority by holding on to power over others.
Instead Jesus chooses to reveal himself as God by taking the form of a slave. He puts himself totally into our hands, even though we push away the love he offers.
Why does this matter? Well for me, partly because it enlarges my understanding of God a little. But more because we should try to be like Christ.
As Paul says in the previous sentence, ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.’ This emptying, this giving yourself completely to others isn’t just something to wonder at in Christ, it’s something to copy in our lives.
And Paul tells us one way to do just that. ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit’, he says, ‘but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.’
Well, as with grammar – examples are easier to understand than rules, so I’d like to give you two from my life. Two people rooted in God’s love, who don’t need to hold onto power to find their identity.
First, Ella. In 2002 I went to help at a Beaver Scout group…and 3 months later found myself running it. I knew nothing about Scouting – but Ella did. She’d been Scouting for 40 years. She came every week – stayed in the background serving drinks, washing up, clearing up at the end. She gave ideas when asked and regularly told me I was doing a good job. She asked for no recognition, but it was thanks to her that I survived and grew to love Scouting.
Ella – helped me to grow not although she was a good scouter herself…but because she was.
Secondly Matthew, my training incumbent at Whitkirk. He gave up hours to my training, answered endless questions, picked me up when things went wrong…but mostly he was generous. He gave away parts of ministry he enjoyed, things that were important to the running of his parish, so that I could have a go.
Although he gave plenty of constructive criticism, he didn’t fret when things weren’t done quite the way he would have done them. And when things went well, he rejoiced for me and with me. His identity wasn’t threatened by my growing identity as a priest, because his identity was rooted in God – who is always giving. A great trainer not although he is a wonderful priest himself, but because.
A couple of examples from which I try to learn.
I find the thought of God emptying himself and putting himself totally in the hands of others, almost incomprehensible. I need examples to help me understand. But when I find these examples – in Jesus’ life, and in the lives of some of his followers, I can see how this emptying gives life to others.
So, although I’ll go on wrestling with scripture…trying to understand, I’ll also seek to be an example bringing Jesus’ life-giving love to others. Jesus who took the form of a slave not although he is God, but because he is God.