Asking the Right Questions: Philippians 2: 1-13
When I really learned how to preach—I mean the exact “Ah-ha!” moment—it was while working with this text. Something one of my seminary professors had been trying to tell me finally clicked into place. I now consider it the sine qua non of good preaching.
Are you ready for it? Here it is:
The imperative must always be grounded in the indicative.
Applied to this passage from Philippians: We don’t HAVE to be like Jesus. We GET to be like Jesus.
And that is very good news.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the
11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
We continue this week with Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. (Background here, if you need it). He is in prison, perhaps at the end of his life, writing to what may be his favorite church.
But even Paul’s favorite church is still, you know, a church. That means conflict and controversy among the membership. But in this passage, Paul appeals for a different sort of spirit to prevail. He urges the Philippian Christians to be like Jesus for the sake of their community. And he appeals to what they believe in common about Jesus in order to make his case. It is an interesting rhetorical move -most scholars believe that Paul did not write verses 6-11 but that they are, rather, some sort of preexisting material (a hymn or song?) that Paul incorporates into his writing.
(Sidebar: if this is true—if the Philippian Christ hymn predates an authentic epistle of Paul—this has some fascinating implications for the origins of Christian theology. According to, for example, the folks from The Jesus Seminar, the earliest followers of Jesus revered him as a prophet but it was only much later that the proto-Catholicism of the late 1st/early 2nd century church ascribed anything approaching divinity to Jesus. But if the Philippian Christ hymn predates this letter, than it must have been composed not more than 30 years after the crucifixion. That would make it some of the earliest Christian material to which we have access. Yet it evinces a very high Christology).
Paul wants the Philippian Christians to be more like Jesus. But the way that Paul appeals to them makes all the difference. How do I know?
Picture this: Introduction to Preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary with Professor James Kay. It is the Fall of 2000 and I am (just barely) 24 years old. Half of us in the class are given this text for our first sermon. We will prepare the sermon, preach it in front of our classmates and receive critique from our professor. I sit down to write the sermon…and it just won’t come. At. All. Trying to find the words feels like pushing through thick molasses. I’m stuck.
Until I remember something Professor Kay told us: The imperative must always be grounded in the indicative. Get that, and your preaching improves dramatically.
See, a lot of preaching—be it conservative or liberal, mainline or evangelical—a lot of the preaching one hears is essentially moralizing and/or attempted behavior modification: Do this. Don’t do that. This is bad. Those people are very bad! Etc. Sermons like this are easy to write (especially on Saturday night!) but hard to hear. They rarely sound like good news and rarely result in transformation.
So Professor Kay tried to tell us about a better way: Ground the imperative in the indicative. Don’t ever tell me what to do without first telling me what God has done, is doing and is yet to do. Preaching is not scolding people into behaving differently; preaching is the proclamation of the good news that God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Here I was trying to write my sermon on Philippians 2:1-13, but every time I tried to say something about this passage, it came out in the imperative: Be humble! Lower yourself! Be like Jesus! And it just didn’t sound right.
But Professor Kay’s encouragement to foreground the indicative got me thinking about my obsessive need to appear successful. (I have lived with this my whole life but it was especially pronounced in seminary) –to take charge; seize the day and all of that.
In the indicative mood, Philippians 2 hit me like a ton of bricks: Jesus didn’t try to be successful. Why are you so obsessed with it? Jesus surrendered control. What are you waiting for?
These are the right questions to ask. THAT (as they say) will preach!
See you in church.