A sermon given at the 8am BCP Eucharist and 10.30am Choral Eucharist on Sunday 13 March, by The Right Rev’d Chris McLeod, Dean

Philippians 3:17-4:1

17Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

4Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us (Philippians 3: 17). 

These are very challenging words from St Paul. Who of us would make such a request today? It is a very tall order to ask others to imitate you. I’m certainly sure that it is not a request that I would make but is St Paul’s confidence in the power of the cross of Christ. This is the key to understanding St Paul’s thinking here. St Paul is not saying that he is perfect in every possible way, and we should be like him, but we should be like him in centering our faith in the cross of Christ. Paul says this about himself in Romans 7: 15: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’. Paul is challenging his readers to centre their imitation on the cross like Paul. This makes sense if we take into consideration the following verse: For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears (Philippians 3: 18). 

1 – The Hymn at the heart of the Letter

To get a greater understanding of what Paul is saying we need to take into the consideration the Hymn that is at the heart of the letter. This hymn predates Paul, or at the least it was not authored by him. The hymn shapes Paul’s thinking throughout Philippians, and is at the heart of what he is encouraging in the Philippian church.

Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in 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.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

You will notice there is a theme to this hymn. Exaltation – Jesus beginning his journey in equality with God; then his humbling, taking the form of the lowest as a slave; then being exalted again to his rightful place at the right hand of God the Father.

It is this schema that Paul has in mind in Philippians 3. Paul is still encouraging his audience to have the mind of Christ. It is not about Paul’s moral perfection – he never claimed to have it – but it is about following the model of Christ, which Paul himself is attempting to follow.

The Consequences for us

  1. – Humility

The humility of Christ, and Paul, came from being humiliated. The cross of Christ was seen as embarrassment to all those who valued success and the show of power. The humiliation of the cross conversely shows the strength of God. Power displayed in weakness. Humiliation when it comes to us teaches us that we are human – all too and gloriously human.

2 – We are all equal

Having the mind of Christ and imitating Paul reminds us that we are all equal. None of us are before or after. Someone once said to me, and quite rightly, yes that’s all good and well but you are a bishop. And that is true but being a bishop or priest or dean is one of service not status. I’m personally not a big fan of clericalism, and I fear we as a church have become too clericalized. We serve God in the church and world with the gifts he has given us. Mine are few; yours are many. We are all in this mission of God together and equally!

3 – Faith

This leads me to say something about faith. It is this sense of trust that Paul is reminding us of. It is foreshadowed in the story of Abraham from the Old Testaments lesson we had this morning from Genesis. Abram had to follow in faith trusting in God’s promises but uncertain of the where they may ultimately lead. That was the life not only of Abraham, but also of Paul and his companions, and our life to. Having the mind of Christ means stepping out in faith and following in obedience.

The cross is at the heart of St Paul’s faith. The Lenten journey moves us to imitate St Paul in this. However, it does not end there. St Paul knows that glory awaits us in the future; a future which we have a glimpse of in the resurrection of Jesus. This is at the heart of our ministry at the Cathedral.  Everything we do is in service of the wonderful and transformative proclamation of the Gospel.

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us (Philippians 3: 17).