The Rev’d Charles Everson
Oct. 1, 2023 • Year A, Proper 21 • Philippians 2:1–13
When I have the rare treat of attending a church service with music other than my own parish, the very first thing I do is grab the bulletin and look at the hymns. Yes, the Scripture readings and the liturgical material and choral anthems and the names of the ministers are arguably more important, but I’m just being honest with you – the first thing I look at are the hymns, not just because I love singing them, but because they say a lot about the community of faith that is singing them. The reading we heard from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is thought by scholars to be the oldest known Christian hymn, and it says a lot about what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus.
This hymn is divided into two stanzas. The first stanza speaks of Jesus starting out being in the form of God, but ultimately humbling himself by becoming human, and obedient to the point of death on a cross. In the second stanza, God exalts Jesus and gives him the name that is above every name, thereby winning the allegiance of those in heaven and on earth and even those “under the earth.” Right before the hymn, Paul begins by asking the Philippians to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” He continues, “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.”
Paul frames the hymn by urging the Philippians to be of the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, to be humble, putting the interests of others before their own.
Humility is often confused with humiliation, or letting others walk all over you. Humility is a “quality by which a person, considering his own defects, has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God's sake.” Jesus modeled humility by emptying himself, being born in human likeness, and becoming obedient to the point of death. Humility is a virtue that not only requires personal submission, but also suffering. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German pastor who suffered under the Nazis and was ultimately killed by them, says this of Jesus’s self-emptying:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us…The Bible directs us to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help us, he says.
God’s suffering is not some objective fact that we are called to gaze at from a distance, but is rather something we are called to embrace and actively seek to live out in practice. Saint Benedict, in his rule written to guide the lives of his monks, writes, “humility means that monks must submit to their superiors in all obedience for the love of God. In this obedience under difficult, unfavorable or even unjust conditions, his heart quietly embraces suffering and endures it without weakening or seeking escape.”
Let’s be honest with ourselves: who really wants to embrace suffering? Isn’t it natural to want to seek escape when you’re suffering in some way? Yet, when faced with the most grueling and horrific suffering one can imagine, Jesus didn’t. He chose to limit himself, and to embrace suffering, even though he had the power to stop it all. It is through Jesus’s suffering that we are united to God and to the whole Church and are made worthy to stand before Him.
Humility isn’t a virtue that is to be exercised only in extreme situations of life and death; it starts in the small, mundane choices of everyday life. A few years back, I was asked by a friend to have dinner with him on a holiday that I normally spend with my family. This friend is highly annoying and constantly gets on everyone’s nerves due to his overbearing conversational habits and behaviors. I would have much rather spent time with my family, but knew that he would spend the holiday alone if I said no to his invitation, so I humbly said yes and endured an irritating dinner with him with no tangible reward that I could see anyway beyond his gratitude. I’m also reminded of my first assignment as a newly ordained person. About a month before my scheduled ordination date, my bishop called me and said, “Charles, I’d like you to make an appointment to talk to the rector of St Luke’s, and assuming you two hit it off, I will assign you there.” I made the appointment, and within the first two minutes of my meeting with the rector, she said, “Charles, I have to tell you. One of the accomplishments I’m most proud of here at St Luke’s is that I installed televisions in the nave.” While picking my jaw up off the floor, I thought to myself, “What corner of ecclesiastical hell is this?” I bit my tongue and told the bishop that we hit it off and said yes to the appointment, serving at St Luke’s Church for a year in humble obedience to my bishop. Fast forward a year, and I didn’t like to sing “Shine, Jesus Shine” any more than I did before, nor did I grow to appreciate the TVs in the nave. But I’m so glad I humbly said yes as I ended up loving that little church, and learning more during that first year of ministry from both the rector and the community than I could have ever hoped to learn as a young priest, leaving with fond memories and my Anglo-Catholic identity no worse for the wear.
Humility is a virtue that is be practiced in all areas of our lives, both individual and communal. How do you practice humility as part of our communal life here at Church of the Atonement? Is there something about our common life together that grates on your nerves? How might God be calling you to intentionally practice the virtue of humility by putting the wishes and desires and needs of the community as a whole before your own interests?
How about in your personal life? How can you put your spouse’s interests before your own, or your children’s interests, or a co-worker’s, or those of a lonely friend?
It is only through practicing the virtue of humility day in and day out that we can live into the unity into which Paul is calling the church at Philippi. It’s only through humbly embracing suffering and enduring it without seeking escape that we can yield our own will to that of the other, and live in peace and harmony with those around us.
In a moment, when the deacon prepares the altar, he will pour a bit of water into the wine, and pray an ancient prayer quietly, under the breath, “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Let us seek to practice this virtue of humility, and in doing so, come to share in the divinity of the one who suffered the ultimate sacrifice for us, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 Arthur Devine, "Humility," CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Humility, 1910, December 31, 2016, newadvent.org/cathen/07543b.htm  Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1996), 226.  David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 197.