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9.27.2008

Talking and Walking in Christ Jesus

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church
Stone Harbor, NJ
Proper 21A
(September 28, 2008)


I never knew my great-grandmother Bertha because she died when I was an infant, but I do know she made the best shortcake biscuits in the world. I know this because she passed the recipe down to my grandmother who passed it down to my mother who passed it down to me. And, not wanting you to feel left out, I’m going to pass it along to you: baking soda, baking powder, flour, buttermilk, and butter. Can you smell it? Can you taste the flaky biscuits? Of course not! Reading a recipe – even holding up the ingredients – is not the same as actually preparing the dough and baking the biscuits and passing them around to be shared. In order to truly share the best shortcake biscuits with you this morning, I need to actually follow the directions in the recipe. It is not enough to simply read the words.

In this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the message is much the same. For Paul, there is an intimate connection between our theology and our ethics – between our understanding of God and our behaviors. To put it in more colloquial language, if you are going to talk the talk of Christianity, you’ve got to walk the walk. We cannot simply read a recipe about how to be a Christian. We must be willing to follow those directions. But what are those directions? Paul tells us that Christ’s attitude of self-emptying – an attitude of serving others without regard for self-interest even to the point of death on a cross – that this attitude, is one which those who claim to be “in Christ Jesus” must take on. We must be willing to “look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.”[1] Morna Hooker, a British theologian and New Testament scholar, refers to this attitude as one of “mutual concern and service” – a stark contrast to more contemporary attitudes of competition and one-upmanship.[2]

Do you remember the question “What would Jesus do?” It was popular in the 1990s and was often abbreviated on t-shirts, bracelets, and bumper stickers as WWJD. But, here’s something I learned this week - the phrase actually originated in 1896 with the publication of Charles Sheldon’s novel, In His Steps. In the book, a preacher encounters a homeless man who challenges him to take seriously the imitation of Christ. The homeless man says to the preacher:

“I heard some people singing at a church prayer meeting the other night,
‘All for Jesus, all for Jesus,
All my being’s ransomed powers,
All my thoughts, and all my doings,
All my days, and all my hours.’
and I kept wondering as I sat on the steps outside just what they meant by it. It seems to me there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. I suppose I don’t understand. But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following His steps? It seems to me sometimes as if the people in the big churches had good clothes and nice houses to live in, and money to spend for luxuries, and could go away on summer vacations and all that, while the people outside the churches, thousands of them, I mean, die in tenements, and walk the streets for jobs, and never have a piano or a picture in the house, and grow up in misery and drunkenness and sin.”[3]

That same homeless man might tell us today that it is not enough to come to church on Sunday mornings to listen to Scripture, to join our voices in prayer, to sing hymns, to recite the Creed, and to break bread together if none of these activities are going to change the way we live our lives during the rest of the week. It is not enough to proclaim the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection if it isn’t going to change the way we live our lives. If we focus only on the exaltation of Christ, we have missed the point. In addition to the exaltation of Christ as Lord, we must also acknowledge “the renunciation, and the service, and the willing obedience” that are equally part of the Christian story.

So again, I ask, how are we to walk the walk that is Christianity? There are some who will tell us exactly what it means. They will tell us what people we should welcome into our churches, they will tell us what kinds of decisions we must make about our healthcare and the healthcare concerns of others, they will tell us that there is a right way and a wrong way to punish criminals, they will tell us exactly what our children must be taught in school. They will tell us all of these things – and more – in the name of Christ. And they have every good intention in their hearts.

But Paul’s letter to the Philippians and the teaching of countless contemporary theologians and apologists will say that the Christian life is not one that can be lived by a simple rule book of rights and wrongs for every situation. Instead there is what Hooker calls “a first principle – the self-giving love of God” and that is all we have to guide us.[4] Is it enough?

What does the attitude of self-giving and servitude look like in our day to day lives? Here at St. Mary’s we have a number of ways in which we attempt to live this attitude out.

  • We have the ECW who will be dining together this Thursday evening to talk about, among other things, how to best use the money they have raised for the outreach needs of our community.
  • We have the New Members Ministry in the midst of the Pantry Shelf Neighborhood Outreach program, inviting our neighbors in Cape May Court House to return bags of non-perishable food items to us today and going back to the neighborhood after church to pick up items from those who were unable to join us this morning. This food will be delivered to the United Way First Call for Help Food Pantry at the Baptist church in Wildwood to be distributed to those in need.
  • We have the Addiction Support Groups which meet here at St. Mary’s during the week and the groups facilitated by Fr. Ron and Sandra at The Branches each Thursday evening.
  • We have the This ‘n That Thrift Shop and Furniture Annex which provide clothing, household items, books, furniture, and more at low prices all to benefit the affordable housing needs of Cape May County.
  • And, we have The Branches with its twice weekly open hours for people to just stop by for coffee and conversation – each week people who are lonely, people who are tired, people who just want to share a story with someone, people just like you and me stop by to visit.

These are some of the ways self-giving and servitude are shown in our community and there are, I’m sure, countless other examples that I have missed. But, there is no rule book. There is only the principle of the self-giving love of God as our example. And using this as our guide, there is no guarantee that we’ll always do the best thing in every situation – no guarantee, in fact, that we are always doing the right thing. But what matters in each case is that we are committed to approaching each situation with the attitude of self-giving and servitude which Jesus modeled for us.[5]

In a few moments, we will stand together to say the words of the Nicene Creed. These words serve much the same purpose as those words in Paul’s letter to the Philippians which recount the mystery and the miracle of God’s incarnation –

“Christ Jesus . . . 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, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”[6]

These are words that affirm our beliefs and these are words which motivate us to action. They are at one and the same time a statement of our faith and a “demand to live in a certain way.” They are the talk and the walk and they are an invitation for you and for me.



[1] Philippians 2:4-5.
[2] Morna D. Hooker, “The Letter to the Philippians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. XI, p. 516.
[3] Charles Monroe Sheldon, In His Steps, Chapter One (accessed online at http://www.ccel.org/ Christian Classics Ethereal Library).
[4] Hooker, 516-7.
[5] Hooker, 517.
[6] Philippians 2:6-11.

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