Sunday, October 8th: "Empty Glory and Full Joy"

First United Presbyterian Church

“Empty Glory and Full Joy”

Rev. Amy Morgan

October 8, 2023

Philippians 2:1-11

If, then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he existed in the form of God,

    did not regard equality with God

    as something to be grasped,

7 but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,

    assuming human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a human,

8     he humbled himself

    and became obedient to the point of death—

    even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God exalted him even more highly

    and gave him the name

    that is above every other name,

10 so that at the name given to 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.

This is one of those passages in scripture where, when we read it in English, we can understand the meaning easily enough, but we miss the wordplay that is going on in Greek. So we’re going to do a little Greek vocab here and then dig into how this deepens our understanding of what Paul is saying to the Christians in Philippi and what this means for us today. 

The first word we’re going to focus on is the word translated as “selfish ambition.” Paul warns the Philippians not to do anything out of “selfish ambition.” To our 21-st century American, English-speaking ears, “selfish ambition” has kind of a personal, individualistic character. But Paul is addressing a community of Christ-followers, not an individual. And the Greek word he uses is derived from the name of the Greek goddess, Eris, who is the goddess of discord and strife. The word means something more akin to factionalism, party loyalty that creates division. This is something we Americans, of course, know nothing about. 

But in the church of the first century, Paul encountered a lot of this. There were factions of Christians who insisted Gentiles joining Christian communities needed to follow Jewish law, including circumcision and dietary restrictions. There were factions who insisted only certain apostles were equipped to baptize new Christians. There were factions who insisted Christians were to be good Roman citizens. There were factions who insisted Christians should resist government interference. 

Christians in the first century were diverse in their beliefs and practices. There were different apostles and missionaries going around, planting churches, sharing the gospel. And they didn’t always tell exactly the same story or teach the same practices or beliefs.  Early in his ministry, Paul would get hot and bothered about the discord and factionalism that resulted from the whole, “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas” business. But as he writes to the Philippians from prison, he’s more chill about that now. In the first chapter of this letter, he uses that same word for “selfish ambition,” factious discord, and says, “If someone wants to preach Christ out of selfish ambition, what it is to me? I rejoice that Christ is proclaimed, one way or another.”

But, he doesn’t want the Philippians to fall into this trap. So he warns them to avoid putting party loyalty above their commitment to Christ and to the community of believers. He advises them to be “of the same mind,” “of one mind,” and “of the same mind that was in Christ Jesus.” If you were reading this passage in Greek, you would not be able to ignore the number of times this word for “mind” comes up. The word is proneo, and it means to think intentionally, set one’s mind on or adopt a certain attitude. There are other words in Greek for thinking or knowing generally. This word is about an intentional mindset. 

And the way Paul says this is achieved is through humility. But the word translated into English as humility is again, specifically, humility of mind. It is a combination of the word for humility and the word proneo. Paul is teaching the Philippians that they can avoid factional discord by intentionally humbling their opinion so that they can commit to a mindset that reflects Christ Jesus. Let me say that one more time, because it is important: they can avoid factional discord by intentionally humbling their opinion so that they can commit to a mindset that reflects Christ Jesus.

The last bit of Greek I want to touch on here is language about emptiness and fullness. You hear it a little in English translations, but in Greek you really get the wordplay. Paul asks that the Philippians “make my joy complete,” but in Greek the phrase is literally “make my joy full.” He then advises them against “selfish ambition” and “conceit.” Sometimes the work “conceit” is translated as vainglory, which is not a term we use a lot anymore. But the word in Greek is kenodoxia, which is a combination of the words for “empty” and “glory.” It’s like you’re running around telling people you have this fabulous bucket full of great things, but, in fact, it is completely empty. Paul is asking the Philippians to fill his joy bucket to the brim by not running around with empty buckets and pretending they are full. 

And then, there is the most important use of this empty/full metaphor: Christ emptying himself of the glory of divinity. This word for empty, kenosis in Greek, has been bantered around theological circles for quite some time, as scholars have tried to sort out which parts of Jesus’s divinity he was emptied of and which divine aspects were maintained in his human form. We’re not going to get caught up in that today, but I do want us to hear this linguistic dichotomy between kenodoxia and kenosis. Paul is intentionally contrasting emptiness that pretends to be glorious with Christ truly emptying himself of glory. And the result is that Jesus is given the name that is above all names and every tongue confesses Jesus as Lord to the glory of God. 

Fullness of joy comes from kenosis, not kenodoxia, self-emptying not empty self-glorification. Jesus let go of glory instead of grasping for it. He emptied himself so that we could be truly filled with joy, instead of pretending our empty buckets are really full. 

And this is an essential message for us to hear today. We are a society that worships at the altar of the goddess Eris, acting in a spirit of factional discord and strife. We are a society of empty buckets pretending to be full. When you ask how someone is doing, the pat response is, “great,” or “busy.” Because to tell people how we’re really doing would be to reveal the truth of our empty buckets. We fill our buckets with glorious accomplishments, genius ideas, and insightful opinions, but we know that if we really look at what’s inside, we will just find a giant void. 

It is not easy to live the way Paul invites the Philippians to live. It takes intentionality and commitment. We have to humble our minds, admit that we might not know everything, concede that our buckets might be empty. We might have to care about what someone else thinks, or wants, or needs instead of only looking after our own faction. We might even have to admit that someone else has ideas or gifts or visions that are better than ours. In short, we might have to acknowledge our emptiness and our need for other people to fill our bucket. How very anti-American. 

It was anti-Roman, too, by the way. That’s why Paul is writing from prison about a Messiah who was crucified. Empires do not love it when citizens promote peace and unity. It makes it much harder to convince them to go out and fight for more power and makes them much harder to control. 

But I digress. 

Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is unique among the letters of Paul in the New Testament. Some churches Paul writes to are clearly filled with partisan contentiousness, infighting, empty buckets. Paul is fed up with some of them and harshly scolds others. But his letter to the Philippians is saturated with love and gratitude. Paul clearly has a deep affection for these Christians, and they have shown him love and support in tangible ways during his imprisonment. He gives them advice and encouragement, but he knows they are already on the right track, that they are setting the standard for what the church can be and do. 

And that’s why I was thrilled to discover that this letter was in the lectionary during our stewardship season this year. Because, as I’ve said many times, this church, First United Presbyterian, is unique. I hear stories from colleagues and read posts on social media from pastors in churches where factious discord reigns supreme, whether it is between long-time members and newer attenders, political divisions within the congregation, or arguments over who should be allowed to sing in the choir. Other churches boast about their programs, their membership, their budgets, even their mission giving. But they are running around with empty buckets. When you look inside and try to see where the gospel is being proclaimed, there is just a bunch of hot air. 

This is not to put down other churches or other Christians. This is just a reality that exists in many churches because it is the reality of the society we live in. It is the air we breathe, and it is really hard to avoid being filled with the smog of partisanship and conceit. It isn’t just in churches – it’s everywhere. In business and politics, in clubs and on sports teams, in families and friendships. 

It takes a lot of intentional work to have a different mindset. But this church has done that work. And it has been hard. 

You all, like the church in Philippi, have suffered. You have suffered the turmoil of all kinds of transitions and losses, through pastoral leadership, COVID, building renovations, and beloved siblings in Christ dying or moving away. But in your suffering, you have cared for one another, and you have cared for me and my family. And that is no small thing. That is not just the right thing to do or some ordinary kindness. The way you all care for others is exceptional.

And that love and care grows out of your intentional mindset that reflects mindset of Jesus Christ. You all are more committed to loving each other as Christ loves us than you are to getting your own way or having your ideas approved. You all are willing to hear each other’s ideas and admit when someone else’s plan is better than yours. You all are willing to show up and admit your emptiness rather than boast about buckets full of nothing. That is who you are. 

Maybe this isn’t how every one of us lives every minute of every day. That’s not what I’m saying. But, as your pastor, as the person privileged to observe your life and work together day in and day out for the last six years, this is the character of First on Fourth. It is a place, it is a community, that makes my joy full because of the way you empty yourselves out for the love of each other, our neighbors, and our God. That is the character of this community. 

And that is so unique in this society that it is vital that we preserve it. It is essential that you all continue doing what you do, shining your light in the world around us, showing people there is an alternative to factious discord and vainglory. If we can live this way because of Christ’s example, others can come to live this way because of our example. 

So as we prayerfully consider our commitments to this community for the coming year – commitments of time, energy, particular gifts, and, yes, the financial resources we have been blessed with – may we be mindful of what this community is – to us and to our society. May we remember that we are not just supporting staff salaries and utilities and music for the choir. We are enabling those things to create this space where a very unique and special community can continue to thrive. So that we can shine the light of Christ into a world of empty buckets, to the glory of God. Amen. 


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