by Ellen Sims
text: Philippians 2: 1-13
World Communion Sunday always poses a potential problem in our celebration of Christian unity. Although the intention is to draw a bigger circle today to encompass Christians around the whole world, we still omit nonChristians from our tribe and so may unintentionally suggest that God does, too. The point of World Communion Sunday—and Paul’s naming of Jesus as Lord over every other name—is not to have a Christian pep rally to shout that our team is the best and those on the other team or teams will eventually have to acknowledge we’re the best. In fact, this passage from Philippians begins by emphasizing that those who are “in Christ” and share “the mind of Christ . . . do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than [themselves]” and should “look not to [their] own interests, but to the interests of others.” There’s no personal or team pride among Jesus followers.
Although the conclusion of today’s Epistle reading might seem to say that eventually ALL the other tribes and teams will have to bend their knees to Jesus and claim him as Lord, our understanding of Jesus prevents us from interpreting this as Jesus demanding obeisance and humiliating those he has conquered–even if through love. Kneeling to the unifying Christ recognizes not a defeat of other teams but perhaps an expectation that other tribes are straining toward a similar goal.
Our tribe hasn’t attained that goal yet. And other religious tribes don’t have it all figured out either. Still, although we’re moving along different paths, there is something ultimate and eternal that people of diverse faith experiences move toward. Love is luring us there. In hope and trust we are imperfectly stretching toward that most important thing, that very best thing, that deepest and realest and all-encompassing and final thing . . . which is NOT power or wealth or security or the many things that, at times, we mistakenly bend our knees to and worship and let take control of our lives.
In Paul’s context, bending a knee to Jesus meant refusing to bend a knee to and name as Lord something or someone lesser. In Jesus’s context, the kin*dom of God he preached and lived was God’s promise of a way of living together that we could help usher in here on earth and which would nullify the violent and oppressive ways of Empire. The early Christians resisted the Powers That Be. That’s why they were considered dangerous and many were executed for refusing to bend the knee to the Roman emperor. If we name Jesus as Lord, we’re saying no nation, no ruler, no charismatic figure, no symbol, no celebrity, no political party, no ideology, no philosophy deserves our uncritical and highest allegiance. We aren’t antagonistic toward others. But because we share in the Spirit of Christ Jesus, we value neither popularity nor power but compassion and justice, which are counter-cultural values. Those who have “the same mind” of Jesus Christ have “the same love.”
Others may interpret these priorities as a betrayal of the culture’s values. That may be true. When we take a knee for Jesus and confess that Jesus is Lord, we are denying that other things—even good things like love of country—are the ultimate good and beyond criticism.
The Christian tribe is the un-tribe. By uniting with other Jesus followers, you and I recognize a special bond but, paradoxically, we honor that bond most sincerely when we hold it loosely and not exclusively.
There’s too much tribalism and misplaced, uncritical pride. Yes, we may at times need labels and connections and anthems to say who we are. But more necessary still is the expansiveness of those names and labels and loyalties because to be true to our Lord, Jesus, means we kneel to no one else—and yet we are servants of all, ready to take a knee in compassionate solidarity with those who have been ignored and brought low. We kneel sometimes in compassionate sorrow. As I kneel now for us all as we acknowledge in prayer injustices and harms to the human family.
Prayers . . .