Second Sunday in Lent
Philippians 3:17-4:1

“My sisters and brothers, join in imitating me.”

The reading that Jason read for us moments ago occurs about three-quarters of the way through the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church that’s in Philippi, and it starts off with what may seem like a very prideful and vain statement: follow my lead on this one. On a cursory read, we could be deceived into thinking that Paul has it all figured out; that he is the truly enlightened one who has fully figured out what it means to follow Christ and that he has figured out how to do it perfectly. This is one of the difficulties with the Lectionary, of course. We’re been dropped into the middle of a longer letter written nearly two millennia ago with very little prior context, which means that it can be easy to take this text at face value. But let’s step back and take a broader look at the whole.

There are a few instances in this letter leading up to today’s reading where Paul urges the Philippians to “be of the same mind.” Now this doesn’t mean that he wants all within the church to think exactly alike; the last few weeks within our own United Methodist Church can illustrate for us that such a demand just isn’t possible. No, Paul uses a hymn that they would have been familiar with to get to the heart of what he was trying to say:

Let the same mind be in you that was 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 of all but love, 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. [1]

And so there’s no chance to think that he has it all figured out and is some kind of expert, he continues on to say: “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” [2]

Paul’s yearning for the Philippians is not that they will become disciples of Paul. No, to imitate Paul in this scenario is to imitate the way that he has begun to imitate Christ. It’s to be of the same mind as Christ, who opened his arms so fully in love of God and his neighbors that he was humbled even to the point of accepting an insulting and humiliating death on a Roman cross. Imitation in our text today is the task of discipleship; it’s the call that Jesus makes to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew: “If any want to become my followers—if any want to imitate me—let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” [3]

This is, after all, the theme of Lent.

Jordan River, and the Spirit led him out into the wilderness, where he was tempted and tried by the devil. Imagine that scenario if you can—immediately after hearing the voice of God come from the clouds, saying to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” Jesus is led into the wilderness where he ate nothing for forty days; he was famished, tormented, and surely questioning what he had just gotten himself into. The devil then appears on the scene and tempts him to go against who he is as God’s beloved, testing his resolve to see if he can get Jesus to renounce those words spoken as his baptism.

Just a few minutes ago, I was struck by the words in our new member liturgy that Pastor Cathy read just a few minutes ago. They’re the same words that we hear spoken to us in our baptism, and it occurs to me that, in this season of Lent, we are perhaps facing something far closer to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness than we are comfortable with.

Do you renounce sin and evil in all its forms? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

Yesterday, Pastor Cathy and I attended a specially called meeting of the New York Annual Conference, where we as a larger church body confessed the harm that we as the United Methodist Church have inflicted on our LGBTQI siblings. We acknowledged that we are weary, angry, and unsure as to whether the United Methodist Church can even stay united. We lamented that we as Methodists have closed off the same church that, at our baptisms, we celebrate that Christ has opened to all people.

And I’ve spent the last few days mourning the murders of 50 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. While we renounce sin and evil in all its forms at our baptisms, it occurs to me that even our best intentions and aspirations can inadvertently perpetuate hate and harm. While we may want to think that we are a tolerant society, the truth is that we have clearly and collectively bolstered the sin of Islamophobia. While we may want to think that we are a forward-thinking church, the truth is that even the most open of us—especially those of us who are white—have likely reinforced the evil of white supremacy.

Regardless of whether we meant harm or love—regardless of our good intentions—we have acquiesced to the temptations facing us in the wilderness, renouncing what was spoken to us in our baptisms. We have sought to imitate Christ and gotten lost in the wilderness.

So perhaps the most important work of the church right now is the work of confession—perhaps my most important work for my own person and spirit is the work of confession. To acknowledge that I have not lived in to who I am called to be as a child of God. To acknowledge that I have caused harm, not only by my words and actions but also by the words I did not say and those things I did not do.

Did you read Rob Baynard’s Lenten reflection that was sent out on Friday? If not, I highly encourage you to go back and read it. But near the end of his piece, he writes about a prayer called the Jesus Prayer; Kyrie Eleison, or in English, Lord have mercy. And this is what he wrote:

This simple prayer, said over and over again, often in repetition or even constantly throughout the day, allow us to calm our minds of any distractions, rid ourselves of anything preventing us from being in total communion with God, and allow us to get out of the way and let God take over. It allows us to confess in a way that isn’t overly complicated. By saying, “Lord have mercy,” we say we aren’t perfect, and we know it. But we’re trying. We’re making the effort to return to God. 

It’s an effort of returning to the same God that is always coming to us. Because, my beloved church, this is the nature of grace. Grace that comes to us before we are even aware of it, grace that meets us in this very moment, and grace that is actively working to transform us closer to the image of God. There is always grace. And there is always grace because our God is love, a love so radical and unwavering that Christ went to the cross and even to hell itself and never once closed those outstretched arms. It’s a love that is always offering up a second chance; a third chance; however many chances we need to get it right.

But this grace isn’t cheap; it’s free, but it may cost us. Because it is always prodding us to look more and more like those outstretched arms. It’s transforming our minds to look more like the mind of Christ; our hearts more like the heart of Christ; our body to look more like the body of Christ. It’s moving us closer to that image of God that we will remember on Good Friday, the humiliated body that was abused and scorned and rejected. But the Apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory. We are being transformed for the sake of resurrection; for abiding love; for new, everlasting life.

This is a wondrous love and an amazing grace. May God grant us the hope to believe it, the faith to stand firm in it, and the courage to open ourselves to it.

1 Philippians 2:5-8
2 Philippians 3:12
3 Matthew 16:24