Sunday, December 03, 2023
Sermon Audio
Full Service Audio

“All the Knees”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, December 3, 2023
Reading: Philippians 2:1-11 & 4:2-3


There’s an old joke that I’ve heard among lots of religious groups. Catholics, evangelicals, Jews, mainline Protestants all have a version of it. Someone is discovered on a desert island, and the rescuers look and see three dwellings. Why three? Well, that’s my house, that’s my church . . . that’s the church I used to go to. As we’ve gotten to know Jewish friends on Bathurst Street, I’ve noticed their telling is a little different. That’s my house, that’s my shul, that’s the shul I wouldn’t be caught dead in. A little more aggressive, and funnier. Then this one: that’s my house, that’s my shul, that’s another shul in case another Jew pitches up on this desert island.

There is just something in the makeup of being human that we fight. Did they make you guys read Lord of the Flies in school here in Canada? They made us read it in North Carolina. Not sure why—do adolescents really need to learn how ghastly we all are to each other? We already know that, from the locker room, the lunchroom, from home. The first two children in the first family, Cain and Abel, produce the first homicide. All of us are capable of being vicious to one another. And this personal animus may be the reason the book of Philippians exists at all.

You heard Paul: “I urge Euodia, and I urge Synteche to be of one mind.” Philippians is one of the great books of the New Testament, some of its richest theology. It’s also one of Paul’s warmest letters, full of affection for a church he loves. And its reason for existing is that these two can’t get along with one another. Both are leaders it seems, in charge of money for the poor or teaching the faith, we don’t know specifically. With his divisive personality they may be fighting over Paul and his leadership. The point: we’ve had fights in church from before the New Testament was even written. It’s always been thus. That’s the church I used to go to. That’s the shul I wouldn’t be caught dead in. Did you know the one true case of kids on deserted islands we know about, was Indonesian teens, and they didn’t harm one another. They cooperated, sacrificed for one another, took care of the neediest, and got rescued together.

Paul asks the two women to be of the same mind. That doesn’t mean to agree. It doesn’t even mean they have to like one another. It does mean they have to love one another. To have the same purpose, manner of thinking, pattern of acting.[i] It’s not a call for uniformity. It is a call to work together.


Earlier in the letter Paul asks the whole church to have the same mind, a common mind. The same thing he asks Euodia and Synteche to have. How to do this? Have the mind of Christ. Now the famous bit. Christ:

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.

Paul doesn’t tell a story of two enemies reconciled, or two old rivals uniting in a common purpose. He tells a story of the Son of God, emptying himself, becoming a slave, humbling himself to death on a cross. From the right hand of God to the depths of hell. The word “cross” was a sort of uber-cussword in Rome. “Crux you” was an awful curse. Because the cross turned a person into an object of horror. Paul says be like this: and he describes Christ’s descent from the heavens to the cross.

He doesn’t even have to draw out the conclusion. We’re all supposed to be like Christ. And you two can’t even speak to one another kindly?

Eugene Peterson a spiritual giant, died just a few years ago. He translated the Message version of the Bible from his office in Vancouver. Wrote dozens of books. At his funeral, his son Leif Peterson said his father fooled everybody into thinking he had lots of things to say. Eugene didn’t actually. Here is all he had to say. Leif knew it well because his father whispered it into his ear every night at prayer. It was this. “God loves you. He’s on your side. He’s coming after you. He’s relentless”. Paul says the same. He takes these two women’s feud and turns both of their faces toward Jesus. His face is radiant with love for both of them. It’s also flecked with blood, shed for them, and for all of us. “God loves you both. He’s on your side. God is coming after you. He’s relentless.”

You may have heard that Christianity started out with a wandering rabbi spouting Zen koans, then early Christians got confused, thought Jesus rose from the dead, and decided he was a god. As you can tell from my tone, this is utter nonsense. We can find no layer, no moment in faith in which Christians did not think Jesus was God. Early Christians were also Jewish, and Jews do not promote people to anything other than being human. There is only one God, who tolerates no rivals. Romans, other pagans, were different. A Roman emperor, if he did a good job, could hope to be promoted to god-status—there were lots after all. Alexander the Great conquered the world and expected to be remembered as a deity. Jews said this was all nonsense. There is only one God. I’ve told you before of a Jewish atheist group. Asked what a Jewish atheist is, a member said: “there’s only one God. And we don’t believe in him!”

So, Jews don’t promote people to divine status, in fact, they’ll go to their deaths to resist such a claim, choose martyrdom over compromising God’s oneness. But what if God demotes himself? Couldn’t God do that? Without losing his divinity, come among us in flesh, and save us?

This passage in Paul seems to be a quote from someone earlier. It doesn’t match Paul’s language, and it seems like it might be a poem or a hymn. We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, the pre-history. What does matter is that Paul is the earliest writer in the New Testament by a lot. And he’s quoting something even earlier. And this even-earlier bit of wisdom speaks of God the Son being equal to God himself, not promoted, but since forever. Paul uses a bit of Old Testament wisdom to make the point. In Isaiah, God says:

Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn . . .
“To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear.”

Paul takes a strong statement of Jewish monotheism—there is no other God—and applies it to Jesus! Jesus doesn’t become God. That’s not how it works in Jewish thought. Jesus has to have already been God, eternally, from before all time, as divine as his Father is.

Now for the really extraordinary part. The Son empties himself. Takes the form of a slave. Humbles himself to death on a cross. These things don’t cancel out his divinity. They don’t take it away. No, they show his divinity in its fullness. It is no disgrace for God to be human, no loss of divine status to die on a cross. If anything, it’s a “promotion.” This descent of the Son among us shows us what God is forever. God bends low. God pours out. God can’t rest until every one of his creatures is found. The most hideous punishment the clever Romans ever concocted is now sutured into the heart of God. There is no unwounded God. The cross shows us who God unchangingly is: one who gives himself away to save.

An early church teacher I love, St. Augustine, speaks of being just able to barely conceive of a God who is unchanging, all-knowing, all powerful. It’s not easy to do. You can try though and imagine One who is nothing but goodness, nothing but glory. It’s like standing on tip toes. You can just brush up against the underside of such a notion of God, if you really strain . . . and then you trip over the crucified slave washing your feet. You can try and conceive of God. The wisest heads among us say not to try, you can only fail. Augustine says, “If you understand it, it is not God.” But straining to understand, you miss the humble One who’s come to save at great cost.

Speaking of washing feet, one bible scholar points out that’s the passage this one most resembles. Philippians sees Christ descending: lower, lower, lower still. Even those under the earth will confess him. The Gospel of John sees the same.

During supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from supper, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 

Do you see God? No? You’re looking too high. Look lower. Lower still. Down. You see the slave at your feet? That’s God. Some of us disciples object. No, you will never wash my feet. He insists: this is who I am. This is how it has to be. No wash, no salvation.

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had reclined again, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 

Euodia, Synteche, I know you don’t like each other. And I don’t care. Wash each other’s feet. The liking will take care of itself.

There have always been critics who say that one who bends so low cannot be divine. That slave at your feet serving can’t be God almighty, high and lofty, by definition. We admit, it is strange to say that all the God there is pours himself out to serve us as a slave. But it’s true. It’s true all the way back into the life of the Trinity. The Father pours himself out into the Son. The Son and the Father pour themselves out into the Spirit. All God is is self-giving, no selfishness whatsoever, only deference to the other. If you’re trying to imagine God, don’t look to a potentate on a throne, an emperor flinging armies around. Look at who serves. Defers. Washes. Heals.

You may have heard the wisdom that you only get to know an organization when you get to know its servants, or in our day its lowest-paid employees. There are things only visible from the ground, that those in the C-Suite can’t see. Don’t blame the execs, it’s a perspective thing. Likewise, those who clean houses often know their occupants better than they know themselves. Some things you can’t see from the bird’s eye view, but only from the worm’s eye view. Be nice to the janitors: they know you better than you think, and they can make your life better (or worse!).

In the US, college sports are a multi-billion-dollar industry. Whole media empires try to divine what’s going on in 18-year olds’ heads. At my university, the person who knows the athletes best cleans the chapel floors. You could ask, hey, how’s our team this year? And he’d know: who had a family tragedy. Who just got dumped. Whose game was overrated. Who had parent issues. He was a magician. ESPN (our US version of TSN) should interview him weekly. You’d walk away informed better than if you’d seen the future with your own eyes. Then he’d go off to mop.

I often hear stories of someone dying in hospital who only learns they’re dying from a janitor. The ones with the expertise, and the family, are scared to say the D word. But when an immigrant woman promises to pray for you as you die, you learn the truth.

Listen to those whom the world considers lowly. Because that’s where God lives: Lower than where we’d thought to look. No, no, lower still. Lower!

Here’s just how low. You’ve heard in our creeds that after his death, Christ descends into hell. What is he of all people doing there of all places? Some say that’s the farthest down he could go. The cross isn’t the floor, the place of the dead is. Anywhere there is suffering, Christ has to go there, and join in. True. But there’s more. Our Eastern Orthodox friends say Christ descends into hell to liberate the place. To break the locks and chains. To raid it, and ask “who’s leaving with me?” Any hell there is, after that, is self-chosen. The locks are all broken, all you have to do is walk out, following Jesus. In icons of this, Christ is in the place of the dead, and who’s he lifting out? Adam and Eve. And all their children. From Cain and Abel, the first murderer and the murder victim, to us today. Christ isn’t just serving, he’s saving. He’s relentless. He’s on your side. And he is coming for you. Because he loves you.

In a moment we’ll dine together. You’ll come forward and receive a bit of bread, a sip of juice. Tiny, tiny things. But all the life of God there is, is in both. We serve a God who doesn’t defend prerogative. No presumption, ‘don’t you know who I am?’ No little man anxiety to puff up, no power suit displays. No, our God takes off his status. Comes among us as the lowest. Washes feet. Goes to hell to get us and all the others. And is present in simple things like bread and wine, the face of the other. Once you see him in these tiny elements, you start to wonder, where else might he be hiding? Here. And everywhere else. To save us all. Amen.


[i] It’s Steve Fowl’s language here.