A Sermon by Bishop Jonathan Goodall
Delivered at a Confirmation service on the feast of St Simon and St Jude 2014
“Instead he emptied himself. Receiving the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of man”
‘Never just read the headlines’, mum and dad always told me: and it was probably the same for you. In most minds the story of Jesus is a series of headlines that goes something like this: he was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, was baptised, exercised a ministry of healing, teaching and exorcism, found his way to Jerusalem, was crucified, amazingly he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. In the end he did spectacularly well and had the most spectacular of honorary awards as a result.
But from very early on it was clear that this was far from the whole story, because it left out the all-important first episode, which is the chapter of St John’s Gospel; the back-story, that tells you that Jesus’s story is not a story about a spectacular human life. It’s a story about God – all about God in fact; God pouring out God and returning into God.
And how on earth do you tell a human story about that?
St John uses the whole of his Gospel to rise to the challenge; but St Paul tries the back-of- the-envelope version in Philippians [though most scholars think that Paul is probably quoting a very early Christian hymn]
It’s the story of a God who is the way he is by giving away: that’s what it’s like to be God. Jesus, knowing what it is to be God, knows that being God is not a matter of grasping and clinging and defending. God’s nature is the absolute opposite: in time and space, as in eternity, God is pouring out God into what is other. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit pour out their lives into each other with such complete freedom and intimacy that they are one God eternally. And the world comes into being because God has let the same sort of self-giving create something quite new and full of something different from God, a world.
God makes that world to be the recipient of his outpoured life and love. And so if we’re looking for God’s presence in his world, says St Paul the give-away sign would be the life of a slave. The ‘form of a servant’ is of course the less forceful, religious way of translating it. But what the word says is ‘the shape of a slave’
If God is the way he is by giving away, giving himself over fully – that’s what a slave experiences, their life totally given into the hands of another. It’s certainly shocking, bold, difficult language when you think of what slaves really were at that time [or even now] The form of a servant can still perhaps conjure up a slightly uneasy Downton Abbey flunky in uniform, serving you a cocktail. A life of a slave evokes something rather deeper and more threatening. A slave is a person whose life is totally in somebody else’s hands. God’s love, says St Paul makes him put himself in somebody else’s hands. In this world, being God looks like a slave; God is revealed, embodied in a life given into the hands of others – our hands, the hands of human beings with all their selfishness, their fears and resistance to love, their violence. And from that point the entire world is turned around. That is the story behind the headlines.
When Dorothy Sayers was writing her great radio play The Man born to be King, back in the 50’s, she had a lot of rather abusive correspondence from Christians who thought that the whole enterprise was wrong: you couldn’t have anybody speaking the words of Jesus on the radio! She writes with exasperation in the introduction.
‘Why don’t Christians realize that they have done the unforgivable? They have taken the story of the incarnation of God and they have made it boring. If I tell you that the infinite, unchangeable Creator of all things has lead a human life, in the course of which he was flogged and spat on and nailed up like a scarecrow, call it what you like but don’t say it’s boring. It takes a lot of work to make that dull.
And as we hear those words in Philippians, whatever you think of the story, it’s not dull. It opens up our lives to infinite horizons, to what our creator and redeemer is like.
And then of course the whole thing turns round to us because Paul is telling us this because we are baptised people, living disciples of Jesus, and should share his mind, his approach, his same outlook. Think of yourselves as Jesus thought of himself, think of yourselves as realizing what he realised: that your life is a gift, but not for you; having the mind of Christ means putting your life into someone else’s hands. A gift so radical that it could be as transforming as it is costly.
So as always in the New Testament, the story about God turns round upon us to put to us the basic questions of conversion. What’s the form in which you think of yourself? How do you understand you? You may understand yourself very much as Paul hints [in terms of someone who retains their security and autonomy by reaching out and taking, by building around yourself a careful defence that is anchored and secure] but what if you understood that you were so deeply rooted in the love of God that your life is given over to others; What would it be like to have such confidence in the love of God that you actually felt able to take risks, to put your life in the hands of others so that they could live?
Well, we may say, ‘thank God not many of us are expected to take this literally’. But you never know: whenever you come in prayer to God, [like now when you seek the gift of the Holy Spirit in confirmation]. The bad news is that that is the risk you take. You’re entering the area of divine radiation, as you might say, where you might just catch something very, very dangerous a glimpse of what it’s like to be God. And we’re told more than once in the New Testament – rather shockingly – that we are made to be like God and that the point of being human is to become an image of God It’s rooted in the story we have in Jesus that we do not become an image of God by reflecting God’s all powerful splendour and glory and control; we become it by reflecting God’s utter letting-go, and transferring our lives into the hands of others so that they may live. That is the story, and the challenge. It’s where freedom and life itself are utterly real.
One last thought, Paul tells us that it’s because of this ‘giving himself into the hands of others’ that Jesus was given authority, and his name became the highest name. By raising him God said, this slave-like behaviour is one that has authority, this is the key, and this is the headline you should read: this can be trusted, this can be loved, this is how you should use your freedom. The stories we tell of the saints past and present are stories of lives that have shown us something like that, lives that in their generous riskiness, have given us examples what it’s like for humans to be one with God.
[So, for those who are confirmed and those who seek to be confirmed, who seek to be like Jesus and be filled with his Spirit] unfortunately there’s no alternative but letting go, letting go before God, putting your life into his hands, so that he can put your life into the hands of all those he wants to live. As we try to grow up together in the body of Christ, serving one another and the world beyond, that’s the bottom line for the relationships we need to be working at.