白德培牧師 – 基督無能為力嗎?

      171001_sermon

 

講題:基督無能為力嗎? A powerless Christ?

經文:Phil 2:1-13

講員:白德培牧師

場合:香港中文大學崇基學院禮拜堂

日期:2017年10月1日

 

Phil 2:1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 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,
            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.

     Therefore God also highly exalted him
           and gave him the name that is above every name,

     so that at the name of Jesus
           every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

     and every tongue should confess
           that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

1.      As an introduction: A visit to Cluny and Taizé

A few weeks ago, in August, I was working with a production team from Shanghai on a documentary about the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation. We visited various places of the Reformation in Germany, Switzerland, and France. Our final stop was in Cluny and Taizé in France. These places didn’t play a role in the Reformation; they don’t actually belong to the Reformation history. But they remind us that Reformation should not be confined solely to something that had happened 500 years ago. Reformation has happened before and happened since then.

The Cluny movement began in the 10th century. It was a spiritual and monastic movement that wanted to liberate the church from interference by worldly powers and from control by political leaders. It was so successful that within one hundred years it turned the relationship between state and church, between political rulers and spiritual leaders upside down. While previously political leaders tended to dominate ecclesial affairs, the church now began to dominate and control political leaders. One point of constant conflict was the appointment of bishops. When a great king of Germany, Henry IV, insisted on appointing bishops, the pope excommunicated him and the king had to do penance before the pope. He had to go to the castle of Canossa, high in the mountains of Italy, and wait 3 days in the coldness of winter, until the pope finally decided to readmit him to the church. The famous penance of Canossa in 1077 was the peak of the Cluny movement.

The church built in Cluny was for several centuries, from the 12th to the 16th century, the largest church in the world. It was built as a place of constant worship and glorification of God.

Nowadays we can only see the ruins of this formerly huge church.

What happened?

The church turned into an instrument of power and was more and more perceived as an expression of a corrupt church. What was originally an expression of a will to glorify God, turned into self-confidence and eventually into pride. A church that is powerful in the world is ultimately subject to the same corruption as the world. In the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century people stood up against the church and destroyed it. First it was turned into a store room, later into a quarry where people could find stones to build their houses.

At the entry of the museum of Cluny, which gives access to the ruins of this formerly so enormous church there is a very profound sentence – maybe a form of late repentance for the attempted splendor of the church. It says: “The monk is the one who wants to tell to the world a word (message) that is so enormous that he is obliged to remain silent.”
Indeed, it is simplicity, fragility, or silence that best reflect God’s glory.

From Cluny it is only 10km to Taizé. Taizé was founded by a Christian brother from Switzerland during the Second World War. It is a place of worship in unity across the divisions within Christianity. It is a place of reconciliation.

Cluny and Taizé stand for two radical opposites within the history of the church. From Cluny to Taizé we cross from one side of the church to the radical other. Here we encounter the church in its most simple form. Taizé stands for humility and fragility. In the entry pavilion there is a picture of the founder, Brother Roger. It is a picture taken as he is about to embrace a woman after the worship. It turns out that this woman is the person who is about to kill him. She was a mentally disturbed woman who pulls out a knife and kills him. It turns out that Brother Roger embraces his own murderer.

This is really “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus”.

Cluny and Taizé – power and humility: This is also what the Bible text of today is about – the power and humility, powerlessness of Christ.

2.      The Philippian hymn

Today’s reading is one of the most famous texts in the Bible where Paul teaches about how to understand the ministry of Jesus Christ. The text is like a creed for the early church. Paul tells about the meaning of Christ and the journey that Christ took.

·         Christ did not strive for equality with God.

·         He emptied himself and took on the form of a slave and was born as human.

·         He gave up on his divine character. Paul calls this process a process of self-emptying – in Greek it is called kenosis.

·         He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on the cross.

Paul reminds us that it is only because of going through suffering and humiliation that Christ gains victory. And this journey of Christ is presented as a model for each of our own spiritual journey. He exhorts us “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”.

What does it mean for us as a church to follow Christ in this process of self-emptying?

Maybe no other text has so much put humility into the center of Christian virtues. Humility is more than simply being polite – it is a genuine attitude of knowing that one is in no way better than what the world regards as a failed person. This is really going at the heart of our value system. What does it mean in our community life? And what does it mean in our personal life?

3.      Humility as a corporate virtue

I find that the vision of Christ going through a process of self-emptying actually stands quite in contrast to what we aim at in our church life. Most of us will do our best to have the church grow – to proclaim the gospel and to invite people to join – that is indeed part of what we are called for. Yet there is some ambiguity to this – because it ultimately means that we naturally move towards a large and more powerful church. Large churches are admired for the successful business model they apply or for the dedicated offering of its members, for the variety of mission programs offered. So-called mega-churches have arisen in many modern cities – particularly famous are those in South Korea. But we also have some smaller mega-churches in Hong Kong. I do in no way want to belittle these churches. They grew out of dedication and commitment and of a natural tendency to grow. Doesn’t it make a difference whether many people believe? Isn’t it more uplifting and encouraging worshiping within a large group of committed fellow Christian brothers and sisters? But large churches are easily misleading us into believing that they are somehow better churches. They are neither better nor worse than a small or a poor church with little outreach and with possibly more internal problems. It’s only that large churches may more easily create the illusion that they are strong.

Yet, it seems to me that large churches stand in some contrast to the vision that Paul offers in his letter to the Philippians. The model he offers is not based on strength and power but on humility, brokenness and suffering. It is only through these that God lifts us up – as he lifted Christ up. Christ-likeness can much more be found in a community that reflects the cross. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I am so attracted to the ministry in prison because very obviously it is a community that reflects the up-and-down journey that Phil 2 expresses.

4.      Actuality of humility in our personal faith

Now, what does kenosis – self-emptying – in our personal life mean?

Of course, first it means to show humility in your encounter with other people. It is indeed worth to think about what humility means in our relationships. Do we really treat our staff – if we are in a senior position – as equal? Do we treat the many workers at the low end of the pay scale as equal and with respect? Or, how do we arrange our time? Does our time arrangement reflect equal respect to everyone? How do we organize our social relations? Are they designed only to bring us advantage?

It is surely worthwhile to think about such questions, but it is equally necessary to remember that humility is actually a universal value. It is not just Christians who propagate humility. And I think all of us know – at least in theory – enough about what humility is. And all of us need to be constantly reminded not just to propagate humility but to actually practice it. So, today’s Bible text shall be such a reminder.

What is, however, more interesting, is how the idea of humility actually challenges our faith – this is what I want to consider now.

Do we really believe in a God who revealed himself in the brokenness of Christ? Do we not again and again try to find refuge in a powerful god?

There is one theologian who put particular emphasis on Christ’s process of self-emptying: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is one of the most famous theologians of the 20th centuries – famous not only for his writings but also for the way his life reflected his faith, and even more famous for his martyrdom. He was a professor of theology and during Hitler’s government he understood that it was his duty as a Christian to stand up against Hitler. He was involved in a plan to overthrow him and was arrested and spent 2 years in prison. Only 31 days before the Second World War ended he was killed. Throughout his time in prison he showed confidence – not confidence in release, but confidence in God’s comforting presence.

During his time in prison, he wrote the famous many letters to his outside friends. These letters are now published as Letters and Papers from Prison – one of the most important theological books of the 20th century. For Bonhoeffer, following Christ in Christ’s process of self-emptying meant first to turn towards the world and becoming worldly. That doesn’t mean to accept the logic and values of the world but to get involved in the struggles of the world. Often theologian like to remain on a theoretical level. He understood that the belief in Christ’s incarnation led Christians on a path that called them to follow Christ into the messiness of the world.

But even more importantly, it meant for him to give up the belief in God as a powerful God. He criticized a kind of belief that looked at God’s intervention like a child looking for the help of his father: whenever we can do it on our own, we don’t rely on God. We forget God. We do it ourselves. And as soon as we fail or are in troubles, we cry to God for help. Bonhoeffer regarded such a faith as wrong.

        i.            It is wrong because it is a childish faith. And as we grow up, we cry less and can do it on our own. We don’t always need to cry for help to God. It is like being attacked and crying for the big brother helping us. As a result of our growing up, we gradually push God out of the world.

       ii.            It is also wrong because the more we are able to do things ourselves and explain things without reference to God, the less we care about God. Look for instance at medicine: in old times, people didn’t know the causes for many illnesses. They interpreted them in a religious framework, regarded them possibly as a punishment from God. Accordingly, they called on God to heal them. As medical science grew, the hypothesis of God was not necessary anymore because an illness could be explained as caused by some germs. And God disappeared. In this way, God gradually became irrelevant, until he only had some remaining small area of credibility at the margins of our life.  

     iii.            And thirdly, it is wrong because it is not biblical. The Philippian hymn, Phil 2:7, reminds us that Jesus gave up his divine powers as he entered this world. The cross means the revelation of God’s powerlessness in this world. It is a radical break with a faith that holds on a dominion or power pattern; that regards God simply as the more powerful friend who would protect me from my enemies and return their bullying me.

For Bonhoeffer, this kind of God was pushed out of the world on the cross. Bonhoeffer maintained faith in God in the midst of our life, not just at the margins of our life. The cross stands for God’s radical acceptance of his own powerlessness in this world. Bonhoeffer gave up on this because he realized that Christian faith is something else than believing in a God who turns out or is expected to be more powerful than all others. He didn’t give up on his faith. But he understood the mystery of Christ’s self-emptying.

Indeed, Christ does not help us through his strength. Being a Christian is not about reviving the idea of a God who is powerful in this world but rather to accept the powerlessness of God in this world. It is the belief that God joined us in suffering in the same way as God suffers and necessarily does so in the godlessness of the world. To be a Christian is to find strength in that God also only could suffer in this world and cannot prove his divinity by powerfully overcoming the world’s godlessness.

Or as Bonhoeffer said: “The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. (Bonhoeffer, Letter from prison, 16 July 1944)

I think all of us may experience such presence of God in moments of counseling or joint prayer – when we help someone not through our power and our money but when we help someone simply by being with another person – equally powerless to change a situation. I often experience such helpless togetherness when in prison – I don’t have a key to take them out – and I cannot change their sentences – but it is in insisting in fellowship where there is only hopelessness that we jointly experience the presence of Christ.

·         In moments when I felt overwhelmed and unable to help

·         In moments when I only share with someone else who is suffering

·         Possibly even joining in tears

It is in such moments that we give up our fantasies of power and experience the closeness of God’s mystery. This is also how it is with all of us: When we help someone through our money, through our expertise, through our contacts – of course this will make us feel good. But this has nothing to do with Christian faith. Christian faith – and Christian ministry – insists  where there is no benefit for yourself.

5.      Conclusion

Today’s text is a constant reminder that our faith leads us in a journey that follows the journey of Jesus Christ. It is a journey that leads through the cross – and only through the cross – to new life. It does not lead us into victory but first into suffering and weakness – but in suffering and weakness we discover depth, significance, and new life – that is the resurrection.

It is for this reason that Christians are drawn to those suffering – not just to help, but to be with, to suffer jointly. It is when we give up on our fantasies of power that we experience new depth. It may be in our visiting ministry or in our fellowship or in our worships – it is at the rare points where we are standing naked before God – powerless, you and me – that we experience the transcendence of God – another kind of victory.