Every knee

Not long after the First World War, William Fraser McDowell, a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, gave the Mendenhall Lectures at DePauw University, addressing a class of young men living in a world, as he says, which had been blown apart, and which was only now beginning the work of picking up the pieces and trying to set them back together. McDowell’s only and all-consuming prescription for this generation of rattled and scarred human beings was the instruction of St Paul: “Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5)

This mind: the mind of one who knows his own value, the Son of Man, the Son of God; and yet who knows, too, that he is the brother of slaves, the descendant of wanderers, co-citizen with the least and the lowest ranks in the Roman empire. He “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”

Even Moses found his way out of oppression first by stealing the heart of an Egyptian princess, and was raised in a royal palace; but not Jesus. Although he, too, was saved from the infant massacre of a mad king, escaping to Egypt, his flight was as a refugee, with a family of refugees displaced and dispossessed by violence and war. Jesus, from the first, was associated with the humble and the homeless, crossing borders without fanfare, hiding in the plain sight of his humanity, his posture one of humility.

He knew his own value, made in the very image of God, born of the will and Spirit of God; and instead of using that knowledge to lord it over humanity, he made it his mission instead to show as clearly and as unambiguously as possible the love of God: healing the sick, raising the dead, bringing the good news of salvation to the poor and freedom to the prisoners of sin and persecution, from among their very own communities and families and lives.

The hymn of praise that Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians continues (Philippians 2:9-11),

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.

In the Gospel reading for today (Matthew 21:23-32), Jesus talks about the difference between paying lip service, tongues confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, and acting as though it were true. It is easy to create pomp and ceremony, rituals and hype to pump up the name that is above all names. It is more important: crucial and critical to find this mind that is in Christ Jesus, and follow him, in all of his glorious humility. There is nothing wrong with kneeling before him in silence.

It is no good, he implies, to rely like the second brother on our own privilege, saying, “Of course, we are always doing our Father’s will,” and then turning aside as soon as the last Amen fades away to go our own way.

It is better, he murmurs, to own up to our doubts and our uncertainties, as long as when push comes to shove, we know how to do the right thing: to heal the sick, raise the dead, bring good news to the poor, the parched, the storm-tossed; to proclaim God’s love among those in dire need of a word of good grace.

McDowell has one more piece of advice for his students about having and applying this mind of Christ:

“The life decisions of Jesus ran straight into personal relations, his relations with persons. And these relations were immediate, direct, and wholly his own. He was not an armchair friend of humanity in the abstract … He had personal concern for and personal contact with all sorts of persons.”

The one son may love the idea of doing his father’s work; but unless he is prepared to get personal about it, he is not carrying it out. We may love the idea of relieving suffering, but if we are cruel, or unkind, or unfeeling in the way that we treat the grocery store clerk or the clueless pedestrian, or dismissive of the human feelings of our most inconvenient neighbour, then we have contributed to the deficit of peace and happiness, instead of reducing it. It is no good relying on grand gestures and proclamations of faith, unless we are prepared to get down on our knees in the dirt and do the work that our great faith demands of us, up close and personal.

As McDowell says, have the mind in you that was in Christ Jesus: “Having loved his own, not a very lovely or lovable lot, he loved them clear through to the end. He did it. It can therefore be done.”

Such fertile soil is the humus, the humility out of which humanity was made in God’s image.

The Christ whom we follow, before whose name every knee shall bow and every tongue confess him king; that Christ Jesus did not grasp equality with God, but equality with us, taking on the form even of a slave. His equilibrium rested on the bedrock, the foundation of our humility and our humanity, the humus out of which we were created in the image of God, so that we would know, if he can live for God’s will, then if we put a mind to it.

In other words, when we bend our knee at the name of Jesus, and our tongues confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God his Father; well, then, let the same mind be in us that was in that Jesus, who bends his knee with the first and last of us, and confesses God’s love for sinners and the sorrowful as well as for the saints, without regard to rank. If we bend our knee to Jesus, then let us also kneel before one another, and place our pride on the ground before the feet of one another.

As St Paul says elsewhere, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14) Our only acceptable pride is in the holy humility of Christ,

who, on the night before he died, stripped off his robe, and tied a towel around his waist, kneeling before his disciples to wash their feet, in an intimate gesture of completely selfless love; then he told them; then he told us, “Do for one another what I have done to you.”

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Amen.

_____________________________________________________

All non-scriptural quotations are from This Mind: The Mendenhall lectures, 8th series, delivered at De Pauw University, by William Fraser McDowell (Methodist Book Concern, 1922)

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