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Who's in Charge Here? -- Philippians 2:1-12 (7th Sunday After Pentecost)


Photo credit: National Archives, public domain




When we first moved to California so that I could attend Seminary, I used to come home from classes and – as students often do – I would complain about “the Administration.”  “You won’t believe what they’ve done now.” Jeff – after listening and letting me vent for a bit – Jeff would invariably punctuate the conversation with the rhetorical question: “Who’s in charge up there anyway? Who’s running that place?”

        

(Now note the irony – or karma – that ten years later, I would be part of “the Administration” – and on the receiving end of that perennial student question: Who is in charge here?)

        

I hear variations of that question a lot these days – Who’s in charge here? We live in a confusing world, in a confounding time – where so much of the world seems to swirl around us – almost out of control. It certainly feels like it is often out of our control. And we ask: Who’s in charge here?

        

During this season of communal observance, we’ve been talking about the communal values by which we live life together in an often confounding, chaotic time.

As the world spins, we look for grounding.


So it’s fair to ask, important to ask: Who’s in charge of all... this? Before we dive in to that question, though, let’s do a bit of review – the last few weeks – Remember?


·      We began – back on Juneteenth – affirming that we are all created equal, each of us and all of us together, created in the image of God. And, because God loves every body, God rejects systems that harm and demean, and calls us to work for the freedom and dignity of all.[1]


·      Then, with the story of David and Jonathan, we affirmed the loving relationships – friendships – that weave us together into a community of kindred spirits. In friendship, we create a loving place to which we can always return, a place where we can live out together God’s unshakeoffable love for humankind.[2]


·      And then last week, we talked about citizenship – about how we all belong to one body – participatory citizens in Christ – called and invited to work for the good of others and the world – a world too often confounding and chaotic.[3]


And so, the legitimate question: Who’s in charge? Big picture. If all these good and worthy things are true, why does it still feel like the world is spinning... out of control?


There’s a theological and political word for that question and concept: Sovereignty.Who is sovereign here? Now, most of the time, we probably think of sovereignty in terms of power and control. The one who is sovereign has the most power, the most control.


As we talk about sovereignty today, I also want us to think in terms of freedom. “Who is sovereign here?” could just as easily mean “Who has the most freedom here?” Consider this: In an absolute monarchy – the king (or queen) has absolute freedom to do whatever they want. The nobles – the elites – also have a lot of freedom – but their freedom is always subject to the king’s. And the common folks – the workers, the tradespeople, the vulnerable – their freedom, such as it is, is subject to and constrained by the freedom of everyone above them. The king has a broad range of freedom; the serf almost none.


Down through the ages, in a swirling world – people have asked this question – Who’s in charge here? – as a way of trying to understand the incomprehensible – and live through the midst of it: Who is sovereign here?


This morning’s Psalm has a very clear answer to that question: God. God is sovereign. Over the heavens and the earth. Over all nations, all peoples. Shout for joy. Sound the trumpets. God is sovereign – God has all the ultimate power; God is the one who is absolutely free. That’s the answer of the Hebrew people. And, that assertion – God is sovereign – is foundational to many, if not most, Christian traditions – certainly to the Presbyterian tradition – God is sovereign. That’s one of the things that makes God God, isn’t it?


To the folks who wrote this morning’s Psalm, who first sang the psalm, that was a word of live-saving assurance. They were a tiny nation sitting at the crossroads of Empires – they knew, first-hand, what sovereigns do. So when the next army swept in, with their particular brand of violence and power over, the people would lean into this assurance, and say: Ultimately, God is sovereign – even over this. And God is on the way.


And so the Psalm sings, God is sovereign. God is King. Oh, now, that’s problematic, isn’t it? “God is king” – we know what God thinks about kings. Here’s that quiz: TRUE/FALSE – God loves kingship.  FALSE. Remember: When the people first ask for a king, God says no, tells them: Be careful what you ask for. Kings will do what kings do. They will go to war – they’ll send your children to war – they’ll take all you have, and make themselves rich. In the Hebrew Scriptures, kingship is always problematic – and God takes a clear stance against concentrations of power – again and again.


Be careful about giving any human absolute sovereignty.


Now, that feels really fresh and raw this week, doesn’t it? Absolute sovereignty. This week, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in Trump versus the United States that gives the President of the United States absolute immunity from criminal prosecution in the exercise of what the Court calls “core presidential duties,” andpresumptive immunity” over all of what they call the President’s “official acts.”[4] Definitionally, immunity means that the law does not apply to that person – you are immune from the law. This particular, new-found, newly created immunity puts the President above the law in the exercise of core Presidential powers – with no accountability to the courts – absolute immunity, absolute freedom – to do what they want, unchecked by the laws that govern the rest of us. The President – the most powerful person in one of the most powerful nations – is now above the law in exercising Presidential core powers.


Justice Sotomayor in her dissent fairly shouts out the alarm – sounding much like the prophets of old, as she says: That kind of sovereign immunity “creates a law-free zone around the President.”[5] It allows the President to “place their own interests, their own political agenda, and their own financial gain above the interests of the Nation,” above the public good.[6] Like the prophet once said to the people:

Beware! Kings will do what kings do.


The Framers of the Constitution knew that. The Framers envisioned and wrote into the Constitution an Executive with a limited scope of authority. Presidential powers are described in Article Two. In Article One, the Constitution gives most of the authority for governance to the Legislative branch. The President was charged narrowly with responsibility basically for national defense and administration. The Founders knew: They had just rebelled against a monarch who claimed absolute sovereignty without accountability to the people the monarch governed. The Declaration of Independence is directed against tyranny and tyrants. The Constitution was written to guard against – not create and embolden – absolute sovereignty with absolute immunity. It’s a history that the majority in Trump versus United States, conveniently ignores. There’s a lot of history that they ignore: Kings will do what kings do. Unchecked freedom and power, vested in one singular individual, almost always and inevitably results in the oppression of the people.


If we are to talk about sovereignty, it is not enough to ask, WHO is sovereign? We also have to ask – and take seriously the question – HOW are they sovereign?”


And that’s where we come to our second Scripture – this stunning passage from Philippians – and to Jesus.[7] The Psalm affirms that God is sovereign. The Philippians text tells us how God is sovereign – how God chooses to be sovereign in Jesus Christ.

And it turns the world we know on its head.


The apostle Paul affirms from the start:

God is sovereign – God is sovereign in Jesus Christ

But Jesus, who, being God, had all the power, all the freedom of God

Jesus, did not consider that sovereignty as something to be exploited.

No, look what Jesus does.

Paul writes, “Jesus emptied himself” –

poured out all that power, all that freedom –

utterly and completely –

to the point of entering into the human experience of those who are

most held down by the systems that oppress,

         even to the point of death on a cross.

And therefore, God exalted him even more highly,

         that is how Jesus is sovereign, how God is sovereign,

                  over every power that would do us harm,

         that every knee should bow, and every tongue confess.


This is how Jesus is sovereign.

This is how Jesus is Lord.

     

Remember how we started talking about sovereignty in terms of power, but then also talked about sovereignty in terms of freedom.


Sovereignty isn’t ultimately about wielding power;

                  it is ultimately about sharing freedom.[8]


Kings are sovereign by wielding power-over, by doing what kings do.

        

God is sovereign by sharing God’s freedom with us –

         by emptying out so that we can be free together.

        

As Paul writes elsewhere: It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”

        

Do you see the difference that makes?

        

As those who live in the United States – who profess government of the people, by the people, for the people – when we ask that question, “Who’s in charge here?” – in a very real sense the answer is: Us. And so, the next question is: “How will we be sovereign?” In what we call a democracy? Will we really entrust absolute power and absolute sovereignty to a President who can act – unchecked and unfettered – to secure their own self-aggrandizing interests – at the expense of the common good? Will we ignore history and do what peoples have too often done – and raise up a king – a leader – who will do what kings do? The prophets and history tell us what will happen.

        

Or, as those who are participatory citizens in Christ – will we work to build and create a better world? We can’t say we don’t know. You see, this passage from Philippians doesn’t just say these true and beautiful things about Jesus. It shows us who we are, who we can become, what we are to do and live out, in Christ. Don’t live life out of selfish ambition and empty glory. Christ has shared all of Christ’s freedom with you – with all of you. This is who we are in Christ. Free.


And so Paul writes, if you have any encouragement in that, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, make my joy complete. Have the same deep knowing that you have in Christ. Share that same love. With some loving humility, consider others even more than you consider yourself. Look to the interests of others, of the most vulnerable in the midst of you. Let the same deep knowing be in you that was and is in Christ Jesus.

        

Embody love like that.

Govern yourselves and choose leaders like that.

Live life like that.

        

That... is what sovereignty in Christ looks like.

That... is how we live free.



© 2024 Scott Clark



[4] See Trump v. United States, 603 U.S. __ (2024), slip op., https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/23pdf/23-939_e2pg.pdf  In response to helpful feedback on the sermon, I’ve clarified here in the manuscript that the immunity is from criminal prosecution.

[5] See slip op. at 28-29. See also Justice Jackson’s dissent, which focuses particularly on systems of accountability, and the majority’s elimination of certain structures of constitutional accountability.

[6] See id.

[7] For general background on this text and on Phillipians, see Morna D. Hooker, “The Letter to the Philippians,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. xi (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000); Monya A. Stubbs, “Philippians,” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), pp. 370-71; Jane Lancaster Patterson, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26/commentary-on-philippians-21-13-9  .

[8] For an extended and nuanced discussion of God’s providence, freedom, and human suffering, see Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology ( Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991, 2004), pp. 117-138.

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