by Jason Micheli
Philippians 2.9-13 (click to see Scripture text)
On March 28, 2013, Elwin Wilson died of heart failure in Rock Hill, South Carolina and later was laid to rest in Gaston, North Carolina, the place where he’d entered the world seventy-six years earlier.
A veteran of the United States Air Force, Elwin Wilson’s life— at least, for much of it— was notable for the hate therein.
A proud member of the Ku Klux Klan for nearly seven decades, Elwin Wilson burnt crosses in the front yards of terrified African American families.
In his own front yard, Wilson hung a large black doll in a noose from a tree limb. He frequently flung cantaloupes at black men walking down Main Street.
As a young man, he hurled a jack handle at a black youth jiggling the soda machine in his father’s gas station, and he attacked civil rights workers holding lunch counter sit-ins.
And he brutally beat a young Freedom Rider at a Rock Hill bus station in May 1961.
As the Rock Hill Herald reported it at the time, “On May 9, he and his seatmate on the bus, a white man named Albert Bigelow, walked into the whites-only waiting room at the Rock Hill bus station. They were jumped by a group of young white men, who beat them and left them bloodied, John Lewis said.”
Mr. Lewis and Mr. Bigelow did not fight back, and they declined to press charges.
Albert Bigelow went on to become an advocate for non-violence; he once tried to sail into a nuclear testing area near the Marshall Islands to protest the testing.
John Lewis, as you all know, went on to become a prominent civil rights activist, later a long-serving congressman from Georgia, and finally, as President Obama called him upon his death this summer, one of America’s Founding Fathers— every bit as much as Madison or Jefferson.
What you may not know is that the racist Elwin Wilson went on to become something perhaps even more remarkable, repentant.
In 2009, a friend of Wilson’s asked him forthrightly, “If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?”
And for the first time in his life of nominal Christianity, Elwin Wilson considered the hackneyed, evangelical question. “To Hell,” Elwin replied.
Attempting to repent of his racism and his sins, Elwin Wilson contacted the Rock Hill Herald to make his confession public.
Get this— It was only then that Wilson learned one of the victims of his bus station beating had become a member of Congress.
Elwin Wilson traveled to Washington seeking to meet with John Lewis, who did agree to meet with him.
“I am sorry about what I did that day,” Wilson quickly offered, already crying, “Will you forgive me?”
“He started crying, his son started crying, and I started crying,” John Lewis later said.
John Lewis said that he had not remembered the faces or known the names of the men who beat him that day in 1961, but that he believed Mr. Wilson was “very sincere” in his apology.
He noted that the apology from Mr. Wilson was the first he had received for the violence committed against him in the civil rights era.
Mr. Wilson, who spoke slowly and with a thick drawl, later told a journalist, “Well, my daddy always told me that a fool never changes his mind, and a smart man changes his mind. And that’s what I’ve done, and I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not trying to be a Martin Luther King or something like that. I’m just trying to work out my salvation with fear and trembling.”
Notice the formal pattern of the Christ Hymn with which the Apostle Paul pleads for unity in his embittered and divided congregation at Philippi.
The pattern of the hymn is threefold: Election, Condescension, Exaltation.
Essentially, the pattern of the hymn is Up-Down-Up.
The Eternal Son is in the form of God and equal with God.
The Eternal Son therefore is God, yet the Eternal Son elects to empty himself, sings the hymn.
Veiled in flesh, our Lord conceals his majesty in the form of a slave, and by a “slave,” Paul means a slave of Sin and Death.
That is, the One who, from dust, breathed into Adam the breath of life assumed the form of Adam. God, Luther said, loves to hide behind his opposite.
“For us and for our salvation,” the Nicene Creed professes, the One through him all things were made, “camedown from heaven…he became incarnate…and was made human.”
In the Crucified Son, our Lord shows himself to be an abolitionist.
No matter what you may have heard about God loving us just the way we are, the Word of God bears witness that the Living God does not tolerate sin.
The Living God does not compromise with sin.
Unlike us, the Living God does not call evil “good.”
Whatever “enters into” conflict with God, under the forms of Sin and Death, can have no future with God. The “appointed means of their abolition” is the Crucified Son.
By his obedience, Adam’s disobedience is revoked; by his death Adam’s death is undone; and by his submission to the cross, the condemnation of the primal sinner, and so of the whole human race, is reversed and overturned. As John Calvin notes of this today’s text, “Christ is much more powerful to save, than Adam was to destroy.”
Or, as we sing at Christmas, he’s “born that man no more may die.”
Up— Down— Up—
After he completes his work of perfect obedience, the Crucified Son is vindicated by the Almighty Father. He is raised from the dead and returned to glory. The Eternal Son is returned to the Father as the Crucified Son where he is now and forever the Exalted Son.
Christ’s ascension is a sort of incarnation in reverse. Just as the Eternal Son crosses over into Sin and Death without ceasing to be God, so now the Crucified Son crosses over from earth to heaven without ceasing to be human.
This is important—
The form the Son takes on earth, the form of a crucified slave, he takes that form with him to sit at the right hand of the Father.
The Crucified Son brings his humanity with him into the very being of God.
Which means, he brings you with him, in him, back to God.
As Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except by me… If truly you know me, you will know my Father as well.”
Now, I realize this is heady stuff and, seemingly, surpassingly far from Elwin Wilson and John Lewis encountering one another in the congressional office building.
But I draw your attention to the Up—Down—Up plotting of Paul’s Christ Hymn because just as it has a threefold pattern to it, so too, does the Apostle Paul use our text today to display the three different tenses of salvation.
The hymn has three movements—
The Eternal Son, the Crucified Son, and the Exalted Son.
Likewise, the Son’s work of salvation has three tenses—
Past, Present, and Future.
Salvation is not simply something lying on the horizon of the future the outcome of which is still up in the air.
Salvation is not merely a finished and completed work, done by Jesus a long time ago in a Galilee far, far away that you only need accept.
On the contrary, salvation has three tenses.
The past tense, the future tense, and the present.
The Christ Hymn explicates the past and the future aspects of God’s work of salvation.
In the past tense, salvation is a finished and complete work without remainder. Indeed, this is the primary mode in which scripture speaks of salvation.
“Because the one man has died for all,” the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “all have died to sin.”
Christ Jesus, our Great High Priest, has sat down, the preacher of Hebrews declares, for he has made a blood offering of himself, a perfect sacrifice— the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
Salvation is past tense.
The Lamb of God, slain from before the foundation of the world, has taken away all the sins of the world.
There is therefore now no condemnation, Paul rejoices in Romans 8.
There is no condemnation on account of the merit of Christ’s perfect obedience to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Salvation is past tense.
It is finished, Jesus says, breathing his last.
Salvation has been accomplished for you, already, on Calvary. Even now, salvation has been realized, apart from you in Christ and done outside of you by Christ.
Atonement has been made.
Once for all.
You are forgiven and free— “free of the record of debt that stood against you with its legal demands. Christ set it aside, nailing it to the cross,” Colossians says.
For Christ’s sake, you have been justified— you have been reckoned with Christ’s own permanent perfect record.
The wages of your sin have been paid with his death.
You have been saved.
Karl Barth says the past tense of salvation is better understood as an “eternal perfect” tense in that the cross of Jesus Christ is a work in the past whose effects carry forward ceaselessly for others.
Salvation is already, but salvation is also not yet.
It’s future tense too.
Look again at the crescendo of Paul’s Christ Hymn.
The Crucified Son has been given the name that is above every name.
The name that is above every name is the name first revealed to Moses from the Burning Bush.
The name that is above every name is the divine name deemed too holy for Israel ever to utter it aloud.
However, the time is coming when even the rocks will cry out, praising Christ with that unutterable name.
Every knee will bow at its utterance, Paul writes, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.
In fact, as the Apostle Paul makes clear in his Letter to the Romans, the future tense of salvation is cosmic in scope. “The whole creation waits,” Paul writes, “with eager longing…in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of God.”
Now, you don’t need a preacher to point out how it seems the whole of creation is still, as Paul puts it, groaning in labor pains.
And certainly, there are more than a few who still have not taken a knee before Christ our Lord. Everywhere in the West we are told the Church is in decline and the Gospel is in retreat. So, rather obviously, the “not yet” aspect of salvation abides.
It has a future tense.
God will be all in all.
What is already accomplished— the fact that you are in Christ Jesus, right now, your life hid with God— will one day be actualized in glory.
What is already real because of Christ’s past and finished work— the forgiveness of all your sins and the gifting of Christ’s own righteousness— will be revealed upon his return.
But in the meantime, there’s the “meantime.”
There’s a third tense.
My mentor and muse, the Reverend Fleming Rutledge, writes about attending a weekday Evening Prayer service in a large Episcopal parish while she was traveling on a preaching and speaking tour.
The service of Evening Prayer was led by lay people, and it included, Fleming observes, a very instructive mistake.
During the service, an older woman came forward to read the scripture lesson.
The woman looked like your archetypal Episcopalian: a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, born and bred for propriety and rectitude, with, no doubt, a husband straight out of a John Updike novel. The scripture lesson that evening was our biblical text for today, a section of Chapter Two of Philippians.
The woman came to verse thirteen, Fleming says, and with great solemnity began to read it: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling …” and then she stopped.
“She didn’t just drift off,” Fleming notes, “as if she had lost her place or forgotten something. She came to a full stop deliberately, emphatically, at the comma, instead of the period. If she had shaken her finger at us, it couldn’t have been more clear; it was an order from her to us. It was as if she were saying, “I’ve worked out my salvation, now you work out yours, and it had better be with plenty of fear and trembling!” It would have been funny if it hadn’t also been so serious.”
Fleming writes that after the service was over, she crept up to the front of the sanctuary and took a peek on the massive lectern at the Bible from which the woman had read the scripture.
She wondered if perhaps the passage had been marked out incorrectly.
But, it turned out not to be the case.
Affixed to the page, was a sticky note clearly instructing the reader to begin at verse three and end at verse thirteen.
The woman herself had chosen to omit the words which make the passage good news instead of bad news, a life-giving promise in place of a soul-crushing command: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to do for, to work for his good pleasure.”
“So that lady had turned one of the best verses in Paul’s letters into one of the worst,” Fleming concludes, “She had the good news right in front of her and she took it and turned it into bad news. Instead of bringing us the wonderful message of the Christian gospel, she was saying to us, “Behave yourselves!”
In his lectures on the Epistle to the Philippians, Karl Barth observes that it would a catastrophic error to hear Paul today as issuing a kind of threat along the lines of “Man, see to your salvation! Do all you possibly can to achieve it!”
No, work with your salvation, Barth argues, is the better way to hear it.
The word translated as “work out” is the same word, hypakouo, Paul uses earlier in verse eight to describe Christ’s obedient life. Therefore, Barth suggests, a better way to understand verse thirteen. (“work out your own salvation”) is as Paul urging the Philippians— urging us— “to live as one of Christ’s own.”
In other words, it’s not about earning an eternal reward.
It’s about exemplifying, in the here and now, the work of Christ Jesus our Lord.
“Live as one of Christ’s own in holy awe.” Holy awe— that’s how Barth translates “fear and trembling.”
Work out your salvation, live as one of Christ’s own, in holy awe of what the Son of God has undergone to rescue you from the Enemy and make you his own.
On the basis of what God in Christ has done and will do, work out your salvation, live as one of Christ’s own in “startled humility” that you possess “nothing to assert in your favor or over and against any other.”
“Work with your salvation in holy awe; for God is at work in you, both to will and to do for, to work for….”
God is at work in you, to will and to do, not for your salvation, not for your eternal life, not for the redemption of your soul (as though any of those outcomes are in doubt).
God is at work in you, to will and to do, Paul says, for God’s own good pleasure.
Again, this is not about earning or deserving.
For example, to assert that John Lewis was obligated by his Christian convictions to forgive Elwin Wilson is altogether different, tonally, from saying that the Living God brought Elwin Wilson to John Lewis so that the two of them could enjoy the opportunity to exemplify the salvation Christ Jesus has accomplished for us all.
Today’s text— it’s Gospel not Law, for, paradoxically, as much as it is our work, salvation in the present is also God’s work in us and through us and among us and, often, in spite of us, in the present.
As Jonathan Edwards put it in verse, “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew/He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me/It was not that I found O Savior true/No, I was found of thee.”
As much as it is our work, salvation in the present is also God’s work in us and through us.
And, therefore, Paul’s issuing not an exhortation, but an invitation.
Enjoy the gift you’ve been given, for it gives God good pleasure, Paul is saying. Cooperate with the grace you have received! Appropriate in the here and now the salvation God has accomplished for you! Live in the present as a foretaste of the promised future!
Live as one of Christ’s own in holy awe.
In his memoir, Across that Bridge, John Lewis writes about Elwin Wilson:
“Of the forty times I was arrested and jailed, only one attacker ever apologized to me for his actions. Almost forty-eight years after that now famous Freedom Ride stop in Rock Hill, South Carolina, that left Albert Bigelow and me so badly bruised and bloodied, Elwin Wilson, came to meet me. Wilson had apologized to other Freedom Riders during ceremonies honoring them in South Carolina and had mentioned his wish to find the men he had beaten up that day in Rock Hill. I welcomed him to Washington and as we sat, Wilson looked deep into my eyes, searching my expression, and said he was the person who had beaten me in Rock Hill in May of 1961. He said, “I am sorry about what I did that day. Will you forgive me?”
John Lewis told reporters that he never hesitated or questioned whether to respond to Elwin Wilson’s repentance with an offer of pardon, but instead, Lewis said, “I received him as though the Almighty Himself had brought him to me.”
“Without a moment of hesitation, I looked back at him and said, “I accept your apology.” The man who had physically and verbally assaulted me was now seeking my approval. This was a great testament to the power of love that overcomes hatred.”
“It’s in keeping with the philosophy of nonviolence,” Lewis said. “That’s what the movement was always about. More importantly, it’s what my faith is all about, to forgive and move toward reconciliation. This is the work, the work we are given to do.”
Brothers and Sisters in Christ— hear the good news:
When it comes to your sin and a Holy God who will not abide it, fear not!
The Law of God may indeed say “Do this,” but the Gospel declares “Everything has already been done.”
When it comes to that question Elwin Wilson’s friend put to him, “If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?” Fear not!
The future is assured and universal. Every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
How our Lord bends knees in the fullness of time is not for us to say, we are simply to take it on faith that God will accomplish what God wills.
And when it comes to your present, fear not!
It’s not a question what good deeds you must do or how many you must bear to merit your salvation. As Paul tells the Church at Ephesus, “all our good works God has prepared from beforehand.” And, therefore, it’s not a question of what or how much good you should do.
It’s a matter of discernment. Is this the “good work” God has prepared for me?
And, if it be a mighty work, fear not. “God is at work in you, both to will and to do for, to work for his good pleasure.”
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.
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