Intellect and Christian Discipleship – A Sermon on Philippians 2 and Matthew 21:23-32

Perhaps this is true of other religions as well, but I can only speak for my own: Christian faith has an odd relationship with the human intellect. Very early on, the first Christians were dealing with Pharisees and Gnostics, both of whom emphasized gaining knowledge of different sorts. Christians pushed away from both the systematic academic and behavioral rigor of the Pharisees and the more mystical, secret learning of the Gnostics, but the Apostle Paul used his pharisaical training to turn Jesus’ teachings into doctrinal treatises that formed the course of the Church, and integrated ideas from the Gnostics and other philosophical streams of thought as he developed his arguments in favor of Christ.

Christianity is infamous for rejecting scientific discoveries like the spherical shape of the world and evolution. And yet Galileo Galilei was very much a person of faith as well as intellect, who saw his discoveries as evidence of a creative divine power, not a threat to it, and wrote: “The laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics.”

Presbyterians and most other mainline Protestants have emphasized the importance of theologically educated clergy, and most of us are required to have what is essentially a dual master’s degree that includes some combination of biblical studies, counseling, organizational management, theology, liturgy, history, and two ancient languages. And yet, the church in the later 20th century and on into the current time has also taken on a distinct anti-intellectualism that doesn’t trust even theological education, based on the belief that the human mind on its own is corrupted with sin and needs only the Bible and the Holy Spirit to guide it. 

I’m pretty sure all of this goes back to Jesus himself, who certainly did not reject the use of the mind, but also wasn’t terribly impressed by the book (scroll?) learning of the religious leaders of his day. And because Jesus’ version of learning and logic was often outside the accepted norms of his day, he left Christianity with this strange tension between rejection and embrace of human intellect.  

In the first reading from Philippians, we were exhorted to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” and this is the ultimate point of discipleship: for our lives to be modeled after the example of Jesus, whether it’s the example of Christ’s life in community with other humans, or Christ’s emotions, or Christ’s actions, or Christ’s mind. But what does that mean? What kind of mind is it that we are called to emulate?

Both of the readings today have something to show us about the mind of Christ and how we might use our own intellect in the life of Christian discipleship.

First, the mind of Christ is rooted in love and humility. I think part of the distrust of human intellect in faith rises from the fact that knowledge can sometimes make us arrogant, and more focused on being right than on being in relationship. The first focus of Christ’s mind is not on the knowledge itself, it’s on using knowledge to build up those around him, especially those who are weak. For us, in this culture, learning and knowledge can be a kind of status symbol, that in some sense we have “made it.” Education marks a certain level of success and stability. The same was true in Jesus’ time, and possibly even more so; the general population wasn’t literate, and it took a great deal of money and time to rise into a field as educated as the priesthood, for example. So it is significant that Jesus came from a family who were probably in the lower classes, who likely were not literate and didn’t have the resources to educate their son.

Jesus didn’t need to parade his knowledge or become part of the religious power structure. Philippians tells us that, “…though he was in the form of God, he 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.” Despite holding infinite stores of knowledge and all the power that could have come with that, Jesus chose to identify himself with people of the lowest status. Which means that his intellect is also enriched by being able to see things not only from the perspective of power and privilege, but also from the underside – from the viewpoint of those who are poor, or persecuted, or marginalized.

I think this is a particularly important point for us to remember at this moment in our culture, when disparities in power, privilege, wealth, and knowledge seem especially stark. Knowledge of our legal system often fails to coincide with knowledge of people of color, or with other marginalized communities. The knowledge that matters at the White House right now is a universe away from the knowledge that matters in Puerto Rico. But the mind of Christ is not stuck in the knowledge that comes from the top; the mind of Christ is humble enough to see things from the bottom.

Second, the mind of Christ uses all the information that is at its disposal. In the Gospel reading today, Jesus uses an interesting combination of theology, psychology, metaphor, and debate tactics to turn the assumptions of the chief priests and elders on their head. At various points throughout the Gospels, Jesus relies on knowledge of agriculture, animals, politics, family relationships, and some pretty sophisticated theology and philosophy for someone raised by a carpenter. This is not a guy who celebrates ignorance or distrusts learning.

Sometimes we can get the message that we are supposed to set aside our intellect in order to be faithful Christians, but I think that is a pretty damaging message that minimizes the power of God and the good news that is central to Christian faith. If our minds are part of the image of God that is created in us, surely faith can accommodate the use of our minds. If our faith crumbles under intellectual scrutiny, maybe our faith just needs to be rebuilt in a different way that takes into account all the things we know to be true, in a way that uses our intellect to bolster our faith rather than treating it as a threat.

Third, the mind of Christ is not bound by the restrictions and assumptions of human authority. One of the things I appreciate about Jesus is that he refused to be pushed into a category. In today’s reading, he just flat out refused to answer their attempts to trick him. They asked him under whose authority he was teaching, and he turned it back onto them and said, “Okay, let’s talk about authority then.” I think this is important for us in a couple of ways.

This cycles back to humility a bit – it’s important for us to remember that as much as we may know, we don’t know everything. Humans tend to get stuck in our systems of understanding, whether that be a system of cultural assumptions, or a certain scientific theory, or religious beliefs. Every major discovery has been a break from something people assumed was absolutely true. Jesus was always trying to get deeper than what people knew was true. The mind of Christ can see things from multiple angles, and can strip away assumptions that are part of a conditioned or learned response to get to the truth beneath.

It’s also important for us to remember that Christ was not bound by human authority because there is such a push in our current society to identify and categorize ourselves with labels that are very human in nature. As we celebrate World Wide Communion Sunday and the bond of the Church across all nations, I am especially conscious of how much emphasis we place on our labels and categories within the United States at present. Someone says whether or not they believe football players should kneel during the National Anthem, and suddenly we believe we know everything important about them – what they think of the military, and free speech, what party they belong to, whether they’re a patriot or a nationalist, whether they’re us or them. And we feel like we should be able to answer these questions and classify ourselves – and sometimes we do. I admit that my social media feed is pretty clear about where I stand on that issue. But what if we answered the question with a question, like, “What is the purpose of a national anthem? Where is our loyalty, and how does loyalty get expressed? As people of faith who claim a loyalty that is more universal than a flag or nation, how do we address questions of patriotism?” Sometimes the mind of Christ urges us on not to answers, but to more questions.

We need the best version of our minds to navigate the complexities of our lives and the complexities of this world. We need a mind that is rooted in love and humility, that uses all the information we can gather, and that looks beyond human powers and assumptions. We need a mind that knows as much as it can – including that it doesn’t and won’t ever know everything. We need the mind of a disciple. We need the same mind that is in Christ Jesus. And today as we receive communion, which is a sign and seal of our unity with Christ and with each other, we give thanks that the mind of Christ is in fact already in us and accessible to us, by the grace of God. Amen.    


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