Therefore my beloved… 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 own good pleasure.  (Phil. 2:12-13)

Fear and trembling – normally reserved for only the most horrible natural disasters and terrorist attacks – have made something of a comeback in the halls of Congress the past week or so.  And all it took was $700 billion.

Although I understand little of the detailed machinations in the banking and credit industries that brought us to the current crisis, I think I understand something of the political realties that have caused law-makers to huddle in all-night meetings, and both presidential candidates to be wary of saying very much, and a general sense of urgency to pass legislation that no one is very happy about.  For politicians – many of whom are up for re-election in just over a month – there is the heavy weight of a kind of accountability here.  The only thing worse than passing a $700 billion bailout would be doing nothing.  The risk that more banks would fail, the economy would go into a tailspin, and the suffering would be legion, is too great for men and women who are, after all, supposed to be more or less in charge.  Hence, fear and trembling: better to take the bailout than to risk the consequences.

The church is well familiar with fear and trembling.  She has deployed them with their silent partner, guilt, over many centuries.  Somewhere not so far from Saint Peter’s desk, we were encouraged to believe, were angelic accountants poring over the books of our lives and obviously finding a lot of bad credit, sub-prime mortgages, and the like.  The day would come when we would be held to account for all our failings, short-comings, and meannesses; and where would we be then?  Fear and trembling were meant to motivate us to curb our dangerous impulses and desires, and generally to keep us in check: our salvation was being worked out for us in the back rooms of heaven, and we had plenty of reason to quake.

This pattern of thinking is a kind of bailout mentality.  The church’s legislation of salvation (so to speak) wasn’t very appealing to anyone, but what was the alternative?  Eternal flame?  Unquenchable fire?  Better to take the bailout, even if it wasn’t a very happy state of affairs, than to risk the consequences.

To this way of thinking Jesus is the central figure in the bailout – the Treasury Secretary, as it were, in the economy of sin and grace.  Like him or not, it was he who held the power to bail out a world that was spiraling toward ruin.  And the mystery was, by what great power did he negotiate the bailout of the world with the others in the Administration: the Father and the Holy Spirit?

Now comes along Saint Paul, whose faith came from a personal encounter with the risen Jesus, and who writes to us (by way of the Philippians):

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God… [he] emptied himself…humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death  - even death on a cross.”  

Let this mind be in you.  What does this mean?  Paul is talking about the meaning of Jesus’ death on the Cross – the great act of atonement that Jesus was destined for as the Son of God, but still had to be willing to choose, as a human being fully alive.  And Paul does not seem to be describing a bailout here for miserable sinners.  But what is he talking about?

We are confused by Paul’s language, because we have so hoped that in a relationship with Jesus we would be fulfilled, but Paul tells us that Jesus emptied and humbled himself – and this doesn’t sound fulfilling.  We are ready to ignore Paul’s instruction because the thought of “death on a Cross” is a little too dramatic, and frankly unrealistic for us; it stretches our imaginations a little too far.  We are unprepared to learn from Paul’s advice because we don’t think we have that much in common with Jesus, and we’re not sure we would want to, anyway.  We expected Jesus’ death to be a bailout of the spiritual and existential kind. but Paul is not talking about a bailout here.  Jesus’ journey to the Cross is not a last act of desperation to pay down a debt to God.  It is an act of utter humility and perfect love, chosen by Jesus as a sign of the power of God made perfect in weakness.

And it is this mind: of selfless love, humility, and obedience that Paul says should be in me and in you: a willingness to become weak so that we might find strength, to go last on the promise that some day we will be first, to be the least among our friends – servants of all – if we want to be great, and to lose our lives (lose them!) if we want to find something like the meaning of life for all eternity.  Let this mind be in you and in me?!?  Is it any wonder we would prefer a bailout, even if it comes with a strong dose of guilt?

Back in Washington, the fear and trembling about the financial bailout stem from the real possibility of failure.  What if it doesn’t work, and more banks collapse, and the market tanks, and who knows what else?

But when Paul writes that we should “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling,” he goes on to say, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  And the implication is that we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling because of the real possibility of success!

Let this mind of humility and obedience be in you, and see if you are not better off.

Let this mind be in you that frees you to empty yourself, and see if you are not, in fact, filled up with blessings.

Let this mind be in you that leads you to the way of the Cross – which looks so much like the way of death – and see if it does not, in fact lead to life, and even conquer the fear of death.

Let this mind of Christ be in you.  For he was in the form of God, but you and I are made in the image of God, too.

Let this mind be in you as you work out your own salvation as a sojourner with Christ, not a pawn in some backroom bailout bargain.

Let this mind be in you even amidst the fear and trembling that comes with the possibility that, wow, there is strength to be found in the midst of weakness, there is a greatness to be found in choosing to serve others, there is life to be had where we thought there could only be death!

Let this mind be in you, for it is God who is at work in you!  It is God who is at work in you!

We Christians are not the citizenry of a bailout banana republic whose baptismal certificates are the devalued commercial paper of a volatile market.  We are the sons and daughters of God, who, when we let this mind of Christ be in us, discover that it is God who is at work in us.

My brothers and sisters, I hope that our elected representatives find a good and affordable solution to our current financial woes, and I make no pretense at knowing what that might be.  If a bailout is what’s needed – even at exorbitant cost – then, I suppose, so be it; better to take the bailout.

But you and I do not need (or, I suspect, want) a bailout God whose Son cuts a deal for us in the backrooms of heaven.  Better to have a Savior who gives us a piece of his mind, when he calls us to follow him on the way of obedience and humility that leads to the Cross.  Better to learn to travel that way with Jesus, even though it is tiring and hard.  Better to be accountable to the One whose practice is forgiveness and mercy.  Better to work out our own salvation with the kind of fear and trembling that comes of having traveled so far, being so close, unbelievably almost there: the fear that we might actually succeed – and what would that mean for us?!  Better to know, at those moments when it seems a bailout is the best we could possibly do, that it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Jesus himself knew what it was like to think that a bailout was the best he could do – he prayed for it in a garden.  But his prayer was answered with the reminder that God was in him.

And a bailout for our sins and all that’s gone wrong in the world, will not be necessary.  Debts have been canceled once and for all.  Credit has been extended, once and for all.  Love has been lifted up, once and for all, by the one who gave himself up to make the Cross an eternal sign of hope for a world that thought a bailout was the best it could do.  But now we know better – thanks be to God!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
28 September 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 1, 2008 .