Philippians Sermon Series Part II (Philippians 2:1-13)
Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:4-5)
Christianity has been deduced in the past century to merely another way of living well. As such, when most people consider what it means to be a Christian, they think of persons who love others and do good things in the world. Other than the occasional acknowledgement that Christians believe Jesus to be the Son of God, most persons — even Christians themselves — can hardly articulate what the Church believes.
Yet to know who and what we are about, to understand the way we are to live in the world, we have to know from where we came and in whose image we are made. Simply put, we have to study and reflect upon what God has revealed of God’s self in order to know who we are and how we are to live. In God we discover our true identity. The study of theology is essential for living the Christian life.
This is precisely where Paul begins his exploration of how we are to live as Christians in the world. In this week’s lectionary reading of his Epistle to the Philippians, Paul examines the nature and person of Jesus Christ to better understand our own identity. He quotes at length an early Christian hymn, a text scholars most certainly believe predates his letter:
Though he was in the form of God,
Jesus 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.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and
became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
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. (Phil 2:6-11)
Paul’s inclusion of the hymn furthers his central point in the first part of this chapter, namely the need to let go of our selfish desires and pride and to embrace a spirit of humility. The first step to living the Christian life is to embrace a life of humility.
Before diving into the rich theology of the hymn and its implications for us, I offer a word of clarification about humility. Christian humility is very different from the popular understanding of humility. All too often when we think of humility, we imagine it as a spirit of debasement. Some misbelieve that to be humble, we must disregard our self and deny our worth. If taken to the extreme, this misunderstanding of humility can lead us to let others abuse and take advantage of us. However, that is not humility, but rather a form of violence and abuse.
Christian humility, on the other hand, is grounded in our awareness of where we come from and our proper relationship to God and others. It is a sense of being grounded. In fact, the Latin root of the word means to be of the earth. A humble person understands their self-worth and value as a being created in the image and likeness of God and appreciates that God created us to be in relationship with God and with others. Rather than concentrate on ourselves and our own wants and desires, a humble person understands that God has called him to care and help others. Our life purpose is to be in a loving relationship with God and each other. As we shall see in a moment, we are humble when we give of ourselves as gift to others as Christ gave himself to us.
Such a way of life stands in sharp contrast to the ideals of the modern world. We are encouraged to be concerned with our own self interests and to do all we can to obtain our ultimate goals and dreams, even if that may mean some are left behind. We have even lost a sense of humility on the simplest of levels of social interaction; rather than listening to one another, we’ve become more concerned about being right and making sure everyone knows our “correct” position.
While many of us would argue we do not personally live in such a way, consider the growing divide between those who have and those who have not. As I said in an earlier sermon, the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the profound inequities between persons of different genders, social class, and race. In a sense, one could say that humility no longer stands as a virtue in our day, but pride. We are now formed to do all we can to get ahead of others and to ensure our own success. The sin of pride is the inordinate focus on the self and personal gain.
Paul challenges this way of thinking in his Letter to the Philippians. He tells the early disciples — and us — to remember who and what we are about. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:4) Rather than live selfishly, we are to live for others.
Before we begin to think that the Christian way of life is just another way of being good and nice in the world, Paul challenges us to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 2:5) In other words, while we may live a life similar to other good people, we do so for very different reasons. And the form of selfless love we are to live and have is exemplified by Jesus. What makes us Christian is not the things we do. Anyone can be nice, even an atheist. (And for that matter, I’ve sometimes encountered nicer atheists than Christians.) What makes us Christian is that we take on Christ and live as Christ.
This is where theology becomes ever so important to understanding the essence of the Christian life. As I said so often before, we can’t live and become Christ if we haven’t first known Christ. This is a critical point for Paul. What we’ve come to know about Jesus and what we say about Jesus is crucial to our understanding of how to to live as Jesus.
And this is where Paul’s Letter to the Philippians becomes so rich and beautiful. If it is the case that Paul is quoting an ancient Christian hymn, as scholars suggest, then Paul is rooting himself in the experience of the Church, of the disciples who came before him and who experienced Jesus firsthand. This is not Paul’s thought, but the belief of the Church. Furthermore, the passage he selects has some of the most eloquent language in the New Testament. We only hear a fraction of the beauty of the language in English; the Greek is so much richer in meaning. The text captures in few words the essence of Christian faith.
Key to understanding the passage is to always keep in mind Paul’s original exhortation: “Let the same mind be you that was in Christ.” (Phil 2:6) Paul’s inclusion of the hymn suggests that we are to be like Christ as he is described in the text. He shares this text with us to say Jesus is a model of what our lives shall be.
Although I could go into great detail regarding the meaning of this passage, I want to highlight a couple of key points about the text.
First we must pay close attention to the words used to describe Jesus and what he does. The hymn says that though Jesus was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God but took on the form of a slave. What does Paul exactly mean by this? Is he suggesting Jesus is not equal to God or somehow different from God? Not quite; instead the word “form” carries a significant meaning here.
The Greek of Paul’s day had two words with different meanings for the word form: morphē and schēma. The first indicates the essential form of every being and that never changes; the second describes the outward change and difference of a being. So for example, the morphē of every human being always remains the same, however our schēma changes over time as we age and our outward appearance looks different. When describing Jesus as being in the form of God and taking on the form of a slave, the hymn uses the word morphē for the English word ‘form.’ In essence the hymn affirms Jesus does not let go of his divine nature when he took on flesh in the incarnation, but remains as God. Yet in being born like us, Jesus assumes our human likeness and takes on the form of a slave. Now this may sound all very well and nice to you, or maybe it has utterly confused you, but there is something significant about this statement. The author of the hymn says that Jesus, as the Son of God, intentionally takes on a form of slave, the very being of a slave. This would have been shocking to the readers of this letter. God, who is almighty, all-powerful, and all-knowing, doesn’t reveal himself as a mighty figure, but as a person of the lowliest estate.
In other words, if you want to find God, you must not look to the highest echelons of society, but rather in the lowliest of humanity. As St. John Chrysostom, one of the early fathers of the Christian Church once wrote, “If you do not find Christ in the beggar at the church door, neither will you find him in the chalice.” Again, we return to the theme of humility. While we are so busy trying to look for God in the lofty heights, we often miss God in our midst in the homeless, the hungry, the lost, and the forgotten. And if we’re too proud and absorbed by our own ambitions, we will likely not hear God speaking to us. If we are to live as Christ in the world, we must ground ourselves in reality and be present to the most marginalized and vulnerable of society.
Secondly, we ought to take note of what Jesus does in this hymn. Jesus emptied himself, he humbled himself, and became obedient. Again the language here is significant. Note the verbs emptied, humbled, and obedient; Jesus, God made man, sets aside all power and might and instead embraces and lives a life of servanthood and humility. Here too the Greek offers a greater intensity to these actions than the English. The Greek word for emptied is the verb kenoun, which literally means to totally and completely give up of oneself for another. When reflecting and pondering upon this great act of God giving of our God’s self totally and completely for us, the great Presbyterian preacher William Barclay once wrote, “we can only stand in awe at the sight of him, who is almighty God, hungry and weary and in tears. Here in the last reach of human language is the great saving truth that he who was rich for our sakes became poor.”
Again, the theology of this is instructive to us: if Jesus is God who emptied himself and gave himself for others, and we are created in the very same image of God, then we too are to give of ourselves entirely for others. We discover ourselves, our true identity, only in giving of ourselves to others.
We are also exalted by God, as Jesus was, when we embrace a life of giving, humility, and obedience. For us moderns this is a paradox; one doesn’t become great in denying oneself. One’s greatness is defined by what one has, their social class, and their career. Paul and the Scriptures upend that way of thinking and tell us that it is the polar opposite: greatness is found in weakness. (2 Cor. 12:10)
Now this may make us a bit uneasy and perhaps even give us cause for fear and trembling. (Phil. 2:12) Paul assures us, however, that God will grants us the grace to live this way if we are open to it: “”it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13) While our inclinations may lead us more often to pride and self-aggrandizement, God will empower us to live the way of Christ if we ask. Once again, we return to humility. We need to acknowledge our own weakness and to admit that we need to depend upon God if we are to fully live the life God intends us to live.
So where do we begin if the first step to living the Christian life is to embrace humility? Well, it seems to me that it always begins wth prayer. The very act of praying is an act of humility; it’s an expression that we are not the centre of the universe and we are dependent on God. Furthermore, when we pray, we acknowledge our priorities, that God is first and foremost in our lives. Note how Jesus teaches us to pray: “Our Father, who are in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If we take these words seriously, which I hope we do, we acknowledge our place in the world and universe, and acknowledge God as the one who is in charge, not us.
After prayer, I believe the next step is to identify ways in which we can serve others, particularly those who are in need. Like prayer, service is essential to the Christian life. In serving and loving others, we embrace the way of Christ and empty ourselves and give of ourselves as gift to others.
There are many ways in which we can love and serve others: letters and phone calls to persons who may be alone or sick; helping out with our parish community garden; volunteering with Caledon Community Services or at one of the long-term care centres in town, or even supporting the work of Noah’s Ark, our ministry with our friends in Haiti. These are but a few ways in which we can give of ourselves as gift to others and live the first step of the Christian life, the way of humility.
However we embrace the Christian life through prayer and service, we are to embrace with a generous spirit of hospitality to all. We are to freely, graciously give of ourselves to others as Christ gave himself to us. When we do, we will discover our true purpose and meaning in life. Amen.