When I was asked to preach and given the parameters for what to preach on- our current series on “call” passages in the Bible- I initially found myself struggling to know where to start and how to narrow it down. So I decided simply to give some time to reflecting on what had been resonating with me at the time. That’s when I stumbled across some recent reading I had done in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This had been an intentional exercise for me because this letter had played a formative role for me in my growing up years as I tried to figure out the Church and my place in it, and some unsettling of my spirit during the pandemic (admittedly giving me too much time for reflection) had led me to return to this letter in an effort to make sense of the Church and my place in it today.
The passage I settled on was 2:1-11 because this section carried particular relevance for me personally given that its words carried me through those early years into a greater participation within the church and a greater interest in my faith. For me this informed my call at the time to get baptized, to get more involved in service ministries within the church, and carried through some significant choices and transitions in my life.
Returning to these texts, the first time I’ve spent any real time with them in a long, long while, was helpful for me in terms of contrasting where my life is today and where my life was when these verses first came into my awareness. In some ways I haven’t grown up much at all. In other ways I find myself wrestling with very different questions. In many ways my early life reflected the life Paul is reminding the Philippians of, a time when a fresh encounter with Christ had led them to be zealous for their new found faith. Reading it today feels more in line with where Paul finds the community in the present- needing a reminder of the initial reason for their zealousness.
So here’s what I wanted to do. I want to walk through Phillipians 2:1-11 verse by verse paying specific attention to the ways revisiting it today has provided a fresh outlook. Transport it from the world of my younger self into the world of my… well, yes I’m old.
And to help that process here is where I hope to ultimately land, just to help you track: 3 Big ideas
- The call to think about Christ= this is the idea of having the same mind/attitude, which is a way of “thinking” about Christ, in a way that brings about participation.
- The call to image Christ- this is the dual nature of the text in Christ being by nature God, or the true image of God, and us, by nature of Christ’s revealing work-literally rendered as Christ being glorified- being Gods image bearers. This is the call to participate as image bearers
- The call to think and to image- or imagine- Christ together
To begin with some quick establishing of the context behind the letter:
- Philippians is one of later letters of Paul. Evidence seems to be there that It was written in relationship with Timothy. It’s written from prison during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome as a friendship letter to those who Paul knows from planting his first church in Europe
- The question of concern is not so much their suffering- although they are sharing in Paul’s suffering – but what to do with the legitimacy of Paul’s work, word and testimony as he is languishing in prison. The high view Paul has of this community in Phillipi seems clear as they continue to coexist in a Greco-Roman world, and much of their ability to think and to imagine together appears to flow from Paul’s own friendship with them.
- It is written as an encouragement to the church at Philippi by reminding them of who Jesus is in the midst of a strong Greco-Roman culture, and to call them to persevere in the faith. Of particular concern is reminding them of how it is that Jesus is both God and man (with a concern for the process of divinization in the Greco-Roman world). The spiritual and material realities seem to collide here raising questions about God’s participation in the world, what this participation tells us about who God is, and how we are called to live in relationship to this God through our participation in what God is doing. Here is where Paul offers encouragment- from Prison- to say that if you knew the sort of joy that comes from participating in the way of Christ, the thing that built this community- then you know this joy now. So think on it and then imagine it together in the present, and then live it.
So lets get into the passage:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
2:1-4 in the original text is written as a single sentence meant to bring the Philippians towards a vision of unity- a unity they already have based on faithfulness to and participation in the call of Christ. Paul’s affirmation is simply this- faithfulness to this call promises to bring transformation.
Quickly to set the stage: The prayer that frames these opening words in 1:3-11 is that their love might continue to abound in “knowledge and depth of insight”
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.”
Paul then moves into a long statement about his situation in 1:12-29, which obviously they are familiar with and which they share in.
If this is how God’s faithfulness is demonstrating itself in Pauls life, what does that mean for their shared call to live in the way of Christ? Where’s the hope? The expectation? Scholars also believe there were monetary concerns wrapped up in this as well. How often is this notion of call related back to discouragement over effectiveness and lack of resources? A lack of… (fill in the blank) reflects adversity, doubts, questions. And these look much different for me today than they did when I first encountered the passage. Back then I was full of the sort of optimism that comes from encountering Christ. Now identify more with the skeptical moments of wondering about God’s faithfulness.
Chapter 1 ends with an emphasis on “faithful suffering, specific to Paul but playing out in any situation where living into this call faces such adversity by whatever it is.
“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (1:27)
“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.” (1:29)
Which leads to answering the question in the opening of chapter 2, “abound in knowledge and depth of insight” of what?
“If you have any encouragement from being united in Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy (master-student relationship) complete by being like minded…” (2:1-2)
The connection between knowledge and depth of insight carries over into being like-minded. Being like-minded in the list of descriptives he has just listed. The “if” of chapter 2:1 is not a statement of uncertainty, as though to ask it as a question- “if? you have any encouragement (consolation and comfort)”, he is speaking directly to their very real hopes and concerns that they had (past) surrounding their coming to follow Christ. He’s saying you did and because of that you “do” have encouragement, comfort (God’s ability to meet the struggles and suffering) , and common sharing, tenderness, compassion (translated mercy) from being united in Christ (shared call) therefore… make my joy complete by “thinking” on these things.
Think, like faith, carries an active force, as in wise behavior (phroneo). Being like minded connects us to the consecutive phrases “same love” and “one” in spirit (one souled is the literal translation) and purpose. Thinking about, allowing this to imagine what we know into the uncertainty of the present, and then letting it play out as a drama by way of our participation. This is what brings unity with Christ and unity with one another, shaping the call then to bring the hope of Christ into the world. Here we find a tension between knowing and doing, which I think shapes what it means to be called.
So what does this unity/friendship look like in action precisely?
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit (something to be gained or emptied, a combination of the words emptying and the word for opinion and honor… hold onto that phrase), but in humility (also hold on to that word as it will be crucial to understanding how this letter translates in light of the larger socio-political reality) consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests (understanding, or to think about), but also to the interests (to understand, to think about) of others.”
This repeats the notion of “yourself” giving way to the betterment of others. Important to note Paul would have had a we rather than an I in view here.
Lynn Cohick in her commentary brings to light the social context of this idea to “consider others better then yourselves” (2:3). “In Philippi people stressed not your character, but was thought about your character. Perception is reality.” (share story about our time in Ukraine)
Also concerning the social context: I told you to hang on to that word humility. The Greek word for humility (tapeinophrosyne) is not found before the Christian era . It brings together the greek words for lowly and the verb to think, which is the same word Paul has already used. In fact it is used 10 times in Philippians. If we understand the term think to carry an active force, then what Paul is doing here is turning humility from a vice to a virtue. (Reference Humility song)
This then prepares us to enter into the Christ hymn which presents Christ as the very embodiment of these things Paul has been talking about.
(2:5) “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”
The word Attitude is actually the word for “think” as well. To think in Christ is the literal rendering. In other words this is how Christ thinks, remembering the fellowship he has with Father and Spirit and the fellowship Christ establishes with us, calling us to then image this to the world by our fellowship with one another.
This signals what is called the Christ Hymn so called because of its poetry and its rhythms. It is broken into two halves- the incarnation and passion, and second the ascension and exaltation. The key for understanding the hymn, Cohick writes, “is to recognize our participation in christ.” The Hymn, then, puts front and center God’s plan to make participation in Christ possible.
(2:5) “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus… Who, being in very nature God” (2:6a)
Morphe (being in the nature of God) is a difficult word to narrow down. It’s the same word used in Greek in popular writings to describe what Moses saw at the burning bush. It can also carry the meaning of “essence”. A way of describing something indescribable using human language. Language that then translates in concrete active forms. It can also be described as imaging. Image of Christ, human vocation as image bearers.
“Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with god something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (2:6)
Now, if you are like me you’ve been conditioned to read this in the light of God’s being everything being contrasted with humanity being nothing. God made himself nothing. Stooped to the lowness of our level. That’s not quite the full inference here though.
“Something to be grasped” means he did not consider equality with God as something to be “used to his own advantage”. This relates directly to the emptying. The word grasp is only used one other place. The best way, cohick suggests, is to see it as meaning that Christ had something he chose not to use. God is not giving up his attributes but manifesting them. Activating them as the virtue of humility. In the emptying the creator-creation dynamic is being caught up into this similar imaging notion.
Similarly, often times when people read this passage there is a tendency to overemphasize the divine nature as something to be contrasted with the picture of the slave/servant. The contrast though is like God and like human, connecting the goodness of God with the goodness of God’s creation. The slave part is part of imaging the nature of God. Christ does not grasp, rather Christ humbles, making himself a slave to humility. In a sociopolitical context the free one becomes a slave for the sake of the other. Humility turns from a vice to a virtue. This would have been understood in the light of the Exodus narrative. Gods liberating act coincides with the call at Mt. Sinai to be Gods image bearers in the world given to those waiting at the bottom of the mountain who have been left wondering about God’s faithfulness now removed from the initial excitement of the liberating event. This begins a cycle of trading the true image for a lie, resulting in the call to remember, and then to live in the promise that God is making all things new by way of our continued participation. In Christ God demonstrates God’s own faithfuness to this end in taking human likeness and participating in the long obedience. This is the attitude we are to share, what we are to think on. When it comes to being called we are not comparing ourselves to one another, but to Jesus.
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every other name., that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Jesus doesn’t become more or less of God, what Jesus is imaging, imagining for us, the very thing that is being glorified in verse 9-11, is the new life in Christ. The eventual raising up is contrasted with the humbling, also connecting our own imagined humility to the source of life itself. As the image of God is revealed in Christ we also find and discover the true nature of our humanity. And it is said to be “good”. Very good. We have traded our true image for a lie and Christ desires to reveal the truth of who we are and who God is in the call to be image bearers.
This picture of bowed knee and confessed fealty is not one of power and fear and control but of liberation and service and praise. Jesus gets the name Glory, which in its literal translation evokes being in the very nature or image of God. And that image is what we share as image bearers in the world. Yesterday I was listening to an interview with author and scientist Iain McGilchrist, about his new book The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Something that he had to say really struck me as quite profound. He said “Imagination is the only chance we have at reaching reality. Imagination contacts reality and brings it to us.”
We don’t’ work to get the new reality, we begin with the new reality by first remembering, thinking, and then allowing this act of imagination to inform the call to participate in the present. Which is precisely what the communion table is all about.