Our series on consecration continued this week with one of the oldest bits of the New Testament, the poetry of Philippians 2:1-13. Audio’s below and the text is after the jump.
Whew! There’s a lot there! This is classic Paul: seven thousand thoughts packed into seven sentences. Lots of little sound bites, too. Let the same mind be in you that’s in Christ Jesus. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. It just sounds like scripture. It’s the kind of religious language we’re prone to either zone out, or repeat until it loses meaning.
Let’s step back and get some context. Who’s writing, to whom, and why? First answer: Paul is writing. He’s writing to a community in Philippi.
Philippi was a Roman colony and the Philippians were mostly folks trying to make ends meet in the midst of a system that was increasingly stacked against them. (The Message and the Kingdom, 153) What they lacked in prestige, they made up for in love. If you read the whole letter, just four short chapters, easily read over lunch, you can tell Paul loves these people, and they love each other.
When we read this in Bible study on Tuesday, one immediate response was, this sounds like Bethany! Absolutely.
One more piece of background. Paul’s writing from prison, which adds a layer of urgency.
I haven’t been in prison, but it seems one of the worst parts is the loss of control, the lack of power. Paul doesn’t know when he’ll get out, or if he’ll get out. He doesn’t even know if he’ll live or if he’ll die. (Phil. 1:20-23)
We all face situations where we have the illusion of control taken from us. There are daily experiences: nightmare traffic, cancelled flights, sick kids. And there are big ones. Serious illness strips us of the illusion that we are in charge of our bodies. Grief robs our notions of emotional control. Economic upheaval steals our ideas of financial independence.
The question Paul and the Philippians were wrestling with was how do we live in the midst of this uncertainty and suffering?
The wider society offered an answer. Find a wealthy patron. The patron is protector and you owe allegiance to them—kind of like what we see in The Godfather. The more powerful your patron, the better. In essence: seek out power, prestige, and wealth. Our society still counsels that these three things are the best insurance against the uncertainty of life.
The primary Jewish answer, and the starting place for both Jesus and Paul, was to declare that money and power weren’t the main point. The point was to worship God. In an unclean and uncertain world, the best way to do that was through separation—to live by rules that would create a pure space in an impure world. In this way, life might be uncertain, but it would be sacred even in all its uncertainty.
This is theme we still hear in Christianity: we’re in the world, but not of it. We explored this the last two weeks. Setting aside some of our time, or actions as holy can affect the rest of our lives. It’s the logic behind the sabbath and dress shoes and dedicated cups and plates for communion.
It’s not a bad answer, but it’s also not the only answer. When Paul is in prison, when his life is out of his control, and he’s writing to people he loves, who love each other, he writes with a different way in mind.
How shall we live in the middle of economic uncertainty, and physical uncertainty, and the push and pull of daily life? What is the way of Christ in the midst of all that?
Well, Paul says, love one another. Look after each others’ interests first, not your own. Put another first.
Which is probably not our first instinct. Let’s be blunt: Paul’s advice to “in humility regard others as better than yourselves,” and, “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” can easily sound 1) oppressive or 2) trite.
Is this just a theology of being a doormat? Sure Christ emptied himself and took on the form of a slave, but how does that sound if you feel like you have no other option than to always put others first? This is a serious objection.
I think the only mitigating factor is how Christ emptied himself. He did it freely, without coercion. Freedom is a essential. This is not about being forced to put someone else first, but about freely, of our own will, placing someone else above our own interests.
Which is another thing entirely. It’s a matter of knowing, I can choose to have my own way here. There would be nothing wrong with that. But, this person I love would really prefer another way, and so I choose, in all freedom, to do that instead. It’s not choosing in order to avoid a fight, or so that you’ll get your way later, but out of freedom—that’s the kind of love and mutuality Paul’s talking about here.
It’s not particularly easy. I don’t think it really comes naturally. I do think it’s easier in community. I don’t think it’s any accident that Paul wrote this to a community who loved each other, a community not so unlike Bethany. It is easier to work on this with others. We have the chance to practice with each other, in little things, so that when the hard decisions come, it’s easier to say, you go ahead. And in community, we know that we’re not the only ones trying to live this way. Sometimes it may feel like it. Our fellow travelers will disappoint us. But then someone reaches out and we realize that we are, truly, in this together.
But then there’s the second objection. Isn’t this trite? Yeah, yeah, don’t push and shove, let others go first—that’s preschool wisdom. Sure, it makes sense, but it’s not particularly profound.
But Paul’s in prison. He doesn’t have time for trite ethical maxims. He’s working out, with fear and trembling what the way of Christ looks like. He is urging mutual love, respect, and forbearance not just because it’s a nice thing to do, but because he has come to believe that it is a transformative counter-witness to the way of the world, because it is literally the way of life.
Paul and the Philippians weren’t the movers and the shakers. But they shared what they had—food, money, love, and concern for each other. They formed a community of resistance, a group not defined by the values of their day. They became a witness to the life they’d met in Christ. A little corner of the kingdom took root in that love in Philippi.
This matters in our day as well. Part of the vibrancy of life here is that we do seek to put each other first. We do seek to live by one accord. We seek to live here in a way that is different from how we’re asked to live in the rest of the world. We fall short, of course, but we keep seeking together.
Paul really believes it makes a difference. As he writes elsewhere, when they, and we, are gathered like this we are Christ’s body. How do we live in this world, with all of its other claims on our allegiance and love, and all of the destructive turns that can take? We live by this ethos of love, of freely choosing to put others first.
And there’s more. As we follow Paul’s logic deeper we come to this hymn at the middle of our passage. Some scholars call it the kenosis hymn. Kenosis is the greek word for emptiness, so it’s a fancy way of saying the emptiness hymn. It’s called that because the turning point is Christ’s act of emptying, giving up or giving away what he had out of love.
This emptying, self-giving love is fundamental to God’s nature. We see it all the way back in creation. We see it in God chasing the Israelites, pursuing them passionately through the generations. We see it most vividly in the incarnation. The Christian God is the one who gives up even being God in order to be with us.
This is exactly opposite to our usual idea of what makes something godly or sacred. Rather than setting the fine china up on the top shelf, this is choosing to use it every day. The way of Christ says life is consecrated when it’s given away. In Christ, God literally gets her hands dirty.
This mean we’re not called to live in this different way, this way of putting others’ first just so that we can be a nice little holy people who are insulated from the messiness of the real world. The way of Christ sets aside notions of sanctity and goes right into the midst of whatever is unclean or unsaved or unholy and lives out love in the midst of it.
Which is all a really abstract way of saying, whatever junk you, or your neighbors, have going on right now is exactly where Christ longs to be and where the church belongs.
That means the pain and indignities of illness. That means the drudgery of work and the reality of not having enough money to make it to the end of the month. That means the struggle to be kind, and the deep fear that things really aren’t going to be okay. It is exactly in these contexts that Paul’s words come to us today.
He says, first of all, don’t face it alone. Whatever it is, face it within the community of faith.
And second, strive to put others’ first, even, or maybe especially, when that seems impossible. The self-giving dynamic of love is a powerful force that sets us free.
And most of all, remember the way of Christ. Christ’s way is to give it away—the illusion of control, the desire for power and purity, the certainty of being right and righteous, the love of winning. By the grace of Christ we set all that down because we know fundamentally none of that saves or is sacred. None of that offers life.
The way of Christ is a deeply realist path. It says death will come, pain and suffering and loss of control and fear and abandonment will all come. That’s how the world works. We seek not to go around or over those trials, but straight through, trusting in the power of love to endure.
Because we live in the faith we have found in Christ. We live with the trust that there is no darkness too deep, no hell too forsaken, no death so final that Christ has not gone before us and sanctified even those forsaken places, bringing life out death, and even now walks with us.
Let go. This is still Christ’s call. We’re free, fundamentally, completely free. And so we can give it away—our fear, our desire to have control, to have our own way, and the good stuff too, the love and joy and peace we carry deep inside. We give it all away, out of love, and in the giving it is sanctified. This is the way of Christ. We share it all, and in that giving, in those freely chosen deaths to self, in getting our hands dirty with the muck of life, and having our hearts broken in love, we find the life of Christ.
This is the way of Christ, the way of living a consecrated life in this messy, beautiful, broken world.
We can’t do it on our own, and we won’t get it all right. But that’s not the point. It’s movement that we’re after, walking with faltering and faithfulness in the the way of Jesus. It’s about making a free choice daily, moment by moment, to let Christ begin this work within us, and to continue it with fear and trembling and strong hope within this body of faith, with each other, our fellow travelers.
Together we live in imitation of Christ, trusting in what we’ve me in this one who who gave it all away in love, even godliness, even life itself.
We trust in this one who walked the way of the cross, who has traveled this way of emptiness and has shown us that on the other side of emptiness, the other side of loss, the other side of the cross, lies life, life full and abundant, life overflowing, life and love—more than we’ll ever need and plenty to share.
This is the way of Christ. May we be faithful followers.by Sarah Wiles October 30, 2011 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA