Philippians 1.1-11, 2.1-13 (CEB)
23 August 2020, Postcards of Faith 10
From Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus.
To all those in Philippi who are God’s people in Christ Jesus, along with your supervisors and servants.
May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defence and support of the gospel. God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.
Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:
Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honoured him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.
“Don’t do anything for selfish purposes. Look not to your own interests, but instead to what is better for others” — it isn’t often that we hear that, is it? Or rather, perhaps I should say that it isn’t often that we see that in action. We’ve certainly heard a fair number of pleas from our leaders to consider the health of others and of the NHS in recent months. But when it comes to behaviour that truly values what is best for others rather than our own self-interest, it’s often harder to see, especially the higher up the leadership chain we look. So often leaders take the “do as I say, not as I do” approach — an approach which Paul tells us is the opposite of what God did in Christ.
We know that Jesus reveals who God is and what God is like — he said himself that when we look at him, we see God. And this passage from Philippians shows us that the Son of God, the Word Incarnate, who is God…decided not to use power for his own gain or advancement. Instead he emptied himself. He let go of power and became not just a human being, but a human being on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder, and he was obedient even to the most horrifying and shameful death we could imagine.
That’s what Christ reveals about God — humble, close, refusing to use power for himself, serving others to the very end. And so he is called Lord, despite the fact that title was reserved for the emperor. And remember, Paul was writing to a city that was full of emperor-worship, where the population was well-off and used to the economic and social benefits that came from being loyal Roman citizens, so calling someone else Lord was risky!
Now think of the words we often use to describe God:
Those are also words that were often used to describe the emperor.
The way we talk about what God is like matters, because it determines how we will act, since we are the Body of Christ, made in God’s image, and meant to become ever more like him every day. Are we striving to be like the God who is powerful, mighty, honoured, awe-inspiring? Or like the God who empties himself, refuses to seek his own gain, takes up the lowest place in society, and serves others?
It’s quite a contrast, the Roman imperial understanding and this hymn that Paul quotes. And of course we know that both descriptions are true, God is indeed all powerful and holy and just…and yet God decides to leave all that and become human, humble, mixing with outcasts and sinners, washing his disciples’ feet, forgiving the people who nailed him to a cross.
Because this is what Jesus was like, it is also what we, who make up the Body of Christ, are supposed to be like as well — we are to have the same love and the same mind, living the same way.
The word that is translated as mind, or mindset, or attitude, isn’t only about our thinking. It starts there, with God’s love informing our thinking, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s also how we hold our bodies as well as how we hold our minds and hearts — like a posture, or a physical orientation. This is more than thinking the right things, it’s about being in alignment with Jesus — his actions, his values, his way of being, his direction — so that our lives demonstrate the fact that we are IN Christ. This mindset, this attitude, supersedes our own opinions, and our own desires, which is what makes it possible for us then to seek the good of the other rather than only ourselves.
Notice, though, that we aren’t given specific rules here. We are given a description of “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” — his mindset, his worldview, his approach to the world — and then told to have that same attitude, and to work that out in our daily lives. Jesus demonstrated the attitude, the ethos, the Way, and now trusts us to work out the specifics.
This Way — the way of giving up power, refusing to seek our own gain ahead of others, always looking out for what is best for our neighbour, and recognising what really matters — this Way would be impossible, if not for the fact that it is God at work in us, enabling us to want it and to live it. God started the work, and God will continue to do it in us and through us.
That doesn’t let us off the hook for trying our best to live as God’s holy people! Indeed, the knowledge that God enables us to want and to work for the kingdom ought to make us desire it even more, and to work even harder, always undergirded by the gratitude that Paul starts off with, as he writes to his partners in the gospel.
I wonder if, when we think of ourselves, we think of ourselves as partners in the gospel? Partners with each other in the Body of Christ, partners with the prophets and apostles of scripture, partners with Jesus himself? If we are indeed aligned with Christ and partners in bringing good news to our neighbours, then what does that mean, for instance, when we see our neighbourhood on the news and recognise that our neighbours live in such deprivation that our area has become known as the Covid Capital of Scotland? We know the causes of deprivation here. We know the problems that so many families are facing. We know the reality that a combination of underinvestment and climate change is going to continue to cause suffering right here in our own towns, as well as around the world. We know that those least able to weather a storm are always the hardest hit.
So what would have been going through Jesus’ mind while he watched that Disclosure programme this week? Or while he listened to our world leaders speak? Or when he saw the images of refugees fleeing devastation, danger, and hardship?
Whatever was in Jesus’ mind when he saw that is what should be in ours.
Whatever his attitude would be in response, that should be our attitude.
Wherever he is facing, that should be where we are looking.
I think he would celebrate the community spirit and the helpers, for sure. People have done amazing things to help each other through difficult times — delivering meals, playing driveway concerts, picking up prescriptions, making friendly phone calls, building community and checking in on neighbours.
And I think he would be appalled that we have allowed a world where people go hungry and where violence is commonplace and where even in the middle of a pandemic, the rich get richer while turning desperate people away. I think he would be concerned about how easily we are seduced by a vision of power and might, rather than a vision of humility and service.
If we are going to align with the attitude of Christ and be partners in the gospel, there’s no time like the present. In the midst of all that is going on in the world, and right here in our own community….even in a world that prefers to worship the empire and its values … may we be so Christ-minded that our lives reflect the true Lord in every action, in every word, in every relationship, in every vote, in every petition, in every phone call to a leader asking them to prioritise better, in every possible way.
May it be so. Amen.