Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Early Christian communities in the first century have two significant problems. The first is that they have quite a lot of internal division and disagreement. This is a new religious movement, made up of people from all over the known world, people from different backgrounds, who speak different languages, who have different cultures, who come from different social classes, who come from different religious traditions. It is diversity in the extreme. Some are Judeans, some Greeks, some Romans, some Africans, some Syrians, some Celts, some Samaritans. There are rich people and poor people and people who are truly destitute. There are all kinds of different ideas about what faith in the Jesus should be about. Is this new movement a new sect of Judaism; should all followers of the Way be Jews first and Jesus-followers second? Is it a new religious traditional altogether that should reject the Jewish tradition completely? Or this is a movement open to non-Jews but springing up from the root of the Jewish tradition? How much of Greek and Roman culture should be included in this new movement? Is it acceptable to put Greek philosophy into dialog with biblical teaching? Can Jesus-followers participate in the lives of the their broader community, or do they need to isolate and seclude themselves? Who should be allowed in, and under which conditions? How should Christians’ new relationship as sisters and brothers in Christ affect their relationships outside the church. In particular who should we understand the relationship between a slave and a master who are now supposed to be understood as siblings in the eyes of God?
There are a tremendous number of questions to be answered and many arguments to be had. In addition to the social questions, there are also theological issues to struggle over. We complain now about how different Christian denominations disagree over issues of theology and polity, but the disagreements in the early church are far deeper and more thoroughgoing; They haven’t agreed yet on anything. Some Christians think Jesus is completely human and not divine at all; others think he is completely divine and only appears to be human; others think he is a demigod like Hercules or Achilles or Romulus. Some think he has died and been resurrected, others think there has been no resurrection, and others think he was never killed at all. There is literally nothing they can agree on. And like arguments in the church today, these early Christians don’t always disagree well. They don’t always treat each other with respect in the midst of their disagreements.
And the early church has another problem: the hero of their faith is a failure and a nobody. After all, this Jesus character is a Jew, which certainly doesn’t grant him much respect in the Gentile world. He is a peasant, and not a member of the educated upper class. Even within the context of his little village, he doesn’t seem to have been anyone special. He isn’t even a Judean; he is from Galilee, that backwater province up in the north where they can’t even speak proper Aramaic with that ridiculous accent. He has no education, no training in philosophy or rhetoric or history. He has been a wandering preacher for only a year or two before he is captured by the Romans, flogged, and executed on a cross like a slave or a common criminal. He is a nobody. His movement never really takes off while he was alive. He isn’t able to kick the Roman occupiers out of Judea. He doesn’t even make that much news. Just another minor insurrectionist among many who is crucified by Rome. How could anyone pretend that someone like that could be God’s chosen Messiah, let alone the Son of God?
Paul, however, in his letter the church at Philippi, manages to use one of these problems to address the other. Paul is very concerned about dissension and disagreement in the church. He is glad that the Christians in Philippi are showing many signs and fruits of the spirit. He is glad that they are living out their faith. But even though they are proving themselves to be fruitful Christians, they are still arguing with each other. Paul says, if you do just one more thing, you will make my joy over your progress complete: be of one mind. Stop all this bickering and be of one mind. Treat one another better than they deserve to be treated. Throw away your selfish desires and approach one another with humility.
And in order to make his point more clearly, he quotes an early Christian hymn to them. In fact, this hymn may be one of the earliest Christian writings that we have in existence. It begins, “May the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, 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.” It’s called the Kenosis Hymn, from the Greek word Kenosis, which means to pour out or empty. Jesus poured himself out, gave of himself, humbled himself to become human.
It is quite an incredible thing that this hymn is telling us. It is an amazing, mystical sort of truth. Jesus was in the form of God. But he decided, instead of taking advantage of the situation, enjoying his godly status, that he would humble himself, pour himself out, and become a slave, be born into the most humble of conditions. Throughout his life, he continued to be humble, and even died as a humble man, in the most barbaric and humiliating of ways. And, we are told that because Jesus humbled himself, God then lifted him up and gave him a new name, the name of God, so that everyone would know that he was doing God’s will.
In the world of the Old Testament, humbling oneself was considered a virtue. In the Greco-Roman world it was considered unthinkable. But according to Paul, this is the approach that Christians should take toward life, to be willing to humble themselves in order to serve God more effectively.
He puts it even more bluntly than that. He was saying, “Be of one mind,” to the Christians in Philippi. Now he is adding another layer, and saying, “While you’re at it, make that one mind be Christ’s mind, the mind that humbles itself in order to be of service to others.” Paul is turning around expectations. Normally Jesus’s humble background would be considered a liability. But Paul says, no, in fact Jesus’s humble background is the very model of our faith. Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because Jesus lived a humble life that he wasn’t really the Messiah and Savior. Instead, realize that the fact that the Messiah and Savior chose to live such a humble life proves what an amazing Savior he really is, and sets the example for any good disciple of God.
Paul turns things around, turns them upside down. You all are bickering with one another because you think you’re the best; you’re too caught up in your own self-centered schemes. Don’t forget that the most incredible being to ever walk the face of the earth, Jesus the Christ, didn’t get lost in all that self-aggrandizement. Jesus humbled himself. And that’s what you should do, humble yourselves, so that you can make room in your life for God’s will to work, and so that you can live in peace with your neighbors.
Now, there are two words of warning that are in order here. First, sometimes Christians, in an effort to achieve Christian humility, end up falling into unhealthy self-denial. Sometimes we take pride in making martyrs of ourselves in order to try to prove ourselves worthy of God. It reminds me of the old line from Weird Al’s song, Amish Paradise: “Think you’re really righteous, think you’re pure of heart? Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art!” Trying to be the humblest person in the room is missing the point. And letting yourself be abused for no reason is also missing the point. We have some history of that in the Christian church, and we need to atone for it.
Which leads to the second word of warning. Paul’s message of self-emptying can easily be perverted when people of power and privilege use it as a means of controlling people with relatively less power and privilege. “What do you think you’re doing, speaking up for yourself, agitating for your own rights?” they say. “Don’t you know that Christians are supposed to humble themselves?” When the powerful preach humility to the powerless, that is a perversion of the gospel. Jesus, from a position of power, humbled himself in order to be in solidarity with the powerless, in order to lift up the lowly, not in order to keep them down. Jesus is not a Messiah of humiliation, he is a Messiah of liberation.
The example Jesus gives us is of willingly pouring oneself out for the greater good and for the will of God. It is not about proving oneself to be the humblest person around. It is not about condemning the powerless when they seek God’s liberation. And it’s not about using God as an excuse to hate yourself. True Christian humility is about loving God so much that you set ego aside and let God fully live in you. It is about allowing enough of an opening for God in your life that God can transform you into God’s ideal image for you. It is about having patience and understanding for the others around you, instead of constantly trying to edge ahead or sabotage your neighbors. It is not an easy thing to do, because it’s not something we can do on our own. We have to give up the control. We have to give up our will, and let God live in us.
It’s not easy to do. I like to have control of my life. I like to make plans for the future. Sometimes I even like to try to make it clear that I know that I can do that better. But when I can let that go, when I can give myself over, that is when I live as my true self, because that is when Christ is living in me.
May the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. 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. Thanks be to God.