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Philippians 2:5-11

In a world of self-preservation, self-promotion, and just plain selfishness, we might be perplexed by the words of Phil 2:5-11. With so many people striving for power they do not deserve, why would Christ surrender his right? This question sits behind the text and invites the listener to reimagine a reality far different from the one often understood and experienced, a reality that might change our outlook on life.

What if everything we think we know about God, humanity, and the working of the world around us is askew? What if God is more concerned about saving humanity than about condemning them? What if God evidences humility and sacrificial giving not just to deal with sin or even just to rescue humanity but because these things are at the core of who God is? What if human power is supposed to look more like Christ’s actions than those of the various world leaders in power today? What would happen if we seriously embrace this imago dei (image of God) in our world?

Paul invites the Philippians to ponder similar questions as he presents a picture of a God who yields power rather than wields power; a “God of power in weakness.”[1] In presenting this Christological narrative, Paul invites the Philippians to embrace God’s story as their new story. In other words, he reminds them that through Christ they are no longer defined by their earthly genealogies, worldly histories, or even by their societal and cultural norms. In very practical terms, this means that the God they serve is not like the Roman Emperor who acquires power through force and who thrives on people’s fears. Likewise, this means they are not to be like the people around them who share this same attitude and who persecute those unlike them. Instead, Christ exemplifies the heart of the Godhead showing that God has always been a God of love and relationship; a God willing to suffer humiliation and death for the sake of reconciliation and restoration. It is this particular God, as exemplified in Christ, that Paul invites the Philippians to emulate in Phil 2:5.

This is a poignant picture when one considers the particular situation faced by the Philippians. Paul makes several references in the letter which evidence that the Philippians are facing persecution for the faith. In correlation to his own imprisonment and suffering Paul says: “For [God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well—since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Phil 1:29-30[2]). The Christological narrative of Phil 2:5-11 sits at the heels of this difficult declaration and provides the Philippians with a new outlook on their current suffering and even on the shame related to such persecution. Additionally, the Christological narrative evidences the unity between the Father and the Son in their shared mission and shared identity. This is another important lesson for the Philippians. Paul recognizes how suffering and persecution can often cause internal strife and division. For this reason, throughout the letter, Paul encourages the Philippians to be united with God and with the whole body of Christ. It is only in their unity in the midst of suffering for the sake of mission that they exemplify the Godhead (cf. Phil 2:1-5).

Paul’s words paint a new picture of reality. The Philippians actually serve a suffering servant God who was later exalted by the Father as a declaration to the world of Jesus’ divine mission. In other words, suffering is not just something the Philippians and Paul are experiencing. It is an important part of their backstory and thus their identity in Christ. They follow a suffering Savior who was exalted by the God of ‘power in weakness.’ Yes suffering defines their present reality but exaltation lies in their future (cf. Phil 3:10-11, 21). The Philippians’ suffering is not meaninglessly; it brings glory to God (Phil 1:11, 20; 4:20) by evidencing the heart of God and extending the mission of God in their world. For the Philippians, and for us, this means that suffering must be endured with the same humility and unity that Christ and the Father (and also Paul, cf. Phil 3:4b-14—see Lent 5C) have portrayed.

As it probably was for Paul’s audience, these words are not easy for us to embrace. Most of us have accepted the fact that Christ had to suffer in order to carry out his mission but we are not necessarily willing to undergo this same type of suffering or this same type of humiliation for the sake of the gospel. Likewise, most of us appreciate the unity exemplified between the Father and the Son (and Holy Spirit) as seen throughout the New Testament. However, we are not often willing to give up our own ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ for the sake of this unity. But our passage today calls us to these two realities. We must walk in the way of the cross because this event is more than just an action carried out by Christ. It exemplifies the core of who our God is and the core of who we as God’s people are to be. The sacrificial love of God seeks to transform us into people who together as the body of Christ reflect the imago dei in our world. This means that what we do must come out of who we are. We must firmly find our identity, our very being, in the heart of God and live out of this love in tangible ways in the world.

In preaching this text, the preacher should keep a couple of things in mind. First, this passage is often pulled out of its literary context and used exclusively to discuss Christology. While Christology is important it is also necessary to remember the larger theological picture being presented about the nature of the Godhead and also important to remember why Paul is sharing this narrative with his audience. Take time to read the whole of Philippians and take note of how the Christological narrative functions to aid the Philippians in their current situation. Second, the preacher should be careful not to equate suffering with faithfulness. While the Philippians faced physical suffering, Paul was not saying they had to suffer in order to be like God. Instead, he was trying to help move them beyond the paralyzing effects of their suffering and to assure that their current situations did not lead to internal divisions. Preachers may want to stress that believers are called to embrace the heart of the Godhead in our world and this means being willing to give up our rights and freedoms for the sake of the gospel and being willing to undergo suffering for the sake of relationship.

[1] Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 33.

[2] All biblical quotations come from the NRSV.