Reading Paul, we get accustomed to his chiding and correction. We often find Paul confronting churches that have driven him to a sort of holy rage over their lack of understanding, which leads to a wrongly oriented communal life. Paul is an author who pulls no punches. But in his letter to the Philippians, Paul’s tone is warm and loving. It is his most joyful letter. Here, an older Paul sounds more like a grandparent offering final words of wisdom, love, and counsel to his grandchildren, recognizing that they have a big future ahead of them and time is short. He wants them to learn from his life, to mimic it. He wants them to end up where he has ended up.
Incidentally, where he has ended up is death row. Paul almost certainly writes this letter in the late stages of his journey to Rome where he expects that he will be executed (he’s right). He was facing trial in Caesarea when he “appealed to the emperor,” a legal maneuver that required his accusers to send him to stand trial in Rome. This was a foolish legal strategy, but Paul was more interested in getting to Rome than being acquitted, so off to Rome he went. On the way, he writes this letter to his beloved church in Philippi inviting them to imitate his life. He wants them to do what he has done – to give up their honor and status and head toward imprisonment and execution. Imagine receiving a letter from someone facing execution, inviting you to get yourself arrested and put to death by the state! This is what Paul is calling the church to do.
He’s calling them to this because this is what Jesus’ life looked like. We often talk about living a “cruciform life.” This is what it means – a life shaped like the life of Jesus, a life that heads to the cross.
This week’s passage presents it beautifully. In fact, the beauty of the passage is significant. Scholars have debated whether Paul is quoting an existing hymn in Philippians 2, or whether this is new. Either way, there is poetry and music to be found in these words. I would encourage pastors not to analyze this passage in such a way as to ruin its poetic appeal. Too often we find a beautiful poem like this and immediately dissect it in order to extract some mechanical significance. We cut it open to figure out how it works not realizing that we’ve killed it in the process. Let this passage live and breathe. Lead congregants to join you in wonder at the profound truth of a gospel that cuts against our expectations, where everything is gained, somehow, by giving everything away. Dwell on a gospel where humility leads to exaltation, and where the one who was in the form of God humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Allow the beauty of this gospel, this story, to cut against the ugliness of our normal way. Adam and Eve, created in the image of God, try to exploit their position by grasping for knowledge and power, only to be humbled. All around us we see people fighting their way to the top, trying to exalt themselves in every area of life. It’s a fight that is ultimately unwinnable, but we can’t seem to stop. We, ourselves, feel the inclination to use every bit of leverage we have in this world to advance ourselves, to “get ahead,” and to make a name for ourselves. Counterintuitively, it is the opposite that will lead to true life and exaltation. There is something beautiful and alluring about the cruciform pattern of life we see in Jesus. Somehow we know that we are all doing it wrong, and we can see the beauty of the other way. It isn’t complicated in the sense that we struggle to understand it; it’s simply difficult to do because we have to trust that on the other side of humility and humiliation, on the other side of death, is life. We have to trust that the way of Jesus leads somewhere beyond what we can see. And we have to let go of the things that the whole world seems to think are crucial to a good life.
On some level, all of us know the falsity of the race to prestige, honor, and power. We know it, but we struggle to step out of it. We feel trapped. Jesus’ life as it is presented here offers us hope. If God is willing to be humbled and humiliated, then why do I need to cling to my little bit of honor and power? If the way of Jesus is down, not up, then why do I need to fight so hard to make my way up in this world? The burdens we carry of maintaining our “face” can be set down as we follow Jesus in another direction.
Of course, imagining how we might let go of our selfish ambitions and embrace humility is much easier than actually doing it. Paul wants his readers to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” The phrase here is something akin to being mentally prepared for something. It isn’t just to have an idea, but to have an expectation and readiness for something particular. When you know you may have to stay up all night to finish an assignment or to work a graveyard shift, the night might be difficult, but your mental preparedness makes it possible. It’s a very different experience when you expect to sleep, but your loud neighbors keep you up all night. Paul is calling the church to be mentally prepared to live cruciform lives. We are to be ready to release everything, even life itself, in order to follow Jesus to the cross. We are to prepare ourselves, to expect and anticipate the challenges of a downward trajectory.
One of the ways we mentally prepare is by keeping the hope and inspiration of Jesus’ life fresh in our minds. We dwell in the beauty of his life. We read and speak, and maybe even sing words like these. This song is not meant to be read once and then set aside. It is meant to be spoken and sung again and again. These are words that should become familiar, words that ring in our ears and inspire us to persevere. They may have functioned that way for Paul. It isn’t difficult to imagine Paul, incarcerated, singing these words to maintain hope and find some joy in his many trials and journeys. Maybe they came back to him in moments of silence below deck as he sailed across the sea in chains. Maybe he sung them as he was led to trial in Rome, or on his way to be executed. Maybe putting them in this letter is akin to an elder in the church sharing a favorite hymn with the children; a hymn that has maintained faith and hope through a life-long journey, and one that might do the same for the next generation.
Whether or not this was a hymn when Paul wrote this letter, it should function as a hymn for us. These should become words that we hear and speak, words that come back to us in moments of silence, words that inspire us and give us hope. They should be words that shape our lives and that speak the gospel to us even when they aren’t in front of us. May we hear them and speak them and live them.