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Philippians 2:5-11

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