We’re currently in a series by guest writer Marc Rader, in the book of Philippians. It’s written as a dialogue between Paul and Clement (an imaginary member of the Philippian church.)
Yesterday we ended with Paul asking a favour of his friends in Philippians. Or, perhaps more specifically, couching an ethical command as a favour! Paul’s deep friendship with the Philippians means that he doesn’t feel the need to use his apostolic authority, but this shouldn’t cause us to overlook just how important this issue was to Paul! Let’s read Clement’s response to this “request”.
Clement – Epaphroditus paused in his reading. I found myself leaning forward a little. I didn’t want to miss what it was that would make Paul’s joy complete.
[Read Philippians 2:2-4 slowly, paying attention to what Paul is “requesting”.]
Clement – You could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed. We were those who had received the comfort of being in Christ, who had experienced the love of God in Christ, who had become a new community; the people of God and yet, for all that, we didn’t agree with each other, we didn’t love each other, we weren’t of one soul. We were partners with Christ and partners with Paul but not partners with each other.
And Paul put his finger right on it. Even in a community characterised by the cross we were, nonetheless trying to be first, to be on top, to get ahead, to gain an advantage, thinking only of ourselves.
We were doing the same thing as those believers in Rome who were trying to get ahead while Paul was in prison.
In a hundred little ways we were looking out for ourselves.
Paul – I didn’t want them to feel guilty or to begin pointing fingers! I wanted to call them up to the example of Jesus!
So I decided to use a hymn that had been written by someone within my own circle of disciples. We use it frequently in our love feasts, when we commemorate the death of Jesus. Its always reminded me of how John – one of the apostles – recounts the events that transpired before the Lord’s Supper. On the night that Jesus was betrayed, before the meal, he took off his robe, wrapped a towel around himself and washed the feet of his disciples. He took the form of a slave and did the task that none of them wished to. It was only common courtesy to wash the feet of the guests but, in a borrowed room, with the Passover to celebrate, no one had taken the time. It was something for someone else to do. And that someone else was Jesus. There are lots of reasons to excuse the apostles; they were walking into a hornet’s nest in Jerusalem. They all knew that the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders was going to come to a head. But this is what makes this all the more noteworthy. Jesus, under intense pressure, could have taken the lead, looked out for himself. Instead, he served them in the most menial task and then told them to do the same.
This hymn captures some of that for me. I didn’t cite it word for word, but the sentiment is certainly there.
Clement – The next words Epaphroditus read were familiar to some of us. A few of our number, who had worked more closely with Paul or who had travelled to Rome over the last several months, remembered them singing something similar at their love feasts.
[I have included the words of Philippians 2:5-11 from The Message.]Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.
Paul – So much of Christian conduct begins in how we think. There is a sense in which I want all my friends at Philippi to think about themselves as they are in Christ; the new community. However, my concern was really with how they were behaving.
Clement –He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what.
Paul – The good news of Jesus Christ is that, in him, God has come to earth. For a Jew like me, this belief was a challenge to our monotheism. Yet, the evidence of the eye-witnesses is overwhelming. I haven’t spent too much time in Judea since becoming a follower of Jesus, but I have met many people who were healed by Jesus: lepers, blind men, paralytics, the demon-possessed. I knew the Scriptures and that these must have been done by the power of God. Only those men sent by God – Moses, Elijah, Elisha – and a few others were enabled to perform these miraculous deeds. This didn’t’ prove that Jesus was God, but it showed that he was sent by him. But he calmed the sea and feed the masses and taught that he was the Messiah. Finally, after his death he was brought back to life. I’ve spoken to dozens of witnesses to this fact. I myself saw him on the road to Damascus.
The thing is, Jesus, of all who have ever walked this earth, should not have faced humiliation and death. He was God, with all the prerogatives of that status. He could have expected all the power, honour, glory and majesty of God himself – the very glory of God. Yet, he…
Clement –…didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!
Paul – I have meditated long and hard on the incarnation. It is a mystery of the gospel. One way I’ve tended to think it through is to consider Jesus as undoing the work of Adam. Where Adam was created in the image of God, Jesus existed in the form of God. Where Adam was tempted to be like God – taking and seizing that which wasn’t his; Jesus did not grasp on to the equality he shared. Adam was enslaved to sin, while Jesus took the form of a slave. Adam hoped to become like God; Jesus became human. Adam was arrogant and self-seeking. Jesus sought the good of others.
Clement –Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges.
Paul – I don’t know how this was achieved; how the infinite took on flesh, but in my reflection on Jesus from Scripture I have found that the servant passages in Isaiah are helpful. These passages have become very important for us as believers because they help us reflect on how God’s Messiah could suffer. The servant of God is described as highly exalted but found in the form of a slave; someone without advantage, with no rights or privileges who is placed completely at the service of another. He experienced this humiliation willingly. And it was this willingness to set aside his rights for the good of others that I wanted the Philippians to emulate. However, it was necessary to plumb the full depths of Christ’s humility first and that meant the cross.
To think about
This passage in Philippians contains some lofty theology! It sheds a bit of light on how the early Christians thought about the identity and work of Jesus. What is of more importance for us to note, however, is that their interest wasn’t in lofty theology but in living out its implications! It is always a worthy task to ask how our beliefs get lived out in our day to day lives. And from time to time it might be worth “reverse-engineering” the question to ask which of our beliefs provide the basis of our actions.
Pray that today that your faith might be put into action and ask the Holy Spirit to point out areas where perhaps your beliefs and actions aren’t aligned.