“…he humbled Himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted Him and gave Him the Name that is above every Name”.
Through the Cross, God turns our world upside-down.
Our New Testament reading today from S. Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is one of my favourite bible passages. Perhaps one or two of you have noticed that I often refer to it in sermons, even when it is not among the readings given for the day. It is a wonderful little encapsulation of the Christian faith in elegant poetic form, and it is short enough to be committed to memory.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of the oldest books in the New Testament. It is easy to forget that the gospels were most probably written later than Paul’s letters. This is more logical than it might first appear: whilst there was no great urgency to documenting the stories of Jesus whilst his companions were still living, letters of encouragement, and letters offering instruction and teaching to churches facing specific challenges, were found to be necessary as soon as the church began to spread geographically. Biblical scholars inevitably have different views, but most would place the letter to the Philippians in the 50s or early 60s.
Another interesting thing about the passage we have heard today is that it appears to be a quotation. It is poetry, rather than Paul’s usual prose; it uses vocabulary that we do not normally find in Paul’s writing; it has certain similarities with the poetry of the Old Testament, and some have speculated that it may be a translation out of an Aramaic text. There are obvious connections with the Servant Songs of Isaiah, one of which we heard as our Old Testament reading. It is certainly possible that this passage was not written by Paul, but is rather a quotation from a very early Christian hymn. This may or may not be so, but it is clear that this passage gives us a glimpse into the beliefs of the early church. Paul is not arguing a case here; he is stating something that he clearly believes to be uncontroversial and well-accepted in the context of the Philippian church.
And so the hymn begins with the description of Jesus as one who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, as something to be grasped, but emptied Himself. Here we see an embryonic version of the doctrine that would later be expounded in the prologue of John’s gospel; of Jesus as the Word who was with God and was God and by whom all things were made, of Jesus as the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
But in the letter to Philippians we find a particular emphasis Jesus’ emptying of Himself, and His humility. We can see here I think an allusion to the story of Adam and Eve, who, made in the image of God, saw equality with God as something to be grasped and exploited, and that grasping and exploitation has been the sad story of so much of human history.
And the poem continues,
“[He] emptied Himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form
He humbled Himself
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross.”
In Jesus, the values of human history are subverted; in Jesus, the values of human history are inverted. We strive and struggle for wealth and power and status, turning away from God and trampling on the good things God has given to us, and reducing our fellow-creatures to means to our own ends. Jesus in contrast empties Himself; He has everything, yet He claims nothing, and He gives it all for the redemption of humanity and the whole creation. Rather than reducing humanity and creation to means to an end, Jesus elevates then by paying an infinite price for their redemption, and He elevates us by paying an infinite price for our redemption.
We are living through a strange and difficult time, a time when our values are being subverted and inverted and shaken up in all sorts of ways.
We are wrestling with questions about the value of human life, as doctors and managers and politicians struggle with difficult decisions about where to deploy resources, and how to protect our economic life from the shock of Covid 19.
We are seeing more clearly than we did before how much we depend on those whose work is the least valued in economic terms. We thank God for the cleaners and hospital porters and shelf-stackers and delivery drivers and other low-paid workers we have in fact always depended on; people who we have been quite content to see paid a pittance, often on zero-hours contracts, and sometimes compelled to depend on food banks, sometimes on credit cards or worse.
We are recognising in new ways the value of humanity and of creation, as we see more clearly how dependent we are on one another, and as we take comfort in the signs of spring which seem more noticeable and poignant in our current context.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”. On one level we can read this as a simple exhortation to humility, and that is important. Just as Jesus humbled Himself for our sake, so we too are called to humble ourselves for the sake of others, and for our own sake too.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”. Perhaps we could take our reading of this verse a step further, and read it not only as an exhortation to humility, but also as an exhortation to see the world through Jesus’ eyes; to understand the world according to Jesus’ value system: where the first are last and the last first; where the woman caught in adultery receives the grace of God whilst the religious leaders walk away perplexed; where the poor and the sick and the despised and the outsider find a place at the table; where the one who would be the greatest must be the servant of all; and where the naked and humiliated, bruised and broken, condemned criminal on the Cross is the Sun of Righteousness, the King of the Universe, at whose Name every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.