Because I just returned from a trip to San Francisco last evening and didn't have time last week to make a thorough study of the Bible passage around which our worship will be built this weekend, this will probably be my only "pass" at the lesson this week. (By way of explanation, I should tell the uninitiated that to help members of the congregation I serve as pastor and others who might be interested, I've been giving background on the focal passages each week, usually amounting to two or three posts.)
This week's Bible lesson is from the first-century preacher Paul's letter to the church at the city of Philippi. The specific passage is Philippians 2:5-11, one of my favorite in the Bible.
Here it is:
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
A few notes:
v. 5: This is a call to an attitude, a frame of mind, which is different from what comes to us naturally. Our reference point, Paul says, is to be Jesus. But Paul isn't calling us to mimic Jesus. Instead, He's calling us to a conversion of mind that's utterly radical.
In other words, we allow Jesus to take up residence in our minds so that we begin to think as he thought and thereby, live as He lived.
Frankly, though I may say that I want to be like Jesus, the ultimate goal of Christian spirituality, the fact is that I only want to want to be like Jesus.
At heart, I am selfish and self-aggrandizing. I don't really want to be the kind of selfless servant Jesus was when He washed the feet of the disciples on the night of His betrayal and arrest, even though I may want the world to think that's the sort of servant I am or think I want to be like Jesus.
The truth is that I want the benefit of being highly esteemed for having a servant's heart without the pain or self-sacrifice that might entail.
Paul is here commending a commitment of service that's willing to accept anonymity, a servanthood that isn't rendered for the sake of getting credit from either God or others.
It's the servanthood that characterizes the person who knows that there is nothing a human being can do to make themselves more acceptable to God. They know that they already have God's acceptance, a gift appropriated by all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ.
Instead of rendering service out of a sense of religious obligation, these folks have so let Jesus invade their minds (and bodies and spirits) that servanthood springs from them involuntarily.
To understand this, think of the judgment scene parable Jesus presents in Matthew 25:31-46. There, Jesus welcomes the sheep on His right into eternity, citing their clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, and such.
But these people are oblivious to their good deeds. They ask Jesus when they had done any of the wonderful things that He ascribes to them. Jesus says that whenever they served the least, the most despised, the lowliest esteemed, they had served Him.
What strikes me about this is that the "sheep" had no recollection of the service they had rendered others. They hadn't lived as religious folks trying to demonstrate their goodness. They were humble folks who, like the tax collector in Jesus' parable, cried out, "Have mercy on me, God, a sinner" and allowed Jesus to take up residence in their lives.
Jesus told His disciples in John 13 that true greatness is composed of being a servant to all. One of my frequent prayers finds me asking God to not just to want to be seen as a servant, but to actually want to want that!
v. 6: It's so easy to exploit our human or worldly advantages over others. But those are puny by comparison with the advantages enjoyed by Jesus, God the Son, over we human creatures.
To deal with our rebellion and sin, God could have exploited His power over us quite easily. Like Bill Cosby's Cliff Huxtable talking with his son Theo on the old Cosby show, God has every right to tell us, "I brought you into this world and I can take you out." God could have blown us away. He could have reengineered us to be automatons who unquestioningly do His will.
Instead, God took up a harder course. He embraced human life for Himself, starting out that life as the son of a peasant woman, a child dismissed as a bastard whose first crib was a manger.
His purpose was to woo us so that we would invite Him into our lives, giving Him permission to work on our minds, spirits, and wills to make us like Christ Himself.
v. 7: Jesus emptied Himself. Yesterday at the San Francisco Airport, because we got bumped off of our first flight of choice to Cincinnati, my wife and I got to spend several hours with two women similarly bumped. They were both salespeople with Otis Elevator, planning on flying through Cincinnati and on to Paris. We had such a great conversation and we were so thankful for the opportunity that our delay gave us to meet them!
At one point, we were talking about how hard it can be sometimes to offer to help someone who's hurting. We get afraid that we might do or say the wrong thing. But we all finally concluded that we need to learn to "get over ourselves."
Jesus never had to get over Himself because He was never hung up on Himself. (Although His wilderness temptations indicate that He did have to fight the very understandable inclination to be so hung up.)
To empty oneself then, I think, is to divest oneself of the focus on ourselves that prevents us from caring about another more than we care about ourselves.
It also and more importantly means, willingly laying aside the opportunity to pull rank or look down our noses on others, often a favorite Christian activity. Christians who have emptied themselves know, in Martin Luther's wonderful phrase, that "we are all beggars," utterly dependent on God for "our daily bread" and every blessing from heaven!
Though we may applaud such an other-focused ethic in life, the fact is that it doesn't come naturally. We require the "holy lobotomy" that Paul talks about in verse 5, the transaction between heaven and earth that begins to happen when we surrender our lives and wills to Jesus Christ.
v. 6: Jesus' going to the cross was the ultimate act of selflessness. Selflessness is not selfisness with a pious attitude. Jesus didn't say, "I'm sacrificing Myself; look at how wonderful I am." He sacrificed Himself and invited us all to take up our crosses and follow Him.
vv. 7-11: Because of His Servant path, Jesus has the Name above all names.
(Tomorrow, I may write a bit summarizing words about servanthood from Celebration of Discipline and A Theological Word Book of the Bible.)