Monday, 29 September 2014

Phil 2- humility and divinity

It’s amazing to see the power of celebrity on some people. I remember seeing old news footage of the Beatles and watching girls in the crowd go absolutely bananas. They are screaming and fainting and jumping up and down. It looks like they are on the verge of a riot. To them the Beatles were larger than life.
The power some rock stars and movie stars have over people is amazing. We see them on TV, in movies or hear them on the radio. We see them in magazines as we buy our groceries and it is as if they are from another world. They are beautiful and rich and talented. We see the royal family in palaces, and they almost don’t seem human. They can seem more than human to us mere mortals.
In the ancient would it was like this too. A great military leader like Alexander the Great (who conquered most of what he knew as “the world”) or the Roman Emperor Augustus (who ended a major civil war) was considered divine. (See NT Wright's commentary on Philippians in his "for everybody..." series) They were larger than life. They were considered more than human.  They did amazing things that seemed beyond the ability of a mere human being.
 Paul presents a very countercultural image of divinity. Divinity in Paul’s world was about power and strength. In the ancient world humility was considered weakness and was not actually considered a virtue at all. Paul and the ancient Christians boldly connected humility to divinity. We really can’t grasp how shocking this would have been.        
Divinity in the ancient world was about grasping for power, like Adam and Eve grasping for the power in the fruit of the forbidden tree (Gen 3). The way to divinity was about human beings conquering and gaining status and power. Their ambition was to be a god. This is what humans tend to do. We do this in big ways, as celebrities, or political leaders, or CEO’s of multinational businesses, but we also do this in small ways. We grasp for power, or we seek for our will to be done, in the office, or classroom, or at home, sometimes even at church. We seek for our will to be done and that often means conflict with someone else’s will. Power meant you get your will done over and against all other wills.
In the Philippian church there seemed to be some division. Paul names two women who were not getting along. Paul says in 4:2, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.” But the early churches were also dealing with people teaching all kinds of strange things and that could have led to disagreements in the church. In these disagreements there is a conflict of wills.   
Paul asks the Philippians to contemplate their Lord. In a world full of back-stabbing and gossip and cruelty all for the sake of power and control, Paul asks them to contemplate self-sacrificing love and the relinquishing of power. To make his point, Paul quotes a hymn, or a poem, or a creed that would have been known to them. Scholars place Paul’s letter between 50 and 63AD. That’s something like 20 to 30 years after Jesus died, and this hymn pre-existed his letter. So it is one of the earliest statements about Jesus we have.  It is an amazing hymn. It begins, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited”.
The hymn says Jesus existed before he became human and is equal with God, which is a pretty fascinating thing to be said for those inheriting a monotheistic Jewish tradition. But the divinity of Jesus is assumed in this letter. Paul isn’t trying to prove that Jesus is God. What he is showing with this hymn that they likely already know is the amazing humility of Jesus who being equal to God “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.” Our Lord, the one in whose footsteps we are invited to follow, walked from the throne of God in the glory of heaven to becoming a human being. But not an emperor. He came as one who serves, washing his own disciples feet, then dying on a cross as a rejected criminal. All his power was given up and he loved to the very end and was absolutely obedient to the will of the Father. The idea is that if Christ can humble himself like this, surely we can give up having our way in smaller matters in imitation of him. 
Jesus poured himself out in service to the world. The result was that “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  In Isaiah 45:23 the God of Israel says, “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” This is now used of Jesus who humbled himself to serve in obedience to the Father. Regardless of what our disagreements are about it helps to pull ourselves out of the details and see the bigger picture. Christ is victorious and has won eternal life for us, so why are we arguing over the color of the carpet. Can we learn to submit out wills to each other given the self-emptying we see in Jesus?
It is important to point out what Paul says in verse 12 and 13. Verse 12 says “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”, which sounds like it is all up to us to imitate the humility of Christ described in the hymn. It is a dangerous verse if it is not paired with verse 13- “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”. Verse 12 makes it sound like it is all up to us and verse 13 makes it seem like it is all up to God. We hold these together. We are the body of Christ, and although we can sometimes not feel very Christ-like God is at work in us. Paul is really calling us to be who we already are as the church. This is who God is making us to be. We will have the courage to do this because this self-sacrificial love is at the heart of who our God is. It is His life coursing through our souls.
Our God is not marked by the power of this world. He is marked by condescending. Which has become a negative word for us. It means someone comes down to our level, but we don’t like thinking about people being higher than us. The word can be used well of God. He condescends. The Lord and creator of the universe came to meet us as a human baby laid in a manger. He condescends to meet us in the prisoner, the sick, the thirsty, the naked, and the hungry (Matt 25). God condescends to meet us in simple bread and simple wine. Our God is not about grasping power. He is about open-handed giving 
 The Methodist Bishop Will Willimon says, “… Jesus tells us the truth about God. God is more than omnipotent, omniscient, and all those other non-biblical attributes that we would like to ascribe to God. God is lowest and the least, the little one, the wretched, the one who hangs in agony on a cross, the one who stoops down and washes our feet, the one who emptied himself in order to get down on our level, the one who rose and thereby shall raise us up as well.”[1]   It is his Spirit alive in us. His Spirit that calls us to a unity that can look past our will being done so that His will would be done.

[1] Willimon 37

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