Monday, 2 October 2017

The Humility of Christ- Phil 2

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians today we are being taught something that is central to the Christian life. We are being taught about being shaped into Christ-like people. In the Western tradition this is called “sanctification”. In the Eastern tradition this is called “Theosis”. It is not becoming some abstract kind of “holy”. It is becoming like Christ. Paul says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus”. We are to have minds that are Christ-like.

We are always in the process of having our souls shaped, but we do have some choices regarding what forces shape us. A stone is always in the process of being shaped, but it is shaped differently if we choose to leave the stone in a dry windy desert, or place it under a waterfall, or throw it into a volcano. 
Likewise, we can choose to sit in front of the TV and watch reality tv shows and have that force shape our soul. Or, we can choose to read our Bibles, or serve someone in need and have that shape our soul. An important question for every Christian to ask is, “What forces are shaping my soul?” It’s important that we are purposeful about which forces are at work in us. 

The saints have sometimes talked about the formation of the soul as the dynamic between pride and humility. Humility is considered the root of all virtue, and pride is considered the root of all sin. Movements towards God produce humility within us. Movements away from God produce pride. Paul talks about not acting out of “selfish ambition”, which is related to pride. In contrast to this Paul says we should count others as more significant than ourselves, which is related to humility (Phil 2:3). Humility is other-centered, rather than self-centered.

We see this thread weaved throughout Scripture. For example, we read in Proverbs 3:34 “God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble”. David was chosen to be king, but was the smallest among his brothers. The prophets constantly remind the people that they were slaves in Egypt as a basis for telling the people to be kind to refugees, widows, and orphans. Jesus’ sharpest words in the gospels were directed against the religious people who were full of pride. He told a parable about a prideful Pharisee praying next to a humble tax collector and declared the tax-collector forgiven (Luke 18:9-14). He said to the prideful religious Pharisees, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt 21:31). He called the religious pharisees proud hypocrites who like to be seen by others to be holy, but who are inwardly full of sin. They may seem to have their lives together, but the root sin of pride was planted firmly in their lives. St. Gregory the Great believed that pride was the source of all other sins. In stealing we think we deserve to have something someone else has. In murder we believe we have the right to decide if someone should live or die. And so on. All sin has pride at its root.

Humility opposes pride. Humility is to see yourself as you truly are through God’s eyes. It is not a tall person pretending she is short. Or, a smart person pretending she is dumb.[1] It is seeing yourself as you are before God. It is remembering that you are mud made into the image of God. Humility is recognizing that we are creatures- created by an amazingly wise, powerful, and loving God. Humility is recognizing that we are His and that God knows how best to live and that He deserves our love, respect, and service. Humility is the natural position of the human heart in the presence of God. The saints thought humility was so important that St. Augustine said, “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues, hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” If humility isn’t present, then whatever virtue seems to be there is faked. 

To really have our souls shaped in the virtue of humility Paul advises us to contemplate Christ. Jesus is the ultimate example of humility so Paul quotes what many scholars think is a Christian hymn that was sung in the Philippian church. Since Paul was writing around 20 years after Christ’s resurrection, this is probably one of the oldest examples we have of what the earliest Christians believed about Jesus.
“Though he was in the form [or nature] of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [held onto, or exploited] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:6-11).

The hymn Paul is quoting identifies Jesus as equal to God in some mysterious way (they hadn't come to the concept of of the Trinity just yet). Jesus had the resources of God to draw upon, but chooses not to do so. Instead he becomes a human being, and not just a human being, but a servant. Jesus has a kind of divine power pack he can choose to turn on[2], but chooses not to use it to benefit himself even when confronted with death- and not any death, but a torturous and humiliating death on a cross. Jesus could have come with overwhelming power, but instead chose to come to us in vulnerability. In the end he returns to his rightful place and the hymn quotes Isaiah 45:23 where God says “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance” and the hymn makes this all about Jesus.

I once heard a story about a soldier who was with a team that was rescuing a group of hostages. The team broke into the compound where the hostages were held and eventually worked their way to the room where they were all huddled together in a terrified mass. The soldiers burst into the room with their body armor and guns and the hostages all cried and froze with fear and confusion in a heap on the floor, holding each other. The team had to work quickly to get the hostages out, but they were scared and there was a language barrier. The team was at a loss as to how to get the hostages to follow them out so they could rescue them. … One of the soldiers got an idea. He took off his body armor and put down his gun, then he walked over and laid on the floor next to one of the hostages, looking her in the eyes. Something changed. The hostages suddenly looked to the soldier who had come to them in vulnerability, rather than power, and he was able to lead them out of the room to safety.

Jesus did not exploit the power that was rightfully his. He didn’t use it for his own benefit, he emptied himself so that he could come to us in a way that he could serve us and draw us to himself. If Christ did this, then the body of Christ should follow his example. We are to have the mind of Christ, which means being willing to bow ourselves down to serve someone else. We have rights and privileges, but we are to willingly set them aside to be able to serve others. As followers of Christ we are called to put aside our power and be vulnerable so we can serve another. Paul says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4). As followers of the incarnate God who was willing to die on the cross to show His love for us, we don’t always have to have things our way.

As human beings we often feel like we are supposed to be trying to put ourselves ahead of those around us. We try to get things done our own way. We are trying to get up the next rung on the social ladder. We do it at school, at work, in politics, and pretty much anywhere else we bump into each other. But, Jesus turns this on its head. He teaches us that to be great in God’s kingdom we paradoxically have to become last- we have to become a servant. It is a lesson Christ exemplified with his own life- identifying with the rejected, the least, and the zero’s on the social totem pole.

God’s people are to be shaped by God’s character and example. As Bishop NT Wright has said, “as you look at the incarnate Son of God dying on the cross the most powerful thought you should think is: this is the true meaning of who God is. He is the God of self-giving love”.[3] At the center of all reality is a God of self-sacrificial love. If we focus our minds on that God, who is constantly pouring Himself out in love, we will be shaped, just as a stone is shaped when it is placed under a waterfall. We will be shaped into the humility of Christ. AMEN

[1] CS Lewis
[2] A description I heard from theologian John Stackhouse
[3] (Wright, ... For Everyone series commentary on Philipians, p103)

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