Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 1, 2017
Philippians 2:1-13 Commentary
I have heard a certain story several times, each time involving different people so I have no idea if it ever really happened to anyone or not. But one version of it that I heard was from the old “Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson. The famous singer Frank Sinatra was a guest and in the middle of his interview, the comedian Don Rickles made an unexpected visit to the set. After much banter, Sinatra told an allegedly true story that years before Rickles had seen Sinatra at a New York City restaurant. So he went up to him and said, “Frank, listen, I’m on a date with a lady over there and I’d like to impress her. So in a while, could you stop by the table and say ‘Hello, Don, how are you doing?’” Sinatra said he agreed and after finishing his after-dinner espresso walked over to the table. “Hi, Don, good to see you.” At this Rickles looked up and said, “Can’t you see we’re trying to have dinner here, Frank, stop interrupting would ya!”
Humor aside, here is a vignette of pride. It’s great to impress people that we know someone famous but better still is to ratchet ourselves above even THAT person by being brusque with them. It is no accident that the images typically associated with pride have to do with height: the proud are said to look down their noses at others, are said to always be riding their high horse, are said to have a lofty opinion of themselves and a soaring ego. The proud need to be on the top of all heaps.
The great irony and beauty of the Christian faith is the gospel truth that the one Being in the universe who really is more exalted, more lofty, and more powerful than anyone is the same Being who, far from using his lofty position as a platform for pride, once upon a time stooped lower than low so as humbly to save us from our sinful pride.
Indeed, it appears that already in the earliest days of the Christian church, believers were captivated by the spectacle of God’s Son becoming a human being. Americans have long been inspired by Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches stories of the common man making it big. America, we say with great pride, is the place where you really can rise up from the poverty of a log cabin to become an Abraham Lincoln, where one guy with a computer idea can turn into Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.
But the earliest Christians knew that the greatest story ever told is not a rags-to-riches tale but the universe’s premiere riches-to-rags story. The evidence that this is among the oldest and dearest themes of Christianity can be seen in Philippians 2.
Paul begins in verse 1 with what could be construed as a kind of tongue-in-cheek shaming of the Philippians. Note these understatements: “If Jesus means anything to you, if his love for you strikes you as being important, if it should happen to be the case that you find the Holy Spirit living in your hearts, if you can find so much as an ounce of compassion somewhere inside you, why then why don’t y’all try to be unified in humility!”
But no sooner does Paul address this topic and he is reminded of what most scholars believe is one of the earliest songs that was ever sung in the Christian church. Instead of simply saying “Be like Jesus,” as he does in verse 5, Paul decides in verse 6 to start singing in the hope that his readers will join in on a song they probably already knew quite well.
In the end Paul hopes that this mutual chorus will movingly drive home for the Philippians the central spectacle of the Christian faith the way only music can. It is a subtle way for Paul to trap the Philippians in their own words. “You sing this all the time,” Paul says, “so isn’t it high time to start living such humility in your communal life together!?”
More than an effective rhetorical technique, however, the hymn Paul quotes in Philippians 2 has also proven to be a rich source for reflection on Jesus’ incarnation, even spawning its own branch of Christology known as “Kenosis.” Some Bible translations have in verse 7 “He made himself nothing.” But the original Greek there actually says, “He emptied himself.” Since the Greek verb for “to empty” is the word kenoo, a lot of theologians now refer to Jesus’ being born a human as his “kenosis.”
As Philippians 2 helps us to see, Jesus had to give up a lot in order to join us on this fallen planet. At minimum he had to give up the glories and splendors of heaven in favor of a world of indigestion, stubbed toes, dirty fingernails, and backaches. But he may also have needed to give up certain other perks and powers of divinity for a little while in order to be truly human. He had to restrain his power, restrict his location to just one place at a time (instead of being omnipresent), give in to his body by eating when he got hungry and laying down for a nap when he got tired.
“He made himself nothing,” the apostle Paul sings. He not only was no longer living in exalted heights, he even ended up dying the worst, most public of all deaths: crucifixion. And he did it all out of a humble love of astonishing proportions. “If you want to get the hang of the incarnation,” C.S. Lewis once wrote, “just imagine how you’d feel if you woke up one morning to discover you had turned into a garden slug.”
And it is in the face of all this that Paul says to the Philippians, “OK, got the picture? Good, now go and be like that!” Few challenges could be greater. Of course, the reason the challenge is so great is precisely because the Devil knows that pride is the dead opposite of God. So item #1 on his list of things to do every day is to tempt us with pride.
Pride is forever driving us to amass as much power for ourselves as we can and then flaunting it so that we can see in other people’s eyes flickers of respect, awe, maybe even fear. But not so for you, Paul sings out. Because we follow the universe’s most powerful being ever and yet this God does not use his superior power to inspire dread or fear. No, God inspires our love by willingly setting aside his power. Humility may well be the core Christian virtue around which most all other virtues cluster.
Because at base true humility is simple honesty. William Law used to talk about “the reasonableness of humility.” What he meant is that humility is simply a sane, sober, honest recognition that we’re all pretty much the same. We all have things we do well and things we do not do so well; we all have gifts in some areas but not in others. Humility is simply the rational recognition of these common-sense facts. Pride, on the other hand, is irrational–it’s insane to think you’re the center of the universe, crazy to believe that you could get along just fine without other people. It’s sick to think that everyone should pay attention to you in a way that you yourself never pay attention to others.
Humility makes you celebrate the fact that we all need each other. And when that is your basic attitude toward other people, you will be naturally inclined to lend them a hand in service if they need help or just to lend them your love during ordinary times when they’re doing their work. Because, you see, humility connects us to others even as pride isolates us.
Kennedy biographer Nigel Hamilton says that Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of the Kennedy clan, was such a proud and arrogant man that he would banish from his home any guest–including the friends of his children–whom he felt did not give him enough attention or confirmation of his views. The result, according to Hamilton, is that after a while only the obsequious and the boring and the shy were permitted in the Kennedy compound, thus depriving the family, including the future president, of the kinds of contacts that could have broadened their horizons and challenged their thinking.
Again, pride isolates whereas humility connects. Pride is interested in the self at the expense of others whereas humility is interested in others at the expense of self. Pride seeks glory for itself but rarely gets it as the truly proud collapse in on themselves, finally resulting in a little wad of ego. Humility is always extending itself toward God and others in a life of service that finally results not in a dense wad of ego but in a gloriously extended self, open toward others like a flower in full bloom and so, as with Jesus, is glorious for all to see.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest shock of the hymn in Philippians 2 is the idea that after his emptied-out life and death of service, the Son of God somehow managed to arrive at a higher point of exaltation than what he had enjoyed before he became human! But if you were God to begin with, how could you ever get higher or more exalted than that?! Philippians 2 says that it is possible because now not only is Jesus God but he is the acclaimed Lord of lords. Humility is finally so powerful that it can enhance the life of even God himself!! Humility, Paul is saying, can and has changed both God and the world.
The story is told among Jews of a rabbi who always signed his letters with the words, “From one who is truly humble.” One day someone asked how a humble person could ever say such a thing about himself. A friend of the rabbi’s replied that the rabbi had in fact become so humble that he no longer even realized it was a virtue–it had simply become his life. Describing himself as humble seemed to him as innocent as saying he had brown eyes.
“If Jesus means anything to you, if his Spirit is in you and his compassion occupies even the smallest corner of your heart, then make humility your life,” Paul writes. Let that central movement of God in salvation–the move away from power and toward humble service–become so much a part of your life as to be nearly a reflex.
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