Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 28, 2021
Philippians 2:5-11 Commentary
The retired American professional basketball star Charles Barkley once famously said in a television commercial, “I’m not a role model … Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” His statement displayed the kind of wisdom that other public figures sometimes lack.
The Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday on which many Christians pay especially close attention to Jesus’ suffering, by contrast, unapologetically offers up a role model. “Your attitude,” writes Paul in it, “should be that of Christ Jesus” (5). “Think of yourselves,” as Eugene Peterson paraphrases the apostle’s call in The Message, “the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.”
As my colleague Scott Hoezee notes in his lovely April 3, 2017 sermon commentary on this text, Paul’s letter to the Philippians is among his “warmest and friendliest” surviving letters to one of his favorite congregations. Yet those whom the Spirit helps to “read” between Philippians 2:1-4’s “lines” sense that at least some Philippians didn’t think of themselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.
They give us the impression, after all, that Jesus’ Philippian friends were divided rather than “like-minded.” At least some didn’t seem to share the same love, spirit or purpose. The first part of Philippians 2 implies that Philippi’s Christians did things “out of selfish ambition and vain conceit.” They even seem to have looked only to their own interests.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may be tempted to identify more closely with Christ Jesus than the Philippians. Yet perhaps especially in this Lenten season we confess that the Philippians weren’t so unlike this text’s proclaimers. This Lesson’s proclaimers would be wise to honestly but appropriately share examples of our own struggles to share our Savior’s attitude.
Paul describes Christ Jesus’ attitude in the form of what most scholars believe is an early Christian hymn. That suggests that Philippians 2’s wise proclaimers handle it more like inspired poetry than narrative, a wisdom saying or even theological treatise. We look for ways to build our presentations with language, imagery and even structure that reflect its poetic (while still true) nature.
Of course, as my colleague Stan Mast notes in his fine March 19, 2018 sermon commentary on this passage, this hymn raises some difficult questions. Many of them grow out of Paul’s assertion that Christ Jesus ekenosen, which the NIV translates as “made himself nothing,” but others translate as “emptied himself.”
Of what, for example, did the eternal Son of God divest, in Mast’s words, himself? Those who proclaim Philippians 2 may want to direct more theologically sophisticated hearers to any one of countless fine books about such questions. Most of us, however, can be content to note that the second person of Trinity gave up much to become like us in every way, except that he remained perfect.
N.T. Wright (Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, Westminster John Knox Press: 2004, p. 102) suggests that the Son’s decision to become human was, in fact, “not a decision to stop being divine. It was a decision about what it really meant to be divine.” The second person of the Trinity, in other words, didn’t stop being equal with God when he became incarnate (6). He simply refused to exploit that equality. Christ Jesus chose to graciously “embody” what it means to be divine.
In that view, the Son of God lived out his divinity by becoming fully human (“being made in human likeness” – 7), as well as by living and dying (“became obedient to death – even death on a cross” – 8). God then graciously raised God’s Son Christ Jesus from the dead for the sake of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Among the striking features of this hymn is its set of contrasts. In it, for example, the apostle sings that the second person of the Trinity was “in very nature God,” but “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (6). While the eternal Son of God was in nature God, he “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (7). While Christ Jesus was in nature God, he “humbled himself and became obedient to … death on a cross” (8).
Yet the striking contrasts don’t end in verse 8 – they, in a sense, simply “reverse” in nature. While Christ Jesus took the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness, “God exalted him to the highest place” (9). While the eternal Son of God humbled himself and became obedient to death on a cross, God “gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (10).
As Hoezee notes, perhaps especially Americans have always been intrigued by the kinds of rags-to-riches stories of ordinary people like Amway’s co-founders Jay VanAndel and Richard DeVos. But Christ Jesus’ is a kind of “riches-to-rags” (and then back to riches) story. The eternal Son of God trades in the heavenly realm’s glory for humanity’s poverty and a criminal’s fate, but then gets exalted back to the heavenly realm’s glory.
In fact, this Lesson’s proclaimers might even argue that Jesus “gets back” even more than he had to begin with. After all, while it was mostly Israelite knees that bowed before him prior to his incarnation, the ascended Son of God now receives the praise of both Jews and gentiles. What’s more, someday, somehow every knee will bow before and every tongue will confess that the second person of the Trinity, Jesus the Christ is, in fact, Lord.
So those who proclaim this text might choose to adopt its style of drawing contrasts in our presentations. We might describe to and explore with our hearers the contrast between the way Christ Jesus thought of himself and the way we naturally think of ourselves. Philippians 2’s preachers and teachers might also explore with our hearers the contrast between the way Christ Jesus thought of himself and the way our society and culture think of themselves.
Those who proclaim this passage may also want to note a couple of more things about it. As Hoezee points out, Philippians 2 reminds us that while we sometimes assume Jesus’ suffering began with his arrest, it actually lasted throughout his lifetime. Reformed Christians, in fact, profess that he suffered “during his whole life on earth.” Jesus’ suffering began, in a real sense, when the eternal Son of God “made himself nothing” by “taking the very nature of a servant.” To begin to relate to that, we might imagine waking up, as Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis’ character Gregor Samsa famously does, to discover that we’ve turned into a bug.
Those who proclaim this text may also want to note that as Fred Craddock (Philippians, John Knox Press: 1985, p. 41) points out, the subject of our text’s hymn changes in verse 9. In verses 6-8 it’s the second Person of the Trinity who chooses, relinquishes equality with Father, empties himself, becomes human, serves and obeys all the way to the cross. But in verses 9-11 it’s first Person of the Trinity who does the work. God exalts the Son perhaps by raising him from the dead, but certainly by “lifting” him back to the heavenly realm.
Philippians 2’s preachers and teachers might also ask about verse 9’s connecting “therefore.” That may at least suggest that God exalted Christ Jesus because the Son was willing to obediently go all the way to the cross. Might we infer from this Lesson that Christ’s exaltation was the result of his willing humiliation? Wright, in fact, suggests that God honors Christ Jesus in this way because Jesus did “what only God can do” (ibid).
All of this results in “the glory of God the Father” (11). All of Jesus’ humiliation and exultation, servanthood and authority, death and life bring the Triune God the kind of honor and glory that God alone deserves. Jesus didn’t bring God glory by seeking his own glory. Instead, he brought glory by emptying himself, by making himself nothing!
As Craddock notes, Philippi’s church wasn’t torn by christological debates. It seems, instead, to be fragmented by people seeking their own glory. In Philippians 2’s stirring hymn, the apostle invites the church to a different way. “In your relationship with each other,” Craddock paraphrases Paul’s message to the Philippians, “think this way, let this be the governing attitude of the group, for, says Paul, that which makes the church the church is the ‘in Christ Jesus’ mind.”
In his delightful book, Wishful Thinking, Frederick Beuchner writes, “Humility is often confused with saying you’re not much of a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship. If you really aren’t much of a bridge player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly. This kind of humility is a form of low comedy.
“True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.”
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