He Humbled Himself
He Humbled Himself
by William Klock
In our Epistle this morning, the familiar passage from Philippians 2, St. Paul writes about the Church and about unity. Paul couldn’t be with the Christians in Philippi. He was in prison. But the next best thing to being there was to hear about their unity. It would, he writes, make his joy complete. Unity is one of those funny things. With the exception of a few folks who seem to revel in fighting, we all know that unity is a good thing. But that doesn’t mean that finding or understanding or, especially, living in unity is easy. And this is why Paul doesn’t just tell them to united. He points them to Jesus. There’s a reason why the Church has coupled this Epistle with the day’s Gospel lessons about that first Palm Sunday, the King riding into Jerusalem, and about his crucifixion. We can look for unity in all sorts of places. We can try to make it. We can even try to force it. But if we want to have true unity, we need to look to Jesus. That’s what Paul writes here. Look at how he starts in verses 2-4:
…complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
“Be in full accord and of one mind.” Don’t do anything with selfish motives. Don’t look at for yourself. But humbly look to the needs of others and consider them more important than yourself. It looks good on paper. It would look even better in real life. But we struggle to put it into practise. How many people have left a church because of broken unity? How many churches have split because of broken unity? How many people stay in the same church, but have little or nothing to do with a brother or sister because of broken unity?
We step on each other’s toes. Sometimes it’s accidental. Sometimes it’s deliberate. We sometimes make uncharitable assumptions about others, we take offense, we storm off. Despite our best intentions, most of us aren’t easy to live with one hundred per cent of the time. It’s not always easy to always be servants to each other. Sometimes we let our selfishness or pride get the better of us and humility and forgiveness fall by the wayside. Sometimes we lose our focus and as a result we all end up travelling off-course or missing opportunities to fulfil the mission Jesus has given us. But we should want, Paul says, to live in one accord in love. But it’s not enough to want to. The only way unity will really and truly happen—true unity that overcomes our sins and shortcoming and true unity that is more than loving people like ourselves—is for us to be rooted in Jesus.
In fact, if we are in Jesus, unity becomes part of our nature. Living together in love and unity as the Church isn’t some optional extra or some ideal state that only the best Christians ever achieve. This is basic. This is simple. This is the foundation on which the Church rests. If we don’t get this right we won’t get anything else right—which may be why the Church is often in such a sorry state and so bad in fulfilling our mission of being light to the world. No, this is basic. In verse 1 Paul writes:
If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy…
He’s saying: If Jesus the Messiah asks you or motivates you to do anything at all, if you’ve experienced the love of God in Jesus or the love of God in another Christian, if you have any sense at all that the Holy Spirit is at work in you, if you feel any affection or any sympathy for Jesus and for the Good News—if you feel any of this at all—then do this. If you have any sense of being in Christ, having found your life in him, then live in love with your brothers and sisters and live the unity that Jesus gives you with them as his body.
And that’s it: Jesus. He’s at the centre of this. Unity comes as our minds come together, focusing on the same thing—in this case the same object, the same person. Jesus. We don’t find our unity in our backgrounds or our social standing or our culture or likes and dislikes or even in our mission. We don’t even find our unity in pursuing unity. Unity for the sake of unity may be one of our greatest failings today: Unity is what life in Jesus creates, but too often we turn that upside down and we make unity the object and sideline Jesus and that just leads to all sorts of wishy-washy-ness, because when you make unity itself the goal you always end up sacrificing truth. If unity is found in Jesus, you can’t forge this kind of unity with people who don’t find their life in the Jesus of Holy Scripture. We can certainly find points of commonality with people of other faiths, with secular people, even with cults and heretics and those can be points for engagement, for evangelism, even for working together to meet needs in our communities. But real unity, the sort of unity that the Church embodies is only found in Jesus and cannot be forced or created with anyone who is not in him. You and I don’t create Christian unity. Jesus does. This is why we need to put Jesus first. If we put him first, the unity comes naturally.
Unity is the result of Jesus in our lives and of the love that wells up in us in response to his love. We find unity as we get to know the story of God’s faithfulness laid out in the Scriptures. We find unity as we see the story of God’s faithfulness come to fulfilment in Jesus, in his humility, in his death, in his resurrection, and in his ascension. We find unity as Jesus now invites us to join in the story, not just in taking part in Israel’s story and experiencing God’s faithfulness to his promises, in forgiving our sins and filling us with his Spirit and making us his people, but we also find unity as Jesus incorporates us into his mission and makes us agents of the Good News and agents of his Kingdom. Jesus is at the centre of it and if we stay focused on him unity, again, comes naturally.
Setting aside conceit and selfish ambition and instead being humble and serving each other isn’t an easy thing to do. But this is precisely why we need Jesus at the centre of things. Paul goes on in verses 5-11:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 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.
“Have this mind among yourselves,” Paul says. And then he describes the humility of Jesus. What he describes here is the humility we see in the Gospel of the Liturgy of the Palms this morning—the story of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem as the King, but doing so in humility and riding on a donkey. What Paul describes here is the humility we see in the day’s Gospel, the passion narrative. We see Jesus mocked and beaten. We see Jesus rejected by the people. They so despise Jesus that they’d rather have Pilate release Barabbas, the violent revolutionary. And finally, we see Jesus in humility, stumbling under the weight of his own cross and being led to be brutally crucified outside the city. This is Israel’s King. In his rejection and suffering and his death Jesus shows us what it looks like to be the world’s true Lord.
And in that we see just how different the values of God’s kingdom are from the values of the present age. When Paul wrote that Jesus is Lord and when the first Christians proclaimed in faith that Jesus is Lord, they were making an incredibly subversive statement. It was supposed to be “Caesar is Lord”. It was the Emperor Augustus who had finally ended the long Roman civil war. It was Augustus who had brought peace and stability to the empire. It was Augustus who was declared to be son of the divine Julius Caesar whom people claimed they saw ascending into heaven in the comet that appeared shortly after his death. It was August who had brought peace and unity to the empire with his mighty sword. “Caesar is Lord” was the Roman pledge of allegiance.
But this had been and has always been the way of the world. The kings of Babylon and of Egypt forged their empires by brute force and declared themselves to be gods. When Europe became Christian emperors couldn’t declare themselves to be gods anymore, but that didn’t matter—they just claimed divine right. It was the next best thing. And things haven’t changed very much. We still have presidents and prime ministers and kings and their supporters making claims of divine right—or at least divine providence. People still look to their political leaders today much as the Romans looked to theirs. We look to political saviours. We praise strongmen who promise to make everything better, even if they have to do it through force. “Caesar is Lord” has always been the gospel, the good news, of the world and of the present age.
And this is why what Paul tells us, this is why that proclamation by the first Christians that Jesus is Lord, is so subversive and so world-changing. Jesus was vindicated in his resurrection. When Jesus rose from the dead he did so as proof that he truly is Israel’s Messiah, that he truly is God’s King, that he truly is Creation’s Lord. Caesar, Herod, Alexander, Cyrus—all those great emperors honoured by the world—are pretenders. It’s been our problem from the beginning. Adam wasn’t satisfied. He had to be his own lord and so he swallowed the serpent’s lie and ate the fruit and ever since, humanity has been in this rebellious struggle to assert our sovereignty against the sovereignty of God. We’ve struggled ever since to become our own lords. But in Jesus, Creation’s true Lord came into the world and in Jesus we see what true lordship looks like. Not like Caesar or Alexander—just the opposite.
In Mark 10 Jesus said to his disciples:
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42-45)
Jesus turns everything upside down. And in the Epistle Paul expresses it in a song or a hymn. In most of your Bibles you probably see verses 6-11 formatted as poetry. The general consensus is that this was an early Christian hymn that Paul borrowed to make his point. These words are a statement of the core of our faith as Christians. They remind us that while we may have libraries full of theology books on all sorts of subjects, all of it comes back to Jesus at its centre and here Paul gives us the main, the key points of who Jesus is and what he’s about.
And the key point this hymn makes has to do with the nature of true divinity. Jesus is God, for all eternity—infinitely into the past and infinitely into the future. He stands on equal footing with God, with his Father. He is the eternal Word. He was the agent of creation itself. In the beginning, God spoke and creation came into being. However that works—and I don’t think that’s something we can even begin to fathom—the Divine Word was the agent. And yet when his creation rebelled and when his creation condemned itself to death, God didn’t wipe it away and start over. In his love for us he instead sought to redeem and to renew. And so the Divine Word, the agent of creation, became incarnate. The Divine Word took our flesh upon himself—he became one of us—the agent of creation become also the agent of re-creation.
The hymn says that the Word did not count his divinity something to be grasped at, but instead emptied himself. Two things here. First, the Greek word there we read as “grasped” has the sense of exploitation. It wasn’t that the Word was grasping at something that didn’t really belong to him. It’s that eternal glory and honour are his by his very nature as God. In contrast think again of the kings and powerful men of the earth. Some are born to it and other earn it and some take it by force, but one of the most common themes of history is men grasping and exploiting positions of glory and honour for their own benefit. Jesus had this—and not just this, but something far greater—he had it by his very nature and he chose not to exploit it for his own benefit. Instead—and this is the the second point—he emptied himself, as the hymn says.
This does not mean that in the Incarnation the Word ceased to be divine or stopped being God. This is one of the oldest heresies we know. It’s still around today. No. In the Incarnation the eternal and divine Word of God—the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and the agent of Creation—joined his divinity to our human flesh. Jesus of Nazareth is both fully God and fully human. The Incarnation wasn’t a temporary thing for Jesus. The Incarnation, this choice by the Divine Word to take on human flesh, is permanent and for all eternity. Because of the Incarnation, Jesus is forever one of us and one with us in our nature. We enjoy stories of kings who disguise themselves to go out amongst their people, but that sort of thing is always temporary. Jesus did it for all time. And in that we see not a failure of divinity, but the very nature of true divinity.
In the Incarnation and in the cross, God shows us his commitment to us and his love for us. In 2 Corinthians Paul says that in Jesus God was reconciling the world to himself. So rather than exploit his divinity, rather than watch as we his creations consign ourselves to death, he became one of us in this amazing plan of re-creation and renewal. He humbled himself, becoming one of us. But there was more to it than simply joining our humanity to his divinity. As if that weren’t humbling enough, he also humbled himself in his rejection by the people he already knew to be rebels. He humbled himself as he was mocked, spit upon, beaten, and crucified. Brothers and Sisters, if you want to understand the nature of God, look to the cross, look to Jesus and see in him God giving himself in sacrificial love for rebellious sinners, for his enemies, for you and for me.
Jesus was despised and rejected. Even today he continues to be despised and rejected. People don’t want that kind of God, whether it’s because they can’t wrap their heads around a God who would do such a thing or because they simply refuse to acknowledge that another has sovereignty over them. But, the hymn says, because Jesus has humbled himself, because he has done these things, because he has reconciled creation to God, he is highly exalted. In his resurrection and in his ascension he was vindicated before the eyes of the world. And the hymn acknowledges that one day all of Creation will bow before him and acknowledge that Jesus truly is Lord and that in this the Father will be glorified.
That’s truly amazing when you think about it. God doesn’t need to be glorified. He has all glory and honour by right of his very nature. And yet in humility—and not humility for the sake of humility, but in a humility expressed for the sake of the love of his creation and his people—God finds the greatest glory of all. God is glorified through the cross, through the death of his Son, Jesus, because there at the cross we see his true nature—not an angry or sadistic God arbitrarily crushing his own Son, but in a God who loves us so much that he is willing to sacrifice his very self to restore his enemies to his fellowship and friendship—so that we rebellious sinners, dead in our trespasses can be restored to life in the presence of our Creator; so that through Jesus we can be restored to our place as God’s sons and daughters.
Brothers and Sisters, this is the mind we are to have amongst ourselves. This is what brings unity as we live in humble love with each other and as we humbly serve the world around us. Again, true unity doesn’t happen for the sake of unity alone. True unity comes as we each live with Jesus as the centre of our life, as we set aside everything that is not Jesus and commit ourselves in trusting faith to follow the one who is honoured as Lord because of his humility, because of his sacrifice, because of his love for his enemies. How do we live less for self and more for others? How do we learn to be less prideful and more humble? How do we cultivate a life of service when most of the time we want to be served? How do we learn to forgive when we’d rather hold a grudge? We do it as we exercise our faith in Jesus, setting aside everything else and finding our life and our security and our being in him and him alone. We do it as we ponder and mediate on Jesus and on his life and ministry and especially on his sacrifice for us. This is the mind of Christ and it belongs to us, because we belong to him.
Let us pray: Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for mankind you sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.