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|"Humility and Obedience"
Sometimes I wonder if there might truly be a formula for
determining what constitutes a Christian. I wonder if there might
be an equation that demonstrates Christianity.
Of course, we have the creeds, which are statements of what we believe, and these may, like the apostles creed, take on a trinitarian structure of God the father, God the son, and God the holy spirit.
Many might argue that following the ten commandments, found in the Hebrew Scriptures in Exodus and Deuteronomy, are necessary components to determining what constitutes Christian behavior and belief.
Jesus himself told us that there were only two commandaments: to love God and to love our neighbors.
Each religion has its own set of “obligations,” those things that are required of us to be considered devout practitioners of a religion.
I think it is largely a late twentieth-century development, but we can also find formulas for what determines the ideal local church, and what folks should do to achieve that.
But the nature of being a Christian is not always simple. And I think the apostle Paul struggled with this, dealing with the various churches he started.
When he wrote to the Philippians, he presented what would seem to be a formula, or an equation, for Christianity. In the opening to the second chapter we read,
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.’”
And I think that Paul is hoping to see the results of his teaching and leadership. He is quite clear that this is a selfish concern when he says, “Make my joy complete.”
But it is also clear that he has expectations of what should be the natural outcome of the work that he has done.
And I don’t think that Paul is unlike other teachers or coaches or mentors or whatever other label we wish to apply. It is reasoned that if significant training goes into identified, specific areas, the student will develop competence and skills.
There are outcomes that are anticipated.
We might even throw in parenting here. We rear our children by instructing them in how to do things, in letting them know that there are things that they should and should not do. We model values for them. And as all this is happening, we are HOPEFUL that there will be an adult result of which we can be proud.
Well, Paul is not unlike teachers or trainers or coaches or parents. He is hoping to see certain results from what he has been trying to do.
So, look at those verses again. There are four characteristics he is hoping that they have:
First, encouragement in Christ.
Second, consolation from love.
Third, sharing in the Spirit.
And fourth, compassion and sympathy.
We might say that Paul has, in this verse, described his Christian training program. And what are the outcomes? We might identify three, although there seems to be overlap:
First, be of the same mind.
Second, have the same love.
And third, be in full accord and of one mind.
Now, if we take this sameness and oneness out of context, Christians can look like a miserable bunch of robots. But I do not think that this is Paul’s concern. Listen to what he goes on to say:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”
Did you ever hear a more difficult rule to follow? Paul never heard Jesus say it, but Jesus is recorded as telling us that “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” And this tells us what becomes of selfish ambition.
Paul continues, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
How, then, can the same folks who call themselves Christians and consider this to be a Christian nation get so upset with paying taxes that might help folks who are less fortunate?
I’m reminded of the story, told in all three synoptic gospels, of the rich man who came to Jesus to find out how to get eternal life. Jesus asked him about keeping the commandments. No problem.
Then Jesus added, and this is from Luke, “There is one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
And then Luke tells us that when the man heard this “he became sad; for he was very rich.”
It has been generally understood that Jesus does not expect us to impoverish ourselves. But this man, who was “very rich” was very reluctant to part with his wealth.
Paul goes on to say, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
Recall that earlier Paul was hoping that his followers would be of the same mind. But he is not talking about them thinking identical thoughts, or being in absolute agreement on everything. Rather, he is concerned that they have the same attitude.
And when he speaks of the mind of Christ, he is speaking of Christ’s attitude. Or perhaps the word “belief” is more appopriate. Attitude can be more changeable than belief. Beliefs are more deeply held.
So, how does Paul perceive the mind of Christ?
He speaks of “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”
I’m reminded of the temptations in the wilderness, when the tempter, or Satan, or the devil, came to Jesus three times. The first two temptations began with the words, “If you are the Son of God....”
In other words, the devil was reminding Jesus that all things were possible for him. And the devil was saying, why don’t you take advantage of all that power?
I’m also reminded of people who suddenly come to possess large sums of money. Some behave like the prodigal son in the parable in Luke, who “squandered his property in dissolute living.” They spend it as fast as they get it. While others do not regard their new wealth as something to be exploited.
Whether it is wealth or status or power, do we use it or abuse it? Well, Jesus
“emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”
Not only did Jesus not exploit the situation, but he also moved in the opposite direction. Instead of being the fullness of God, he emptied himself. Instead of being the master, he became the slave, born in human likeness.
And when we celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we should be especially mindful that he not only was born in human likeness, but was born to common parents, not the wealthy; born in a manger in a stable, not in a bedroom of a house; visited by lower-class shepherds, not the well-to-do upper class.
One of the plot-lines of literature and of movies is that of a person who is well-off playing at being poor to find out how the other half lives.
A classic of this kind is the movie “Sullivan’s Travels,” made over sixty years ago. In it a Hollywood director becomes a hobo--temporarily--to know hardship and poverty. But in such cases, those who play at being poor are doing just that: playing.
They know that they can always return to their wealth.
Jesus, on the other hand, “Being found in human form, ...humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.”
To be human is to BE humbled. Limitations and weaknesses are forced upon us. We are subject to the laws of God, the laws of the material universe.
To be obedient to those laws is to face the reality of death. But for Jesus, death by crucifixion is the worst form of death known to the Jews. The Romans reserved it for rebels and disobedient slaves.
And when Jesus suffered on the cross he provided further evidence that he “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,” in spite of the fact that he was derided by others at the foot of the cross.
The gospel according to Matthew records them saying, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross. He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the king of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.”
Paul concludes, that as a result of Christ’s obedience, “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”
And there is something special going on here. With Christ’s death he does not merely return to an “equality with God.” Rather, he is “highly exalted.”
The idea that the risen Jesus is given a status that he did not have before is implied elsewhere in Paul’s writings and in other books of scripture.
For example, in the gospel according to Matthew, at his ascension, Jesus tells the disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
His name is “above every name.” However, note that God “gave him the name that is above every name.” This is clearly the name of God.
The absence of an explicit name should remind us that God refused to respond to Moses request for an explicit name, saying only, “I am who I am.”
This exaltation of Christ is “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.”
We’re hearing an echo here of the prophet Isaiah. God speaks through Isaiah in the twenty-second and twenty-third verses of the forty-fifth chapter:
“Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.”
There is an obvious contrast between Christ’s proclamation as Lord and the earlier references to his taking the form of a slave and dying a death on a cross. The exaltation of Jesus, far from diminishing God’s own position and honor, actually enhances God’s glory.
In this passage, knees are bent at the name of Jesus, and the confession made is of the universal lordship of Jesus Christ--but the end result of offering praise to him is the glory of God.
Whoever honors Jesus must also glorify God, because in Jesus we see the one who is “in the form of God” and who mirrors God’s glory.
And Paul goes on to say, “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
“for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
The concept of “fear and trembling” may cause us to cringe a bit, but this condition for the Philippians is not caused by an uncertainty regarding their salvation. Rather, it is the appropriate attitude in the presence of God.
We might speak of God as “awesome”; and that captures the flavor of “fear and trembling” suggested here.
The reason for coming to God in such an attitude is then summed up by these words of Paul: “for it is God who is at work in you.”
And in this respect, we are in a situation not dissimilar to that of Jesus, when he emptied himself, humbled himself, and became obedient. God was at work in him. And God is also--always--at work in us.
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