Having the Mind of Christ (Bruce Epperly)

Bruce Epperly returns today with a second meditation on the Philippian letter.  Here in the second chapter of his letter Paul speaks of having the mind of Christ, and Bruce explores that idea of what it means to have the mind of Christ, indeed the way in which Christ is and was present with us.  I believe you will find this enlightening.  The essay comes from his new study guide on the Philippian Letter.  Check it out.


Philippians II – Having the Mind of Christ
Bruce Epperly

One of my dear friends speaks of  Philippians 2:5 – “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” - as a Christian koan.  A koan, according to Zen Buddhism, is a puzzling saying that is meant to drive us from analysis and control to experiencing the deep truths of ourselves and the universe.  It is essentially unsolvable – “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” – and it drives us to let go completely of our self-referential understanding and unexpectedly experience enlightenment.   My friend puzzled over the question, “What does it mean to have the mind of Christ?” for years, and discovered that the very wrestling with the question took him from the rational to the transrational.

Paul does not give us a clear understanding what he means by the “mind of Christ.”  Perhaps, he recognizes that the best way to teach some theological insights is to give us glimpses, so that we – in Zen fashion – don’t confuse the moon with the fingers pointing to the moon, the words with the living word.  Or, as a Christian theologian once said, “If you think you know it, it isn’t God.”

Paul doesn’t tell us everything, but he gives us glimpses of the “mind of Christ” in Philippians 2:5-11, one of the earliest Christological hymns.  Let me share the hymn with you:

5Let the same mind be in you that was. in Christ Jesus,
6            who, though he was in the form of God,
            did not regard equality with God
            as something to be exploited,
7            but emptied himself,
            taking the form of a slave,
             being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8            he humbled himself
            and became obedient to the point of death—
            even death on a cross.

9            Therefore God also highly exalted him
                        and gave him the name
                        that is above every name,
10                        so that at the name of Jesus
                        every knee should bend,
                        in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11                        and every tongue should confess
                        that Jesus Christ is Lord,
                        to the glory of God the Father.

Scholars often use the term “kenosis” or self-emptying to describe Christ’s presence in the world.  Because of his birthright, he could have been a Caesar, ruling with shock, awe, and coercion.  Instead, Christ rules by loving identification with humankind and the non-human world.

The “mind of Christ” is countercultural.  It can be glimpsed in action, rather than defined clearly.  It is relational, non-coercive, intimate, and sacrificial.  There is no us versus them, in or out, saved or unsaved.  It completely identifies with the human condition, using power relationally rather than coercively.  In the spirit of Paul’s reflections, the Benedictines counsel “treat everyone as Christ.”  Or, as Jesus himself said, “as you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”

The mind of Christ is the blessing mind.  It connects and affirms.  It rejoices in others’ success.  It refuses to have enemies, although it has a strong sense of justice and protection for the weak.  It is the mind of hospitality revealed in Jesus’ fellowship with persons of all classes and social and economic standings.

The mind of Christ joins mysticism and mission.  Seeing our unity with all life, we reach out to all creation.  We recognize that we are kin with Muslims and Buddhists, and also embedded in the non-human world.  We are one with life, seeking the well-being of all creation.  This is the “beloved community,” of Martin Luther King and the “body of Christ” (I Corinthians 12) writ large to embrace not only the church but the whole planet.

So, living the mind of Christ points us to a life of blessedness, care, and unity.  It reminds us to be God’s light, not because we’re special, but to give light to the world, enabling others to find their way. 

So, Paul aims at having Christ’s mind, transforming our vision and transforming the world, inviting all creation to experience God’s healing touch mediated through our loving relationships.  (For more on Philippians, see my text on Philippians: An Interactive Study, appropriate for both individual and group study.)

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, and Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study.  He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats.


Brian said…
This is lovely.
John said…
I have never read a more satisfactory meditation on Philippians 2:5.

But still I wonder what the commentators mean when they say it's an ancient hymn. How do they discern this? Was it actually sung? Can we recapture this in a contemporary English hymn?
Robert Cornwall said…

Yes, I think we could put it to music -- probably has been.

It has the style and rhythm of a hymn -- much like 1 Cor. 13 -- so it is assumed that this is a hymn sung/chanted in worship, which Paul is using to call the people to the mind of Christ.
Robert Cornwall said…
By the way, I think we'll probably use Bruce's guide in the Winter.
Brian said…
John - The New Testament has quite a few pieces that are assumed to be early hymns. For what it is worth, I believe they were well-known before being written down. (Baseless opinion, but there it is.)

These early hymns give us an interesting window into the earliest Christian communities. For instance, in Colossians 1:15-20 one finds a great example of the development of a high christology.
Anonymous said…
It is an interesting view on these verses, although the apporach is a little too universalist for my taste. Neither Buddah nor Muhammad had the mind of Christ and we seek no unity with them or their followers outside of peaceful coexistence.

Just from reflecting on the verse though, the verb is decidedly passive. We can not initiate having the mind of Christ, but we can definately frustrate it. How does one "let" this mind be in him? What are your thoughts?
Brian said…
clarkruss - How do you come to the conclusion that Buddha & Muhammad didn't/don't have the mind of Christ?

Also who is the 'we' who doesn't seek unity with them? I'm Christian and I seek union with them.

You state, " We can not initiate having the mind of Christ, but we can definately frustrate it." How can this be? We can frustrate but not initiate? I don't understand how you are arriving at this conclusion.

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