Taking the Road of Humility - Lectionary Reading for Passion Sunday (Philippians 2)

Philippians 2:5-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

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


             The Lenten Season is coming to an end and Holy Week is set to begin. Congregations that follow the liturgical year (and the Revised Common Lectionary) can celebrate the Triumphal Entry (Palm Sunday) or take the more sober route and go directly to the cross (Passion Sunday). When it comes to the Second Reading (Epistles)  we have only one choice, and that is the reading for Passion Sunday (and it's the same each year). Therefore, this is a modified version of the reflection I've shared the previous two years, both of which were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We're in a better place this year, but we're still not out of the woods. Besides, there is the war in Ukraine that has caught our attention. 

      The appointed Gospel reading comes from Luke 22:14-23:56 (Luke 23:33:43), which takes us from the Last Supper through Jesus' burial. There is, however, the abbreviated version that focuses on the crucifixion. Here in Philippians 2, we hear a word about the incarnation of the one who was in the form of God but did not exploit his equality with God but chose to empty himself of his pre-existent heavenly state, become human, and face death on a cross, all of which leads to his exaltation to the position of ruler of the cosmos. Paul offers Jesus as an example of humility, suggesting that if we follow Jesus' example then we will experience unity as the body of Christ, for in doing so, we become servants to one another and come of one mind. If we read between the lines, the Philippian church, which Paul founded, was experiencing some form of conflict. so Paul tells them to take on the mind of Christ, as revealed in this ancient hymn. The hymn reminds us that while Jesus endured humiliation on our account, God responded by vindicating him through the resurrection. The one who was crucified was then exalted by God so that he might move from humility to glory.

                When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippian Church, he was sitting in a jail cell (Phil. 1:12-17). We don't know where he was being imprisoned since Paul doesn't tell us directly. However, his mention here of the Praetorian Guard suggests that he was in Rome. While it’s a clue it's not proof. But, we can assume that he might be experiencing some form of suffering as a result, and therefore he knows personally something of what Jesus endured. Part of his suffering may have stemmed from his disappointment that the church he planted was experiencing difficulties and he could do nothing about it except offer them guidance virtually by way of a letter (if only he had Zoom!).  

 Whatever the challenges they were facing Paul wants them to stand united in solidarity with each other. If they want to ease his suffering and make his joy complete then they'll need to have the same mind, love, and unity. The path to this state of being as the church requires that they do nothing out of selfishness or conceit. Instead, he asks that they have the same mind as Jesus (Phil. 2:1-5). That request leads to what many scholars (and I tend to agree) consider an early Christian hymn that takes note of Jesus’ pre-existence with God (his divine status), his self-emptying (humility) that leads to the cross, and finally, his exaltation by God, thus vindicating Jesus by establishing him as ruler of the cosmos. Thus, to fully embody God’s realm, one should embrace the way of Jesus, which has the promise of exaltation.

                The hymn takes note of three distinct phases of the Christ event. We begin with an affirmation of Christ’s pre-existence. The hymn states unequivocally that “though he was in the form of God . . . but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7). This isn’t quite the same wording as John’s prologue (John 1:1-18), but it’s close. The second phrase speaks of  Christ’s self-emptying of himself of divinity so that he might become human and face death on a cross. Finally, the second half of the hymn celebrates God’s vindication of Jesus by exalting him to the position of ruler of the cosmos [Ronald J. Allen, Connections, Kindle loc 4177-4192].

                For those of us who affirm the divinity of Christ, this is one of the most direct statements (along with John 1) in support of that position. Pre-existence doesn’t prove divinity, but it does suggest that Paul had a high Christology, such that his status is ultimately different from ours, even if he experienced life as being fully human. Karl Barth writes that “this equality of Christ with God is, so to speak, the fixed, ultimate background from which his road sets out to which he returns” [Epistle to the Philippians, p. 61]. This is the starting point, so to speak, for a movement from heaven to earth and back. Paul's focus here is not Jesus' equality with God, but he ends up pointing in that direction. Paul suggests that Jesus' act of emptying himself so as to take the form of a servant occurred because he didn't consider his equality with the Father as something to grasp. Instead, he chose to become human and face death on a cross. Thus, his humanity fully covers his divinity, and this was of his own doing, his own choosing, and yet it was an act of obedience. This is the point of Passion Sunday. Jesus willingly went to the cross, experienced death, and not just any death, but the most humiliating of deaths. He descended to the depths of human experience by engaging in this act of self-emptying and bore upon himself the brokenness of the old age on the cross.

                This is not the final word in the story. The second part of the hymn (verse 2) reveals that God vindicated Jesus by exalting him to the position of ruler of the cosmos. This exaltation is revealed in the name given to him, which stands above every name, 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.” As I read this, I can’t help but think about the context in which it is revealed. Caesar is the exalted one, to whom every knee would bow, and whose name would be confessed as Lord. In this confession, Paul (or the hymn writer) reveals that Jesus, the one whom Rome crucified, had been exalted above Caesar. Thus, Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. While Caesar might rule an empire, Jesus ruled the cosmos and that to the glory of God. 
                Paul opens up this reading by asking that we be like Christ, who emptied himself of his glory so as to taste life as we live it, even to the point of death, as a result, God vindicated him by raising him to a position of glory. If this is true for Jesus, as those who are his people, might we participate in what is his by nature? As we ponder this question, I leave you with this word from one of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Festal Orations:
Let us become like Christ, since Christ also became like us; let us become gods because of him, since he also because of us became human. He assumed what is worse that he might give what is better. He became poor that we through his poverty might become rich. He took the form of a slave, that we might regain freedom. He descended that we might be lifted up, he was tempted that we might be victorious, he was dishonored to glorify us, he died to save us, he ascended to draw to himself us who lay below in the Fall of sin. Let us give everything, offer everything, to the one who gave himself as a ransom and an exchange for us. But one can give nothing comparable to oneself, understanding the mystery and becoming because of him everything that he became because of us. [Gregory of Nazianzus, Festal Orations, p. 59].
                As we begin a Holy Week may we take up the mantle of Jesus, and find in him a path of obedience that leads to salvation.
Image Attriution - Petts, John, 1914-1991. Christ Crucified, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57342 [retrieved March 31, 2022]. Original source: http://christianchurchestogether.org/letter-from-birmingham-jail/.


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