Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-11

Living the Way We Worship

How hard do you find putting the self interests of others ahead of your own? Why is this difficult?

Popular Translation

1 If you are encouraged by Christ, if you are comforted by his love, if you enjoy the presence of God’s Spirit, even if you care for me, 2-4 then join in the same purpose. Share the same love, let your minds and hearts be united. Don’t be selfish or do something to make yourselves look good. Instead, be humble. Think of others before you think of yourselves. Don’t look out for your interests; look out for the interests of others. Do all this and I will be happy.

5 Think about this way of life. Jesus Christ lived this way. 6 He was God but did not try to make himself equal to God the Father. 7 Instead, he emptied himself. Acting like God’s slave, he became a human being. 8 He lived a humble life even when he died on the cross. 9 So, God made him more powerful than any other being. God gave him a name more important than anyone else. 10 Now, every knee in heaven, among the living on earth, or among the dead should bow when the name of Jesus is spoken. 11 To the praise God the Father, every race on earth should declare, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”

Literal Translation

1 So, if (there is) some encouragement in CHRIST, if (there is) some comfort in love, if (there is) some fellowship with the SPIRIT, if (there is) some emotional attachments or pity (for me), 2 fill my joy up so that you might think in the same (way), having the same love, (being) united in spirit, thinking one (thought), 3 nothing (being) according to ambition or according to vainglory, but with humility consider each other (as) exceeding yourselves, 4 not each (one) looking out carefully for yourselves, but [also] each (one) for (that) of others. 5 Consider this among you which (is) also in CHRIST JESUS, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider seizure of (that) to be equal to God, 7 but HE emptied HIMSELF having taken the form of a slave, becoming the likeness of man and found in the shape as a man, 8 HE humbled HIMSELF being obedient unto death, death on a cross. 9 Therefore, God elevated HIM (beyond all other beings) and he favored HIM with the name above all other names, 10 so that in the name of JESUS every knee should bow in the heavens, on the earth, and in the subterranean (regions), 11 and every tongue might confess out loud, “JESUS CHRIST is Lord!” to the glory of God the Father.

2:6-11 These verses form a so-called “liturgical hymn” in Philippians. Obviously these verses form a unit of praise, proclamation, and catechesis. The core insight of the verses can be found in 2:7: the notion of “kenosis” or “self-emptying.” As Christ emptied himself in humility, Paul urged the Philippians to do the same for the good of the community.

The form and background of these verses as a hymn have been hotly debated. But, because of the difference in style and vocabulary, Paul’s authorship is doubtful. The notion of a hymn arose based the language and poetic form of the verses. According to a popularly held theory, Paul adopted a familiar liturgical hymn to make his point about unity in the assembly. If this is the case, these verses reflect the popular piety of the early Christians that pre-dated Paul’s letter. If Paul wrote this section of the letter from prison at Ephesus in 55 AD (the earliest reasonable date), the Church had a fairly advanced notion of Christ that outstripped Jewish expectations for a Messiah. And it had this notion at an early moment in the development of the Christianity.

I freely admit the prior paragraph is speculative, based upon theory. Nevertheless, Paul wrote these verses with the expectation that his audience understood and already believed in the Christ he presented. The development in this theology over just a few decades still is breathtaking.

Why should a Christian consider others ahead of the self? Why can’t a Christian just look out for “Number One?” Paul answered these questions with a reflection on the mission of Jesus and, implicitly, on the nature of Christian faith. The apostle to the Gentiles advanced a simple notion. In Christ, God emptied himself into a human form. By limiting himself to the boundaries of space and time, the Son of God demonstrated the truest form of humility. This humility led him to die on a cross, the most humiliating punishment the Roman Empire could use against criminals. Because of his humility, the Father glorified his Son.

We weak human beings like a show, a spectacle the demonstrates the power of our beliefs and our place. Americans love such pomp to reaffirm the notion we are the most powerful nation on earth. The common culture in Paul’s time was no different. Such shows of power or idol worship were a communal extension of the questions asked above. Roman conquers paraded their armies and their captured enemies through the streets of the Empire’s capital in the midst great crowds. Local cities had religious and civic festivals to boost patriotism and the fervor of faith. “We’re ‘Number One’” was not so really different from “I’m ‘Number One.’”

If Philippians 2:6-11 was indeed a liturgical hymn, this early Christian assembly was truly counter-cultural. They did not hail the deity who overcame their enemies; they did not salute the strong leader who built up national pride. Instead, they praised the Son of God who emptied himself, humbled himself in the worst possible way. They pledged their allegiance to a crucified Savior.

Popular culture soon understood the strange notion of these Christians. The earliest image of a crucifix that exists is a mocking piece of graffiti. The image of a man with the head of an ass was crucified and the image of a slave lay prostrate at the feet of the dying ass-man. The caption was: “Alexander worships his God.” Clearly, the artist considered the Christian faith absurd.

Why shouldn’t we Christians look out for our own self interest? After all, such self-centered action is part of human nature; this is the course of action that makes most sense in popular culture. Yet, the Christian answer is amazingly simple. If we did, we would be guilty of denying the very image of the Savior we serve. Paul reminded his audience of that fact. Like the Philippians, we, too, should emulate the God we worship. Christianity was not built on spectacle, but upon humility. Like Christ, we should put others first. He died to show us that fact.

How can we align our faith and our actions? How can we live our lives the same way our Savior did?