Christ the Servant
In the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi, there is a great deal of spiritual food for thought and some of the most profound of Christian teaching in the New Testament.
He begins by drawing people’s focus and attention to personal unity with Jesus Christ. He ask questions beginning with the word “If”. “If you are united with Christ, if you have comfort from his love, if you are in fellowship with the Holy Spirit, if you have any tenderness or compassion.”. He is asking people to question their own Christian faith and calling. He is asking them if they are really Christian people at all. He is asking them if they display any of Christ’s character in the way they conduct themselves. He is asking them if they have any kindness and compassion for others. These questions are rather like Jesus asking Peter, three times, “Do you love me?” Paul seems to need convincing that these so called Christians act and behave as Christians should.
While Paul was encouraged that his labours in planting the Church at Philippi had been successful he here expresses concern for the future viability of the congregation. The problem is lack of unity between the members. He diagnoses three causes of discord and disunity. The first is “selfish ambition”. This is the characteristic of the person who works in the Church not for Jesus Christ but for personal advancement. It is said that when John Knox was publicly called to the ministry by the preacher John Rough in St Andrews, he recoiled in horror at the prospect and began weeping. That he became a great minister enduring firstly two years as a galley slave and being forced to move around Europe for his safety, was not due to personal ambition but to his sense of calling. A real sense that what we do in the Church is not our own work is essential for the unity of the congregation.
The second cause of disunity, says Paul, is the desire for “personal prestige”. It is a human weakness to want to be recognised for something. But when we work for Jesus, that option is usually not available. The Church has no Oscar ceremonies although in Dundonald Parish Church, in Bob Mayes’ time as minister, they had the annual Golden Egg award in which they recognised the contributions that individuals made to local congregational life. Thirdly, Paul saw the danger to unity in “concentration on self”. This tendency excludes others and by its very nature poisons atmospheres and wrecks friendship in Churches.
In verses 5 - 11 from what appears to have been a clashing and fractious situation - somewhat like a Board or Session meeting - Paul asks that people model themselves on Jesus Christ. That is a large step to take. If you ask yourself - in making this judgement am I modelling myself on Jesus Christ? If I take this decision, am I modelling myself on Jesus Christ? If I speak in this way, am I modelling myself on Jesus Christ? - would we not behave better towards one another?
Paul then writes some of the highest thoughts in Christianity. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness, And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross!”
For Paul, Jesus was not a prophet like an Old Testament prophet. Such great men were very human but inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak and act on God’s behalf. For Paul, Jesus was not an adopted son whom God had blessed and imbued with his own supernatural creative powers. For Paul, Jesus was God incarnate, no less. Jesus’ unchangeable nature was that of almighty God. The essence of his being was God. But in human form. Jesus was not an ‘arriviste’ - a spiritual ‘nouveau riche’ - a usurper of God’s authority. There have been strong characters in the history of Christianity who rose form humble origins and became great for a time. You all know about Rasputin the Russian monk who inveigled himself into the Romanov Court. He became influential but he was corrupt. Savanorola was a kind of John the Baptist figure in 15th century Florence. He lived from 1452 - 1498. He was a revivalist preacher against humanism and the Renaissance. He got involved in politics and seemed to have established a kind of Godly republic, a forerunner of Calvin’s Geneva. He preached against vice and frivolity and gambling and conspicuous consumption. He held ‘a bonfire of vanities’. He was charged with sedition, excommunicated and finally hanged and his body was burned. The Catholic judgement on him was : ‘In the beginning Savonarola was filled with zeal, piety, and self-sacrifice for the regeneration of religious life. He was led to offend against these virtues by his fanaticism, obstinacy, and disobedience’.
Jesus is the embodiment of grace and humility. He made himself nothing. The great 19th century Danish Christian prophet Soren Kierkegaard used to criticise comfortable cathedral going Christians in Copenhagen with the words ‘Our Lord Jesus was nothing - O remember this Christendom’. You would scarcely have recognised God in Jesus. Few did. It’s not something we are ready to expect or understand. We are uncomfortable with the transcendent, with God. We are offended by Christian piety. It testifies against our own compromises. Christianity is very different from Islam and from Judaism and from Hinduism and from Buddhism in this greatest respect. Islam maintains the distance between God and humanity. Judaism does so too. Buddhism is a means of rising towards passive spiritual enlightenment. Hinduism is the worship of many gods in the pattern of reincarnation. Christianity solely offers this message - that God the creator came to earth in human form in Jesus, largely unrecognised and finally rejected, tortured and crucified. It is the severest judgement against human nature of any comparable faith or philosophy. But - humanity having been judged - humanity is offered redemption, forgiveness and eternal life in the risen Jesus Christ returned to heaven.
God has identified with us and our condition. As Hebrews 2:18 says “Because He (Jesus) himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted”. Our existence is redeemed and no part of is cannot be saved because Jesus emptied himself to live among us. He washed the feet of his disciples before the last Supper. But that was only one aspect of his service to them and others throughout his ministry. Exorcising mentally ill people is no picnic. Dealing critically with erring followers is not easy. Taking the life of God to others is a most demanding vocation. A Roman whipping was an extreme form of torture and crucifixion was about as degrading and fiendishly painful a death as is possible for anyone on earth. On Calvary Jesus was nothing to this world of ours.
So Jesus is the opposite of the empty celebrity culture we live in today. Where people are famous for being famous. Where illusions are created and then destroyed. Where the purposes and values of life are idolised in metal forms and in human beings. This is not actually a secular culture. It is deeply religious, but worshipping things made by humans and humans themselves. Christianity with its message and content cuts across the cultic values of today and it is no wonder it is not as popular as it once was. When a person becomes a Christian here on earth there is fame and rejoicing in heaven. But it is likely that obscurity will follow on earth.
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 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”.
Here is another of the greatest texts in the whole Bible… “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” If we make this claim today we may be judged intolerant and spiritually arrogant. But if we can demonstrate from Jesus’ own life and death and resurrection, his uniqueness and worthiness of that claim, then provided we do so in peace and in redeeming love, we may be heard. The politicians trick of making faiths equal in status diminishes Christianity. But we can rejoice in this Jesus for whom every tongue will confess ultimate lordship. Christianity has a long way to go in the world yet. In eternity - Jesus is already recognised and adored. Revelation 5 : 12 says “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise”.
The verses which we heard read to us earlier return to Christian responsibilities flowing from God’s saving grace towards us. Another momentous Biblical text - “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. What does this mean? don’t give up - continue. Don’t fall back. Don’t backslide. Don’t make excuses. Don’t blame others. It means - continue to see the working out of your Christian salvation. See the change that has come about, see the changes still to be made and make them. It is a very great thing to be a Christian. There’s nothing small about it. “Fear and trembling” is not the false humility of Uriah Heep nor is it the schizophrenic fear and paranoia of cannabis users. It is not doubt of God’s grace and forgiveness. But it is a right awareness of the greatness of the transaction that has taken place in your life and mine. It is a reverence for what is happening. You and I can talk to God. We have to perceive where God is leading us. We must take in the big picture. All else is secondary. And how we speak and act is a consequence of that sense of wonder and reverence.
“Do everything without complaining or arguing” says Paul. He brings the most majestic thoughts down to the simplest of rules. How do we manage our disagreements is the question. Not well, is the answer. In the Church of Scotland the historical tendency has been to separate, renounce and never forgive. For Paul - this was a denial of Christianity and of his own missionary efforts. It made his life and time and work worthless. He wrote this as he felt his own life’s time drawing to and end, to be poured out like a sacrificial vessel. But if his readers would listen to his advice and teaching he would die happy and at peace. “I am glad and rejoice with all of you”, he writes. “So you too should be glad and rejoice with me”.