Paul was most likely writing to the Philippians during one of his imprisonments in Rome. He knew the community he was writing to and was obviously fond of them. He had been to visit them before and was hoping to return. It doesn’t appear that they had any major issues like other communities Paul wrote to. He commends them for their obedience. But they weren’t perfect. There was clearly some dissension in the group. There is evidence of that in our reading for today. Paul is even more explicit in the 4th and final chapter of this letter when he mentioned two women and encouraged them to “come to an agreement in the Lord.” Paul was incredibly concerned about the unity of the Christian community. We see that theme over and over in his letters. He didn’t need everyone to agree all the time, but he wanted people to care for one another and live alongside one another, even when they were disagreeing.
In our reading for today, it’s not clear what the dissension is. He says, “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” He goes on to talk about the importance of considering the interests of the other above your own interests. This has come up a lot lately in our readings from Paul. For him, it was always about the other, never about the self. That was something he was continually preaching.
That’s a tough pill to swallow because it is contrary to everything we experience in this day and age. I mean, most of us walk around glued to a device called an “iphone.” However, we know from reading Paul’s letters that even before Apple products, people were preoccupied with themselves. Otherwise, Paul would not have had to talk about putting the needs of the other above your own as much as he did.
What makes this text distinct from the ones we have been reading over the past few months is verses 6-11. They are familiar verses because we hear them every Palm Sunday. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on the cross.” This is often referred to as a Christological hymn, which means it was essentially a statement of belief about who Jesus was. It’s an interesting thing to put in the middle of a letter—it almost seems out of place.
But that is the beauty of Paul. Paul felt that every problem, every disagreement could be solved by knowing Jesus and knowing the sacrifice that Jesus made for God’s people. You don’t agree on what traditions to follow in this new community, remember that Jesus died for you. You are having some leadership disputes, remember that Jesus was a born a human and died a horrible death, for you. It almost seems a little manipulative, as if nothing we face compares to Jesus’ sacrifice.
It was more than that for Paul. For Paul, every issue was theological. In other words, it always came back to Jesus Christ—but not just the name of Jesus, but who he was and what he did. How can we squabble about who gets to make decisions or be in charge when Jesus (God in the flesh) agreed to come down to the earth, be born in a barn, live like one of us, then be betrayed, denied and ultimately killed by humans who he was trying to save. He truly emptied himself of privilege and to some degree power by living with us on earth. So when Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” he is talking about embodying Christ by emptying ourselves from selfish ambition. It’s the opposite for being full of oneself.
Apparently there has been significant debate about what Paul really meant when he said, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Was he saying that we have to follow his example, perhaps even make the same kind of sacrifice? I think it is more than that—because it is so easy ignore that. Who wants to follow Jesus’ example of death on the cross? It’s impossible. If that is what we have to do, it’s tempting just to give up.
What if Paul was talking about something deeper…the idea of being in Christ. It comes back to the mission statement of St. John’s: “To live in the Spirit of Christ.” That is more than following an example. It is living the Christian life knowing deep down what Jesus did for us. It is being transformed by that understanding of radical love and acceptance.
Jesus is not a role model to follow. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Often times when I am facing a difficult decision, I start combing through the Bible, hoping I can find the verse to convince myself and ultimately everyone else. But you know what, that almost never works. What might be more effective is too back up and look at the big picture like Paul does. Don’t ask what would Jesus do. Ask: What does a person transformed by Jesus’ sacrificial love do?
Throughout our Sunday morning liturgies and virtually every other liturgy of the church, we have reminders of who God is and what has done for us. If you just look at the Eucharistic Prayer, it is full of prayers to remind us of who Jesus is and what he did for us. What if we extended that idea beyond Sunday morning and found a way to remind ourselves of the way and the truth and the life, every day. The last verse of our reading reminds us that God is at work in us, enabling us to do God’s will. God is at work in us—- but we also need to make space, empty ourselves so God can do that work. We need to remind ourselves of the sacrificial love that God poured out for us, his children.
In a time of our lives where everything is different—nothing goes according to plan—hold fast to Jesus Christ. Perhaps find a Christological hymn for yourself, something you keep coming back to. It could be the one we had in our reading for today. It could be “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again” from our Eucharistic prayer. Write it down, put it on your iphone as a daily reminder. Embrace it as the part of our world that doesn’t change, that remains true and holy. Embrace God as not simply part of the world, but a part of who you are, the best part. Don’t let anyone or anything take that part away from you. God is bigger than any disagreement or conflict the world will ever see, as long as we give him the space.