Sunday, September 18, 2011

This Is Our Song: Philippians 2:1-11

This a variation of what was used this past Sunday night in conversation with the Imago Dei Youth of Westminster...

There is something about music that is able to speak to a variety of life circumstances. You may have a song of your own that, when it comes on the radio or pops up on itunes shuffle, you declare, that's my song or that's our song. You identify with it. You may even feel as though it is your life's or a particular relationship's soundtrack. A song can resurface the emotions associated with moments of celebration, seasons of grief, and eras of anxiety. When these songs play we sing along as if we were the original composers or artists.

What's your song?

We come to week two of our adventure through Paul's letter to the Philippians and stumble across a song, an ancient hymn. The words of today's text, Philippians 2:1-11, are often referred to as the "Christ hymn," as they are believed to have been familiar lyrics to both Paul and those who "shared in the gospel" while situated in the small coastal community of Philippi. Paul is crouched in the corner of his prison cell, has just praised and thanked his brothers and sisters for their partnership, hums the well-known words, and then embeds them as an ancient hyperlink within this epistle:
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,
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. (2:6-11)
But why this song? Why would he reference this song?

Hear Paul's "prelude" to the Christ hymn:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: 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. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, (2:1-5)
Paul can write all he wants to encourage and goad the people of Philippi to continue in "the good work" of the gospel (1:6); his words are surely poignant and effective. Yet when Paul draws attention to the song they had used for corporate worship time and time again, they are invited to remember that their identity and vocation generates not from who Paul is, but from the person and work of Jesus. They are the people of God, "in Christ" citizens of a different sort of kingdom, who move in rhythm with the Way of Jesus. They are to share the mind of the Messiah, who calls them to live not for themselves but for the sake of the whole world. Paul says it this way, "look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others" (1:4).

After all, that is who Jesus is; that is what Jesus did. Jesus "emptied himself" and became one of us for the sake of the whole world- to include you and me.

That is the main lyric of the Christ hymn. This is the refrain of the people of God who live into the humility of Jesus.

We live in a world where image is everything and social status is vital. The same was true then. The first-century world, which was the reality of the Philippian community, was drenched in assumed roles and social identities. You were male or female; rich or poor; citizen or foreigner; free person or owned slave. There was not much you could do about these identities; for the most part you were born into them. Even more, all your interactions, relationships, and travels reinforced these imposed identities and class affiliations. You would also be sure to do whatever it took to protect and preserve your inherited status.

Again, we do much of the same. Yet, unlike the first-century world, there is an added anxiety about social status and personal image. That is, we can choose and even purchase our status and identity. We carefully consider our lunch table communities, Friday night hangouts, music preferences, cell phone models, clothing apparels, sports team affiliations, favorite t.v. shows and movies, college preferences, and even hair styles. In today's culture, we are promised by ad agencies, commercials, and peers that if we make the right decisions or purchases we will receive the desired social statuses. This game we play is even a competition whereby we are pressured to leverage ourself over and above another. It is exhausting attempting to keep pace or outdo our neighbor in efforts to achieve this sort of identity.

Then we return to the early church, maybe those in Philippi. If you were to walk the streets of ancient Rome and perhaps stumble across one of these "Christian" gatherings, you would notice a striking difference: social class was thrown by the wayside and all called one another "brothers and sisters."

There were, gathered together, slaves and free; men, women, and children; rich and poor; former soldiers and reputed sinners; loners and doubters; chronically ill and recently healed; the educated and the illiterate.[1]

How could this be?

They moved to the rhythm of a different song. Their minds and voices were unified by a new kind of lyric. This song echoed throughout Philippi and a dark and cold Roman prison cell. The Christ-centered melody formed a new community whereby all were invited, welcomed, and received as equal participants marked by a new "in Christ" status.

And this is our song, too.

When we become followers of Jesus, i.e. "in Christ," we are grafted into a new family of God. We are re-born into a new status that need not be purchased. This changes everything. As Paul writes, "in Christ" we find "encouragement, consolation, fellowship, and compassion," especially as those who are wearied or defeated by the social status game.

Yet Paul's prelude and incorporation of the Christ hymn pleads with the faithful in Philippi, and even us in West Chester, to refuse to cling to this status alone. Instead, our individual and corporate minds are inwardly formed by this new identity so we can then journey outward and expend ourselves for the sake of another, maybe a peer who is also wearied and broken by the social status game. We join the church, even this youth ministry, because we quest to look "not to our own interests, but to the interests of others."

That's who Jesus is. That's what Jesus did. And we are to have the mind of Christ.

Karl Barth says this about the Christ hymn:
"Grace certainly does not live and move abstractly, nor transcendently; it comes to meet us in life, in the efforts, hopes, insights, concerns of those about me, in whose company I stand before God...Humility in abstracto can be the grossest pride" (Epistle to the Philippians, p. 57).
A mind formed by Jesus leads a senior to befriend a freshman at a lunch table all alone. Humility, when it has flesh and bones, travels to Center City and dines with the homeless, participates in work projects in Pittsburgh, and follows the lead of Honduran youth in a different sort of missional partnership. We surrender our own interests and offer grace when we invite a stranger to a weekend retreat or another means to enter into this community of faith.

We do this because we have the mind of Jesus. We sing the Christ hymn because we are confident that the day will come when all will be made new and right once again.

This is our song. May our lives and lips be fresh incarnations of this gospel song. And may God's people continue to make the joy Paul spoke of complete until the day of Christ's return (2:2).


[1] For an interesting reference on this point, read Origen's, Against Celsus, Book III Chapter V.

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