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Read Philippians 2:5-11.

Let’s return to the worship service in Philippi ... Everyone has gathered in the house of Lydia [perhaps] for the worship and communion on the first day of the week. They are listening to the reading of Paul’s letter. All of them who met Paul and worked with him are listening attentively to his message: The jailer and his family, Lydia, Clememt; even Euodia and Syntyche on the opposite sides of the room.

They listen for news and for some revelation, and then they hear something very familiar. Something like an old poem or well-known song. As they come to this part (Phil. 2:5-11) they may have recited the words, familiar words along with the reader.

Read the Text ...

Form critics, source critics, text critics – just about all the critics and scholars you can name, believe that this part of the letter is a citation of what may be one of the first Christian hymns. It may have been chanted like a psalm or read out loud like a confession. It is a teaching tool, a simple succinct way of expressing who Christ is and what the gospel is all about.

Paul did not place this text here simply to fill the time with a hymn. He is giving them the resources they will need to do what he has asked them to do ... make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

How do they do that? By having the same mindset and attitude of the Lord Jesus ... read text

The community in Phillipi would have been very conscious of matters like rank and status. As a Roman colony they had imported Rome’s preoccupation with hierarchies, chains of command, rank, and social status. In the Roman mindset, these sort of things made for good society. Men had their place in society, women had their place. The upper classes had their place and the lower classes, followed by the freemen and the slaves. The key to good society, harmony, and peace was everyone knowing their status and carrying out the duties of their status. Power was not distributed equally, but in the Roman mindset, that was best for everyone. There was some mobility up the ladder (slaves could gain freedom) but moving down the ladder would be dishonorable. It would be humiliating.

This little hymn tells us something about Christ. He held a rank and status that is as high as one can be. Far above the uppermost of the upper-classes, Christ was equal with God. But Christ did not anxiously or selfishly hold onto to his privilege and status. He let go of it. He humbled him. But his humbling circumstances don’t end there. He doesn’t enter into the human race with the status of a king, emperor, chief, or senator. He assumes the status of a slave. He humiliates himself by demonstrating obedience. And it doesn’t end there. He accepts death, but not even a noble, dignified death – instead, he humbles himself to allow his crucifixion – a shameful, dishonoring death that brought shame to the crucified and all those associated with him. This is the mind and attitude of Christ. To empty one self and let go of honor, status, prestige, power, and control.

By “leading” the congregation in this little song, Paul is reminding them of who they worship and serve. Can they let go of their own anxious interests and focus on what’s best for others? Can they practice obedience rather than dominance? Can they humble themselves? They can if they’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in their lives, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to them. (2:1-4)

So, we can see how the church in Philippi had these problems of rank and status in their Roman-influenced culture. Thankfully we don’t have those sort of issues in America where we are all just folk, now do we? I mean we are all just the same in our big melting pot, right?

Why just this morning I drove my rusty old pick-up truck to Starbucks. I parked next to a V8 Jaguar. What a difference. I thought, “Only in America can a fellow like me in a palomino-colored pick-up and a fellow driving a classy British sports car come together and drink the same overpriced coffee!”
But let’s not deceive ourselves. We may not be as intentional and deliberate as the Romans, but we know how to arrange ourselves on the ladder of rank and status ...

We’ve been reading this text every Sunday as we meet Christ around the Table. What does it say to us? How do we hear it? I imagine it is very difficult for us in our culture to adopt the mind and attitude of Christ. It goes against the grain ...

All this is simply to say that the mindset and attitude of Christ may be just as difficult for us as it was for the Philippians. Maybe even more so. Humbling ourselves, emptying ourselves, can seem very harmful or unhealthy in a day and age when gaining self-esteem and confidence seems to be so much of an issue. The attitude of Christ is not the basis for self-mortification, self-hatred, or debasement. The hymn is social and spiritual, not psychological. This text is about public and social behavior, not self-image or identity.

Christ knew who he was. He had an accurate self-image. His rightful status was equality with God. But he did not exploit that status. He trusted God to preserve his status, his prestige, his power. Christ let it all go for the sake of others – for their benefit.

And God does exalt Christ. He gives him a name of honor – name above all other names. In doing so, God exalts the humiliating circumstances that bring Christ to the place of honor. Christ is not a success story of personal achievement, he is achieves something for all of us by surrendering himself to God and to others.

How could this attitude change our families and church. How could it change our society and community? What would change if we really empty ourselves? To humble ourselves? To let go of our privilege, our power, our pride, our need to be right and our need to be justified and affirmed and instead trusted all of that to God and sought the interest of others?

We might be a church like Christ. In a culture in which so many are furiously fighting to move up the ladder, we might find that we stand out as a people who are not afraid to move down the ladder for the sake of others. We just might stand out as church that is like Christ.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 27 January 2008

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