Narrative Lectionary Reflection
May 13, 2018
About a number of years ago, I was driving down Interstate 35W from the suburb of Edina, Minnesota to Minneapolis. All of the sudden, the traffic just stopped. Now usually if there is a traffic jam, the traffic slows down, but it rarely just stops. I looked at the other lane and it was devoid of any traffic…at all. It was strange to see a freeway not have any cars on it at all, especially at the middle of the day.
Just then, a caravan of black cars made its way down the empty lane. One of those cars was a limousine with flags donning the hood. It was the that I realized what had just passed me by: a presidential motorcade. Then-President Bush was in town to make a speech in a western suburb and as is the case whenever the president is in town, all roads leading from the airport to the location where the president will be are shut down totally to offer he or she protection.
Frankly, I think it’s kinda cool that as president you don’t have to worry about traffic jams. Ever.
It makes sense why roads would be shut down in order to make sure that the leader of our nation is protected from threats. But it was also a reminder of the power of the Presidency. When the President walks into a room, please stand up. Sometimes it’s even followed by music, “Hail to the Chief.”
Even in a democracy, there are trappings of power. It just comes with the territory.
In his letter to the Phillipians, Paul writes a concise understanding of who Jesus was and what his life, death and ressurrection meant. Paul talks about how Christ emptied himself, giving up his status in the Trinity to become “a slave,” to become a fragile human. He lived as a servant, healing people spiritually and physically. Jesus never claimed any special privileges that he was definitely worthy of. Instead he was obedient in life and obedient in death, even in the most shameful way of dying- by crucifixion.
In the gospels, this Jesus is arrested, beaten, forced to carry a wooden cross and then was nailed on that cross to die. All the while the guards and religious leaders made fun of him being the king of the Jews. Some king. He couldn’t even save himself.
The cross is an embarassment. Why would a king, why would any leader humiliate himself this way?
Engaging the Text
Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.
Paul writes these words to the Christians in Philippi and they are in a jam. They are facing persecution, worried about Paul who is inprisioned, and to leaders in the congregation are bickering with each other. In the midst of all this turmoil is these words about how Christ being equal to God, but knowing gave up his status and position to become a servant even to the point of death. And then he talks about how all of this made a difference in our lives and to top it off Paul calls us to imitate Christ and learn to lead lives of service towards others.
There are two themes we want to focus on here. The first is humility and the second will be unity. But first, humility.
Humility is a major theme in Philippians, especially in chapter 2:3 and 8. In modern culture, we consider humility a virtue. But in Greco-Roman culture, humility was not a virtue, but was at odds with its ethical system. A humble person was someone who is low, insignificant, weak and servile. Humble people were viewed not with admiration, but with pity.
Jewish and later Christian culture saw humility in a positive light; indeed, it shows how to properly respond to God through service and obedience.
In this clash of cultures, it is important to look at where people are placing their focus. In Greco-Roman culture, the focus was on those of high position, who look down at those considered subservient, and humble. But in the Hebrew (Old Testament) God is focused on the downtrodden. In short, it is a “solidarity of the humiliated.”
An example of this humility is in verse 7 where we see the Christ “emptied himself.” In Greek it means to make void to become nothing. It means that Christ set aside the position and power that he had to become a servant, and he willingly became a suffering servant for the sake of others. Now, none of this should be used as a excuse for someone to do violence towards another, but it is a reminder that as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to set aside our standing and status to serve others. This is what it means to be humble.
Kara Root, who is pastor of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis recounted a story in the early history of the church that is a wonderful example of being emptied for others. Two major plagues hit the Roman Empire in the years after the church began. It was during these times that Roman doctors literally headed for the hills. Basically, anyone that was not sick, took off and let the sick and dying fend for themselves. Everyone did this; except the Christians. They were the ones who took care of the ill. Why did they do this? Why did they put themselves in harm’s way when they could have ran off as well? Kara notes that they did this because they saw those sick and dying as the sisters and brothers and decided to be in service to them.
Another way to see humility or self-emptying is in it’s Greek word, kenosis. What does it mean to be humble when you might belong to a group that has had to be “humble?” Pastor Melissa Tidwell explains what it means to be humble even if you are of low estate:
The self-emptying Paul describes can be a difficult idea to embrace. Doesn’t exalting servanthood exalt a distorted view of human worth? Some of us never had the choice about servitude. Many of us—women, LGBT people who have had to fight for the right to even have a self—are wary of the idea of emptying our hard-won individuation.
But Christ did not erase the self he possessed, he offered it. I sometimes hear lonely people say they have a lot of love to give, and it seems they might be imagining their love in a vessel, filled to brimming, with no right place in which to pour out the devotion that is waiting inside them. The giving of the divine Christ, entering into human life as he loved the disciples, the sick who came to him for healing, the crowds who flocked to his stories, was that pouring out of the love he had to give, extended as a gift, a libation. And perhaps it was for Jesus and for us that in the pouring out the gift, we find it, like the waters of abundant life, welling up to regenerate the love freely offered.
Now to unity. In chapter two, Paul seems to put more weight on the unity of the church over its witness. This runs counter to American culture, where churches tend to focus more on activity; investing in local and national issues. Very little is placed on community building. It might be because so much of 21st century American society is based on sorting into like-minded communities. But the community that Paul talks about goes against the spirit of rights, choices and self-expression. It is easier to focus on a social issue probably because it allows us to sort into those like-minded communities and Paul is calling us to do something that can’t be completed in an afternoon.
The community-building Paul talks about is challenging. It means putting the needs of the other, which you sometimes can’t stand, above the your own needs. So for example, in Paul’s world, it would mean the owner had to cater to the needs of the slave. For Americans, it means crossing racial/ethinic/socioeconomical lines, which even for someone who likes “diversity” is a challenge.
Paul reminds the American church that we have things backwards. We think the public witness of the church is found in social action. But its public witness has to come from the internal unity and strength.
In Paul’s time, Roman society was a stratified by class and social rank. Even Paul was a Roman citizen, a step above most other people. Unity meant treating people the same regardless of their standing. That was unsettling to people back then. Think about it; Paul was saying that a slave and the owner were the same. A Jewish immigrant would be equal to a Roman citizen and so on. Sameness and equality is something the bothers us today as well. When Paul talks of unity it means God is no respecter of persons as Ephesians 6:9 notes:
because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do,whether they are slave or free.
9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
The unity Paul speaks of was costly for the first century church and it is costly for us in the 21st century. What does it mean to cross boundaries in our own day for the unity of the church? It might mean talking to someone who voted for Donald Trump. It might mean that a white pastor steps down from their post, allowing for a person of color to be the Senior Pastor. Instead of serving the poor, it might mean welcoming the poor to the church, to be full members.
In our humility and unity, calls us to servanthood. The act of servanthood by Jesus was something that set us free from the powers of sin and death as my Lutheran friends like to say. Our own servanthood is not only a way to pay homage to what God did in Jesus Christ, but it can also free people. Helping an immigrant, or feeding someone at a soup kitchen or giving someone a shelter who doesn’t have one, being a servant to these folks can give someone life.
If you were watching the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, you might have caught a commercial that has gone viral. It was an ad for Cadillac and features a well-dressed man comparing hard-working, some might say overworked Americans to Europeans that take a large amount of time off. At the end of the commercial, the name walks up to the subject of the commercial, the ELR, Cadillac’s plugin hybrid.
If Cadillac wanted to get some attention, it got it in spades. The general feeling from people was that it was too focused on gaining things over having a life. Ford did a “parody” of the commercial with a woman from Detroit who has started a business making dirt to give to the urban farms springing up in the city. While there are advantages to working hard over and against the more European attitude, there was something about the Cadillac commercial that leaves one feeling uneasy. The commercial is a tale of success. If you work hard, good things will happen. But what happens when one works hard and bad things happen?
You can’t totally fault the guy in the Cadillac ad. People like having a nice house, and a nice car. But as followers of Jesus life is more than things and more than living the good life. We are called to enter into the crosses of suffering in this world and do the work of healing and justice in the same way that Jesus did.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.