Lectionary Reflection—01 October 2017

Therefore, if there’s any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what’s better for others. 5Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

6Though he was in the form of God,
       he didn’t consider being equal with God as something to exploit.
7But he emptied himself
       by taking the form of a slave
       and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
       8he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
               even death on a cross.
9Therefore, God highly honored him
       and gave him a name above all names,
10so that at the name of Jesus everyone
       in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
            11and every tongue confess that
               Jesus the Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I’m present but now even more while I’m away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.

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While a lot of people look at the letter to the Romans as St. Paul’s magnum opus (and rightly so, in my opinion), this passage in his letter to the Philippians is a potential contender. Recently, the Lectionary has spotlighted the unity of humanity because of the work of Christ. In today’s lessons, we have what I think is St. Paul’s capstone of the whole thing.

As we’ve seen in the previous lessons, this passage, too, is about unity. But I think it goes further than just unity—Paul seems to have in mind some form of Christian Universalism. Notice what he says in verse two, “think the same way, have the same love, be united, and agree with each other.” And how are they supposed to do that? The next verses tell us:

“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’s better for others.”

Notice the first part—think of others as better than ourselves.

Wow.

What would happen in our world if we all did that?

What if we set our intentions every morning to look at others as better than ourselves? What would happen? If, instead of buying into the concept that “everyone’s out to get us,” we started humbling ourselves and changed our thinking and really, properly believed that others are truly better than we are…our communities would change almost overnight.   

And humility is the key. As Paul states in another place, “Don’t think of yourself more highly than you should” (Romans 12.3; GNT1). That’s the trouble with a lot of us right there—we think too highly of ourselves. As the old saying goes, “The world doesn’t revolve around you.” But a lot of us tend to think it does. The Christian life is one of humility—of thinking better of others than we do of ourselves. And if that’s not countercultural (especially in the United States), I don’t know what is.

I’ve said this before, the way forward is by putting others before oneself. And I get push back almost instantly. “No. Others will walk all over you. You have to take care of yourself. It’s like the oxygen masks in an airplane. You have to put it on your face first before you can help others.” Or, a personal favorite, “I can’t trust anyone else to do it. They always let me down; so I have to do it.”
But what Paul wrote here goes against that way of thinking. He tells us that we should look out for others. And here’s the point that some people just don’t get—if we look out for others, and they’re looking out for us, then our needs do get met! That’s Paul’s whole point! If we’re all watching out for “what’s better for others” then all of us our getting our needs met—I’m watching out for you and you’re watching out for her and she’s watching out for me.

This admonition isn’t specific to Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He says the same thing in his letters to the followers of Jesus in Rome and Corinth:

Romans 15.2: Each of us should please our neighbors for their good in order to build them up.

1 Corinthians 10.24: No one should look out for their own advantage, but they should look out for each other.

Paul tells us that this is the same attitude that Christ had. This attitude—of humbling oneself, of putting the needs of others before one’s own needs—is a summary of Jesus’ life. Read any of the Gospels and one will see that Jesus was always giving of himself for the benefit of someone else. He was constantly confronting those who exploited others and elevated the exploited to the status of God’s children. This eventually led to his death, “even death on a cross” (verse 8).

Some scholars believe the poem that form verses 6 through 11 was already in use and well known when Paul wrote it here. Some even think it might have even been part of an ancient liturgy used by the early church. And this is part of the story that I find so intriguing.

Incarnational theology, i.e., the study of God becoming human, speaks to me on many different levels. Primarily it speaks of the goodness of creation, of matter. When people, even Christian people, talk about the material world being a prison, that the real world is the unseen world of spirit, they simply haven’t grasped the goodness, the sacredness, of creation. The incarnation validates this on one end—God is Spirit (John 4.24) but steps into the material world and puts on a material body—and the bodily resurrection of Jesus elevates it on the other—the resurrected Jesus could have returned to just being a spirit, but he was given a trans-material body. John Philip Newell wrote:

“[George Macleod] taught that we should look for God not away from the material world in some spiritual realm but rather more deeply in the life of the world. The spiritual is not opposed to the physical, he believed, for God is to be found in the material realm of creation, not in an escape from it. For that reason, as he liked to say, ‘matter matters’, whether that be the matter of our physical bodies, the matter of creation or the matter of bodies politic, because the spiritual is to be found at the heart of the material.”2

Paul goes on to say that, because of Jesus, “all beings (“everyone”) in heaven, on earth, and in the world below will fall on their knees, and all will openly proclaim that Jesus the Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (vv. 10-11; GNT; emphasis added). The Greek word translated “all beings” here is πᾶν (pan) and it means “all, the whole, every kind of”. And Paul is clear. When he states “all beings” he means “everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.”

No one is left out.

No one is left behind.

Everyone.

Everyone will “fall to their knees and…opening proclaim that Jesus is Lord.” Some people have tried to make this out to be a forced confession. That is, some people will be forced to kneel before God and confess that Jesus is Lord right against their will. For example, the New Living Translation Study Bible has this note on verse 11—“This does not imply universal salvation, because not all will confess him as Lord freely out of love and devotion.”

“What Paul really means,” I’ve been told, “is while some people will gladly bow before God and profess Christ, many won’t. And those who won’t will be forced to do so before they’re sentenced to Hell.” I just don’t see that in the text. Paul clearly states that “all beings,” “everyone,” will “fall to their knees and … opening proclaim that Jesus is Lord.” To see this in any other way is to read it into the text because of our own tradition or interpretation or both.

Lastly, Paul states that the followers of Jesus in Philippi we’re to “carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes” (vv. 10-11). Those in the Reformed camp quickly skip over verse 10 and emphasize verse 11. And I get that. But when we do that we miss an important lesson: human cooperation in the work of God.

Verse 10 emphasizes human responsibility in God’s plans. We have a part to play in this. We have actions to perform. We have…(gasp)...works to do. As Paul says in another place, “We’re God’s coworkers” (1 Corinthians 3.9; adapted. See also Mark 16.20; 2 Corinthians 6.1). All the while we mustn’t think that this is only us doing the work. No. It’s God working through us. As I’ve said many times, this is how God works to bring about change in the world—through humanity. That’s the point of verse 11. It’s God, through the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer, enabling us to “want and to actually live out” the work we have to do.

Since this passage talks about people kneeling before God at the name of Christ, I thought about addressing the issue going on right now over American sports players kneeling during the national anthem as a protest about how the US treats people of color. Many people are upset because they feel this somehow disrespects the flag and the veterans who have served under its colors. As this post is already so long I won’t address this in detail but I will say this.

If the people who are upset about those protesting did the Christian thing Paul mentioned above—humble oneself and think of the protesters as better than oneself—I truly believe a lot of this would change. There simply wouldn’t be a need to protest. All people—regardless of the color of their skin, or sexual identity, or gender—would be treated with dignity, equality, and respect. But to get there, we must humble ourselves. We must put the needs and rights of others ahead of our own. We must, in the imitation of Christ, lay down our own lives—our own needs and rights—for the benefit of others. It’s only when we do this that we’ll be able to “carry out our own salvation” with the inspiration of God’s Spirit.



~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

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1. Scripture quotations marked (GNT) are from The Good News Translation (Today’s English Version — Second Edition). Copyright © 1992 by American Bible Society. Used by Permission.

2. Newell, J. P., (1997). Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality, pp. 75-76. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

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