If, then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection 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 empty 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,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
assuming human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God exalted him even more highly
and gave him the name
that is above every other name,
so that at the name given to 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.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work on your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. --Philippians 4:1-13 (NRSV)
Like Pr. Elisa last week, I’ve struggled writing this sermon this week. In the midst of all that has happened this week, which we will get to, it’s been one tiny little phrase in the center of this text that has troubled me much. It’s this phrase in verse 7. A reference to Christ emptying himself, specifically “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”
If you were here last week and you heard Pr. Elisa’s sermon, one of the theological terms she talked about, one that I’ve mentioned before, too, is the term imago Dei. It’s a theological understanding, based on the creation account in Genesis, that we believe that each person, every human being, is created in the image of God.
So, what - and this what I struggled with - what does it mean then when we lay this idea beside verse 7 in today’s text where, being born in human likeness meant - at least for Christ - becoming enslaved. What happened to the part about human likeness imaged from the face of God?
So that, among other things, has been my struggle this week. And, by default, it’s yours today, too. Whether you like it or not!
To try to understand this, we need to step back from this small part to look at the whole. These verses are the oldest expression in all of Christian scripture of who Christ is. We teach about this piece of poetry as another proof text of our understanding of the incarnation - of Christ moving from a place of equality with God to that of the human condition. Emptying himself to suffering and death, then to resurrection and restoration. It’s the heart of the Gospel - the heart of the Easter story for us who, on this seventh Easter Sunday, are now returning full circle back to that first Easter Sunday. It’s the heart of who we understand this Christ to be.
But that’s really only part of the story of these verses. We know the social and political context of the Roman Empire at the time this letter was written. Those who ran the Roman Empire put up stone monuments to celebrate its power. These images reflect Roman emperors holding female figures by the hair, women with anguished faces and twisted bodies. They were not just simple statues celebrating emperors who were considered “sons of God,” but statues that celebrated the empire’s power over the people - men and women alike - that it had enslaved.
This hymn in verses six to eleven is a rejection of this kind of power. It celebrates Christ as one who is in the form of God and equal to God. And, if we look at verse 6, which reads that Christ did not “regard equality with God as something to be exploited” - the Greek word for exploited is much harsher than our English translation. It means rape and robbery. In other words, this divine power that Christ held did not include the right to dominate. Or to subdue people. And, in fact, this Christ hymn argues that Jesus took on the form of a slave - of one raped and robbed and exploited. And that he was executed on the cross as a criminal - enslaved by empire.
Domination. Conquest. Exploitation. All of these are contrary to divine power. The death and resurrection of Jesus rejects our human displays of power and violence by taking on the form of those who were the recipients of such power and violence. To show us a different way than violence, fear and death. A way of humility. Of self-giving. Of being open to the cries of those who are enslaved.
Which brings me to this week.
It began on Sunday. Even as we carried the previous week’s events of Buffalo and Laguna Woods and, here in Louisville, the incident with the Christian Academy...even as we carried these events into the week, on Sunday we learned of decades of the abuse, particularly of women, in the Southern Baptist Convention. Decades during which their abusers were preserved and protected. And the voices of these women silenced. And, in the silencing, abused over and over and over again. Perhaps there is a reason God appears to be dismantling the Church (capital C) as we know it.
Then, Tuesday came. And with it, another mass shooting, the 214th mass shooting of the year here in the US. There have been 2 more since then. This, as you well know, was another shooting in an elementary school: 19 children and 2 teachers, each of whom we named today as we began worship.
Do we hear their cries? Do we hear the cries of the voiceless in our world? The people who are enslaved by human displays of power and violence at any cost? Do we hear their cries? When will we begin to listen? And to act?
This hymn, perhaps written by Paul, is not a theological statement, but an ethical statement of how we, who have been saved by Christ, are called to act on behalf of those who have been enslaved by the human condition - the desire for power and domination at all costs. To hear their cries. To listen to their voices. To reject the simple binaries of good and bad, or who’s right or who’s wrong. To experience and take on the posture of Christ. And then, to act. To become in practice what we already are in Christ.
To act is what Paul means at the end of today’s text, when he speaks of the need for us to work on our own salvation with fear and trembling, to continue the work already begun in us by God. And, then, "to will and to work for God’s good pleasure" in a posture of Christ.
Because, if we are all in truth created in the image of God then every child gunned down in Texas is my child. And your child. Every person of color killed is my sister or brother. And your sister or brother. And every grieving family is my family. And your family. Because we are all connected, one to the other, created by God, part of the human family that God created in God’s image. And God’s good pleasure is that we act on behalf of our family. Our human family.
who, though he existed in the form of God,did not regard equality with Godas something to be grasped,but emptied himself,taking the form of a slave,assuming human likeness.
he humbled himselfand became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
and gave him the namethat is above every other name,
so that at the name given to Jesusevery knee should bend,in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue should confessthat Jesus Christ is Lord,to the glory of God the Father. Amen.