Grace Presbyterian Church
September 27, 2020, Pentecost 17A
Despite the chapter break inserted many years later by those who came to edit the books of scripture into chapters and verses, today’s reading is a continuation of last week’s, particularly from verses 27-30 of the first chapter. The thought of this reading is continuous, in other words, from verse 27’s instruction to “only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…“. This current reading adds to and fills out this instruction, but itself also reminds us that sometimes in reading scripture, we need to bring other parts of scripture to bear on how we read the passage before us.
The first four verses of chapter 2 are in particular so pointed towards Paul’s theme, with their repeated invocation of the challenge to be of “the same mind” or of “one mind,” that many scholars suspect that there must have been some division in the church at Philippi after all, comparable to other churches in Paul’s missionary circuit. Later in this letter, Paul will speak to two particular members of the Philippian church, Euodia and Syntyche, using that same phrase – “be of the same mind in the Lord.”
Frankly, this passage would probably provoke less critical fretting if he had said that the first time. To insist on being of “one mind” or of “the same mind” can frankly sound anywhere from disturbing to offensive; what happened to diversity of thought? What about creativity, or even the basic ability to have a conversation (which never goes very far if the two conversants agree about everything)? At least the qualifying phrase “in the Lord” pushes us a little closer to the point here, which is not to enforce total and unrelenting unanimity on everything that is ever said or done or thought.
Let’s be blunt here: it is far too often demonstrated in history that the church can become quite maniacal about enforcing uniformity or conformity in the name of “unity.” Between the existence of fundamentalist impulses in the church in many corners, several crusades over several centuries, patters of exclusion, excommunication, shunning, shaming, and too many other enforcement mechanisms to count, the church has far too often resorted to enforcing conformity in lieu of, well, almost anything else, and on those outside the church as well as those within it.
We must be clear that this is not Paul’s instruction here. To be of “the same mind in the Lord” is not about some sort of lockstep march to doom. No. To be of “the same mind in the Lord” is to seek only one outcome, one which conforms only to God’s will – not to any human will. It is, as verse 4 reminds us, to care more about the well-being and sustaining of others than about our own satisfaction. To be concerned about the interests of others pretty much rules out trying to enforce anything on them.
With verse 5 we turn to understanding what exactly this “one mind” is supposed to be like. We get this in the form of what has become known as the “Christ hymn,” a poetic interjection that is, in the eyes of most scholars, a hymn (maybe by Paul himself, but likely not) that was apparently familiar enough to the Philippians (and quite likely other churches as well) for Paul to use it to demonstrate what the mind “that was in Christ Jesus” is like:
- “in the form of God” – the very nature of God; we express this idea in a slightly different context when we speak of the doctrine of the Trinity;
- “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” – did not cling to that nature to boost himself or to “lord it over” humanity;
- “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” – lowered himself far beyond his God-ness (without forsaking his God-ness) to be human at the same time;
- “humbled himself” – held himself of no status above any of the “least of these” he came to serve;
- “obedient to the point of death” – not even holding his life in any kind of regard, but willingly laying it aside. Paul adds that the death was “on a cross” – the most painful and humiliating kind of execution known at the time.
This is the pattern that being of “the same mind” is meant to take. It calls upon us to take up service as our only call and only goal. And this is the only kind of uniformity being demanded of the Philippians – or of any of Paul’s readers here.
After all, in another of Paul’s letters he will expend a great deal of ink on the very diversity of the gifts of the body of Christ, as he plays out the metaphor in fairly specific ways to point out that not all parts of the physical body have the same function or purpose, and neither do the parts of the body of Christ. All of those parts, however, are directed towards the same goal – the health of the physical body, or the service of the body of Christ. And we aren’t all forced to like, who knows, the same flavor of ice cream or have the same favorite verses of scripture or hymns or other such outer expression.
It isn’t all about being all the same – how boring that would be. It is about being of the same mind as Christ, having the same goal and purpose and ultimate calling (expressed as it is in distinct individual ways). It is, to use a more modern idiom, about pulling together, from all our different places, to get the job done.
There is one more challenge to address, one more point that requires interrogation by other scripture. Christ, as the hymn puts it, took “the form of a slave.” Squeamish terminology, to be sure, but unsparing. What we often forget to ask when reading this scripture is this: “taking the form of a slave” to who?
The reflexive answer might be “humanity,” but is that really so? There are numerous Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, law-teaches, priests and other religious authorities of the time who would roar with indignation at the idea that Jesus was in any way a “slave” or even “servant” to them. Jesus frankly did not show much submission to religious authority, or political authority for that matter. When Pilate asked Jesus a direct question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus’s answer might be best translated with the modern slang “If you say so, dude.” After that he clammed up. (See Mark 15, and similar passages in Matthew and Luke.) Jesus didn’t strike much of a servant pose before authority.
That’s because Jesus was “taking the form of a slave” to only one authority; only God, the one we call God the Father, the one who would exalt him and give him the “name that is above every name” so that all knees will bow and every tongue will confess.
And the same God, it should be noted, who is at work in us so that we “work out” our salvation – our being what God made us to be – “with fear and trembling.” God is the one who enables this service from us, this “same mind” service that in the life of Jesus entailed being servant to the least of these, to side always with the oppressed and never with the oppressor, and to follow and serve all the way to the end.
Pull together, for the only end that matters. Paul encourages us to this in such lofty language, even knowing where that was leading in his own life, and what it would mean to those folk who read or heard his letter and followed.
The end for Paul would be death, as it was for the Jesus he served. We don’t know what our end is when we serve those who make us uncomfortable and resist those who make us comfortable. And yet that is our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #264, At the Name of Jesus; #—, Take On the Mind of Christ