We have in today’s reading one of the great passages in Scripture. Here Paul tenderly yet passionately urged Christians in Philippi (in Macedonia) to follow the example of Jesus by experiencing and practicing a deep, humble love among themselves. We do well to mine the ore of this passage with a strong desire to possess its riches. In it we will find not the world’s riches but heaven’s.
Philippi was a significant city in the first century A.D. With a wide diversity of people, ideas, and religious practices, it straddled a major road between the western and eastern spheres of the Roman empire. In this swirl of forces, the Philippian Christians suffered because of their allegiance to Jesus. Such pressure on them raised the specter of ill will and conflict in their community. Paul, aware of this, exhorted them to be united with each other in love even as they were united with Jesus.
The pattern for living out this unity is found in Jesus himself. With a stark beauty, today’s passage describes this pattern in the divinity and humanity of the person and life of Jesus – what in theology is called Christology. Now Paul primarily wrote this passage not to instruct in theology or Christology. He wrote to instruct in life. However, the life instruction depended on the Christology.
The Christology is this. Jesus was fully divine. Yet he did not “grasp” divinity such that he felt no compassion toward sinful, broken humankind. Rather, he humbled himself to enter human life truly and fully – what we call the incarnation. He so humbled himself (the Greek in verse 7 can be translated “slave” as equally as “servant”) that, to love God and us faithfully, he willingly suffered the most excruciating and abasing death the ancient world knew.
The life instruction is this. If Jesus so humbled himself in love to bind himself to us and us to God, and if we say we are united with him, we should live specifically, concretely in love as he did. We should live in such deep, humble love for others that we turn our back on all self-centeredness and selfishness in order to serve others first, to put others’ interests before our own. If this passage does not turn us from the pursuit of worldly ambition, wealth, and self-importance, what will?
As we set our faces toward Jerusalem this Lent, may we – “through self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (Ash Wednesday liturgy, Book of Common Prayer) – lay aside ourselves to love and follow the example of our savior and lord, humbled and crucified for us.