Philippians 2:1-11 
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Philippians 2: Humility and Sacrifice Lead to Unity

Date: 16 August 2015

Humily and Sacrifice Lead to Unity
Cate Burton
 

Philippians 2 begins with a call to unity and leads into a beautiful piece of poetry known as the Christ Hymn.

I have been writing poetry since I was about 8 years old. I like words. I like the way they sound when they are strung together in a sentence. I like the way the look when they stretch out across the page. I like the way they can capture the essence of a moment, or an experience, or an emotion and keep a record of it. I like the way that poetry fulfills all of these things for me; the sight, the sound, the meaning. However, I also like the way that poetry can leave things unsaid, unexplained, keeping the mystery and the complexity of the moment, or the experience, or the emotion. Some find this frustrating, or even infuriating. I find it delightful.

N.T Wright, a New Testament scholar I was reading earlier this week said this:

There are some things that can, perhaps, only be said in poetry, and perhaps this is one of them. (p. 102)

This is the Christ Hymn: theologically beautiful and literally, literally, profound.

And so, given the depth and the necessity of poetry, before I try to put words to the mystery and complexity of who our God is and who we are, let me read to you another piece of poetry written by Anne M. Carpenter found on her blog Catholic Kung Fu with the tags; Catholicism, Art, and ‘the occasional martial arts reference’.

This is her poem: Kenotic Hymn 

Kenotic Hymn (Anatomy of a Poem) by Anne M. Carpenter

I

God the Son descended,
descended
down,
down into our dark.

And in emptying Himself
did He lose the same?
Self-divest the Name?
For what can God
give
except Himself?

In soft tones we ask the question,
demand in pleading voices
that God still be God
and hide us from our misery.

How can this be so?
How can this be so when
in shades of dusk
and dusty village air
He came down,
united with our gloom?

God has vanished behind a human face
and in finding us He
looms with greater distance
beneath the impenetrable glass of colored irises.

God the Son descended,
descended
down into our dark.
And we ask in troubled voices
why the darkness does not comprehend.

II

God is light
and light is so only if it shines,
spends and spills itself in shimmering radiance.
God burns and burns and burns
in eternal bright.
Descends without descending
and rises without rising
in self-emptying tri-unity.

And we ask
as God the Son descended
we ask if light has faded,
and He answers, I AM.
For God is
the eternal wealth
of poverty.

He emptied Himself
un-grasped
and in emptying
was and is as He always was.
In emptying
down,
down into our dark
in His mortal obedience
He bends us that way,
like light that carves everything in its shape.

He is the treasure who
in losing finds.
In dying we live—
in descending,
ascend.

We can only have Him if
we give everything away,
can only possess in
the manner that God Himself possesses.

And so
in blushing dawn He tells us,
Noli me tangere
[‘Do not touch me. Do not hold on to me’ Jesus response to Mary Magdalene.]

The Kenotic Hymn by Anne Carpenter is a beautiful piece of literature attempting to capture the essence of the Christ Hymn found in Philippians, of course, as always, from the writers perspective. Her words explain further this idea of God’s descending, self-emptying, coming among us in Christ – that’s what kenosis is, hence the title, Kenotic Hymn.

We are not here today to decipher Anne Carpenter’s words, as wonderful as they are. Rather we are here to listen to and reflect on these words from Scripture. The words of the Christ Hymn are probably not Paul’s. It is believed that this poem was already in circulation and that here, in the letter to the Philippians, Paul adapts this poem to his context.

I don’t think we quite realise how profound these words are. There are all sorts of deep theological truths in these words; the pre-existence of Christ, the importance of Jesus’ incarnation, resurrection, ascension, exaltation – it’s all there, even an understanding of the Trinitarian nature of God. A poem that is beautiful and profound.

But before we get sidetracked with the poem, let’s remember the context in which Paul is using it. The context is a call to unity. Yet, that said, we cannot completely understand what unity is apart from Jesus Christ, so it looks like we are going to be circling around this today.

We have three key words today: Unity, humility, and sacrifice.

Unity.
Humility and sacrifice lead to unity.
That kind of unity is hard work. It is a conscious and constant decision and act of the will. It means that not only do we need to think about the other person or people, but we also need to honour and serve them.

It Pauls day, and in ours too, this was hard work. Last week I mentioned how patronage was a part of Roman, and therefore Philippian, society. There were all sorts of hierarchical relationships between patrons and clients, slaves and freemen and women. Their society was stratified according to class, wealth and social ranking (Cohick 90), their aim in life was to seek honour and social prestige. Some things never change.

Within this context Paul’s call to unity is counter-cultural. It means that an owner will serve his slave, a patron will take a lesson from her client, bro, it even means that a child can contribute to the community, and that a Roman can be friends with a Jew. This is crazy stuff! Surely Paul is crazy. Where are you going to get that kind of unity from? Where are you going to get a desire for that kind of unity from?

Everyone’s gonna have to be focused on something other than themselves, otherwise it’s never gonna work. But you’ve gotta be focussed on the right thing,

It is time for a hockey story. A few years back I was playing for a team who cared more about the game than they cared about each other. There was a common purpose: win the game, get more goals than the opposition, go home happy. Unity of purpose; but, one time during that season there was a scrap on the field between two of my own team mates. They yelled at each other and stalked off. Do you think we won that game? No-oo.

The team I am playing for this year is different though. On Thursday night we played Katikati United, so I have a certain sense of loyalty to the opposition. We had two subs for the first time in about 6 weeks. We’ve only just been able to scrape a team together for the games each week because it’s winter and people get sick, and because it’s hockey and people get hurt. So we had two extra subs, and our opposition couldn’t pull together a full team, they only had ten players; one person short. No subs.

My team is one that cares about the game, and cares about each other. Do you think we gave one of our players to the opposition so they could field a full team? No! Not a chance. They are way better than us. Do you think we won the game? No! Not a chance. They are way better than us. We lost 2-1. Did we enjoy ourselves and therefore play a good game? Yes. Absolutely.

So that was the long way around for me to tell you that unity is important. But unity just for the sake of unity is not what it’s about. Unity comes from being focussed on something other than ourselves, and that something is Jesus Christ (Wright 98)

Paul says to the Philippians, and so to us: if you have experienced encouragement, comfort, belonging, tenderness, and compassion in Christ, then live like this with one another, live in unity with one another.

Instead of seeking your own honour and social prestige seek to care for and honour one another.

Let the church, the family of God’s children; Jews, Gentiles, patrons, client, slaves, free, men, women, children and adults, let the body of Christ be a people of encouragement, comfort, belonging, tenderness and compassion.  May your unity with one another be an expression of your unity with Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ, who being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be exploited.

If humility and sacrifice lead to unity, then Jesus has got that nailed.

Humility; the other key word for today.

Turns out that ‘the Greek term translated ‘humility’ is not found before the Christian era...The word is a combination of the Greek word ‘lowly’ and the verb ‘to think’.’ (Cohick p. 92)

‘To think’ involves both thoughts and attitudes, and also actions – it’s a verb.
Humility, then, is to think and to act lowly; to accept our ordinariness, to stop trying to ascend the social hierarchy, to serve others.


In the Roman world in Paul’s day humility was not a virtue. There was no difference between humility and humiliation.

There is a difference for us. Humility is self-imposed, whereas, humiliation is enforced by others. For us humility is a virtue. Humiliation, however, is something to be avoided.

But, not for Jesus though. Jesus embodied humility and embraced humiliation – when the soldiers cursed and spat and crowned him with the thorns of their contempt and when he was crucified on a cross, the scorn of his contemporaries, Jesus embraced humiliation.

One commentator, Lisa Cohick, says this:

‘Paul’s declaration of Christ’s humiliation would have cut to the heart of the social code of the day, which emphasised status and distributing honour based on status.’ (p. 128)

For them, Christ’s humility was humiliating. He had no status and no honour. Yet, as the poem reminds us, Christ has been exalted to the highest place.

But first:

God the Son descended,
descended
down,
down into our dark…
in shades of dusk
and dusty village air
He came down,
united with our gloom.

He emptied Himself
un-grasped
and in emptying
was and is as He always was.
In emptying
down,
down into our dark
in His mortal obedience
He bends us that way,
like light that carves everything in its shape.

Some things can only be said in poetry. This is one of them. Christ’s humility unites us with him, and with one another. It may be incomprehensible to this day and age as it was in his. Perhaps incomprehensible, but true, mysterious.

Humility and sacrifice leads to unity.
We are united because of the humility and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Because of this mystery and this truth, we are called to be like minded, having the same love, being one is spirit and of one mind. To do nothing out of selfish ambition of vain conceit. But rather, in humility, to value others above ourselves, not looking to our own interests, but each to the interests of others.

And be encouraged, people of St Peters, we are a people of unity, united in Christ, the Servant King. The one who became human, God in the flesh.

Let us look back to the Kenotic Hymn.  

God the Son descended,
descended
down,
down into our dark.

And in emptying Himself
did He lose the same?
Self-divest the Name?
For what can God
give
except Himself?

This hymn, and the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2 reminds us that our God of infinite power, glory and honour, chooses to come among us, to give everything of himself to us. Jesus shows us the self-giving character of God; the humble, sacrificial, unified character of God. Jesus shows us what true divinity is. This poem about Jesus, the Christ Hymn, invites us to rethink our whole picture of God around him.

We all have these pictures of God in our head: Santa Claus God, Vending Machine God, Angry God, Hippy God, Holy God. The people of Philippi had pictures of God in their heads too.

The Greek gods and goddesses used their power to advance themselves. Jesus isn’t that kind of God. The Roman ruler Emperor Augustus, a mere mortal, could use his power to become great, even become divine. Jesus is not that kind of God. Jesus had all the power in the world, and then some, and he did not consider it to be something that he could exploit. Instead he emptied himself, he gave of himself. In doing so Jesus did not lose his divinity, rather, he showed the world what it really means to be divine, he shows us what God is really like so we can have a new picture of God in our head.

For what can God give except himself?...
He emptied Himself
un-grasped…
He is the treasure who
in losing finds.
In dying we live—
in descending,
ascend.

We can only have Him if
we give everything away,
can only possess in
the manner that God Himself possesses.

And so
in blushing dawn He tells us,
‘Do not hold on to me.’

This is our God. The one who, in humility and sacrificial love, leads us to unity, with God and with one another.

Therefore, may we be likeminded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind, may we do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but rather, in humility, value others above ourselves, not looking to our own interests but each of us to the interests of others, for Christ compels us.

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