Thursday, February 7, 2008

Philippians 2

Philippians 2:1-11: Paul had been writing about living life in a manner worthy of the gospel, and a part of that was to stand firm in one spirit, to work together with one mind. The phrase “be of one mind” literally means, in Greek, “set one’s mind on the same thing.” This connotes something different than uniformity of thought. It may suggest being concerned for each other, and grappling with the same issues and concerns, even if we sometimes disagree on the meaning of some important ideas.

The use of “if” in the first verse is not really meant to be a question. It could be translated “since.” Since there is encouragement, consolation from love, sharing in the Spirit, compassion and sympathy, then follow Paul’s advice and make his joy complete. Eugene Peterson takes a little different tack. If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care – then do me a favor (The Message). This is rhetorical, of course. In either case, Paul does not question that a life worthy of the gospel includes encouragement, consolation, love, compassion, sympathy, heart, caring, Spirit-life. Because it does, Paul encourages the Philippians to be of the same mind and share the same love. “Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends” (The Message). I have again and again been impressed with how important the quality of life in Christian community is to Paul and the early Jesus movement. Should it be any less so today? Don’t our failures as Christian community weaken our ability to share good news with those outside the community? When we fail to love within the church, how convincing is our talk about the transforming power of God’s love?

Having said that, we must acknowledge that this has been a struggle since the beginning. Note how many of Paul’s letters address conflicted situations. His encouragement to be of one mind was probably in response to conflict in the Philippian church. Even his happiest letter may be, in part, a response to conflict. We do not know what lay at the root of the discord in the Philippian church. There may have been polarization around the two women who had worked faithfully with Paul in the past but were at odds with each other (4:2-3). The dissension could have been generated by the preaching of those who sought to bring elements of Judaism into the faith and practice of the church, against whom Paul lashes out in 3:1b-6. Or it could have been the case that the disunity in Philippi was related to Paul himself. If Paul’s unusually strong insistence that he loves and prays for all of them (1:4-8) implies that some members felt they were not in the circle of Paul’s favor and affection, then that could be the condition further addressed in 2:1-11. (People’s New Testament Commentary).

Paul’s encouragement to maintain a common attitude and orientation and love is pushed even further. Don’t be unduly ambitious or conceited, but in humility “regard others as better than yourselves.” Look out for the interests of others and not just your own. Such attitudes could certainly be abused, yet they should not easily be dismissed. If humility entails an inner strength that allows one to look honestly at one’s own gifts, then out of inner security we can look out for others. We should not regard others as better than us by lowering our self-regard. Rather we should seek to lift others up. I recently read a report on something called “self-compassion.” Self-compassionate people are more likely to judge reality and themselves accurately; to be happy, optimistic, extroverted, and motivated; and to feel kindness toward others…. Self-compassionate people accept their flaws but don’t become defensive or otherwise feel badly about them. (Greater Good, Winter 2007-2008) Paul may be encouraging something like compassion and self-compassion combined.

The kind of “same-mind” attitude Paul is encouraging is the mind of Christ. Paul elaborates on this theme in poetic form, either composing a poem/hymn or quoting an even older poem/hymn from the Christian community. It is vitally important to keep in mind that this is a poetic piece and not a newspaper story. The language is evocative, symbolic, metaphoric, not literal. The poem imagines a pre-existent Christ Jesus who had at one time existed in the form of God, but did not grasp at maintaining that form. Instead, he “emptied himself” and “humbled himself” as a human being – even in the way that he died (death on a cross was a humiliating death). This humble One becomes God’s exalted One. Jesus Christ is Lord. The purpose of this poem was to encourage the Philippian Christians, to invite them to cultivate a Christ-mind in their lives. Paul seems to be saying, “This is our central story, the story that has healed and freed us, live up to it.”

This is an extremely rich passage, as can already be seen by the amount of space being devoted to these verses. Another dimension to the richness of this passage is discovered when we put these verses, especially the poem/hymn into the context of the Roman Empire. John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed, in their book In Search of Paul, do an excellent job of this. The hymn subverts and even lampoons how millions within the Roman Empire took it for granted that somebody with the “form of God” should act. It probably does the same, actually, for most Christians today. That former challenge could hardly be missed by anyone aware of how the “form of God” was celebrated from Augustus to Nero and especially by anyone aware that it came from a prisoner under investigation and held chained within a proconsular praetorium. (289) Christian faith seems to be suggesting a way of life different from the way of empire, where being in the form of God is all about power and control and being able to get people to do what you want them to do. Christian faith suggests that what is most powerful is being able to empty oneself for others in love. The Greek word for emptying is “kenosis.” Crossan and Reed argue, further, that in this hymn, Paul is saying something very important about the God of Christian faith. But for Christians, is not Christ the revelation of God and, then, is that kenotic Christ not the supreme revelation of a kenotic God? But what, on earth- or in heaven - is a kenotic God? Maybe this? A God whose gracious presence as free gift is the beating hear of the universe and does not need to threaten, to intervene, to punish, or to control. A God whose presence is justice and life, but whose absence is injustice and death? (291)

There is abundance and richness in this text. The bottom line seems to be – this is what Jesus is like, this is what God is like, now be like that!

Philippians 2:12-18: That Paul’s theological hymn/poem is in the service of encouraging a form of life and a form of community seems clear by the next section. Paul quickly moves on to another word of encouragement – “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” “Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God” (The Message). But we are not simply cast adrift by ourselves to work all this out. “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.” “That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God willing and working at what will give God the most pleasure” (The Message). An important part of the good news of the gospel is that God is an energy and power for creative good and creative transformation, and that energy and power are at work within us. Good work should be done without murmuring, and when that good work is done within a loving and caring community Christians shine like “stars in the world.” (For 1970s music fans, cue up Earth, Wind and Fire, “Shining Star”). Paul links some of the value of his own work with the ability of the Philippians to keep the faith. Even if he is near death, Paul will rejoice in the faith of the Philippians. He wants to be able to look back on his work with a sense of accomplishment as he faces the prospect of death.

Philippians 2:19-30: Here we have some autobiographical notes, but notes that also serve Paul’s larger purpose of encouraging the Philippians to cultivate their Christ-mind and live lives worthy of the gospel of Christ. Paul will be sending Timothy, and his description of Timothy reinforces his encouragement to the Philippians to live the Christian faith. Epaphroditus is also being sent, and he, too, has lived in an honorable way.

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