When you visit Philippi, you can visit the ruins of 3 large churches, built near the site of what was once the public market. You can stand in that market, where Paul was first imprisoned for preaching Christianity, and look into an old cistern believed to be where Paul was locked away. You can walk the old Roman road that he walked, and dip your toes in the river just outside the old city where Paul met Lydia and other women and talked to them about Jesus. When you walk through Philippi, you are walking through a city that Paul visited, knew well, and despite his persecution there, came to love. His relationship with the church there was warm – perhaps because they supported him through that difficult period, new as they were to the faith. As Paul writes this letter, he is once again in prison, and the outlook is bleak. So when he writes about self-sacrifice, he knows what he’s talking about. The evidence of Paul’s letters is that he was not a humble man by nature. He was certain of who he was, his calling from God, and the message he was to preach. But all of that came with a cost: beatings, imprisonment, torture, shipwreck, illness and ostracism. So whether or not he was humble in himself, his life experiences had taught him what it meant to be treated like the lowest of the low.
The Philippian church was having problems – problems caused by the same kind of pride that Paul himself probably struggled with. That pride in who they were – as citizens of a wealthy city, a Roman colony – had led to selfishness in the church community itself. This, Paul could not allow to continue, and he calls on an old hymn, a hymn whose source we do not know but would have been known to the Philippians, to remind them who Christ is and what it means to share in his mind, to be his disciples.
Paul reminds the people how much Jesus gave up to live a life of service to his Abba, his father God, and to serve God’s people. He reminds them that Jesus “emptied himself” – the Greek word is kenosis, poured out himself. Imagine the water flowing from the rock in the desert from our Exodus story, then transfer that image to Jesus’ life. Jesus’ very self is poured out as an offering to God.
Paul sets up this pattern of glory – emptying – exaltation, as a pattern for the lives of Christians. As baptized children of God, Christians share in the life of God; but instead of hanging on to that as some kind of reward for good behaviour or allowing it to produce a sense of superiority, they are called to be humble, to let go of any claims to being better than others, but instead, view others as better than themselves. In doing so, they will have truly patterned their lives on Jesus, and so, at the end of their lives, will find themselves once again joined with God in glory. This is the pattern of Jesus’ own life, the pattern of Paul’s – he is about to literally pour his life out as a martyr for Christ – and it is to be the pattern of the Philippian Christians. Humility, self-emptying, is their calling, because it is only humility that will heal the damage being done by selfishness and pride in that early Christian community.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who poured out his own life at the hands of the Nazis because he refused to allow the church to be the tool of oppression, wrote:
The church is the church only when it exists for others. . . . The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. . . . It must not underestimate the importance of human example which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus.
Our human example is our ministry: it is what we do in Jesus’ name. One can understand how people are skeptical about the Church’s motives and mission when they see multi-million dollar church complexes in cities where people are starving. I remember visiting a church in the poor quarter of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The entire interior of the church was covered in gold leaf, while beggars sat in the doorway holding out cups for coins, their bodies twisted and limbs missing from poverty and disease. I was horrified. In one of the greatest ironies of all, the church was dedicated to St Francis, who created a new order of monks whose primary task was to serve the poor.
Thomas Merton, a 20th century monk and mystic, wrote, ”It is not God’s will that we should remain in need. He would fulfil all our needs by delivering us from all possessions and giving us Himself in exchange. If we would belong to His love, we must remain always empty of everything else, not in order to be in need, but precisely because possessions make us needy.” (No Man Is An Island)
Just as the Philippians social status and wealth was causing problems in their Christian lives, so can our own. There is so much need in our community – for food, for hope, for shelter, for learning, for an extended family, for a sense of belonging; there is need even here, in these pews. There is need for healing, for comfort, for inspiration, for strength. There is need for the Good News of Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God’s love and justice. There is a need, but we can get in our own way when it comes to meeting those needs. We can get in our own way, when we worry more about our own comfort or security than about the comfort and security of others. We can get in our own way, when we seek to be fed more than we seek to see that others are fed. We can get in our own way, when we cling to what we feel is ours by right rather than pouring out who we are and what we have in the service of God.
We’re not all monks; we’re not all Paul; we’re certainly not all Jesus. But we, like them, are sons and daughters of the living God. We are given so many opportunities to share God’s love in the name of Jesus, to pour ourselves out in service! It’s Autumn: our programs have begun, many of our committees and teams are beginning their work, the Sunday School is going, and our service groups are starting up again. Our bulletin boards are papered with opportunities to be of service, chances to learn and grow in faith, times we can stand up and be counted in the search for greater love and justice in our world. Our prayers will be full of people and situations in need of a compassionate and passionate witness.
In the face of the world’s need, how will we hear Paul’s words to the Philippians? May Scripture speak to us. Amen.