In Roman culture displaying your worthiness and status in the social hierarchies was an important thing. The clothes you wore, where you were seated in public and private places, the office or title you held in the government, and the property you owned were just a few ways one would display their worthiness and status. Philippa was a city that might have lived out this cultural calling more than any other city and providence in the Roman Empire. Philippi was a retirement community for veterans of the Roman army, and a city that was committed to making sure social hierarchies were always clearly separated from one another.
Having lived in Philippi for a brief period, Paul understood the city’s culture. He knew this idea of worthiness based on worldly things would be something the church in Philippi would have to resist. So while in prison he writes a letter of encouragement for the church he helped form. He encourages them to behave in ways that follow Christ and lift up their community. He encourages them to live a life that is contrary to the keeping up with the Jones’ culture that surrounds them in Philippi. “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interest, but to the interests of others.”
Then he gives them a powerful charge for how they are to live their life following Christ and resist the worldly things that might consume and control them, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” The NRSV also has a translation for this verse in the margin that changes the verb, it reads “Let the same mind be in you that you have in Jesus Christ.” Both of these translations hold powerful meaning for how we approach being a follower of Christ. Former New Testament professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, Dr. David Bartlett's highlights the significance of verse 5 well. He writes, “The first reading (“Let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ”) suggests a Christian ethic of imitation: “Do what Christ did.” The second reading (“Let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ”) suggests a Christian ethic of participation: “Be Who You Are.”
Being who you are is being someone who is and will always be part of the body of Christ. Paul has written about this identity of communal participation before, both to the Romans and the Corinthians. Paul reminds the Corinthians in chapter 12 that we are part of the body of Christ, there is one body and many members with different gifts. In our faith journey we all need each other to walk and see and hear. To be who you are is to be an active participant in the body of Christ in the world.
What follows Paul’s charge is a hymn or poem that reminds us what participation in God’s creation looks like. Christ’s purpose for the world is one that humbly serves. The first verse of the hymn proclaims Christ who is the form of God, humbles himself to live on earth, then is furthered humbled at his death on the cross. After his death, and because of his love and humility for all of creation his name is praised in heaven, and on earth, and under earth. This hymn is a powerful testimony of humility and a reminder that our created purpose in being part of the body of Christ is to put aside those worldly things that consume us and control us and consume and control and others, to let go and empty ourselves of those things, so we can love and serve others.
Paul’s words about choosing a humble life that follows Christ and puts others first is completely radical for the power and status culture that dominated the city of Philippi. In Roman culture humility was not a virtue one strived for, in fact it was seen as a sign of weakness. In a world that was all about power, status, property and compiling as many worldly things as possible, why would any one want to intentionally empty or give up their power to help or serve someone not like them? Yet the church was called to go against the cultural norms and put others before self, and let the virtue of humility and tending to the needs of others be what defines their identity and purpose. Over the centuries humility has been a significant virtue of Christianity and has been present in guiding the church and even guiding society to put others first.
This week there has been a lot of talk in our nation’s politics about the tradition of transfer of power from one President to another. I think it no coincidence that George Washington, who started the precedent of humbly stepping aside from the power and status of the office that governs others, grew up in the church and served in leadership roles in the church as a young adult. Imagine how different our nation might look if he chose the precedent to never let go of his power and status. However even if humility is a virtue of the church and has even made its mark in our society, that does not mean practicing it is easy to do.
The parable told by Jesus to the chief priests and elders in Matthew’s gospel highlights the struggle of following Christ with humility and emptying ourselves of the worldly things that consume and control us. One son tells his father he will not work in the vineyard but changes his mind, the other says he will and never shows up. A reminder that as Christians we can find ourselves believing and professing one thing, and then the worldly things in culture and society turn our heads and we find ourselves not practicing what we are preaching.
Mahatma Gandhi was a significant leader in the civil rights movement and independence movement in India in the first half of the 20th century. Gandhi was a committed Hindu but engaged in learning more about other religions. Since India was a colony of Britain he witnessed first hand how British christians maintained control of their colony with oppressive laws. He is reported to have said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians, your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Chilling words that remind us of the reality of our struggle that our faith in Christ has with those social, political, and religious worldly things of power and status that might consume and control us. His words are a sad reminder that for generations we, as Christians, have struggled not only in humility but we have struggled in our hypocrisy. For over two thousand years, Christians, in every time and every place have struggled like the second son in the parable, professing one thing but not living it out. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus’ Beatitudes are a guide to how one participates in being in the body of Christ, or how to be who you are in God’s realm. Blessings like “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” There have been moments in human history when Christians have openly professed these things but have let the social and political culture of the day have the final say in how they behave. Sad moments in our church and nation when our hypocrisy abounds because we say blessed are the poor but yet we create social, religious, and political systems that make the poor poorer and the rich richer. For generations we have professed as Christians blessed are the peacemakers, but for generations from crusades to slavery to wars, as Christians, we have sought out conflict to gain power over others, while using God’s name to justify our actions.
The possibility of this tension and disconnect of what we profess as followers of Christ and it not lining up with how we act is one of the reasons we hold humility as a virtue to be practiced by Christ’s followers. The reality is our world is not much different than the days of Philippi. There is a culture out there tells us that our purpose in this world is about worldly things that lift us up, but at the same time control and oppress others. Power like this can be intoxicating, so we might find ourselves so consumed and controlled by our own status and power that we are blind to the pain, suffering, oppression, and injustice happening to those around us. We might be so fixated on maintaining status and power that we are clueless we are regarding others last and self first. In those moments when the social, political, and even religious culture is trying to define the world based on worldly things of power and status, humility is the spiritual practice that centers us back to be who we are.
Humility is the spiritual practice that centers us back to our purpose to love and serve others, not have power over them. Humility centers us back to our devotion to God, and away from our devotion to the sinful ways of the world that tempt us and consume us. In Matthew 21 Jesus lifts up that the tax collectors and prostitutes understand what it means to serve God more than the pious religious leader. They have listened to John and Jesus and in their own moment of humility turned from the worldly ways that controlled them to a life focused on loving and serving God.
The foundation of our spiritual practice of humility is love. Jesus Christ has revealed this to us. As we find ourselves in the midst of our own version of Philippi and surrounded and maybe even tempted by power and status and worthiness that puts us before others may Christ’s humility and love transform us. So many times when confronted with questions by religious leaders about what is right or wrong, Jesus points out that our purpose for living is not what is right or wrong but what is loving.
Power and status can manipulate right and wrong, but the cross and the empty tomb tells us they can not manipulate the love in the world that has been revealed to us through Christ..
If what we are doing is not loving, then may we participate in the Christ’s love by emptying ourselves of that worldly thought and action. May we let these moments of humility centers us back to Christ’s love, and reveal Christ’s love to others.
As we seek a humble path following Christ, Paul reminds us of the hope and promise that we are not in alone in our journey of humble discipleship. The Spirit is guiding us towards a life centered on love and humility. May we lean on the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to reveal those worldly things we need to let go of, so we can center ourselves to loving and serving God and God’s creation with all our heart, mind, and soul. May you hold tight to the hope and the promise that not only is God with us as we love and serve others, but God is enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. Alleluia Amen!