If I were to ask someone on the street to describe what a god was like what answers do you think I would get? Powerful, Can do whatever he or she wants, All seeing, Mighty, All knowing, King, Sovereign, Clothed in glory, Surrounded by angels, Supreme, etc. I think the term god makes people think back to the Greek gods of Mt. Olympus or the Norse gods of Valhalla. These were gods who had the power to control the seas, make people fall in love, punish those who went against their will, build up nations, and tear down nations that did not properly honor them. These gods required only that you give them the respect they deserved; a burnt offering for your good fortune or a feast thanking them for victory in battle. In return you, your city, and your nation would be blessed and prosper.
The gods of Mt. Olympus would have been well known to the people of Philippi. As a Greek city and a colony of the Roman Empire the gods, their temples, and the festivals in their honor would have been all around the Philippians. Caesar was Lord, a god in the flesh amongst humankind, and the Philippians' concept of what a god was and should do would fall right in line with the gods of the Empire and the society the gods founded and supported.
Paul, in chains because he is preaching the good news of Messiah Jesus, writes the church he founded and loves in Philippi because the church throughout the Greco-Roman world has a problem she needs to address; something isn't “right” about Jesus. He doesn't fit the description of what a Lord, much less a god, should be.
First off the church claims that Jesus “was in the form of God, “but that Jesus, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” This is a branding nightmare for the church. Here's this man, a Jewish carpenter and rabbi, that the church must declare, like Caesar, is god in the flesh. And he doesn't think being a god is something he should exploit? To the Greeks the entire point of being a god is to exploit your power for your glory and the benefit of your worshipers! How can the church lead people to a god who doesn't even use his power to glorify himself, much less his worshipers?
If this were the only problem the church could skirt around the issue by focusing on Jesus' glorious and powerful return where his godly power will be in full display, but she can't. You see, Jesus didn't just not exploit his status as a god, but he “emptied himself” and took on the “form of a slave!” Part of the good news the church was teaching was that the Jewish Messiah labored as a humble carpenter, washed other's feet, and consorted with prostitutes. Jesus didn't live on Mt. Olympus or even a fancy house near the temple in Jerusalem, but rather hailed from backwoods Nazareth. This man who the church was exhorting people to follow as Lord, “humbled himself” and traveled with fishermen and other laborers serving the sick and poor.
In a culture where honor and pride were the social currency and elevation of one's social status one of the main goals of life, being humble was not a good quality. This Messiah Jesus acted as if his purpose was to serve and glorify the masses; what kind of god would do that? If Caesar with his palaces, servants, and power was Lord, how could this Messiah Jesus even be in the same league? That this Jesus was the only Lord, supreme over even Caesar was laughable to the people the church had to minister to.
Worst of all, the god Paul and the church were offering people to follow and worship had allowed himself to be publicly shamed and put to death on a Roman cross. The problem the church had wasn't just that their Lord had not used his godly powers to save himself from death, but also that he died in a way so shameful. Messiah Jesus “humbled himself” and willingly died on a cross; a method of capitol punishment that was not even spoken of in polite conversation. We have to understand this. In the culture of Jesus' day the shame of dieing on a cross was worse than the potential pain. Many prisoners who awaited such a fate would kill themselves rather than face the very public humiliation of the cross.
Jesus had been the complete opposite of what a god should be. He didn't wield his power over others, he didn't seek service, but served. He didn't build up his own glory, but rather humbled himself that others might gain undeserved honor. And more, to the world outside of the church, in his death Jesus showed the superiority of Caesar and the gods of Rome. The church had an uphill battle. With all the evidence stacked against him nothing Jesus was or did even fit the description of being a god.
Let's step outside of the ancient world of Paul for a moment and look at our own time. If we are honest with ourselves, are we not taken back a little by the scandal that is the life and death of Messiah Jesus? Do we not continue to define what God should be based on the world's definition? We quickly pass over the dirty bits of Jesus' crying and struggling, of the fact that he was beaten by soldiers and did nothing to defend himself, that he was publicly executed with common criminals. We focus on his happy parables and his kind ways instead of how he couldn't even defend himself before his own people. Do we not at times try to hide the weak and humble Jesus of the gospels behind the nationalistic God of military power and might we have fashioned with our own hands and called good?
The man we confess was the incarnation of God, God made real with a body as our own, did not live a life of the spectacular. Jesus did not slay dragons or go on grand adventures. To hear him speak in public one would not know that he had raised people from the dead or given sight to the blind. By every measure of the Greco-Roman world – and even our modern world – Jesus lost; he was a weak failure. At his death he only had a handful of followers and even those followers were willing to deny him to save their own skin.
But here's the amazing thing about the God we serve, our God wins by losing! The “problem” with Jesus is not that he doesn't fit the mold of what a god and savior should be, but that the world doesn't have the right definition. We do not serve “a God of power and weakness,” but a “God of power in weakness.”i It is the weak Messiah Jesus loving and healing those who society rejects who is “in very nature God.” It is expressly because he is the true and living God that he “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage,” but rather to be freely given to all those who sought his healing touch. It is because of the holiness of the character of God that Jesus “made himself nothing” and took on “the very nature of a servant.” (In washing the disciples feet Jesus was doing exactly what was in character for God the Son to do.) It is exactly because he is the Son that “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!”
By his life and death Messiah Jesus shows the world the true character and nature of God. By his obedience on the cross Jesus defines divinity. Jesus Christ, God the Son, “is the image of the invisible God.” God the Father “was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through” the unexpected, humble, meek, and sacrificial life of Jesus “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.”
With the knowledge of the true nature of God in mind, verses six through eight take on a new meaning. This is not a list of the unexpected character traits of God, but a summarization of the divine life of God we are to participate in. If we, the church, are “united with Christ” then we are to cultivate “the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” “The people of God are called to be a countercultural, holy people, restored to right covenantal relations with God.”ii To do this, we must study and live into the very traits personified and put into action by the subversive life and death of the Messiah.
One of the greatest traits shown by Jesus was his humbleness. Though Jesus was the very incarnation of God he did not deem it right to use his divinity to elevate himself above those with whom he fully shared humanity. His entire ministry was about bringing honor, praise, and glory to God the Father rather than himself. Though he is the only one and true king, he humbly stood before men who claimed sovereignty and allowed them to pass judgment over him.
Being humble is so difficult. The world seems to give us every opportunity to boast in our good deeds. During Lent I decided to give up social media. Last Sunday, as I was reflecting on another week without social media, I began to think about what I had actually given up. I realized that I mostly used Facebook and Twitter to boast of my own doings. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. With every good thing we do, the modern world pushes us to self-accolation. Good deeds cannot be done in silence; they must be broadcast to the world.
As followers of the Risen Lord we overcome these pressures by conforming our thoughts and actions to the likeness of the Crucified. As Jesus did “nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” we are to serve others without seeking praise, notoriety, or anything in return. As, in humility, Jesus valued others above himself and did not look to his own interests, but focused on the interests of others we are to take on the “very nature of a servant.”
How will my post-Lenten Twitter and Facebook use conform to the image of the Messiah? How is it possible to look after the interests of others in a virtual world? For me, I think this will mean having a greater focus on my real world relationships in the virtual world. I am going to take more time to read and respond to others' posts rather than posting a boastful message about what I'm doing. I'm going to more boldly share my thoughts on theology and openly praise God without worrying about the virtual friends and followers I might lose. I will spend less time browsing the lives of others, coveting their possessions, judging their choices, and comparing their lives against mine. I will allow my virtual social presence to reflect my self as God wishes me to be, a person who is in the process of selling out to Christ.
This is not to say Paul's letter to the Philippians is about how to correctly use Facebook. Following Christ means so much more and must affect our lives is so many different ways. We must radically pattern our lives against the prevailing culture to mimic a man who's obedience to God brought him rejection, shame, suffering, and eventually death. The logic runs counter to common sense. We are to counteract the forces in our culture that push us to seek after our own interests by seeking to put ourselves into a vulnerable place of passivity in total conformity with the Messiah. To gain the final victory over the powers of the earth, we must lose in the present.
Paul in his letter to the Colossians suggest that we set our “minds on things above, not on earthly things.” We are to think of Christ above on his throne, emulating his very character, and not of the honors given by the earthly powers. We are to be “aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.”iii
How would this play out in the modern church? What would it look like for us to take seriously the call to complete conformity to Jesus? I think it looks like a body that passively absorbs the violence inherent in society; providing shelter for those in pain. I think it means serving a meal to the hungry not because we want to impress them with how good the church is, but simply because we have food to give. I think it means measuring ministry by the amount of good done, and not the number of people “saved”. I think it means less time squabbling over divisions from five hundred years ago, and more time living out the mission of God in unity. I think it means moving people in from the cold not because we want to make them “good Christians”, but because we have a warm bed to share. In total, I think it means radically transforming how we act as a church, changing our focus away from programs and numbers, towards a mission of complete conformity to Messiah Jesus in word and deed.
Back when I still had free time I used to listen to various churches' sermons via podcastiv. Last Spring one of these churches had a guest speaker, a pastor from India who ran a ministry called Deenabandhu or “Friend of the Poor”. He talked about the caste system that still existed in India and how it ruled so much of peoples' interactions with one-another. Within the religious framework of many Indians a person's current social status and life situation was the result of praise or punishment from a past life. People of the lowest caste were not given much thought or assistance because they were living the exact life they deserved. These people were responsible for collecting garbage, washing floors on their hands and knees, removing refuse from the streets, and cleaning toilets for generation upon generation. No matter how much education they received, no matter what else they did, this was their station in life.
One Advent this pastor saw a newspaper article noting that this lowest caste making up only two percent of the population was responsible for eighty-six percent of the crime in his city. This disturbed the pastor, so he and his team asked God what he would have them do. They were impressed that they should go to the prison colony in their town where these people lived and wash their feet. This pastor and his congregation decided to take the call to live into the divine character shown by Christ seriously. This church did not have a tradition of washing feet, but after worship on Christmas day, this pastor and his entire congregation went to the colony on the outskirts of their town to wash the feet of these the lowest of people. They went without agenda, without pamphlets, and without Bibles. They came only with pictures of water, stools, and soft cloths. They came to wash the feet of the people who spent their lifetimes scrounging and serving others without any honor or praise. They came in faith to live out the divine traits they saw in Messiah Jesus.
At the entrance to the colony were thirty big, burly guards. They taunted the congregation as they walked into the colony saying, “Look! These people have come to make us Christians!” The congregation kept on walking. They went out to the main open area of the prison colony, set up chairs and hot water. The pastor spoke to the now gathering crowd, “We are not here to make you Christians. We are here to demonstrate the love of God to you. I see in you the servant-hood of the Lord Jesus. The streets are clean, cities are beautiful because of you. God has given you his mother heart. As a mother changes her child's diaper with a smile, so do you. A bishop will not do this job. A mullah will not do this work. A Buddhist monk will not do this job. But you do it. You think because you do this job, this is your destiny. You have no hope and overcome your pain by taking life and committing crime. Today we are going to wash your feet, but our God will wash your hearts.”
For five hours this congregation washed feet. Over four-hundred people had their feet washed, garland put around their neck, and sweets put on their tongue. There was sobbing and crying all around. In the crowd the pastor saw a woman he remembered seeing everyday cleaning the bus station downtown. He asked her, “Mother, are you the woman who used to clean the bus station?” The woman, shocked that someone would recognize her, replied in the affirmative and asked what he wanted of her. The pastor replied, “My God is a servant king. He came from Heaven to Earth. I don't know the God-like service you know. Bless me, mother, that I will be ready to do any menial thing for the glory of my God.”
The woman blessed him for what he and his congregation had done. The thirty guards at the colony entrance thanked and blessed them as they left. The next morning forty women came to this pastor's house wanting to become Christians because of what they had saw.
Let this congregation in India be a living example to us. On every level they conformed their hearts and actions to the divine character of the living God as revealed in Christ. They did not see their higher caste as something to be exploited or lauded above others. Like Jesus, they were obedient to the command of God, even to the point of going into a prison colony amongst some of the most violent people in their country. They made themselves humble and worked as servants ministering to those in most need of divine love. According to the traditions of Indian society they had just lost. They had brought shame to themselves and their families by doing this menial thing for unworthy people. And yet through of all of this, God won. God the Father was glorified through his Son as people came to faith because of this congregation's actions of selfless outpouring.
Contrary to what the world saw, Jesus' death on the cross did not prove his lacking of divinity, but rather was the moment when God vindicated his true character from the false definitions of the world. Because of his display of the true divine power of love, God the Father exalted Messiah Jesus “to the highest place” and gave “him the name that is above every name”, the divine name itself. Because Jesus made himself low that all might be saved we can eagerly await the day when “at the name of Jesus every knee” will “bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Fully God, Jesus revealed to us the true character of the Divine. Fully human, he gave us the pattern for how humankind is to live in relation to one-another and to God. Are we ready to set aside the ways of the world and live into the radically different lifestyle so perfectly demonstrated by Christ? Today's world has a definition of what the church is. Hundreds of years of marriage to the State and the dominant culture in the “Christian” West has built up this definition. Are we ready to throw off this false definition in the coming post-Christian world and live into the true meaning of the church; servants living in complete conformity to the Messiah Jesus? Are we ready to lose?
Our unexpected God stands with arms open, ready to reconcile everyone to himself. His divine will is to transform our thoughts, actions, and character into his very image. Each Sunday this table is prepared and all are invited to share in the banquet made possible through the divine life and sacrifice of Messiah Jesus. Come to his table. Accept God into your heart and on bended knee at the alter confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Commit to conforming your life and the life of the church to his image. He awaits us all at the table with grace and mercy abounding in ways that to us are unexpected but testify to the very nature of the eternally triune God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.