This text from Philippians 2 is a favorite for many. It is one of the most ancient hymns in Christendom. It helps us to reflect on what it means to follow Christ, to be a servant in Jesus’ name, to proclaim his love and truth also in this time and place.
For Paul, it meant enormous hardship, imprisonment (this letter to the Philippians was written from prison) . . . more sacrifices than most of us can ever imagine, serving in Jesus’ name. Paul expressed his hard choice to the Philippians, a choice between continuing to struggle and suffer in this life of serving Christ or to live fully with Christ in death beyond this earthly struggle. He could not imagine living in Christian servanthood without further suffering. Death in Christ held some appeal for him. But ultimately death seemed to him to be a selfish end to his suffering. It was his love for the Christian community at Philippi and his dedication to them that tipped the scales towards continuing on in his servant life in Christ in spite of the personal cost.
It’s hard for me, for most of us I suspect, to imagine the suffering and hardship Paul faced for proclaiming Jesus Christ. In NE MN we live in a place and time where Christianity is still culturally normative. Northern European Lutherans are particularly dense here, as it is sometimes said with a humble pun intended!
So what would Paul notice if he came to the Iron Range today? He would be truly amazed at the machinery and the mines and the idea of enormous ships made of steel. That’s not how he traveled on his missionary journeys. And that new bridge, wow!
Paul would notice we’ve gone beyond meeting in house churches to some beautiful, large gathering spaces for worship and structures for serving in Jesus’ name.
Paul would notice what’s missing as well . . . what happened to persecution for one’s faith? When did following Christ stop being a threat to the Roman Empire?
Certainly there are still places in the world today where Christian lives are in danger. People of many religions are unfortunately not safe in our world. Persecution of Christians still happens, but probably not here in NE MN.
In our context, that has in recent times been characterized by Lutheran Christianity being quite normative, perhaps domestication of our faith is a much greater danger than being persecuted for it.
So what does it mean to grow into Christ’s image?
What does servanthood in the name of Jesus Christ look like?
We may not face persecution for our faith, but our lives may be poured out in other ways, for others, for the love of Jesus Christ. That is still the mark of Christian servanthood, that we may be known for our love of God and love of our neighbors.
We and so many others are hungry for a life of meaning and service in Jesus’ name. Paul’s words of unity and self-sacrifice may sound like a foreign language to our ears in the midst of negative political rhetoric and character assassination of one’s opponents.
Imagine running a political campaign, as Paul spread the good news of Jesus Christ, with these words:
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 interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a servant.
This is indeed Good News, news of a difference. This is our calling as followers of Christ, to pour ourselves out for the sake of others. We are relieved of the burden of trying to make life turn out OUR way. There is something more important than my preferences . . . it’s humility before God.
We are called to be emptied of ourselves, for Christ’s sake, to look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others. This is a life worth living and one that will take all the energy that we have.
We carry a gospel that the world is very hungry to hear, whether it knows it or not. It is a gospel that is capable of looking death and loss square in the eye and not blinking. Life in Christ, the living Word of God, sustains us during threats of war and devastating storms.
Life in Christ is full, because Jesus emptied himself for us and for others.
We are called to share this Good News with those whose lives are filled with lots of other news and information overload. We are called to share this Good News with many who don’t attend church on a regular basis, sometimes in our own families, sadly enough. But it happens. You never know when seeds will take root. Sometimes it skips a generation, but God’s word does not return empty . . .
Our granddaughter Ava once asked me a few years ago, “Grandma, do you know how I know about Jesus and God?” “No, Ava, how’s that?” I said. “Well, because of that Bible that you and Grandpa gave me,” she said. Ava’s parents do not attend worship in their Seattle neighborhood, but they did bring our granddaughters to be baptized in Grandpa’s congregation in Duluth (this scenario we often encounter in our families, families without a local congregational connection . . . but better to have a distant connection than none at all). So one October all the 6-year olds at Good Shepherd received their Bibles, including Ava whose Bible was mailed to her. It came with a nice inscription to her from her only congregation and she insisted right then that her parents read her a chapter every night at bedtime. There is a hunger and a delight in God’s word that overcomes the slimmest of chances that it might be heard.
We all will be emptied, depleted even at times. But it is this same life in Christ that fills us and keeps us planted like trees by streams of water.
We serve the living Word, the love of Christ that fills our souls. Depletion happens. Sometimes we’ve poured ourselves out for the love of Christ and our neighbors. Sometimes life’s storms, illness, or death overshadows our joy. Sometimes we’re just out of gas from trivial things that don’t seem important at all. In any case, it is the living Word, the love of Christ, emptied and given for us and for our neighbors that fills our souls for another day lived in Jesus’ name.
We are called to be emptied for Christ’s sake and also filled again by his Word. Daily pouring out our lives for Jesus and others; daily receiving Him anew in his Word and in his love.