Philippians 2:1-13 – Imitating Christ’s Humility
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death–
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Like most children, I idolized my parents. Growing up I watched everything they did in excruciating detail, and then tried it out myself. I particularly remember that as a kid, I was fascinated with my mom’s cursive handwriting. It was magical the way her pen effortlessly scrawled across the page, the loops and lines and swirls flowing together into a river of words that, even though I knew how to write them in my blocky, print script, they felt special. This was like a secret language that seven year old Hannah wanted in on.
So gradually, through copying those same pen strokes and imitating whatever letters I saw written on a page, I learned how to write cursive. It was a slow and frustrating process though. I don’t know if you all remember when you learned to write cursive, but it was tough for me. My pen never seemed to want to flow the right way, and keeping my lower-case loops below the dashed line on my training paper was laughable. After countless pads of paper, broken pencils, frustrated declarations of abandonment, and an incredible amount of patience from my parents and teachers, I came out of the third grade with a wobbly and smudged, but legible-none-the-less repertoire of cursive letters.
Imitation is the way we learn. This is true for writing and speaking and walking, but even true on a neurological level. Deep in our brains, scientists have discovered what are called “mirror neurons.” When we observe another person acting or experiencing an emotion, these neurons fire internally, trying to imitate that action or emotion as if we were the ones experiencing it. Then later when we do experience said emotion, our brain has something to base its reaction off of. It is like the mirror neuron wrote out a word in dotted letters, and we get to try to trace it. This is how we learn empathy and appropriate social conduct and a myriad of other behaviors.
So I have a question – what is the difference between imitation and impersonation?
Imitation is also Paul’s call for the church in his letter to the Philippians. He opens this passage by praising the church in Philippi. In verse one, he recognizes and names the encouragement, comfort, sharing, compassion, and tenderness that were flowing out of this community rooted in Christ and encourages them to keep striving to be more and more united on this front. These are things that flow naturally from having a relationship with Jesus – they are the fruits of salvation. Once we know the grace and forgiveness and even deeper the redemption that Jesus offers us, we are free to be compassionate, to provide comfort, and to encourage because we have been offered this as well.
So Paul was proud of the way the Philippians were imitating Christ in this way, but he doesn’t stop here. He continues in verse 3 to ask them to act in “humility,” to put others before themselves. For those of us that have any background with the Bible or in the Church in general, this seems like a natural command. But for the people reading this letter, humility was not seen as a virtue. It was weakness. It was a lack of zeal.
So Paul pauses here, and uses verses 6-11 to really explain the fullness and depth of Jesus’ humility. This “kenotic hymn” as it is called, was a familiar text to the Philippians. At the start, in verse 6, Jesus is described as “in very nature God.” This is so much power and authority. This isn’t the typical father-son relationship we think of, there was no need for humility or obedience because Jesus was equal with God. He was God. Yet he still chose to “make himself nothing.” That work in Greek is kenosis, and it means to empty oneself. What a beautiful reflection of Jesus’ choosing to be obedient, coming into the broken world wrapped in flesh, and humbling himself to the point of death on a cross. And then as we know, Jesus is exalted to be the name above all names – praised and worshiped by every creature “in heaven and earth and under the earth.”
While the church in Philippi was doing pretty well, humility was not one of their strengths. And I think if we are really honest, it is not a strength of the church today. We disguise our pride as “passion” or “successfulness” or “perfectionism” or even “volunteerism,” “service,” “responsibility.”
We are called to imitate Christ, but not to impersonate him, and this is where things get tricky for the church. Humility is key for us, but it is a different kind of humility than Jesus’. We can love people, and rejoice and weep and discuss with them, and care for them, and serve them, but we have to remember, humbly, that we cannot save them. We cannot heal them, or fix them, but only gracefully point them to the cross we kneel before. This is so hard in a world that is so broken, and in a church, that as we know can be so divided.
In talking about Church over the past few weeks, I began to think about what my expectations of the Church are. Through my limited years of experience, my church community has cheered me on during performances, made me laugh until my stomach hurts, but also asked the hard questions about my life and my faith, and held my hands when I felt like I couldn’t take another step. We’ve served each other as comedians, counselors, and confidants.
So, those were my expectations of church. These are all good things, but they are such unhealthy expectations of the church. This is where we cross the line from imitation to impersonation, and we set our church up to be Jesus – the only one who can consistently meet our needs. Impersonation is where we set our church up to fail.
God loves the church. Jesus loves the church. He gave us the ultimate example of what it looks like to love one another and serve each other out of that love. We hope that we can look to our community to cry with us when we are sad, to laugh with us when we are joyful, to hold our babies, to hold our hands, to hold us in their prayers. But we have to remember what community is made of – other people, completely different from us and completely the same as us. We have a variety of experiences and perspectives. Just in this room we have people born and raised in San Francisco, and people who have been here less than the 4 weeks that I have been here. We have people weathered and seasoned by the storms of life, and those who still see the magic in the drops of rain and gusts of wind. But what we hold in common is that we are human. We are broken and messy and limited in our capacities to carry each other. God wired us to be communal creatures, and while human community is a key part of that, we cannot forget the true purpose of that desire deep within us to be known points us toward God, not other people.
When we begin to impersonate Jesus, we set ourselves up for failure and we undermine the purpose of the church in the first place. We limit the “encouragement in Christ, comfort from love participation in the Spirit, and affection and sympathy” that those on the outside of our community need to see and experience. When we don’t acknowledge our need and our brokenness while we try to pour out and love others, we become hypocrites.
When we try to impersonate Jesus’ humility, my guess is you all know from experience how exhausting that can be. Pouring yourself out all the time to try to fix other people, to heal them, to pick them up is grueling and fruitless. You find yourself drained and ultimately empty – unable to participate in that beautiful sharing and sympathy that Paul urges towards.
In our hardest moments, how do we respond – by clinging to the cross, or to our church?
I found myself in a moment of personal crisis last week. Unforeseen medical trauma in my family, over 2000 miles away, rocked me deeper than I had thought it would. I work in the healthcare field and deal with things of this nature all the time. I pride myself on keeping my cool under pressure and responding to things with just the right blend of rationality and compassion. But man, did I mess this one up. Instead of dealing with the situation, I shut myself off. I couldn’t fix the situation so I ignored it – and I stewed in my own anger, and sadness, and fear.
In trying to deal with this fallout, I did the first thing that I thought seemed reasonable – I turned to my church community. While I may have been a failure in my personal life, at least I had these people to pick me up and dust me off – these people who so many times before had walked with me through trials and knew my weaknesses and wounds that still need tender care. But I found myself put on hold – My friends were deeply engrossed in their own internships, families, and lives. I quickly found myself frustrated with these people I love so dearly – didn’t they realize that my crisis was THEN and not at during a Skype session sometime the next week? They were surely not being examples of the self-emptying love and compassion of Jesus, of putting the needs of others above your own.
This is what happens when we put Jesus-sized expectations on ourselves. We end up sad, and angry, and feeling like a failure – clinging to the shreds of our own pride so that we are unable to grasp the cross.
This is what happens when we put Jesus-sized expectations on our church. We end up frustrated and empty and resentful towards people that love us the best that they can – turning our backs to the same people who are pointing us to the cross.
But, I love the end of this passage. Paul leaves us with such good news. In verses 12 & 13 he urges us to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
He gets that learning to imitate Christ is a process.
I learned how to write cursive in the 3rd grade, but I assure you my handwriting today is much different. I have continued to practice, and imitate others, and although I don’t have the exact handwriting as my mother, it is legible. Anyone can look at what I write and say, “I can see that is cursive.”
When people look at us, whether we are in the church or out on the street, can they say “I can see that is Jesus reflected in them”?
Just how I have been practicing my handwriting for half my life time and it is always changing, our salvation isn’t a one and done kind of deal.
While our sins have been atoned for once and for all, we get the beautiful opportunity to continue to come before Jesus again and again, with fear and trembling, with a shaky hand and smudged letters that peek above the dotted lines, and lay down our pride, our selfish ambition and vain conceit, and our attempts to fix others.
We can soak in his self-emptying grace that is abundantly offered – no matter how many times we go looking for it.
And then we can turn our ears and hearts to the way God is working in us to will and to act according to his good purpose.
So brothers and sisters I urge you – “if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, and common sharing in the Spirit, and tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete” and practice your cursive. Pick one relationship this week, in the church or not, and think of a way you may have set up Jesus-sized expectation, either for yourself or the other person. I sat down and wrote a list of all the ways I relate to people and I realized that there were so many false expectations. Jesus doesn’t expect me to deal with a crisis as a daughter with complete grace and calmness. He doesn’t expect me to be a perfect friend, always attentive and encouraging. He doesn’t expect me to preach with the finesse and skill of a trained pastor.
All he wants is for us to come to him with our best attempt to follow the dotted lines, striving to have the same mindset, and recognizing the great freedom we have already received in his grace.
Jesus came that we might not only have life – but life to the full. So as we daily seek that fullness, let us remember to look to God.