Philippians 2. 1 – 13
Matthew 21. 23 – 32
“And being found in human form, Christ humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
These words from ourfirst reading are part of an ancient Christian hymn, quoted by Paul in his letter to the Philippians. You can see which bit is the hymn, I’ve indented it in the pew sheet.
Those two verses are probably the very earliest Christian text we have. What’s remarkable is that Paul seems to be quoting this hymn to a community that is already familiar with it.
Decades before Mark begins writing the first Gospel account down, and long before even the idea of the Bible was formed: this hymn sets out in startling clarity the foundation of our faith, and what Christians have believed from the earliest times:
That Christ is God; that he came to earth as one of us; that he died, rose again, and reigns in heaven for all time.
But it’s almost impossible for us in the 21st Century to grasp just how truly remarkable this text is. How incredibly strange and unlikely – how scandalous, even – this was as a statement of belief for first century Christians.
The ancient world was full of stories about gods or god-like figures who had died and risen again – even some Roman emperors were deified after their deaths, and were believed to be living again with the rest of the gods.
The resurrection might be the sticking point for many in our own day. But it's not the resurrection that made this new faith so bizarre in Paul’s time – rather, it’s that a god would die on a cross; and that anyone would want to follow such a god.
The cross was the worst punishment of the Roman legal system. It was reserved almost exclusively for slaves and insurrectionists. It was an agonizing way to die, but it wasn’t simply the pain that set it apart – it was having your suffering and death exposed so publicly and degradingly that made it so shameful.
You were stripped of any sense of personhood, reduced to nothing – and at the same time demonstrating the ultimate power of the Romans to take everything from you, even your identity.
It was so shameful that even the Romans themselves were embarrassed about doing it. They didn’t represent it in art or literature. One Roman writer grudgingly admits that they use the method of crucifixion for the worst offenders, but blames the Greeks for coming up with such a horrible idea in the first place.
Amazingly, for all the hundreds of thousands of people who met their end in this horrible way throughout the history of the Empire, there exist only four written accounts of the actual process of crucifixion: and those are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
So when Paul says that Christ humbled himself to the point of death – even death on a cross – he’s telling us that God went right into the darkest part of human existence. This is so much more than simply the poverty of the stable, or living as an outcast. God went through the very worst and very lowest thing that could possibly have been done to him.
Paul admits in his letters that this is kind of a problem. It’s a stumbling block, a foolishness, a scandal. You see him wrestling with it, working out the full implications of the crucifixion for his faith.
But despite this, or perhaps because of it, the cross is absolutely central to his writings. And it’s the consequence of this utterly shameful death – this radical and unprecedented humility – that is perhaps even more shocking for the Roman authorities and other first century ears.
Because in this incredible act of love, Christ gives a new dignity to those who had none. God became like a slave, God died like a slave, a non-person. And in doing so, he completely upturns the whole order of things. If God can become like a slave; then a slave can become like God.
Notice in this hymn how the two verses take us on a journey: first from the very top, with God, right down to the earth, and further down to the lowest point – death on a cross.
But the second verse takes us all the way back up to heaven again. And as Jesus rises, highly exalted, he brings humanity with him. In emptying himself of dignity and status, Christ breathes that dignity into the whole world. And all humanity, from the highest emperor to the lowest slave, has a share in the divinity of Christ.
That all people have an equal dignity doesn’t sound all that radical to us. But that’s only because we’ve been soaked in the Gospel of Jesus Christ for two thousand years.
Equality, humility – these ideas were appalling to the Romans. And there’s absolutely nothing in human history – or indeed human nature – to suggest that they can simply be taken for granted. These are gifts from God – signs of how God is, and how God loves.
And it’s to imitate this radical humility that Paul called the Church of Philippi, and calls us today too. We have a pretty one-dimensional concept of humility, I would say – that it’s all about thinking less of ourselves. But if it’s simply about diminishing ourselves, then all the cross does is glorify suffering, for its own sake.
But divine humility is something that gives – that brings new life out of that suffering. It’s not about thinking less of ourselves, but rather thinking about ourselves less. All the acts of God, from the first moment of creation, to the incarnation, to the sending of the Holy Spirit, are all actions of giving towards life – God giving of himself, even at great cost, towards the flourishing of his creation.
So how can we model this divine humility in our own time? Our society’s beliefs about who we are and how we live together have been based on the assumptions of the Christian Gospel for thousands of years. Now those assumptions are being challenged, and there’s nothing to guarantee that they will remain part of our system of government or our way of life.
Increasingly people make decisions with only themselves in mind, or what fits best with their own personal outlook. They look at the Church and ask the same sort of question that the chief priests and elders asked of Jesus in the Gospel: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
But we know that the authority and the power comes from God, through Christ – and that we share in that power. Christ didn’t exploit his authority, and do what was best for himself. He chose to give it all up, for us. He chose to give it up, so that we might be empowered.
So let us as, as loved and empowered brothers and sisters of Christ, model this divine and life-giving humility in a world that needs it more and more. And let us take as our guide those virtues that Paul celebrates in the Church of Philippi in our reading today. Let us encourage, let us console, let us share, in compassion, and sympathy, and joy. Let us love, and be of one mind – the same mind that is in Christ Jesus. Amen.