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09.20.15 It’s a Matter of Give and Take Philippians 2:3-11 Sermon Summary

by on September 21, 2015

Both Adam and Christ emptied themselves and became slaves. The path of one leads to death, the other to life.

Summary Points

  • Two powerful images in Philippians
  • The contrast with Adam
  • The question this passage is asking us
  • Suggestions for hearing Christ’s call
  • Eucharistic Reflection
  • See these sermon scraps for more one the “Fall” story

This beautiful passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians has given the church much to think about. It may be an early hymn quoted and perhaps modified by Paul. What it says about Christ is even more powerful once we understand the context of the Philippian churches.

Philippi was a prominent Roman colony named for Philip of Macedonia. It was full of images of the Roman Emperor, who assumed a divine identity which was declared on plaques throughout the city. His image as a form of a god appeared as statues and on coins. The people of Philippi would have this in the back of their minds when they heard that Jesus was also “in the form of a god.”

The Roman Emperor exploited his equality with a god. Part of the way he did this was through one of the major businesses in Philippi, that is, mining. Mining in the ancient world (and still in many parts of the world today) was done by slaves. Their lives were extraordinarily hard and abnormally short. The Emperor exploited slave labor to enrich his empire.

This context helps us appreciate the power behind Paul’s statement that Jesus, “though in the form of a god, did not regard equality with God something to be exploited, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” The contrast with the Emperor couldn’t be greater.

But the passage also contrasts Jesus with Adam, the progenitor of the human race. In other passages Paul presents Jesus as the “second Adam,” reversing the consequences of the first Adam’s actions. (See Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) Here we remember that the first Adam was created in the divine image, but he also saw an opportunity to be equal with God through the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So Adam “took” of that Tree and ironically “emptied himself” of some of that divine image. Like Christ, the first Adam also became a slave—a slave to desires he “thinks” are good. But in fact, he doesn’t really know what “good” is. (See the messages from the last two weeks.)

By presenting Jesus this way—in contrast to both Emperor and Adam—Paul is asking us a question. Will we follow Jesus, or will we follow the rulers of this world? Will follow Jesus, or will we follow Adam? Paul, of course, wants us to follow Jesus whom “God highly exalted” and to whom God gave “the name that is above every name,” including and especially the Emperor’s. “Jesus is Lord,” is the first Christian confession, arising from this very passage. Jesus, and not the Emperor. For Paul, the way of Jesus is life, the ways of Emperor and Adam lead only to death.

Today the voices of the Emperor and Adam remain with us. The voice of the Emperor says, “I am God, I am center, I deserve everything I want.” And the voice of Adam says, “I know what good is, what I call bad is bad, and it must be eliminated.” Both of these voices lead to attitudes and behaviors that are competitive and destructive. Take the next scene after Adam’s disobedience as the prime example.

Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. Both make an offering to God, but Abel’s offering is more pleasing. Eventually Cain murders Abel, following the voices of the self-centered Emperor and the self-governing (auto-nomous) Adam.

Again in contrast to Emperor and Adam, God’s voice, the voice of Jesus, calls us not to competition, but to collaboration, to community, to co-creativity. These are the marks of the true divine image: co-creative community. Jesus calls us to participation in the triune life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Many of the earliest Christian theologians, including Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius of Alexandria, and Augustine of Hippo, taught that “God became as we are, so that we may become as he is.” (The Protestants could not accept this statement without many qualifications, and to our loss we have been focusing on the qualifications ever since.)

What Paul is saying to us in this hymn is that to become exalted with Christ, we first have to humble ourselves as Christ did. Resurrection follows Cross. Exaltation follows humility. If we would “take” divinity with Jesus, we have first to “give” our humanity in service to others. It’s a matter of give and take. Adam gave up his divine image and took the forbidden fruit. Christ calls us to give up our “self” image—an image created by Emperor’s voice saying we are god, and Adam’s voice saying we know what is good for us—and to take the form of a slave.

How do we do this? How do we stop listening to the voices of Emperor and Adam, and begin listening to the voice of Christ? How do we follow Christ in humility that we may join him in exaltation? We can start by just becoming conscious of our desires. Our attitudes and behaviors are shaped by our desires, and so many of our desires are unconscious. They have been formed by family, peers, and the repetition of advertising. So we can start by contemplating, “What do I desire?”

But Paul would have us go further by asking, “Whom am I imitating?” Recall that our desires are distorted by our supposed knowledge of good and evil. Beyond questioning our desires, we can inquire about whom we are imitating. Emperor? Adam? Corporation? Idol? Or Christ?

To imitate Christ is the path to both humility and exaltation. It is the path that leads to life. Jesus taught, “If you would be my followers, you must deny yourself. Whoever wants to find their life, must lose it.” If you would take on the divine life in Christ, you must give up your other images of the self.

Eucharistic Reflection

The life we long for is found only in Christ. We cannot take it for ourselves—Adam taught us that. We can only take it from Christ. And Christ offers it at the Table, where he took bread and cup, and giving them to us, he invites us to take them and receive his life.

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