This section of the Letter to the Philippians begins with “if,” which prompts the question of what comes before it.
Just before this, Paul speaks about suffering, saying, “For [God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.” Paul references his own suffering, saying that all that has happened to him has helped spread the gospel. He urges us to take our own suffering in the same spirit, and then begins this section.
It’s widely believed that Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn in this passage, and that the distinctive phrases in v. 5-11 come from that hymn. Before he takes up the words of the hymn, Paul says, “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Be of the same mind – later he urges us to have the mind of Christ, but here he seems to be suggesting an unusual kind of harmony among believers. We, the community of faith, should be of one mind. Having lived my whole life in a denomination willing to fight over everything from the place of gay and lesbian people in ministry to the color of the carpet in the church parlor, this is almost unimaginable. Could we ever get there?
“Be of the same mind” doesn’t seem to be about unanimity of beliefs, but about a quality of spirit – more about how we live, and engage with each other. We will certainly disagree. Can we do it without the passionate energy around defeating each other and getting our way? A community that lives that way would be transformative.
Next, we’re urged to live with the mind of Christ. Once we master having the same mind as other travelers in faith, we can try to put on the mind of Christ. Elisabeth Johnson writes for WorkingPreacher.org that “Paul then introduces the hymn by saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5). The phrase “in you” is plural (en humin), and perhaps better translated “among you.” Paul envisions the life of the community being formed by the mind of Christ — by a spirit of humility and loving service to one another rather than competition and grasping for power and control.” I’ve often heard this preached as an exhortation to individuals, but hearing it as a word to the community of faith feels liberating. It’s not an individual burden, but a vision for our shared life. When we fail at this as individuals, we can learn it again from each other, and take it up again. The mind of Christ feels incomprehensible to any one person. As a shared way of life, we can see that some people have the compassion part of it, and some the wise judgment, and others the wit, and still others the deep stillness in the presence of God. We can live and pray our way toward having the mind of Christ both within us and among us.
The word “slave” is always problematic in our world, even allowing for Paul’s cultural context. He’s offering us a vision of a high Christology, with Jesus descending from the realm of God. He shares our world at the lowest status Paul can imagine, and then is exalted again by God. This vision of Christ presents an interesting contrast to the Jesus we meet in the gospels, telling stories, washing feet and hanging out at the table. If our lives imitate Christ, then Paul compels us to ponder the question of how we can serve others.
And if we can manage all this, Paul says, we can “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This feels like a graduation in the life of faith. The community has always obeyed Paul and his instructions, and now that they – and we – know what to do, we can live in this pattern. We don’t need the specific instructions, but we have the harder call of being of one mind, and putting on the mind of Christ, to the best of our ability.
The sermon might ponder:
- All of our lives contain suffering – how do we respond to it? Are there ways to face it, or make meaning from it, which are distinctive to our faith? Or is it just a slog to get through? Is it a stretch to see suffering as a privilege, in the life of faith? Or does the privilege come through what we choose to do with our seasons of suffering?
- Related to that, most often we use places of privilege to avoid suffering. When we get to choose, our lives are organized for our own convenience. Are we creating suffering for other people in the choices we make, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, or where we invest our money? Some suffering is unnecessary – are there things we can do so others don’t need to suffer?
- If Jesus took on the life of a slave, what might that mean for our lives? Where are we called to serve instead of being served? Where should we set down some of our advantages to serve others?
- What would our community of faith look like if the mind of Christ were fully alive within / among us? What would we need to let go for that to happen?
- Have we experienced the kind of step forward in faith that Paul envisions at the end of this passage? A place where we don’t need so many instructions and rules, but can instead live with the love and generosity that Jesus taught? Do we know people who live that way?
What are your thoughts? Please join the conversation in the comments. As always, we give thanks for our friends at Working Preacher, who invented this Narrative Lectionary. Listen to their podcast on this week’s text here.