Christ’s Example of Humble Engagement

Let’s review the paragraph we’ve looked at the last couple of times.  Philippians 2: 1-4 

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being 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 count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  

In response to the grace of God in your life – extend that same grace into the Church.  Be engaged with the Church.  No haughty distance between you and the Church.  Take the Church seriously.  Take pains to tender to the Church the same love and interest that you instinctively tender to yourself. 

Then, since Paul’s mind never strays far from his Lord and the cross of his Lord, he sets forward Christ Jesus as the pattern for humble engagement into the Church.  Let’s keep reading in vv. 5-8: 

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

Be like Christ Jesus.  More precisely, think like Christ Jesus.  Church, adapt Christ’s way of thinking as you approach service in the Church. 

Let me explain: 

Before He was born in Bethlehem, Christ was in the form of God, meaning that He was obviously God.  His situation was this: He was God.  And He looked like God, the glory of God shone from Him.   

A couple of weeks ago our eldest son was married.  One of my favorite photos from that occasion was as the newly wed Ben and Ellie walk up the aisle, Ben sweeps up Ellie in his arms and kisses her.  The photo captures that moment, but that’s not why I like it.  In the background you can see the faces of the audience as they look on in delight.  But that’s not what I like about it either.  What I enjoy about it is that while everyone is looking at Ben and Ellie…my brother Peter is staring away from Ben and Ellie, looking up to the sky.  Oblivious.  Pete found a way to take no notice of the central event. 

Anyway, the point of all that is that, before Christ was born of Mary, there was no staring away from Him. His glory was unignorable.  No one in heaven could miss when He walked into the room.  The weight of His significance was constantly felt.   

Imagine creatures – with 1000x the intelligence of Einstein, 5000x the resplendency of any celebrity or personage you’ve ever heard of or read about, 10,000x the lethal and creative power of any government or establishment or instrument – imagine creatures like this that never tire of looking on this Christ and rhythmically repeating, “Holy, Holy, Holy” is this Christ.  That was the experience of Christ before He came into the world as Isaiah 6 presents it.   

“Different, different, different” – a Being as we’ve never encountered before nor since, a Being unlike anyone else.  And day and night, week after week, year after year, decade after decade, they chant “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and, as I said, they never tire of it – the energy coming out from this Christ keeps animating them; they never feel like quitting at noting more excellencies.  

This Christ in the form of God has their full attention, even though they’ve covered their eyes.  And why have they covered their eyes?  Because somehow it terrifies them to look on at the splendor and beauty of this Christ.  Yet, even as they can’t see Him, they sense the brilliance and magnificence emanating from Him.  “Holy, Holy, Holy.” 

I think of the last book of the Bible when John sees Christ Jesus in something akin to the state of glory He had before He entered history.  And what happens?  “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.”  Imagine old man John who’s seen so many crazy things throughout his long life.  A retired fisherman who’s been through his share of squalls and storms that surely terrified him.  And yet when John sees Christ something – several things – inside him shut down, and He collapses.  Why?  Terror?  Dread?  Something more primal than what we have words for?   

How this world works on us to trivialize God.  To bring Him down to our level.  Hiya God.  Our fathers knew better.  I think of those Medieval cathedrals that took 100+ years to build.  I think of old Garcon the Builder who spent his whole career working on that edifice and never saw it completed.  You enter those buildings and you’re immediately humbled by the craft, the scale, the grandeur.  Don’t look down on those folks for wasting their entire lives on this project.  Don’t say, why’d you spend so much money on a building?  They were trying to say something true about God.  They had an awe of Christ that we could learn something about.  Because Christ in the form of God is stupendous.  

One of my favorite Christmas songs is an ancient one: “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent.”  Goes back at least to the sixth century.  “Let all mortal flesh keep silent.”   

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for, with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand. 

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away. 

At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia,
alleluia, Lord Most High!” 

This was Christ, the Son of God – known as God, worshiped as God.  But He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, He did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited.  He did not make full use of His glory for merely His own goals or pleasure.   

But rather, He walked away from certain opportunities, advantages, perks.   

No, walked away from is too pale of an expression.  He emptied Himself.  Sometimes in interviews after sports matches, the players fall into cliches.  One of those cliches is: “we left it all out there on the field.”  Complete dedication.  Total investment.  100% commitment.  That gets to the point Paul is making about Christ.  This was a totally committed move. 

Christ Jesus emptied Himself, but not by ceasing to be divine.  As a commentator says, emptying Himself “does not refer to the loss of divine attributes but – in good Pauline fashion – to making something powerless, emptying it of apparent significance.”  (Wright, Climax of the Covenant).   

Instead of His divinity being the obvious thing about Him, Christ took the form of a servant.  The front and center fact about Christ Jesus became that He was here to contribute.   The decisions He made, the persona He adopted, were not for His own advancement but to advance others.  This is what He chose. 

And so, like many servants, like the Servant of Isaiah’s prophecy, in that move Christ became overlookable, ignorable, even to the point where he could be considered contemptible.  

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.  Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  (Isaiah 53) 

To reiterate: His servanthood, living for others, service toward others became His form – that is, that was His entire presentation to others.   Here not to be served, but to serve.  Christ emptied Himself – He cloaked the form of God in the form of a slave.   

And as part of this emptying, He was born in the likeness of men.  Paul is being careful with His words here.  With the phrase, Born in the likeness of men, Paul accomplishes two things: 1) Christ is not simply a man [full stop], but a Man different from all other humans; as a Man He retained His equality with God.  A human that looked like other humans but was something much more.  2) On the other hand, Christ did identify Himself with humans…by becoming a human being.  And He continues to be and will always be a human being.  He identified with that which He came to save. 

Now what will Christ do as a human?  Or, as Paul puts it, to emphasize that his humanity was real and obvious enough to be seen by anybody: now that He’s found in human form?  In this diminished state will He at least be a “Servant-Leader?”  A bigtime Contributor?  Take a seat as the Chairman of the Board of a global company?  Head of state?  President of some institution? 

He humbled himself.  The downward descent from being in the form of God continues.  And yet notice the wording here: not that Christ was humbled, but rather this humbling was chosen by Christ, not forced upon Him.  

And became obedient– Specifically, and crucially for our application, Christ Jesus chose to submit His will to the Father’s will.  Part of His humbling was to obviously make no claim to autonomy.  He was following the Father’s lead in the details of His choices.  Not a self-directed life, but a life of obedience.   

And how far this obedience?  Unto death, even death on a cross.  This is no halfway, superficially correct conformity.  But rather a complete investment, a complete obedience, and a complete humiliation.  You likely already know that – in the Roman empire, of which Philippi was a Roman colony – there was no execution more degrading than crucifixion.  The exposure of the genitals to the public, the hours of suffocation in the public eye, the intentional coarseness and lack of imagination of the whole thing – all was intended to dehumanize. 

I recall the moving last scene of the movie, Gladiator.  Russell Crowe is the gladiator, and before the arena crowd with his last strength he kills the wicked Emperor.  And the soldiers gather around him as his breath gives out, and the beautiful woman stands by him and says, “He was a soldier of Rome.  Honor him.”  Then Hans Zimmer music wells up and Lisa Gerrard starts to sing: “Now we are free.”    Senator Gracchus asks, “Who will help me carry him?”  A great crowd carries away his body.  Noble.  Moving.  I’d like to go out like that.   

Crucifixion was intended as the opposite.  To sneer at the creature suffocating publicly.  Your life was a failure and your death is a joke before the whole world.  A joke!  

Quoting Fleming Rutledge: “Crucifixion was specifically designed to be the ultimate insult to personal dignity, the last word in humiliating and dehumanizing treatment.  Degradation was the whole point.  As Joel Green describes it, ‘Executed publicly, situated at a major crossroads or on a well-trafficked artery, devoid of clothing, left to be eaten by birds and beasts, victims of crucifixion were subject to optimal, unmitigated, vicious ridicule.’”  

“No greater contrast can be imagined than the contrast between the first and last lines [of this paragraph]: existing in the form of God…death on a cross.” – Hansen 

And we need to note this: this movement from existing in the form of God to death on a cross isn’t something that happened to Christ Jesus.  He chose every step of this descent.   

Application, brothers and sisters:  Paul has set forth the example of Jesus Christ in summoning the Church to an engaged and humble service toward each other.  That’s the main thing to clarify before we can properly apply this: Paul here speaks of Christ to urge the individual Christian’s engagement with the Church. 

Should we also be engaged and humble and serve our families?  Our neighbors and towns?  Yes.  But those would have to be trickle down applications from this text: here Paul is summoning the Church to an engaged and humble service toward each other.   

How rare this is.  There’s humility that pops up pretty regularly.  Service too.  Even spectacular service.  Our church in Boston had a frequent attendee who was a billionaire (b).  And a devoted bible study attendee.  And every week on Thursday nights he’d serve the homeless in downtown Boston.  But he only attended church, and that sporadically.  Never joined.  And didn’t enter into the life of the church or the lives of the members.   

I’d put it this way.  Serving the homeless wasn’t below him.  But becoming part of the Church was. 

Go onto Amazon, and you can buy books.  Churchianity vs Christianity by Met Anthony Bloom, written in 2017.  Churchianity: A Christianity Created by US by Machiel Greyling, written in 2020.  Unchurching: Christianity Without Churchianity by Richard Jacobson, written in 2016.  Why a Hindu Accepts Christ and Rejects Churchianity by Swami Abhedananda, written in 2015.  ETC. 

The implication behind these titles is that Christ can be followed apart from engagement with the Church.  In fact, participation in the Church might even be corrosive toward faith.   

Church – the institution, the corporation, the organization – how unspiritual!  I’m through with…or at least I’m backing away from organized religion.  I’m going for disorganized religion!  

The problem with this is that the New Testament presents following Christ as a corporate, communal experience.  Responding to the gospel properly entails our identifying ourselves as members of the body of Christ and acting out from that idenitification.  And yes, the Church is the Body of Christ.  The fullness of Him who fills all in all.  The Church is the fullness of Christ.  When we serve – be it ever so slight as giving a cold cup of water – the least of Christ’s Church, we are serving Christ Himself.  Yes, the least of these is not the homeless or the orphans, but a seeming insignificant individual within the Church.   

Now, the fact that certain Christians honestly believe that withdrawing from the Church will bolster the integrity of their relationship to Jesus Christ is a problem.  The Church does havemajor issues.  An individual Church or a whole movement of Churches can turn corrupt.  Churches can become clubby, where there’s a certain tired lingo, where leaders are lazy, where the salient issues aren’t being brought up, where God is talked about, but no One really expects Him to do anything, where outward markers of success are all that matters.  A Church can turn inward and become a place of groupthink and flattery and prayer requests for sore big toes.  We can slide from our mission of disciple-making, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, holding each other accountable in the communal meal, stirring up one another to love and good works, praying alongside each other, learning Jesus Christ and His commandments. 

And yet with all that can and has gone wrong within Churches, we’re still called to engagement.  Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her.  Even in spite of lukewarmness, Christ stands outside the door of a Church, knocking, willing to come in and eat with those who will open the door to Him.   

So all these things are true: 1) Christ isn’t giving up on the Church but is fully committed to her.  2)  The Church is responsible to turn away from sin and sliding and to work out its salvation with fear and trembling.  3) Individuals who love Christ show that love by engagement in His Body.    

Engagement with the Church.  What might that look like?   

Keeping up with one another and praying for each other.  Praying often and deeply for the leaders of the Church.  Gathering when the Church gathers.  Praying for those gatherings.  Reading the passage ahead of time.  Giving your tithes and offerings through the Church.  Working at growing in friendships with the folks of the Church. Taking an interest in the missions and missionaries of the Church.  Praying for those who are attending who are not baptized.  Praying for the newly baptized.  Praying for individuals in the congregation as they pass through different stages of life.  Working at understanding the mission of the Church.  Bearing with the apathy and sloth and condescension and moodiness of fellow members. Working with other members at overcoming bad habits and addictions.  Growing in understanding of doctrine and interpreting and looking for ways to help others do the same.  Looking around for where the Church corporation needs your skills and filling at least a hole or two.  Practically helping folks who could use it.  Aiding the leadership.  Men, going to coffee and lunch with other men.  Ladies, with ladies.  Practicing hospitality.  Being accountable to others of those with whom you take the Lord’s Supper.   

Why wouldn’t you?   

These people aren’t like I am.  – Being in the form of God 

I have money and houses and possessions and responsibilities and opportunities and family that take me away from the Church – Though He was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be exploited but emptied Himself. 

To really engage with the Church, I’d have to shrink my life and forego activities – He emptied Himself 

I have a bucket list of things I’d like to do and that’s what I’m going to concentrate on – taking the form of a servant. 

I’ll dabble in the Church but only as it fits my schedule.  – being born in the likeness of men.  …  A complete identification  

I’d engage with the Church if I had enough control to get rid of its inefficiencies; I’ll serve as long as I can lead – he humbled himself.   

I’ll serve when it’s convenient for me.  I’ll serve when I think I should serve.  I won’t serve the Church but serve Jesus in other ways.  – by becoming obedient.   

This is hard.  This is tedious.  This is thankless.  This is limiting.  – unto death, even death on a cross.   

Brothers, I’m not saying anything novel: The universe you live in is the one where the Creator God took on a body and was crucified.  The story of this world’s redemption has humility at its heart.  The humble move the Creator is asking you to make is to be baptized into the Church, become accountable to its members and leadership, use your gifts to build it up.  Given what Christ has decided to go through in your behalf, this is a reasonable service.

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