Scripture | Philippians 2:1-11 | Philippians 3:7-16
Introduction to the Text
The Apostle Paul is writing to his beloved church community in the town of Philippi. He’s reflecting on his life and offering them words of encouragement. His life hasn’t been easy since he became a follower of Christ; in fact, he’s writing from prison, arrested for stirring up trouble. But he isn’t complaining; this letter is filled with thanksgiving, and encouragement, and wisdom.
He’s also looking back at his life. Before Paul became an ambassador for Christ, spreading the good news about Jesus, he had been a leader in Judaism. He had all best the credentials: he was raised in a pious household, he was well-educated, he was trained as a Pharisee, among the most esteemed of Jewish leaders. His record was spotless. He had every reason to be proud of his pedigree and his accomplishments. But in this letter it’s clear that none of that mattered to him anymore. He’s writing from a place of spiritual maturity. This is how he explains it to them.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of The Babylon Bee – it’s satirical ‘news’ on religion and the church. Those of us who are church geeks find it pretty funny. I posted a link to one of their articles in our church newsletter this week. It reads:
A team of experts in biblical Greek released a report Tuesday confirming that the word often translated ‘repent’ in most English versions of the New Testament is perhaps better rendered, ‘you do you.’
Dr. Philip Manse… head scholar on a committee designed to review English renderings of the word, released a statement coinciding with the report confirming that repentance is better described as believing in yourself and following your dreams, rather than changing one’s mind and turning around one’s life…
“After studying the scriptures really hard and searching our inner feelings, we’ve determined [that] Jesus was encouraging his listeners to listen to the whispers of their innermost desires and follow those, no matter what He or the Word of God said.”
The team of scholars recommended new translations be released with popular verses now reading, “Believe in yourself and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Or don’t, whatever you feel is right. It’s cool. You’ve got to follow your own path.”
When I read that, I just about choked laughing. Who wouldn’t like a translation like that? If only that’s what the Bible actually said…
Though honestly, a lot of us Christians live as if that is exactly what the Word of God says.
Instead, we’ve got letters like this one from Paul. He’s writing out of kindness and love and compassion – but he is urging the Christians in Philippi to grow up. He’s telling them to check their egos at the door and take on the mind of Christ. He’s urging them to press on toward a higher calling than one centered on themselves.
Who would want to do that?
Christian faith is a funny thing. There are two messages we receive that seem contradictory, but they’re both absolutely important.
The first message is this: You are special just the way you are.
And the second is: Now grow up.
As a parent and as a pastor, I can’t help but noticing that God’s work in us is actually a lot like raising children. We are God’s children in every sense of the word. We are childlike in the sense that like every child, we need unconditional, positive regard; we need to be loved, exactly as we are. We need to know our existence matters, that we are treasured. And God tells us exactly that: you are a child of God. I love you, and you are mine.
But if we are going to be followers of Jesus, then we also need to grow up. We are prone to be self-centered and self-absorbed - childish. And God wants more for us than that. God wants more from us than that.
In this letter to the Philippians, Paul is telling them that both things are true, both messages are important. “I thank God for you,” he tells them. “You are my partners, my family, my beloved.” But then he says: if there is any comfort in this, then please, have the mind of Christ that is the source of love itself. Let go of your ego. Set aside your pride. Humble yourself like Christ did for us. Surrender your need to be important. Seek a mature faith – something bigger than you are.
Please grow up.
Isn’t that what every parent wants for their child? Hopefully? Maybe?
Some of you may have heard that I am going to be a grandmother this fall. Ben and Jessica are expecting a baby in September, and I am thrilled. But my feelings made me think of something I once read in the satirical newspaper The Onion. The headline read: “Astronomer Discovers Center of Universe.”
The article quoted the astronomer, who said:
“‘It is my beautiful 9-year-old son… [My] son emits such a powerful field of gravity and significance’ that all other persons and objects ‘take on added significance by virtue of their proximity to him.”
Of course the universe is going to revolve around my grandbaby. Shouldn’t it?
Well, as hard as this is going to be for me, the answer is no. And – don’t hate me for this - it’s not because the universe already revolves around your little darlings, either.
God knows we need a center that is bigger than we are. God knows we need a center that will hold. And for those of us who are Christians, that ‘center’ is the mind of Christ. That’s what Paul is trying to tell the Philippians.
The beautiful thing about growing up as Christians – coming to a mature faith – is that it gives us so much more than we had before. More meaning, more purpose, more access to the deep love of God. We don’t have to be stalled in our faith at some immature level; we can keep growing. “Striving toward the goal,” Paul says. Even he didn’t think that he had made it, had anything perfected. Growing up in faith makes life richer.
It is a lot like growing up in life. As one writer describes it, growing up is not just about ‘getting’ – “getting a job” or “getting my own place” or “getting out” – but about “giving” as well: giving to one’s family, one’s community, and to the world… Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: ‘Anybody can be great… because anybody can serve.’
I think that’s a lot like what Paul was trying to tell the Philippians, what God is trying to tell us in this scripture. Success is not about all the credentials, about pedigree, about accomplishments; in fact, all of that is worthless compared to what really matters. Knowing Christ, living in him, being like him.
What matters most, a wise soul once said, is “how well and gracefully you are able to give and receive love.”
You just can’t do that if your own life is the center of your universe. You can’t. You won’t find it if the only path you’re following is your own. You just won’t. If all you believe in is yourself, well, that’s just lonely. Incredibly lonely.
We need to know we are loved – every child needs that –unconditionally and completely – just as we are. But that’s just the starting place. God has so much more in store for us than that. God has a path towards life – a mature, full, rich life – where we can be truly great – by loving as Christ has loved us.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church