< June 01, 2014 >

Commentary on Philippians 2:1-13

 

What is an interesting, even if somewhat troubling, aspect of this text is the emphasis the apostle places on like-mindedness.

He writes, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:1-2). The troubling aspect focuses on Paul’s intentions in making this statement. Is he calling for unanimity or uniformity? You may ask, “What’s the difference?”

The difference lies not in how the words are commonly used, but, I would argue, in the emphasis each one evokes. Unanimity seems to emphasize something along the lines of consensus, which may (or may not) allow for the particular commitments of each individual. Uniformity seems to emphasize a militaristic or dogmatic context in which difference is not highly valued and sometimes is openly attacked. I know it’s a narrow distinction (and there is probably a better way to express what I am attempting to communicate), but some sort of difference in emphasis needs to be negotiated, if Paul’s words are to be taken as a responsible or potentially destructive understanding of koinonia, the fellowship we share together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

The answer may be found in the next two verses where Paul denounces self-interestedness for the purpose of mutual support and community cohesion. As in last week’s passage, the question of power lies just below the surface of the apostle’s statements. Are we to see him as advocating hierarchy over against relationality? As I explained last week, power as relationally understood is our ability to receive one another into our lives, it “indicates that we are or may become large enough to make room for another within ourselves without losing our distinctive identities.” This is probably why the Christ hymn is such a powerful example for the author and ourselves as readers.

“Let this thinking [phroneite] be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,” is the more literal way to translate the passage. Phronesis was a sort of practical wisdom in ancient philosophy that focused on how one conducts one’s self in the world. It might be more helpful for us to understand it as a way of being or disposition towards the world. Bryan Garsten in his 2006 book, Saving Persuasion, explains it this way, “By judgment I mean the mental activity of responding to particular situations in a way that draws upon our sensations, beliefs, and emotions without being dictated by them in any way reducible to a simple rule.”

At any rate, it is not the kind of thinking that subserviates itself to dogmatism. In the case of Christ, it was a manner of thinking that one could easily call counterintuitive. “[H]e … did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (2:6). Trading divinity for humanity was counterintuitive. Even more, “taking the form of a slave,” is clearly not something the average person would have desired or endorsed (2:7). Elsewhere, Paul points out such counterintuitivity. He says, “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person -- though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).

He also says, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). In other words, thinking like Christ means more than adhering to established dogma or longstanding social expectations. It can, in fact, mean the exact opposite.

God acts in ways that frequently defy our norms, as God did in the Christ event. Likewise, Christ Jesus modeled this activity by choosing debasement as the vehicle for his exaltation. He did this out of humility (Phil. 2:8). This is probably the same type of humility the apostle means when he calls us as readers to take on this dispositional humility as well (2:3). Uplifting and caring for one another is the kind of mindset members of the church must have. This, I think, tilts the scale more toward unanimity than uniformity.

Yet, it is important to remember that Paul is not entertaining contemporary American ideas of individualism. His world was one in which the individual was considered vulnerable without membership in and protection from the group. Group membership was commonly considered necessary for survival. Yet, group membership did not wipe out individuality totally. In Paul’s day, not all Jews practiced the same type of Judaism, but they still considered themselves Jews. What a Jew in the diaspora like Paul did would have been different from one living in Jerusalem, for example. The point the apostle appears to be making is that the church can achieve unity without demanding uniformity by following the example of Christ and embracing a practice and mindset of humility.

Adherence to norms and dogma contradicts working “out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12). When one knows the rules, then there is no need to choose. Likewise, without the burden of choice, there is no need to fear. Having the mind of Christ means embracing the ability to choose acts that seem blatantly counterintuitive. It means something as odd as not looking “to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (2:4).


 

PRAYER OF THE DAY

God of love,
With praise we celebrate Jesus Christ, who humbled himself so that every knee should bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen.

HYMNS

Like the murmur of the dove’s song ELW 403, H82 513, UMH 544, NCH 270
That priceless grace ELW 591
O day full of grace ELW 627

CHORAL

Children of Peace, Anne Kilsofte