Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11
As a frequent worship planner in my congregation, I am often involved in the preparations for what is awkwardly called “Palm/Passion Sunday.”
I always advocate for bringing the drama of this part of the Gospel story into the worship experience, but year after year our planning group struggles with the same issues: the right balance of celebration and solemnity; the transition point from one to the other; to what extent it is appropriate to characterize members of the congregation–especially our children–as part of the accusing crowd.
Similarly, this text from Paul’s letter to the Philippians plunges to the deepest lows and soars to the highest heights, and more often than not it is a trip that we are hesitant to take. How do we avoid congregational whiplash? More importantly, how do we keep this familiar text from being nothing more than a spiritual joyride, in which we breezily plummet into the humiliation of the cross in the full knowledge that, a verse later, Christ will be restored to full glory at the right hand of the Father?
Most scholars agree that this poetically framed text is likely not Paul’s own composition, although he may have made certain modifications to it. Rather, it is almost certainly a hymn already in use in the congregations with which Paul has contact, and by quoting it Paul offers us a window into the faith and practice of those very earliest Christians. As small groups of believers in urban areas, where their close neighbors did not understand their faith and practice (at best) or were openly hostile to them (at worst), they nonetheless proclaimed that their God had control over the entire world and would, at last, put the Christ whom they worshipped in power over all.
This text appears in the context of Paul’s argument that all the Philippian congregation needs to do is to imitate Paul himself, since he is an imitator of Christ–a claim that tends to strike today’s readers as egotistical and paternalistic, and in any case a dangerous role model for any contemporary pastor to follow. A broader look at the letter to the Philippians might well take seriously the role of “imitation” in the Christian life, with a view toward emphasizing that the imitation of Christ is a goal rather than an attainment for any believer, and that part of our Christian journey is to seek to live so that those who might choose to imitate us would find a worthy model to follow.
Too, as advocates for disadvantaged groups have pointed out, this text is capable of being made into a dangerous tool of oppression. Christ, along this line of thinking, had everything but voluntarily made himself vulnerable to the most abject suffering and death–so the most important virtues for Christ’s followers are obviously extreme humility and vulnerability. The proclamation of such a message to those whose life circumstances already make them vulnerable to mistreatment and suffering is no more than a blank check for oppressors. Responsible preaching needs to avoid this trap.
A better way to describe the act of Christ Jesus in this text, then, is to emphasize his absolute obedience to the divine purpose for his earthly life. Instead of taking what he could have had on his own (the word translated “exploited” or “grasped” is notoriously difficult–does it mean taking something that was not his, or making use of something he already had?!), Jesus chose the path that fulfilled God’s will, and followed that path to the end, difficult though it was. For this willing obedience, then, God exalted him to the highest place. Followers of Christ should have the same obedience to the divine will–whether that leads to suffering and humiliation for Jesus’ sake, or to God-given boldness that challenges systems of oppression, or to radical peacemaking that refuses to accept that the way the structures of the world are, is the way they must be. In whichever position Christians find themselves, they can fulfill God’s plan for their own lives, as Jesus did, because they know that in the end Christ reigns over all.
“Sing my song backwards from end to beginning,” urges contemporary songwriter Brian Wren, and if we are true to our faith we do tell the story from the end, in retrospect. Without knowledge of the resurrection, Jesus’ death is a tragic failure of a good man against the power of institutional evil, if not a meaningless cipher. Yet if we fail to take the cross seriously, we risk a shallow celebration, a giddy power trip that ignores the dominance of suffering and sin and takes for granted the depth of divine love in reconciling us with God. The early church sang of both in its hymn, recorded by Paul in Philippians. Each Holy Week–indeed, each Sunday–of the church’s life is a challenge to us to do the same.