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In my home, I keep a file of old letters. One of them is from my grandfather, who passed away when I was twenty, and who featured prominently in my story of coming to faith. Others are from my father. Still others are from family members and friends.
One of my greatest treasures is this collection of letters, written over years and in the form of a memoir, of my father to his children and grandchildren. The letters are written to us, and contain our family history, his perspectives on the world, and the dreams he has for us.
While those letters are written to we who are my father’s children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, I will do my best to make sure they can be read and savored by family members who are yet to come.
A Letter to You and I
There are 27 books in the New Testament; 21 of them are letters. 13 of them are written by Paul. Letters are written in the ink of relationship, and they are written to nurture a particular relationship or set of relationships. The letter to the Philippians is just such a letter.
That letter was written to the Philippians of Paul’s day, and by extension, to you and I.
It is a discipleship lesson for the follower of Jesus in any age. As with any letter, feel free to take the following very, very personally:
2 If, then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he existed in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
assuming human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God exalted him even more highly
and gave him the name
that is above every other name,
10 so that at the name given to Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work on your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
A Letter for Such a Time As This
This letter has a context, and it will help to consider it, briefly. As Madame Guyon said, we are to pray and read the Scriptures like a bee lingering in a flower, penetrating its depths remove its nectar (Devotional Classics, 303).
Emperor Nero, the “living God” of the Romans, is ruler of the known world at the time of Paul’s writing. Philippi is a place where Roman soldiers went to retire, named after Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father.
J. Randall Wallace writes that the Emperor cult “saturated Roman culture and the people of Philippi, many of whom where retired Roman soldiers and had considerable pride and devotion to the cult and to Roman law and culture which emphasized ambition, status, and wealth” (Wallace, see link below).
In other words, the Philippian people could be considered the patriots of their “sent by the gods” civilization and way of life.
Three values marked that civilization, and the Emperor was the embodiment of all three:
Such an unusual combination of values for a civilization to hold, yes? (We may get farther as the Church if we expect the world around us to be pagan and to spend our best energies boldly embodying Jesus’ Way and being a sign and a wonder of how people could be in relationships and in the world.)
Paul is writing from a jail, in a center of Empire adulation. He may be released, but he may be killed. He would rather die and be with Christ, his singular goal in life, union with God in Christ, as the beloved of Jesus. But his great sacrifice is not death—it is to remain alive to serve the ones to whom he is writing.
He is writing a letter of thanks because they sent money to help Paul in his ministry.
But more than this—Paul describes for us the contrast between Jesus as Lord, and the Emperor as lord. Paul has a discipleship lesson to serve up to anyone who will listen, to anyone who names themselves a follower of Jesus.
Let the Same Mind Be In You
Philippians 2:5-11 is considered to be a poem, or potentially a hymn, of the early Christians. It is a Christian anthem, that for Paul, summarized the Way of Jesus in contradistinction to the way of the Empire.
Philippians 2:5-11 is, unavoidably, political—as all worship songs at their best truly are. They are about allegiance to Jesus, as God and King, above any idol or ideology of any age.
Jesus is Lord and our union with him is the telos, the end goal of our lives. Not the Roman Dream, nor the American Dream, nor my personal dream. The Dream of Jesus—our union with our Creator in and through Him—is to be our dream.
Union with God in Christ—this is the aim of your life and mine.
Phil. 2:5-11 contains Paul’s spirituality, his life mission statement, his rule of life.
In Acts 5, when the apostles are released from prison, the angel says: “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life” (Acts 5:20).
Before the Christians had a good name for what they were, and what all this following was about, they understood it to be a new life.
Before Christianity was a what, it was a way.
Before it was a religion, it was a rule of life.
Before it was something you claimed, it claimed you.
Early Christians used the New Testament, and passages like this, to re-train their habits and dispositions to be like Christ.
Before you could even become a Follower of the Way and take your first Eucharist, you had to spend a long period (up to 3 years) being mentored and trained to think like Jesus, feel like Jesus toward others, and act like Jesus.
You impulses had to become His impulses. Your motivations had to become His motivations.
This is called habitus change. Again, from my previous post:
Kreider uses the term, habitus, in his work. Habitus is a sociological term coined by Pierre Bourdieu, which literally means our “system of dispositions” (Bourdieu 130), or, as the late Alan Kreider put it, our “embodied behavior,” behaviors that form our deepest impulses and responses to the world (Kreider 2).
“So how were Christians made? By a process of formation that, as time progressed, was increasingly self-conscious. It was rooted in the habitus of the communities—their reflexive behavior. It was embodied knowledge rooted in predispositions that guided the Christians’ common life and expressed themselves in practices. These predispositions shaped worship practices that became essential, formative parts of the communities’ habitus” (Kreider 134).
“When challenged about their ideas, Christians pointed to their actions. They believed that their habitus, their embodied behavior, was eloquent” (Kreider 2).
“Above all, habitus is formed by repetition, by the sheer physicality of doing things over and over so that they become habitual, reflexive, and borne in our bodies” (Kreider 39-40).
In other words, the early Christians knew that if you just assented to belief in Jesus, you were barely in the doorway of the faith. Transformation was, and is, a process of habitus change.
I spent three years researching this “habitus” change, and how spiritual practices like we do every Sunday contribute to us slowly, but surely, becoming like Jesus.
Water Dripping on Stone: A Long Conversion
All growth, a mentor of mine often said, is water dripping on stone. Discipleship to Jesus is water dripping on stone.
The long conversion of a cultural habitus to become a Christ-like habitus took years of learning, unlearning, training, and re-training.
Paul leads the way in this, using the metaphor of going into the gymnasium with Jesus, like a spiritual athlete to train.
Paul’s new life is to consider others better than himself, like his Lord before him. In a world where the values of ambition, status, and wealth predominated, where humility was not a valued characteristic of leadership (humus—to take the lowest place), Jesus and his people embody another way.
It’s about putting the Jesus-Dream before all other dreams in our hearts and actions.
How did they get from here to there, from who they were and grew up knowing themselves to be, to real Christlikeness?
They had these words before them. They practiced humility day in and day out. They lived Phil. 2:5-11, in a thousand ways.
Ambition as a Follower of Jesus?
“Let the same mind be in you…”
Wealth as a Follower of Jesus?
“[He] did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped….”
Status as a Follower of Jesus?
“…He emptied himself….”
When the world goes high, we go low. When the world says, “Self,” we say “Others.”
Followers of Jesus Lay Down All Other Role Models
You and I are becoming like Jesus. He is our role model. Other role models may deeply serve us, but acting and thinking like them is not our aim. Jesus challenges even our best role models.
Emptying ourselves, we walk in His way, becoming christosphoros, Christophers, carriers of Christ—leaving His ongoing wake in the world.
To empty Himself, to serve, to consider others better than ourselves, it is His Way, the Way of Jesus.
And by Grace, it can become our Way in the world. To this, we recommit ourselves every time we come to the Table.
The Table of Jesus, who took on the nature of a servant.
Recommended Follows for this Week:
Works Cited in A Year of Christian Habitus Formation:
Bourdieu, Pierre. Pascalian Meditations. Translated by Richard Nice. Stanford University Press, 2000.
Foster, Richard J. and James Bryan Smith. Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups. Revised and Expanded. Renovare, 1993.
Kreider, Alan. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. Baker Academic, 2016.
Wallace, J. Randall. “How the Christ Hymn in Phillippians 2:5-11 Informs the Praxis of Leadership in At-Risk Communities: Two Super-Leaders Operationalizing Kenosis,” see article here).
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