Brothers and sisters: If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.
St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt
Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Last Sunday, as we recall, we began reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We remember how the Apostle had come to Philippi upon arriving in Europe. He established in that city the local church that would become his pride and joy.
Then St. Paul went on to other cities in Greece. After some years, he found himself in jail. (St. Paul spent a fair amount of time in jail.) One of the Philippians Christians traveled to visit him. When this man left St. Paul to go back home to Philippi, the Apostle gave him a letter to take with him.
As we recall, St. Paul did not write to the Philippians to correct anything about their faith, observances, or morals. He wrote to the Corinthians because they had become worldly and had slipped back toward paganism. He wrote to the Galatians because they had traded-in their Christianity for Judaism. He wrote to the Thessalonians because they had become lazy and confused about the resurrection.
St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, though, simply out of love. He addressed them as equals, as soulmates. The verses we heard today are the most beautiful part of the letter. Philippians 2:1-11 is certainly one of the most beautiful passages in the entire Bible. These verses are St. Paul’s own plea for encouragement.
Let us try to imagine St. Paul’s human situation. He is languishing in prison for the umpteenth time. Over the course of his various journeys, he has been beaten, shipwrecked, scourged, starved, dehydrated, and temporarily blinded. Some of the local churches on which he had lavished tireless attention have slipped away from the faith. Some of the people he taught to believe in Christ came to question his authority as a teacher and Apostle.
St. Paul was always a source of strength and encouragement to others. But it is not hard for us to imagine that, as he thought of his beloved Philippians, he longed for encouragement from them.
What did he want them to do? Would it have encouraged him if they sent him more money? No. Would it have encouraged him if they attacked his enemies? No. Would it have encouraged him if they lavished him with praise and affection? No.
The Apostle indicated to them that he would be encouraged by their doing something much simpler and more profound. What would encourage him would be for his beloved Philippian flock to be bound together in true Christian unity. And, as he wrote, there is only one path to true unity in the Church of Christ. Humility.
“Regard others as more important than yourselves,” wrote St. Paul. “Regard others as more important than yourselves”? Hold on. Others, more important than me? But who is going to take care of number one? Who is going to protect my precious interests? After all, it is a jungle out there.
St. Paul’s point is that we Christians do not follow the law of the jungle. We follow the law of Christ. And Christ’s law is humility.
Christ is the Creator. He made the heavens and the earth. He made Mt. Everest and the Pacific Ocean. He made Sophia Lauren. He made it all, out of nothing. He is infinitely greater than us. For our sake, He chose to become one of us. Once He had done this, once He had become man, He had every right to live as a king, to demand our adoration and submission. Everything and everyone is His. As St. John put it at the beginning of his gospel, Christ came to what was His.
But He insisted on no kingly prerogatives. Quite the contrary. He veiled His divinity and lived among us as a servant. He walked mile after mile on weary, dusty feet. He slept on the cold, hard ground. He explained heavenly mysteries with gentle, fatherly patience to obtuse and self-centered people. He sought out the sick, the poor, and the most despised. Then He freely offered His life in sacrifice for our sins and underwent the most unjust, agonizing, and ignominious execution imaginable.
Christ therefore has set a standard of humility that we can only just begin to imagine. Without His help, we would have no hope of imitating Him. Hopelessly selfish as we are, we would not even think of following Him down the path of humility if there were no incentive. But there is an incentive, the greatest incentive of them all.
After His humiliating death, the Lord Jesus rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven. He took His seat in glory, and He reigns as King over the entire universe. Nothing escapes the sway of His power. He judges all and is judged by no one. After humbling Himself, He has been fully exalted. If we follow the humble Christ, He will share all these prerogatives of heaven with us.
Scripture teaches over and over again that humility is the way to God. The first will be last, and the last will be first. The mighty will be humbled, and the humble will be exalted. The rich will go away empty-handed, and the poor will be rich. Those who laugh will mourn, and those who weep because of the world’s foolish pride will laugh and rejoice in the Kingdom of God.