5. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6. who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7. but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8. he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. 9. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10. so that at the name of 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.
When Life Conspires to Teach the Gospel
This passage from Philippians contains a succinct statement of the mission and method of Jesus; that is, the Gospel. Few other Scriptural texts match it. Plenty of red letter words support it (“I am among you as one who serves,” “the greatest among you will be your servant,” ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”… for starters). A key word in the Philippians passage is “emptied,” behind which is the Greek kenosis, which means emptying. The cross stands as the self-emptying of the life and love of Jesus. for me and you… whoever you are, whatever you are. Me too.
Which is beautiful. The stuff of which praise songs are made. That brings tears to our eyes as we sing “The Old Rugged Cross.” That makes centurions and other brawny men get a lump in their throats as they murmur, “Truly, this man was God’s Son.”
In such moments of sweet contemplation of the cross, I need to remind myself – and now you – of the beginning verse, number 5, before the glorious hymn to Jesus’ self-giving, that you and I, the same I and you mentioned a few lines above, are, according to the Scripture, to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” And there’s the rub. There’s the problem I’ve wrestled with throughout my forty-nine years in the pulpit. There’s the problem I’ve wrestled with for the sixty-eight years since I promised in church I would be faithful to Christ and his kingdom.
Maybe you have it easier. I am an only child with a fiercely competitive temperament. I was one of those kids you despised because he always thrust his hand in the air and waved it wildly when the teacher put a question to the class. On the football field I would be more inclined to run over you than to run around you (no wonder my college junior year roommate thought I had no business going into the ministry!) I always wanted to be first and best, even when it was patently clear I wasn’t. That is, self-emptying runs against my grain.
I suppose I could have latched on to one of those versions of the Gospel out there in the world around us, one that prefers a triumphant theme, that sees the cross not as the center but as a preliminary to the main thing. I watched this past Sunday with curiosity (and not a little schadenfreude, whatever that is) to 84 year old California preacher, Robert Schuller, now bereft of his crystal cathedral, still preaching Peale’s power of positive thinking. His church may forgo its Christmas Pageant spectacular this coming December, so deeply in debt is the ministry. Schuller’s version of the gospel, strong on glory, insisting on the practical steps Jesus provides the believer to live abundantly and successfully, doesn’t quite match what I read in Philippians 2, though I suspect he might counter with the vision, also in that passage, of Jesus as the king of the universe. To which I would counterpoint, “Yes, king of the universe, but one with scars from the wounds of nails in his hands and feet.”
Ah, well, long ago I took I Corinthians 2:2 as my theme song. You can look it up.
As I was writing, that opening phrase, about having the same mind as was in Christ Jesus, gives me fits. I am now living out the days about which Ecclesiastes writes, Chapter 12:2-8, a single verse providing the clue to my meaning, the verse that describes the years that draw near when “strong men are bent… [and] the grasshopper drags itself along.” In these years I perceive a heavenly strategy, a conspiracy of the angels, by which life teaches me the Gospel, the one in this Sunday’s Epistle lection, about self-emptying, a difficult lesson indeed for this proud and arrogant soul.
A minor example of the education of Bob Howard will serve to show how difficult it is to penetrate this old man’s defenses. This past Sunday evening we reserved a table for dinner in a German oompah restaurant we had never previously visited. I printed a map from Google. It didn’t help. I got lost anyway. Instead of insisting the map was wrong and I was right, the usual tack I take, I stopped and asked a grandson in the co-pilot’s seat, along for the dinner, to get me to the oompah on time. He did just that with his Blackberry's GPS app. He had no idea (though Barbara probably did) how remarkable was my tamping down of my ego in that moment. I am beginning to learn to depend on others and not always to insist on my way. Old bones require it; lapsing memory too. Will I manage to do it entirely before the dragging grasshopper collapses? We’ll see.
Age isn’t the only educator. Marriage helps. Living with another human being intimately and prolongedly will instruct a soul not only in the arts of compromise, but in the necessity of exchanges of grace, forgiving the other when he or she doesn’t know what he’s doing… that sort of thing. Children too will teach us the Gospel of the cross, having them, living with them, suffering with them their growing pains, holding them, helping them, as teens no less than as toddlers: that will go a long way toward providing ample exercise in self-giving, putting number one in second, third, and fourth place,
Suffering can do it too. There’s a long history of meditation on this theme. Anyone with pastoral experience can provide example after example. Like the family into which children, not just one but two, are born, with multiple afflictions, retarding not just the mind but growth. Ask the mother, as I have about her experience and her eyes tear, not for her own ordeal, but for the love, the pure and boundless love the children have provided her. They will not probably make into their maturity, and Mom will be devastated; but would she have her druthers? not on your life. “How blest are those who know their need of God;” the New English Bible phrases the first Beatitude, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Life and the suffering visited excessively on a few but some always on everyone, no one escaping, will teach us the lessons we should have learned at the foot of the cross.
Francis of Assisi seems to have gotten the message before the grasshopper dragged. He teaches us to pray, with a prayer that puts the right words on our tongues:
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen
Which, to do, is to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus whose self-emptying was finally the most profound of all self-affirmations.