Environmental Stewardship Commission

Episcopal Church in Minnesota

Lectionary Reflection
Year A, Proper 21, New Testament Reading

Philippians 2:1-13

If then 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. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

  who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Reflection on Philippians 2:1-13
by John Gibbs, PhD

It would be easy in our culture to read verses 12-13 as a command to undertake inner private reform on a narrow individualistic scale: "…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." That was the text for my senior sermon at seminary back in 1955, so I know from experience how strong is that temptation. That, however, is a mistake.

The apostle Paul's letter to the Church at Philippi was written for, and sent to, "all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." The emphasis is on community, on "all of you" (1:1, 4, 7, 8, 25; 2:17, 26), on "my brothers and sisters" (3:1, 17; 4:1) who are "beloved" (1:12; 4:1, 8). The goal that Paul sets before them is that they continuously be "standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel" (1:27).
The text for today opens with a series of words that arise within and apply to the congregation, the community, rather than in the first instance to individuals: "encouragement," "consolation from love," "sharing in the Spirit," "compassion and sympathy." We encourage one another, we console others, we share within the one Body, we "suffer together" (root meaning of both "compassion" and "sympathy"). That congregation's goal, its "mission statement," remains clearly in view: "be of the same mind [as that of Christ and the Spirit, 2:1], having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" (2:2).

As a consequence of their living "in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" (1:27), this community would "in no way" be intimidated by their opponents (1: 27-28). No division between "red and blue states" invades such a community. No warring between right wing and left wing economics twists such a community out of shape. The nature and mission of this congregation challenges the surrounding world, and will not permit itself to be invaded by it. No ego investments and no individualistic tangents are allowed: "Do all things without murmuring and arguing" (2:14), "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit" (2:3).

Personal life? Of course it is here. This is not a community of oppression against persons, but a gathering within which persons grow up to be good neighbors, thereby "sharing in the gospel" (1:5). That "sharing" means: what is personal is not private. The Letter to the Philippians arose out of the personal life of the Apostle Paul in his engagement with "Christ Jesus" (1:1). It is an autobiographical letter to the extent that telling about his experiences with "the mind of Christ" enables the apostle to picture for that congregation the possibilities that lie before it. They really can discover and live out new forward-leaning possibilities, possibilities that move beyond inter-party strife and into sharing God's grace with one another (1:7), beyond "false motives" into "true motives" of sincerity (1:15-18), beyond "fear" into "boldness" in their "speaking the Word" to the world (1:14).

The very structure of this letter displays the interactions between person and community that Paul hopes will characterize this congregation. From Paul's prayer life arise prayers of thanksgiving to God "for all of you" (1:3-4). The bonds between that congregation and Paul are his starting place for writing (1:3-11). Folks at Philippi are upset that Paul is in prison (4:10), so Paul writes to assure them "that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel" even "throughout the whole imperial guard" (1:12-13).

Just as their community depends on Paul, so Paul in prison depends on their prayers (1:19), their love growing in discernment (1:9-10), their steadfastly sharing "the same struggle" that Paul has to endure (1:30), their "making my joy complete" by letting "the same mind" be among them "that was in Christ Jesus" (2:2-5), their sacrificial "offerings" that had provided "help for my needs more than once" (4:16). When he faces death for his faith, Paul wants to know from that congregation's ongoing pilgrimage that "he did not run in vain or labor in vain" (3:16).

Their future and his are interlocked (2:16 and throughout). "Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me" (3:17)-not an egotistical statement in the context of the race yet to be run (3:12-16), the goal not yet already obtained (3:12), the gains that amount to "losses" in comparison to "the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (3:8).
It is not too much to say that from "the mind of Christ" flowed forth both the personal life of this apostle and the community life of Christians at Philippi. That mind appears within a congregation that "in humility regards others as better than yourselves," and that enables "each of you" to "look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others" (2:3-4).

The mind of Christ, as exalted in the Christological Hymn (2:5-11), means God-like self-emptying into "the form of a slave" for the sake of humanity ("in human form"). Descent into human needs (2:6-8), as alternative to using one's status and power to exploit others (2:6), is the form and substance of God's "glory" (2:9-11): a glory "highly exalted," receiving "the name that is above every name," a "name" or personality that alone can be safely exalted "in heaven and on earth and under the earth," the name of "Lord," the Cosmocrator.

Triumphalism, insensitivity to the place of women, support for top-down oppression? Hardly. Not in view of descent and self-giving being the very essence of this kind of governing ordering principle. No other model is safe for our life together as humans, and even more so as Christians who are as prone to self-aggrandizement as are members of any other religious body-until, that is, such a mind as this mind raises our sights to "citizenship in heaven" (3:20), and "transforms" our loyalties (3:21) to the extent that "the body of his glory" (3:21) becomes incarnate both in our "gentleness" (4:5) toward one another and in our "thanksgiving" to God (4:6).

What results (2:12-13) from this kind of order in the world is Shalom (4:7, "peace" or well-being and wholesome wholeness), "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding." That pristine health-filled wholeness is in greatest contradistinction to the shattered world of domestic violence against women and children, also the dog-eat-dog kind of free-market capitalism that rushes headlong without regard to its costs to humanity's social fabric, and without counting the ecological deficits of ever-expanding GNPs here and across the globe. In this new millennium of "peak oil" and unprecedented levels and scopes of violence, let those communities who have ears hear, and those who have eyes see, this "mind of Christ" which is the prototype of the new world that God initiated and holds before us as our best hope.

Copyright Statement

John Gibbs, PhD, a retired theologian, attends Trinity Episcopal Church, Park Rapids, MN.   He originally wrote
this reflection in 2005.  John and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments or additional reflections to John Gibbs or any MEESC member, or mail them to:
c/o C. Morello
4451 Lakeside Drive
Eveleth, MN 55743-4400 USA

The MEESC assumes that all correspondence received is for publication on this web site. If your comments are not for publication, please so note on your correspondence. The MEESC reserves the right to decide which items are included on the web site.

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