Sunday, August 12, 2012

Being Human by Imitating Christ [Philippians 2.5-8] (8 April 2011)

Now don’t get me wrong, I really don’t care for the product, or for the advertisement itself. But the recent TV ad for luminous inverters and batteries makes an important point. If you don’t remember the ad, allow me to jog your memory. Sachin Tendullar is at the crease, taking strike, but he has in his hands a hockey stick. The tag line insists on there being a match. Sachin and his bat go together, just as Luminous inverters and Luminous batteries go together. A very valid point. Some things are meant to go together.

Paul says much the same thing in his letter to the Philippians. Before we read the scriptures, let me ask you some leading questions: “Would you reprimand a dog for not having feline traits?” “Would you ask a penguin to fly?” “Would you insist that a whale breathe through gills?” One does not ask the ridiculous. One asks only what can reasonably be expected.

To carry this further, if I were to go up to a dog and say, “You should be more like a cat!” or to a penguin and say, “You should fly like other birds” or to a whale and say, “You should breathe like fish do” I should be locked up well and good – and not simply for speaking to animals, but for asking the ridiculous. We can reasonably expect from a being only what is appropriate to the nature of that being.

I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to think two things: First, Paul was not a stupid person, asking people to do things against their nature. Second, the scriptures are given to us so we may live in light of their instructions. And so we come to Paul’s words to the church at Philippi.

[Read Philippians 2.5-8]

Paul begins by saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” This should have been a key verse in St. Thomas à Kempis’ devotional work “The Imitation of Christ.” After all, that is exactly what Paul encourages. He wants us to imitate Christ. And so, the lack of a reference to this passage in a book titled “The Imitation of Christ” seems strange.

But if we go by the common interpretation of the passage, this exclusion is understandable. The common interpretation goes like this: Jesus was God, but did not think equality with God should be held on to. Rather, he emptied himself of his divine privileges and became human. He then humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death on the cross.

But this interpretation leads to two conclusions: First, if this is speaking of what Jesus did by virtue of being God, then it cannot apply to us! After all, you cannot ask a person who is not God to imitate a person who is God. It would be like asking a dog to meow! Second, if Paul expects us humans to imitate the divine Christ, he must have been off his rocker! Who but a madman would ask a person who is not God to imitate a person who is God?

This common interpretation reveals why Thomas à Kempis, though writing a book about imitating Christ, ignored the only passage in the New Testament that not only issues a direct call to such imitation, but also gives us a concrete example of what imitating Christ would look like. For à Kempis and many others, this passage is just not relevant for discipleship because it speaks of what someone who is God did. And we know that we are not God!

But as I said, I like to think Paul was not stupid and that the scriptures are given to us for our discipleship. So let us take a look again at the passage. Our critical verse is v.6. If we were to translate it word for word without bothering about it being proper English it would read: “Who in the form of God being, not something to be seized he considered to be equal with God.” Let me repeat: “Who in the form of God being, not something to be seized he considered to be equal with God.” That is horrible English so let us straighten it a bit to get: “Who, being in the form of God, considered equality with God was not something to be seized.”

Paul is drawing a contrast between Jesus and someone else, someone about whom it could be said, “Who, being in the form of God, considered equality with God was something to be seized.”

In Genesis we read about Adam, who was in the image of God. The words “image” and “form” are synonymous. And so we can say that Adam was in the form of God. But he did consider equality with God was something to be seized. And so he took what God had forbidden. He wanted to be equal with God. After all, that is precisely what the snake promises. But that was the way to death. And so elsewhere Paul says, “As in Adam all die.” That is, if we follow Adam’s example, we follow the trail that leads to death.

And to understand what Paul says about Jesus next, we need to turn to Psalm 8.4-6 where the Psalmist asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them; mortals that you care for them? Yet, you made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.” The Psalmist has a lofty view of human beings. They are only just below God himself. Great though Adam’s fall was, this fact does not change. Human beings are still the stewards of God’s creation. They are still responsible for how they treat God’s creation. And unfortunately, they are still in a position to dominate creation.

But Paul tells us that Jesus emptied himself. Not of his divine prerogatives. That may be the case, but that is not Paul’s focus. Paul tells us that Jesus emptied himself of the prerogatives he has by virtue of being a human being. Jesus’ way recognizes that rule does not mean ruthlessness, that dominion does not imply domination.

When Paul says that Jesus took the form of a slave, it cannot refer to Jesus’ being born as a human, for humans are not slaves. Rather, it refers to his unflinching obedience to God. Though being a human, Jesus did not try to assert himself independently of God. You see, this makes sense because the only creatures who have asserted independence from God are humans! In fact, all of us have. Paul is telling us that Jesus, though being a human like all of us, chose instead to obey in the same manner as that in which a slave would obey – completely, totally, unreservedly, ungrudgingly.

And then Paul expresses a conundrum in the latter part of v.7. Jesus’ attitude was so strange for a human that many early Christians thought he had simply descended from heaven. Paul dispels this view by pointing to the fact that Jesus was born and that every interaction people had with Jesus showed that Jesus was truly human. His point is precisely to ward off thinking that would make Jesus’ divinity the reason for not following him. We cannot say, “Jesus is God. So he could do all of the things he did. I am not God. And so I cannot.” No! Paul will have nothing of that kind of thinking.

Paul, rather, insists that Jesus did all of this precisely because he understood what it means to be human. To be human is to obey God. Jesus obeyed God not because he was divinely empowered to do so. Rather, he obeyed God as a human being. Or more to the point, he obeyed God because he was a human being. Being human and obeying God go together just like Sachin and his bat!

For Paul, Jesus’ humbling himself and taking the form of a slave is not something extraordinary. No! For Paul humility and obedience to God are the quintessence of what it means to be human. Jesus’ obeying God is not to be viewed as some kind of aberration. Rather, our refusal to obey God is the aberration. Like Sachin trying to bat with a hockey stick.

Once we realize that Paul is not focusing on Jesus’ divinity but on his humanity, we can recover the purpose of this passage. Paul can only tell us humans, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” if he tells us humans about Jesus the man.

And Paul tells us about the man Jesus, who obeyed God so completely that he went all the way to the cross. We should not be morbid here and conclude that all of us should be nailed to crosses. That would be foolish. Paul is not making death or crucifixion compulsory when you imitate Jesus. But he does say that imitation of Jesus might lead to death.

As we move through this Lenten season and focus on the death of Jesus, it pays to ponder what the breaking point of our faith might be. How far will we go before we say, “No further”? At what point will our obedience waver? We all know that our obedience falters all too quickly. We all know that we capitulate with the slightest pressure. We know that we are more like Adam than Jesus, wanting to do our own thing rather than submitting daily to the will of our loving Father. And we might get discouraged. We might use our frailty as an excuse for seeing this passage as being relevant for us.

However, just as one does not ask a dog to behave like a cat, one also does not ask an obedient dog to obey! One does not command a diligent worker to work diligently. One does not exhort an honest labourer to labour honestly. The existence of a command presupposes the breaking of the command. In other words, Paul’s words, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” are addressed precisely to and for the benefit of those who do not yet have the mind of Christ. Precisely to those who habitually imitate Adam is given the call to imitate Christ.

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