The surest way up is by stepping down.
Isaiah 50: 4 – 9a; Philippians 1: 27 – 2: 11
The surest way up is by stepping down seems contradictory. In this day and age when ‘my rights’ and ‘me first’ dominates the social and business landscape it collides with our culture. Jesus of Nazareth taught us the value and usefulness of humility. Humility is not highly prized in our society today and we in the church struggle with it. It’s hard to believe humility opens doors and empowers!
This Palm or Passion Sunday we will focus on the Philippian’s reading. The NT scholar Ralph P Martin says that Philippians 2: 6 – 11 “is the most important section in the letter and surely the most difficult to interpret. … Nevertheless, there is at least one thing that calls forth almost universal agreement. It … constitutes a signal example of a very early ‘hymn ‘of the Christian Church.” [Phil p. 99f] That’s right it is a hymn – a song of praise – from the very early days of Christian worship.
This ‘hymn’ is significant in what it says about Jesus. It is one of the earliest pieces of writing going back to possibly 10-15 years after the death of Jesus. This hymn precedes the writing of the four Gospel accounts. Yes, it is earlier than those precious documents. It is a piece of writing that contains some of the earliest theological statements about Jesus. It is written in the form of a ‘hymn’ and therefore it is an example of early worship material, possibly recited or chanted. Its content tells us that from an early stage Jesus is seen as one with God and one who is above all of creation.
Now this ‘hymn’- Phil 2: 6-11 – is important for two reasons. Firstly it tells us that from a very early stage in the life of the Church they were worshipping Jesus. There have been some who have argued that the notion of Jesus as one with God – a divine person – is a much later understanding. This piece of Scripture flies in the face of that view. From the earliest times Jesus was seen as unique and one with the Creator God. That understanding is revolutionary as the Jewish people firmly believed in One God only. The first Christians were Jews and saw Jesus as the Messiah – the Christ. Jesus the Christ was inextricably one with God.
The second significant thing about this text is how Paul uses it to encourage humility. Why did Paul value humility? There are many reasons. The teaching of Jesus captured in the Sermon on the Mount makes it clear that humility is a top-tier virtue. Jesus taught; ‘Blessings on the meek! You’re going to inherit the earth.’ Yes, the meek – the humble – shall inherit the world. Jesus was seen to be humble. In fact Philippians gives us a beautiful picture of Jesus’ humility. [Phil 2:6-8]
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.
And Isaiah’s prophetic words about the ‘suffering servant’ echoes in the background.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. [Is 50: 5,6]
Neither can we avoid John’s picture of Jesus in the Upper Room sharing a pre-Passover celebration where Jesus takes off his outer robe, takes up a towel and bowel of water, and washes the disciples’ feet [John 13: 4]. That too is a beautiful picture of Jesus’ humility. Jesus never came to lord it over us but to serve us. One can neither escape or overlook the humility of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.
This ‘hymn’ that Paul uses to illustrate humility to the Philippians was known, otherwise why would he have quoted it a length. He doesn’t quote it to teach about who Jesus is, but it is quoted to encourage the Philippian Christians to practise humility. Paul writes to encourage the Christian community, living in a Roman city with many different religions and superstitions, to practise humility. The church in Philippi was small and threatened. Paul wanted to build up the community and his main emphasis was on Philippian Christians continuing to build upon their faith in Christ Jesus, their fellowship in the Spirit, their kindness and compassion for one another and for a unity of love and mindfulness of each other. Paul said to them, 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 [Phil 2: 2-5]. Paul could see that the fellowship of the Church was stronger and more effective when the church really looked after each other with a selfless love. Unity is not so much about believing the same things as showing love for one another. I know folk who come here for the first time speak well of our acceptance and friendship. The key to a strong fellowship is people who put others first. It is that spirit of humility that enables us to love one another selflessly.
What is the power of humility? Before we look at humility’s power let us note what it is not.
Humility is not about letting people push you around, nor letting people ‘walk all over you’. Humility is not constantly sacrificing your own interests, nor avoiding conflict for the sake of being nice.
Humility is more about emotional growth. Humility means that one does not have to put oneself above others. Humility means that everyone is your peer. Humility means you are neither the least important nor the most important person.
If we consider how humility works we may see why it is powerful. Humility grants the humble person complete freedom from the desire to impress, to be right, or get ahead. A humble life results in contentment, patience, forgiveness and compassion.
The humble person:
- understands individual limitations.
- appreciates others.
- respects others and their opinions.
- listens more and speaks less.
- withholds judgement over intentions as much as possible.
- helps and promotes others.
Reflect on these characteristics of a humble person and you will see a strange power in each of those steps. Others begin to appreciate the humble for their respect, appreciation, empathy and help. As the humble give power to others the power is reciprocated.
Now do not be fooled. Being humble is not about seeking power. There is the story of the grandfather who said that he had been given a medal for his outstanding humility. But, he added, the medal was taken away from him when he began to wear it.
The key to humility is a healthy self-esteem: the recognition of one’s own worth. As Christians we gain our worth from being made in God’s Image [Gen 1: 26]. So to let God polish God’s image in us is the surest way of gaining a healthy self-esteem. Our identity and worth now rests in God. As much as we wish to be appreciated by others, the most important thing is to know that God appreciates us. We are worthy because Christ Jesus has made us worthy.
I dream of many powerful little churches because they are humble little churches.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 14/04/2019