In the first Avengers movie, there is a scene where our heroes have captured the villain, Loki, who is from Asgard, and are flying him on a plane to a secure location. All of a sudden, there is a thunderstorm, and Thor, the god of thunder, lands on the airplane, grabs Loki, and jumps out. As our heroes Iron Man and Captain America follow them out of the plane, Black Widow says to Captain America that he might want to sit this fight out, because Loki and Thor both come out of legend and are basically gods. And Captain America’s response is this: “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t look like that.” This movie conversation came to mind as I was thinking about today’s text from Philippians. In this text, Paul writes to the Philippians that they should have the same mind in them as that mind found in Christ Jesus. And his description of Christ Jesus, whom they—and we—worship as the Lord, is completely different from any gods that this group might have worshiped before hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. As Captain America might have said, Jesus certainly doesn’t look like any other god that they might see around them.
As I was saying to the Thursday morning Bible study group this week, when we compare 1st century Greco-Roman society to 21st century North American society, we may find some general similarities, but there are still a lot of differences. From our vantage point of a society where Christianity is generally regarded as an acceptable faith to have, we can’t understand how radical and how dangerous a faith it was to have in the Roman Empire. And as we look at Paul’s description of who Jesus Christ was in this chapter, we have to try to hear it first with the ears of the 1st century Greco-Roman Empire before we try to understand what it means to us in this American Empire that we live in.
So, first, let’s look at what theologians call the idea of the incarnation in this hymn. Incarnation is a big, fancy word that means Jesus, as God, became human and lived among us. Now in the Greco-Roman world, this was not anything new. There were stories about gods, especially Zeus, the king of the gods, putting on human form and coming down to live among humans for a time. But the difference between the Greek gods and what Paul is describing here in Philippians is this: the reason that the divine became human. For example, when Zeus became human, according to the legends, it was mostly to play tricks on humanity, including sleeping with human women and getting them pregnant. Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, empties himself. He takes the form of a slave. He serves humanity by showing us how to love and to serve one another. And he becomes obedient to the point of death. He chooses to die on a cross, which was the most humiliating and lowly way that anyone in the Roman Empire could be executed. Zeus and the other Greek gods would never, ever have done that. So this idea of the divine loving humankind so much that he would come to earth to serve us and die for us instead of playing tricks on us was so new, radical, and different, that it would have caught the attention of people who were very concerned about their status in society.
So, now we come to the next part of the description of Jesus. Because Jesus did this, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. You all are probably going to get tired of hearing me say this, but this is the learning that heavily impressed itself in my brain when I was traveling in Greece and Turkey to all of these sites where Paul had been. Every person in the Roman Empire was supposed to acknowledge that the Emperor was a god. That means going to one of the many temples dedicated to the Emperor, burning some incense, and saying, “Caesar is Lord”. For most people in the Empire, this was not a big deal: they just added the emperor to the list of the many gods that they already had. For the Jewish people, who worshiped only one God, the Empire said that as long as prayers were said for the emperor in the temple, they did not have to acknowledge the emperor as divine. But consider now how it would sound for Christians to be going around denying that Caesar is Lord, but saying instead that Jesus is Lord: someone whom the Romans had shamefully crucified is higher than the Emperor. That’s treason, and the punishment for treason is death.
Jesus is Lord. Such a simple statement for us to make today. No one thinks twice about it, because all those of us who believe this statement have no problem saying it, and those who don’t: well, they may want to discuss it with us, but they’re not able to throw us in prison for treason because of it. Jesus is Lord. What was treason once upon a time is something that is easy for us to say in the American Empire in which we live. But do we understand what it means for us to say that Jesus is Lord?
Scholars think that these verses describing who Jesus is and what he did are not original to Paul, but rather that Paul quoted a hymn that the Philippian church would have been familiar with. Why does he do that? Well, like any church, there were disagreements among the people about how ministry should happen. Later on in this letter, Paul calls out two of the women who were arguing, Euodia and Syntyche, to stop their disagreement and be of one mind in the Lord. Being of one mind in the Lord does not mean that we in the church will always agree with one another. It does mean, however, that disagreements with one another should not divide the congregation. When we have disagreements, we should come together and discuss them, remembering that even though we have different opinions about something, the statement that Jesus Christ is Lord is what unifies us above all other things.
And because Jesus Christ is Lord, and we know that at his name every knee should bend, it means that the things we disagree about are not of ultimate importance in the long run. Therefore, when we look to resolve our disagreements about which direction the church should go in its ministry, we need to do so with the humility that Jesus modeled for us. We should consciously be seeking the welfare of others, and not ourselves. And that consciously seeking the welfare of others means not just those of us inside these church walls, but also those outside of our church walls as well. Just as God emptied God-self into human form in the person of Jesus in order to serve humankind and to become obedient to death in the most humiliating way possible—for us, and not for his own glory—we too are called to empty ourselves and to love and serve one another, sometimes in ways we cannot possibly imagine.
What does this emptying of ourselves to love and serve one another look like? Well, here are some examples. It looks like a woman caring for her husband who has dementia and does not remember who she is any longer. It looks like the man in Australia, who, when doctors discovered that he had antibodies in his blood that could save the lives of many children, donated blood every week until he was too old to do so any longer, so that those children could live. It looks like offering comfort to a complete stranger in the vet’s office because she’s just had to have her dog put down and she has no one there with her to hug her and give her a shoulder to cry on. And it looks like not separating immigrant mothers from their children at the border even when they have violated the law in crossing our borders illegally. And when that does happen, self-emptying looks like church communities, clothed in compassion, who go to these families who are being detained to offer comfort, material support, and advocacy so that parents may be reunited with their children.
“There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t look like that.” Our God does not look flashy and handsome like Thor, and he doesn’t play tricks on us like Zeus. Our God is Jesus, the one who had nothing in his appearance to attract anyone to him. Our God emptied himself and became human for us. He served us and he loved us and he showed us what it means to love and serve one another, to empty ourselves and put the interests of others before ourselves. And ultimately, Jesus, our God, died the most humiliating death possible—for us. Therefore, how can we not follow the model of our God as we interact with one another? We’re human, and we’re not going to get it right all of the time—far from it. And God gives us forgiveness and grace when we stumble and fall. But let us strive to model Jesus in our dealings with one another, being of one mind in Christ Jesus, and confessing with our tongue that Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen.