Downward Mobility

Week 20, Day 2

Philippians 2. 1-13

Each week the folks who created the Narrative Lectionary Project that we are following this year publishes brief commentary on the text for the current week. I thought you might enjoy the current week’s offering. This is by Amy Oden, who is Professor of Early Church History and Spirituality at the Saint Paul School of Theology, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. You can find the original, and links to much more, on their web site:

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.

It’s a pretty radical idea -- God descending into human flesh.

God chooses downward mobility against all expectations of a deity. If folks have spent a lot of time in church, it’s likely they are used to the idea of God becoming human. It can be the wallpaper of our faith -- all around us and yet just sort of there in the background. These verses from Philippians 2 call us to see -- again, maybe for the first time -- how radical this God is and what that means for our lives.

In the ancient world, a god who was “born in human likeness” (verse 7) was a self-demoting God, hardly the sort of God useful for human life. It’s one thing for Zeus to become human for a day to play tricks, but it’s quite another for the God of the universe to “empty himself taking the form of a slave” (verse 7), that is, to take on flesh, become fully human, suffer and die. Who needs a God like that? This God doesn’t sound like a “winner,” like a mighty deity who comes to the aid of powerless humans or like a super kick-butt-and-take-names deity we want on our side. In fact, ancient folks were unlikely to trust the judgment of a “loser God” who chooses this sort of downward mobility.

In the Roman Empire, dominance, victory, and ascendance signaled power and authority. How is it possible for humility, servitude, submission, even death, to signal power and authority?

Yet verses 6-8 tell us everything about this God we need to know -- that Jesus empties himself, becoming a servant, in order to fully inhabit humanity, to fully incorporate human life into divine life. This God loves and longs for us so much that God enters fully into human life -- not putting on a human suit for a day but submitting to all the indignities and joys of human life, including death.

This God does not withhold love until we rise to a divine level, but rather stoops to our level, scoops us up in all our messiness and makes us part of God’s own Life, the Triune Life, where we are healed and saved.

And, in a twist of logic, God’s self-demotion into full humanity is the source of Jesus’ exaltation. And it is the source of ours as well. Our full, messy humanity is the ground on which we kneel to raise up glory to God.

What does this mean for how we live? This goes-against-the-grain God sets the pattern for our lives as well. Against the cultural narratives that tell us winning is everything, those who follow Jesus take on a downward mobility attitude about life. We can “have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” (verse 5), being humbled by the same love that was in Christ Jesus. And, equally counter-cultural, it is in our humbling that we become fully and deeply human “to the glory of God the Father” (v. 11).


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