Following Christ, The Lead Conductor

Jul 4, 2022

By Suzanne Nicholson

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” – Philippians 2:5-11

The church has been described in a variety of ways, but I particularly like the imagery of an orchestra, where many different instruments play different harmonies, creating one beautiful piece of music. Of course, in the last few decades of The United Methodist Church, someone has dropped their tuba, the clarinets are squeaking, the drummers are all playing different competing rhythms, and who knows what the trumpets are doing! The many gifts and diverse contexts of the church only create beautiful music when we work off the same sheet music, when we are unified (as the apostle Paul says) by having the same mind that is in Christ Jesus.

The Philippians text, known as the Christ hymn, offers a pattern for believers to follow. It is a pattern that reveals the paradox of the cross: true power is not found in climbing to the top and grabbing power for oneself, but in our willingness to serve others with the heart of Christ. When John Wesley read Paul’s description in Philippians of Christ’s emptying himself, taking the form of a servant, and being obedient to death on a cross, Wesley declared that this is “the noblest theme of all the children of God on earth.” In fact, Wesley loved this passage so much that verse 5 – “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” – is Wesley’s most-quoted Scripture passage in all of his sermons: 52 times Wesley calls us to have the mind of Christ.

As the apostle Paul writes this letter to the Philippians, their church is experiencing opposition from nonbelievers in their city, as well as dissension within their own church. (Does that sound familiar?!) If you were a Christian walking through the streets of Philippi in the first century, you would not only walk past temples to various Greco-Roman gods and goddesses, but also two temples dedicated to worshipping Caesar and his family as divine. Many of the colonists in the city were from Rome, and many of these were retired military personnel. To be a Christian in this city and declare, “Jesus Christ is Lord” meant that you were making the political statement, “Caesar is not!” You would not make a lot of friends with the Roman colonists this way. 

Paul certainly understands this kind of opposition. He’s sitting chained to a soldier in Rome when he writes this letter to the Philippians. If anyone has a right to be angry at the sting of injustice, to be horrified by his mistreatment, or to become frozen by his inability to itinerate where he can flourish, it’s him. Yet for Paul, the way to deal with those who oppose his gospel is not through griping or anger or retribution or becoming a troll on Twitter. He considers it a privilege to suffer for the cause of Christ (1:29). I don’t know about you, but that’s not my knee-jerk reaction when I experience suffering! Yet when Paul writes to these Philippian believers, he is full of joy, and he repeatedly encourages his brothers and sisters in Christ to rejoice as well. 

Paul instructs these believers who have been wronged to “let your gentleness be known to everyone” (4:5). His overarching concern for this community – one that he repeats 17 times in this short letter – is that they have the proper mindset; that is, their thinking, and the actions that flow from right thinking, must reflect their participation in Christ. If you are playing in the symphony, you’ve got to follow the conductor.

When Paul starts chapter 2, he reminds his brothers and sisters that they have received encouragement in Christ. They have received the consolation of love from God the Father. They have shared in the Spirit. They have received compassion and sympathy from one another as a result. Since they have received these things, Paul urges the Philippians to make his joy complete by having the same mind together as a community. 

New Testament scholar Lynn Cohick asks, “What does ministry look like if one’s goal is joy? It means, at least, that numbers don’t matter. It means that ‘the other’ is always in view. It means that achievements have to be understood in light of the congregation’s maturing in Christ. It means that the focus of ministry, the orientation of one’s goals, actions, and purposes, is to increasingly rejoice.” That, my friends, is a beautiful picture of the ministry of the body of Christ! 

Paul further explains what this unity of mind and purpose must be focused on: doing nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility valuing others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others. This is not only a hard word in our day, but it was especially hard in Paul’s day. 

Humility was not a virtue in the Greco-Roman honor-shame culture. Your role in that culture was to increase your honor and the honor of your family and kin. Honor was competitive. If someone else was gaining honor, that meant you were losing honor. You look out for yourself and your own. You’ve got to have a better job than your neighbor. You’ve got to have a bigger house. You’ve got to throw better dinner parties, have a nicer car, get a better appointment to a bigger church, gain more “Likes” on social media than the pastor down the street. But Paul’s view of the cross-shaped life turns all of these priorities upside down. Instead of a protective, “get what’s mine” attitude, Paul says our attitude must be, “how can I help you get what you need, even if it comes at my own expense?” And this is all based on the model of Christ Jesus.

In what may well be one of the earliest hymns of the Christian church – whether written by Paul or used by Paul because it so well addresses what he wishes to say to the Philippians – we hear a magnificent description of Christ’s preexistence, incarnation, and glorification. Paul makes it clear that Jesus was in very nature God – he was in the form of God, the same essence or substance as God – but he did not “grasp” or cling to his equality. The NIV provides a good translation of what this means: Jesus did not consider his divinity as something “to be used to his own advantage.” He could have used his high status to act like an influential millionaire or a celebrity actor who expects everyone around him to wait on him hand and foot, doting on his every need, whether practical or moral or not. Recent stories of celebrities paying huge bribes to get their kids into top-level universities demonstrates this kind of power that “grasps” after any privilege it can find.

But instead of clinging to his status, Jesus “emptied himself” and took the form of a slave. Many theological arguments have occurred over this statement – in what way did Jesus “empty” himself? Let’s be clear: he did not in any way empty himself of his divinity. Jesus was fully divine, and then he became fully human in addition to being fully divine. This involves a change in status, not a decrease in divine essence. Even though Jesus rightly deserved to be worshipped 24/7 in heaven, he set aside that right so that he could become human, submitting himself to a frail body that could succumb to hunger, thirst, flogging, nail piercings, and death. Even so, he never stopped being divine. 

Consider it like when your family gathers for Christmas – brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and extended family members – and you have to set up a table for the adults and a table for the children. If there are too many adults, you might step down from the adult table to make room for Grandma Martha, and you eat with the kids. This doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly changed your essence from adult to child – but it does mean you give up the adult conversation and instead you may end up talking about Blues Clues or Paw Patrol. Yet in stepping down to the kids’ table to make room for Grandma, the whole family learns something about you. You’re that relative who is kind and generous and thinks about others before thinking about themselves.

That’s what Christ does. In stooping down to become human, Christ shows us what true divinity is all about. The Lord of the universe demonstrates the depths of his love by becoming one of us, to redeem us, to restore our relationship with him. Or, as Charles Wesley so aptly put it, 

He left His Father’s throne above–
So free, so infinite His grace–
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race…

Amazing love, indeed! Jesus’s obedience, all the way to the cross, shows us the depth of God’s love for us. Rather than turning his back on those who betrayed him with their sins, the Lord of Life experienced the cruelest form of torture and death. The Roman punishment was so awful that Roman citizens were almost never crucified. It was reserved for people of low status – for criminals and slaves. And so Jesus – the one in the form of a slave – suffered a slave’s death, despite being the master of all.

God the Father responded to Christ’s loving obedience by raising Jesus to the highest place, giving him the name above all names – that is, Jesus is indeed “Lord.” This does not mean that Jesus wasn’t Lord prior to his exaltation – he is not receiving a new status. Rather, this exaltation means that Jesus is now publicly recognized as Lord. The ones listening in Philippi to Paul’s letter being read who were familiar with the Jewish Scriptures would hear in this section echoes of Isaiah 45:23. There the Lord Yahweh declares that to him “every knee will bow and every tongue confess.” How remarkable that this statement about Yahweh is now applied to Jesus, a first-century Jew who walked the dusty roads of Galilee! 

The language of “trinity” may not have been fully formed until the later church councils, but the theology is clearly present here in the earliest days of the church. Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. And Paul makes it exceedingly clear that there is no realm where Jesus is not Lord. Whether among the spiritual beings in the heavens, among humans upon earth, or even among the dead “under the earth,” Jesus Christ is Lord. When Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, every knee will bow. Every tongue will confess, whether willingly or unwillingly. No creature will be able to deny the Lordship of Christ, and all will be held accountable to that lordship.

And yet. This Lordship, this authority, this kingly reign, all demonstrated a very different way of ruling. New Testament scholar Dean Flemming describes it this way: “That the one who was humiliated and crucified by Roman power is declared universally sovereign directly challenges the empire’s version of how to achieve world rule.” 

Brothers and sisters, those who are in Christ must not give in to the worldly temptation of ruling by grasping for power. By hanging on to what’s “theirs.” By using budgets and bylaws to place a stranglehold on vibrant ministries. By twisting rules and trust clauses to maintain dying institutions. As we recognize the Spirit’s movement in the birth of the Global Methodist Church, we must take care not to grasp after money or position or influence. Because Paul’s declaration that one day “every knee will bow and every tongue confess” applies to us, too. 

One day, we will give an account to our Lord of how we have treated one another. Have we been grasping and clawing after power and recognition, or have we rejoiced in our suffering for the sake of Christ and set our minds upon serving one another?

The beautiful Christology of the Christ hymn is not merely a piece of theology. Paul directs the Philippians to this doctrinal description because the Philippians must live out this theology. They are to have the same attitude as Christ Jesus. 

Make no mistake – our theology is always practical. We cannot ever divorce head and heart. Too often we talk about seminary education as if it is merely a mental exercise. Too often we talk about ministry as only boots-on-the-ground, practical activity. But our practice is shaped by our theology. And our theology is dead if it is not lived out. We need strong, orthodox seminaries training strong Christian thinkers in the church to guide our footsteps and make sure that the boots on the ground are not walking in the wrong direction!

And so Paul writes this theology to urge the Philippians to walk in the direction of humility. We are more than conquerors through the cross of Christ which brings atonement for our sins. But this redemption, this reconciliation with God that comes through the cross of Christ, is only the beginning. Christ justifies us so that he might sanctify us. And when we are transformed, we are transformed from power-hungry, self-seeking manipulators into Christ-followers who lay down their lives to serve others. If we follow Paul’s leading, then we must cultivate an attitude that sees the needs of others as greater than our own. 

In a global church, the way we live out this attitude will look different in different contexts. In Philippi, this meant that believers like Euodia and Syntyche needed to stop quarreling with one another. In Corinth, this meant not clinging to one’s right to eat idol meats when such practices might cause a brother or sister in Christ to stumble. In Thessalonica, it meant a willingness to suffer persecution for preaching the Gospel. In the United States, it means we must generously share our financial resources by building schools in inner-city Detroit and digging wells in Kenya, as well as listening to the Holy-Spirit-inspired leadership of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. In Liberia it means rescuing the perishing and caring for the dying by providing tuition for school children, care for the poor and jobless, and fighting corruption in government. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it means speaking the truth, sharing justice with all, and putting the poor at the center of ministry efforts. In Russia, it means opening new ministries such as soup kitchens and shelters, as well as defending the victims of war despite the dangers of an oppressive authoritarian government. The challenges may be different across the globe, but the call is the same: we must have the mind of Christ.

A global church that has the mind of Christ serves as a witness to the world that true strength does not come through domination. True lordship does not come by stepping on others. Rather, the Lord of the universe is the Lord of love who came to seek and save the lost, to heal the wounded, to feed the poor and free the oppressed. When the world looks at us, will they see Christ? Our job as the church, as Dr. Cohick puts it, is to serve as “an echo of Christ’s work; the echo imitates the original sound but is always secondary to it.” 

May the other-centered, love-filled symphony of the new Methodist movement echo through the back alleys, the tenement halls, the hospitals, the schools, the rehab centers, the prisons, and the government corridors of the globe so that all the world may know that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Suzanne Nicholson is professor of New Testament at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. She is a deacon in The United Methodist Church and serves on the Global Council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Dr. Nicholson is author of two books, her latest being Women in the New Testament, and is the assistant lead editor of the online magazine, Firebrand. This article is adapted from her address to the Wesleyan Covenant Association Global Gathering in Indianapolis in May. 

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