A homily on Philippians 2:1-12 from Sunday, July 1
Honestly, there are few passages in scripture that move me like this one. So much that I am almost hesitant to speak on it, because it feels a bit like what we ought to do is simply remove our shoes and acknowledge we are standing on holy ground. Paul has given us an image of Jesus here that is just breathtaking.
And so in our 5 minutes together, rather than dissect it, I really just want to invite us into a moment of wonder. If there’s one thing I want you to see in this passage, it’s that the gospel is beautiful. That the suffering and resurrection of Jesus is beautiful.
And to help us enter into that beauty, I’ve given you each an image that I got to see in person last week in Jerusalem. It’s a detail from a mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the church built on the place where Jesus was believed to be crucified and laid in the tomb. If the stories are true, then this is the place where Jesus asked his father “why have you forsaken me?” and breathed his last breath.
I have never in my life felt so completely enfolded in beauty with all of my senses as I did in that space, where incense and prayers and monks singing and centuries of sorrow and worship just hang in the air itself. At this church, I knelt down and touched the stone where Jesus died. I lit a candle for my son who is sick and for my own broken heart over that sickness, and I was so moved by the intermingling of beauty with pain.
And so although it’s not the same as being there, I wanted to invite you into that space with me for a few minutes tonight as we get into the passage.
Now, most scholars believe that at the heart of this passage, Paul is quoting a hymn, and I love to imagine the earliest Christians singing these lines. Reading in verses 6-8: "Though he [Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."
How can I call this beautiful? This is the depth of human suffering. Jesus subjected himself to the limits of a weak and decaying human body. He lived as a peasant. He loved people who abandoned and tortured him. He was mocked and executed like a petty thief, and even his father watched him die.
How can I call this beautiful? Surely God does not look at human pain and limitation and suffering and call it beautiful. Surely God does not look my own deepest pain, or your deepest pain, or the pain and injustice of the world, and call it beautiful.
And yet, in this hymn Paul goes straight from the pit of human suffering to a vision of glory. Verses 9-10: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This is a vision of beauty: the end of the story, Jesus glorified, everything in the universe set right again,“all the sad things coming untrue.” This is a picture of all of creation doing what it was made to do—to worship the God who formed it. This is the essence of beauty: a renewed world, a glorified Jesus, the whole atmosphere charged with worship.
But the gateway to this beauty is Jesus’ humility and suffering. The gateway to beauty is the cross.
The great American theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote that when we begin to follow Jesus, we aren’t just converted from death to life. We aren’t just converted from darkness to light. Our entire sense of what is beautiful is converted too. And we learn to see the cross as the highest expression of beauty—holding together of all that is horribly broken, and all that is being gloriously renewed.
So look again at this image I gave you. It is an image of sorrow. What makes it beautiful is more than just the craftsmanship and the materials. Because no amount of craftsmanship can make that depiction of suffering beautiful. What makes this image beautiful is the hope of glory that we know is hidden just on the other side of that tomb: the resurrection hidden in the crucifixion. What makes it beautiful is our longing for the glorious end of the story that we know is coming.
And Jonathan Edwards said something else. He said that the mission of each Christian is to partake of God’s beauty—like we do here in song and prayer and table—but then to enlarge it in the world. I can’t get over that—to actually enlarge the beauty of God. To beautify the world. Edwards wrote that God "continually reaches out to beautify, to embrace in love, to reclaim what is lost." It's as if we could paraphrase that last sentence of our passage, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” as something like “beautify the world in holy wonder.”
But of course this doesn’t mean, it can’t mean, that our mission is to go out and make the world pretty. No. The beauty of God, if you remember, is tied up in the pain of the cross. This is no cheap makeover to cover up everything broken and ugly in the world. No, we beautify the world when we adopt the humility and self-giving love of Jesus. When we come together in that humility to worship the crucified and resurrected Jesus as a community. And when we extend the edges of that transformed community outward—by welcoming others into that worship. This is what it means to be a community of worship, welcome, and wonder.
We know the end of the story. We know our pain is being transformed and that our wounds are being healed and the whole earth is moving toward a day when all things are made new. And we get to tell people!
This is the gospel. It is beautiful. And God has given us the tremendous privilege of extending this beauty to the ends of the earth.