One of the biggest reasons it is hard to be a follower of Jesus in today’s United States is because Christianity is simply a byproduct of the modern, or hyper-modern, culture. Many of us still ultimately believe that the main agent of change is the state and the best mode of production is capitalism. Within those confines, Christianity is an artifact, a voting bloc, a demographic, a subculture.
We are always connected to each other, but we are rarely in community. We are always isolated, but it seems like we’re never in solitude. We are spied on, monitored, tracked, but not known.
The entire myth of capitalism centers on our own self-advocacy. We fight other people and are positioned against them as we advocate for our self-interests. We are reassured that that kind of selfishness is actually good for the world and for us, ultimately.
Our employers criticize us. The boomers blame millennials for their problems (and millennials them for theirs). Privacy is a thing of the past. The government violates our liberty in the name of security. Corporations control the government and now control the avenues through which we get that information.
By and large, we are drowning in debt, we are underemployed, and are struggling to get it all together. Our anxiety and depression, our busyness and stress, loom over us. The medication isn’t working, either. They have industrialized health care. We are constantly told we are not good enough, that we are undereducated, that we need new stuff because our old stuff isn’t working anymore. Our land is unrested and overused.
The world is a dark place. And I don’t think it generally leads us to Jesus. It’s like we are always swimming against the current. The message of Jesus just seems to be so impractical. Meanwhile, Christians are bickering among themselves and not sharing the Gospel. Some of us are too shy to do that. Some of us are too ashamed. Some of us can’t seem to get organized enough to support it, either.
The darkness of the world and the tendency for humans to be self-interested, even as they squalor in their own destitution, has been something of a rule for humanity. Perhaps as we have bought what the elite have sold us as the “myth of progress,” we’ve fallen even more into this trap. The same is true for the ancient church. Paul’s call to them was to imitate Christ. Our call is the same. This passage summarizes it beautifully.
Paul is writing a letter to one of his most beloved churches. He cares about them, and they care about him. My favorite part of this letter is that it is composed in prison. Paul maintain a jovial attitude despite his horrible circumstance.
Paul models the behavior he wants the Philippian church to imitate. He is modeling Jesus and he wants the Philippian church to at least model him. Good rule of thumb: if you don’t think you know God, find someone in the body who does, and copy them. Paul is rejoicing from prison, because his goal is the proclamation of Jesus.
If God is good, Paul says, if Jesus is encouraging, if there is any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy. If any of that is true, then listen to me, he says; then, “complete my joy.” Paul is so communitarian that his joy is connected to Jesus and his Body. And it is completed when that body is united, when it has the same love, when it agrees. We are so different (and proud of it). We are so compartmentalized. The systems around us have designed us to be that way. And it’s killing us!
Paul’s big argument, and his use of grandiose language (one person said it was like killing a rabbit with a cannon) is about being a servant. Christians should exemplify servanthood. We should do it because the incarnation of Jesus exemplifies it.
Rather than proclaiming who he is, he emptied himself. That’s where the name of the hymn comes from: the Kenosis Hymn, the self-emptying hymn. He was in the form of God and took on the form of a human. He literally became reformed to meet us and to know us. He died for our sake.
So, practically, how do we do this? How do we become something different than what we have been made to become?
How do we stay united?
Have conflict when you need to. Talk about how you feel. Let it be known. Don’t avoid one another. Don’t let the passive-aggressive tendencies take over. When we aren’t being forthright with how we feel, we are likely to be divisive.
Affirm others. Speak a word of encouragement to your fellow community member. We were blessing my friend Nate Wissler a few nights ago as he began his journey into marriage, and the focus of the time was encouraging him warmly. The world is filled with self-help books and people telling others what to do. Take a moment to just offer some love to someone. A community with a positive self-image will stay united.
Agree to agree. Come to common agreements together. Keep them going. Be a part of a process and be a part of the community. Let’s mutually discern the Spirit together.
How do we self-empty?
Find out what you are filled up with. If you don’t know what has filled you up, it might be a challenge to self-empty. So develop to try and learn more about who you are, so that you can move into who you are becoming.
Find silence and solitude. Be with yourself. Be with God. Create the space to reflect, write, contemplate. Be still.
Be more than yourself. Be one with God, but also one with the body. Yoke yourself to a missional community that leads you to serve in a bigger way. When Paul is writing to the Philippians, the given is that they are in community, so Paul tells them to model Christ’s humility in it. If he were writing to our individualized society, I think the message would be the same, but the given would be that we are alone and not connected. People are longing for a connection to real community now and I think we can offer them a solution.
Finally, how do we watch out for the collective good? How do we think of others and not ourselves? How to do mutually care for one another?
Give of yourself, even when you don’t think you have stuff. Join a compassion team when you don’t have the time. Give to the common fund even if you think you don’t have the money or if you think your five dollars a month isn’t going to do anything. Include someone in your life even if you think you don’t have the time.
Be ambitious, not arrogant. Humble, not insecure. Do something big enough that you need to rely on one another. On God.