When Paul teaches us that we should have an attitude like Jesus’ (Phil 2:5) he quickly shows us that in taking on the form of a bond-servant the path he had to walk was one of total humility ‘counting not equality with God a thing to be grasped’.
I wonder if you have ever been in the position where you have been tempted (or even yielded to the temptation) to ‘drop names’, thus implying to your hearer that you are someone special since you know such and such a celebrity? In this way we can try to build a reputation on the back of someone else’s character and achievements without having to demonstrate our own worth. In this remarkable passage we see that Jesus, who could justifiably claim his divinity, was willing to lay it aside and come to earth not as royalty but as a bond servant. Why? Because of his love for you and me.
I find it hard to illustrate adequately the gulf that he crossed in so-doing. One very inadequate analogy could be to envisage Prince William and Kate Middleton, who were married in 2011, choosing to take their honeymoon in the largest slum in Asia, Dharavi (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) in the heart of Mumbai. And not only did they choose to live there but they also spent their time litter-picking to make a living and put food on the table. Such an image is so preposterous as to be laughable. And yet the humility required to lay aside their royalty in this way is minute compared to the ‘laying aside’ that Jesus chose to exercise. Can there be an expression of greater humility?
In the church, are there jobs you would not be prepared to do? If the church’s drains became blocked would you be ready, if asked, to climb into the manhole to unblock them? Willingness to do the menial task is the attitude of a servant-heart.
The final part of this verse (Phil 2:8) shows how Jesus expressed his humility ‘by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’. We tend to think that obedience is so simple. Indeed, it is a word that is probably most often heard with reference to children or even household pets. Important as obedience is under those circumstances – a child’s safety may be compromised by disobedience – it undervalues the weight of what is being said here.
As adults we tend to avoid the word ‘obedience’; it can feel too dictatorial and legalistic. How many couples have anguished over whether or not the wife promises to obey her husband in the marriage vows? But here we have a total commitment to obey the father. There is nothing pleasant about the experience of crucifixion but, even in the face of such horror, Jesus was still totally obedient. This is what Paul says about our needing to have an attitude like Christ’s. Not easy is it?!
Shortly after completing this I was reading the excellent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Mataxas. Faced with the decision whether to return in 1939 from America to his home country, Germany, we read: ‘In both cases, he sensed there was a right decision, but that ultimately it wasn’t his. Later on he would say it explicitly: that he had been “grasped” by God, that God was leading him, and sometimes where he preferred not to go’. That is servanthood, responding to the master’s will even if it is against one’s own desire.
So much for attitudes of the heart. Next time we will begin to look at some of the characteristics of servanthood.