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Faith >

This week's readings: 18th Sunday after Trinity

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Proper 21: Exodus 17.1-7 or Ezekiel 18.1-4, 25-end;

Philippians 2.1-13;

Matthew 21.23-32


THE PHILIPPIAN churches were riven by arguments. Circumcision was involved; so were personalities. Paul mentions the disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 3.2-11, 4.2).

Paul speaks of his own patience under suffering and slander, and then of Christ's humility. He urges the Philippians in their turn: "Have this mind within yourselves which you have [or, which was] also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2.5).

To make his point, he quotes a hymn, known now as "The Hymn of Christ's Glory" (Philippians 2.6-11). Was it written by Paul, or was it already the common property of his own and other churches? Either way, we are listening here to praise offered to Christ within 30 years of his death.

The hymn is so famous that we might fail to see how strange are some of its terms. Christ Jesus "thought equality with God not something to be seized". This was apparently a standing that he could, but should not, seize: a promotion, as it were, instead of which he chose humiliation. So he was born "in the likeness of humans", and "in fashion" was "found as a human". There was something uncanny in this man that set him apart from normal humanity.

We readily think of his self-humiliation as a concession: we gloss "being in the form of God" to mean "although he was in the form of God" (Philippians 2.6). But perhaps, in this way, we miss the hymn's deepest claim about God and his action. These opening words could as well be paraphrased: "Because he was in the form of God": Christ's ultimate truth to the form of God was his humility and death.

To do Christ justice, the hymn evokes at least two figures from the Old Testament. The first Adam was made in the image of God (Genesis 1.26-27). Some rabbis refined this claim to emphasise the distance of humankind from God: humans were made "in the image of the likeness of the form of God".

The present hymn presents Christ as a second Adam; but, in contrast to the first, this second Adam, before being born as a human, existed "in God's form" itself. This second Adam, then, had a status far greater than anything ascribed to the first. Again, in Genesis 3.1-7, Eve, and so Adam, were tempted by the serpent to become like God; but the second Adam, in this hymn, had a chance without any impropriety to be equal to God. Whatever could be said of the first Adam, far more could be said of the second.

The hymn recalls as well the Servant of God in Isaiah. "In humility he was judged", just as Jesus "humbled himself". The Servant "shall be exalted and glorified", just as God has "highly exalted" Jesus (Isaiah 53.8, 52.13, Greek; Philippians 2.8, 9).

Isaiah, however, generally spoke of a servant; the hymn envisages the greater humility of a slave. ("Slave" at Isaiah 49.3 (Greek) might have encouraged the link; a slave, in Roman law, was a natural victim of crucifixion.) The hymn, describing the new Servant, deepens the degradation of the old - and heightens his subsequent glory. As with Adam, so with the Servant; whatever could be said of the old, far more could be said of the new.

But how much more? The first Adam was made in the image of God, but could never be confused with God. For God alone should be offered the worship due to him. God speaks in Isaiah: "I am God, and there is none other . . . for every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess God" (Isaiah 45.22-23, Greek).

But "at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow" (Philippians 2.11). Here is the most dramatic of all the early churches' claims: the worship owed to God alone is owed to Jesus - and still, of course, "to the glory of God the father" . Fittingly, this claim reaches us in a hymn, in the style and atmosphere of worship; worship was driving doctrine onwards.

Only in heaven is the passage of time compressed as it is in this hymn: what a seer sees in heaven now "is" already the case, although it remains still unfulfilled on earth. Even if Paul did not write this hymn, he could have done. For Paul the visionary thought visually; and the sight, above all, that informed his thought was the layout of the worship of heaven.

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Thu 27 Nov 14 @ 16:03
RT @EmmaMaskell1@churchtimes @findachurch Loving the multifaith Christmas jumper!

Thu 27 Nov 14 @ 15:46
The new issue of the Church Times is out tomorrow. Here is our preview > http://t.co/Y1Pake4F18 http://t.co/gSddoS5Pna