This week's readings: 18th Sunday after Trinity
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
Exodus 17.1-7 or
Ezekiel 18.1-4, 25-end;
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"
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,
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.