A reading from the letter of St Paul to the Philippians
If our life in Christ means anything to you, if love can persuade at all, or the Spirit that we have in common, or any tenderness and sympathy, then be united in your convictions and united in your love, with a common purpose and a common mind. That is the one thing that would make me completely happy. There must be no competition among you, no conceit; but everybody is to be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everyone thinks of other people’s interests instead. In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus:
His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. But God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Paul is writing in this reading we heard from prison, facing the apparent collapse and failure of his work and in the presence of undoubted suffering. He hoped to bring the good news about Jesus to his own people, and he has ended up in a Roman gaol. From there he writes to his beloved friends and fellow Christians in Philippi.
And yet his letter is not a “poor little me” letter. In the passage just before the one we have heard, he reviews his situation, and describes himself as full of joy. And he wants the Philippians to know that, but above all to share that joy, so that they can combine with him in joy so as to complete both his joy and theirs. He offers them the path to enable them to do this.
So he begins today’s reading with a series of ringing rhetorical questions: “If life in Christ means anything to you, if love can persuade, if we have the Spirit in common, if we have tenderness and sympathy . . .” We might say if there is any encouragement in knowing that we share in Christ’s life, if our love for him and each other provides any solace, if we have communion in the Spirit, if there is any compassion and mercy. And of course Paul wants to say that all of these questions are answered with a resounding yes! But he wants to do more than that. He is not simply sharing these as rhetorical questions about how things ought to be. He wants to explain that he has discovered this at every level of his being (not just as a series of intellectual propositions) precisely in the circumstances of his being in prison. These blessings have come to him in what might seem the most unlikely of places and situations.
There is no “poor little me”, but instead there is description of blessings, of discovering life in Jesus, discovering the great solace and persuasive power of love, and of the deep communion of the Spirit – discovering, in other words, the common life and unity that he is urging on the Philippians. Paul was not alone in prison, as we discover elsewhere in the letter. He shares the gaol with Timothy and others who he does not name – but it is the common life that he has lived with them that has enabled him to make this discovery. There is a pleasing old tradition that St Paul shared a prison cell in Rome with St Peter(you can still visit the supposed site, the Mamertine prison) – it would be good if this were true, because as a story it certainly expresses what Paul is trying to communicate in this letter. The path to receiving the blessings he has described was the common life and unity, the common purpose and common mind – what he and we call the love – that he and the others had built in the most apparently adverse surroundings. The great way in which they live out this discovery is by considering the other better than oneself – realising and acting on the truth expressed by a modern author in the vivid phrase ‘your life is not about you’, but instead is about God and your neighbour.
We could call the way this realisation is lived out the path of humility and obedience – it is very striking that St Benedict almost reproduces the words of St Paul in Chapter 72 of the Rule, when he identifies as a vital part of the good zeal of monks that “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.”
St Benedict continues the thought as though this were a precondition for what follows, linking it to the concrete circumstances of monastic life: “To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their Abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ”. Living in humility and obedience, putting others before oneself, is living in the pure love that Christ calls us to show. Giving the first place to others is at the heart of monastic life – unsurprisingly, since St Paul has pointed out that it is at the heart of Christian life.
This seems at first sight difficult to us. The humility that St Paul and following him St Benedict urge on us is challenging. Indeed, not all would agree. Some might reject this and say that this was a path of self-harm, even self-destruction, and that our life should be focussed on ourselves and getting as much as we can for ourselves. St Paul responds to this partly with the simple evidence of his own joy in Christian community, but more deeply by showing how Jesus’ cross and resurrection are a model for our own lives as well as everything else they achieve for our salvation. The unity of mind that Paul urges on us is not slavish obedience, it is rather being in our minds the same as Christ Jesus.
Paul describes how Jesus’ mind was not to cling to his own advantage, his own status as equal with God, but to empty himself even to the point of dying on the cross – even to the point of accepting apparent annihilation of himself. Jesus remained faithful to the way of self-giving, of putting God and neighbour first, even though it meant refusing to escape the cross. Paul points out how this apparent emptying of himself at a human level allowed Jesus’ humanity to be totally and definitively filled with divine life. This divine life had been united to his human life from the first moment of his human existence, but now it reached its fulfilment and permeated every element of his humanity. And in doing so he entrusted himself not to an uncaring God, not even to a remote but powerful ‘big boss’, but to God who is love and is the source of life. And that life flowed into his humanity and overcame death and raised him up so that he too could become the source of life for us. So too for us, when we put others before ourselves, when we put God in the first place, we do not entrust ourselves to any uncaring and remote – even potentially capricious – figure, a hostile other whose plan for us is destructive, but instead to the one who is all love and all compassion. Because God is all life, when he reaches out to us in compassion, we are touched by this life, by the new life which Jesus first experienced in the resurrection, and which he comes to share with us. God raised him on high, and wishes to raise us on high.
And in the eucharist, whether we receive it sacramentally from the altar (as those of us who are fortunate enough to be here in the church) or by a spiritual communion, he gives us a foretaste of that life, that love, that common purpose and common mind which is his purpose and mind. So, if our life in Christ means anything to us, if love can persuade us at all, or the Spirit that we have in common stirs within us, or any tenderness and sympathy touches our lives, then let us have a common mind and purpose, and let that mind be the mind of Christ Jesus.