“And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even on a cross.” – Philippians 2: 7-8
Remembering this is the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, I looked for Martin Luther’s interpretation of Philippians 2:8 and found it in one of his Palm Sunday sermons:
“Being made in the likeness of men.” Born of Mary, Christ’s nature became human. But even in that humanity he might have exalted himself above all men and served none. But he forbore and became as other men. And by “likeness of men” we must understand just ordinary humanity without special privilege whatever. Now, without special privilege there is no disparity among men. Understand, then, Paul says in effect: Christ was made as any other man who has neither riches, honor, power nor advantage above his fellows; for many inherit power, honor and property by birth. So lowly did Christ become, and with such humility did he conduct himself, that no mortal is too lowly to be his equal, even servants and the poor. At the same time, Christ was sound, without bodily infirmities, as man in his natural condition might be expected to be.
“And being found in fashion as a man.” That is, he followed the customs and habits of men, eating and drinking, sleeping and waking, walking and standing, hungering and thirsting, enduring cold and heat, knowing labor and weariness, needing clothing and shelter, feeling the necessity of prayer, and having the same experience as any other man in his relation to God and the world. He had power to avoid these conditions; as God he might have demeaned and borne himself quite differently. But in becoming man, as above stated, he fared as a human being, and be accepted the necessities of ordinary mortals while all the time he manifested the divine form which expressed his true self.
“He humbled himself,” or debased himself. In addition to manifesting his servant form in becoming man and faring as an ordinary human being, he went farther and made himself lower than any man. He abased himself to serve all men with the supreme service — the gift of his life in our behalf.
He not only made himself subject to men, but also to sin, death and the devil, and bore it all for us. He accepted the most ignominious death, the death on the cross, dying not as a man but as a worm; yes, as an arch-knave, a knave above all knaves, in that he lost even what favor, recognition and honor were due to the assumed servant form in which he had revealed himself, and perished altogether.
All this Christ surely did not do because we were worthy of it. Who could be worthy such service from such a one? Obedience to the Father moved him. Here Paul with one word unlocks heaven and permits us to look into the unfathomable abyss of divine majesty and to behold the ineffable love of the Fatherly heart toward us — his gracious will for us. He shows us how from eternity it has been God’s pleasure that Christ, the glorious one who has wrought all this, should do it for us. -Luther
So how to apply this passage in our own faith life? One timely and well provided answer was given by Pope Francis in a May 2016 homily on service: “A disciple of Jesus cannot take a road other than that of the Master. If he wants to proclaim him, he must imitate him. Like Paul, he must strive to become a servant. In other words, if evangelizing is the mission entrusted at baptism to each Christian, serving is the way that mission is carried out. It is the only way to be a disciple of Jesus. His witnesses are those who do as he did: those who serve their brothers and sisters, never tiring of following Christ in his humility, never wearing of the Christian life, which is a life of service.” Pope Francis then goes on to say we become good and faithful servants when we first learn to be available, to learn detachment from doing everything our own way and living our lives as we would. Each morning, as Christ did, we should train ourselves to be generous with our lives and to realize that the rest of the day will not be our own, but given over to others. A servant knows that his time is not his own, but a gift from God which is then offered back to him. Only in this way will it bear fruit.
We know (as God most certainly knows) we will always fall short in our imitation and proclamation of Jesus but we can only begin to follow his command to love one another when we imitate his chosen path of the servant emptied of self.
Prayer: Dear Jesus, please give us insight into your time on Earth as a man and a servant in complete obedience to God. We ask for your help in following you in humility. As we go about our day, let the Holy Spirit open our eyes, ears, and hands for ways to serve others as you would have us do.