True Power

Paul’s Hymn to Christ, the most common title given to Philippians 2: 6-11, is one of the most popular passages in the Pauline corpus, with good reason, and one of his most scrutinized passages as well. To my mind it encapsulates Jesus’ Incarnation and Passion more powerfully than any other short passage in the New Testament in the rhythmic cadences of early Christian hymnology. The passage has been studied on these terms, as an early Christian poem, with the stanza breaks becoming clearer in the Greek original. Some have also traced the provenance of this hymn to pre-Pauline origins, suggesting that Paul adapted an already existing Christian song or poem for this letter to Philippi. If so, it gives us a window on the earliest Christian beliefs about Jesus. Others have focused on the influence of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the Suffering Servant Song, on this hymn, or other Old Testament motifs. I love this hymn for all of those reasons, but mostly for what it says about the nature of true power. It is all too easy for people to abuse their power, in the religious or in the secular world. It does not take long to scan any newspaper, on almost any day, to find instances of the powerful run amok. Politicians do it, priests do it, it is true, but almost always left out of the equation is, how do I do it? Almost inevitably all of us will abuse the power we have been given, and we all have been given some, either to gain more power, to gain more influence, to stroke our egos, or even simply because of the mysterious drawing power of sin. Jesus’ exaltation is based upon his servanthood, his humility and his obedience, all in the service of his true power, as Paul’s Hymn explains: "because of this God greatly exalted him" (Phil. 2:9). It is not only how God uses his power that is on display in this Hymn, however, but the true human response. "Every tongue (will) confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (2:11). Why? In order to curry favor? In order to get close to the Big Boss? In order to avoid punishment? No, because in the face of true power, which is ultimately true love, the human being in awe and wonder can do nothing but acknowledge the truth. The bending of every knee is a sign of the acknowledgment of Jesus’ true nature; it is not imposed, but the spontaneous outpouring in response to who he is. Jesus told us he was available to us, even now, in the poor, the weak and the powerless, and that how we treat the least among us is how we will be judged (Matthew 25:31-46). On our Lenten journey to the Cross, let us model our power on the way of the one who walked as a servant, in humility and obedience.
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