a sermon on Philippians 2:1-13
Advances in medical science in recent years have made organ transplants an almost routine thing in our society. This is a very new thing, though. I attended church growing up with one of the doctors involved in the first lung transplant in 1963 at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, and even as a child, I can remember organ transplants being so unusual as to make the news pretty regularly in my hometown.
Nowadays, though, things seem to be a bit different. Organ donors are far more common, and many organ transplants are relatively routine operations. We have moved from transplanting some of the more outlying organ systems like the liver or kidney into the heart and lungs and now even in recent years to the entire face. Yet there seems to be one organ left out of all these transplants: the brain. I suspect that there are plenty of good reasons for that!
But many centuries before anyone even imagined that an organ transplant might be possible, let alone understood how our bodies work, the apostle Paul suggested that we all need that transplant that doesn’t even seem to be on the horizon, a brain transplant! In these thirteen incredible verses, Paul urges his listeners to replace their minds with the mind of Christ, to undergo a transplant of the highest order and be transformed by the mind of Christ.
Paul begins this call by appealing to the fond relationship that he has developed with his listeners. “Make my joy complete,” he says—give him something to be proud of and help him to celebrate the way of life that they have developed. “Make my joy complete,” he says—set aside your own individual cares and concerns and “in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” “Make my joy complete,” he says—look to the interests of others, and take up the mind of Christ.
These instructions regarding taking up the mind of Christ come three times in our reading today. The first two times, Paul suggests that the Philippians need to set aside the things of their minds that divide them and be united in their love and service. It is only third time, though, that he suggests that brain transplant, when he shifts his proclamation to tell them that such unity can come only through setting aside their own minds and taking up the mind of Christ.
Paul describes what this might look like using words that were probably quite familiar to the Philippians long before they received this letter. Most scholars think that verses 6-11 here began their life not as words of Paul in this specific context but as a creed or even hymn of the early church. As Paul casts it here, though, it is far more than just a simple creed to recite with the lips or to set in the mind—it has real and direct consequences for action.
The creed makes it clear that Jesus had a very different approach to the world than our human one. Jesus had every reason to exploit his status and position as equal with God, but instead he emptied himself and took on human likeness. Jesus could have avoided all trial and trouble and tribulation, but instead he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death. So Paul then calls the Philippians and us to approach the world differently and replace our human minds with this mind—a mind that sets aside human status and privilege and seeks to stand with and for the least of these among us, a mind that shuns any and every act that puts ourselves above others, a mind that embraces challenge and struggle, a mind that brings together humility and obedience without restriction and without fear.
But there is more to the mind of Christ than just self-sacrificing love and obedience unto death. The early creed goes on to show how God turns our human expectations upside down even in the response to Christ’s self-sacrificing obedience. By the power of God, Christ’s obedience and humility unto death are transformed into high exaltation, into “the name that is above every name,” into one who will receive all glory and honor “in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” into the simple great affirmation for all time, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Unlike the ways in which we take on Christ’s mind in his obedience and humility, taking on the mind of Christ doesn’t necessarily bring us immediate and direct glory for ourselves. Instead, we take on the mind of Christ as we place our hope and trust where they truly belong and order our lives as God intends, giving glory to God by giving up our own, exalting Christ and not ourselves, and confessing his lordship in our lives and our world. We take on the mind of Christ as we set our obedience to God above the other allegiances of our world, above family, nation, privilege, status, or any other human thing. And we take on the mind of Christ any and every time we gather to sing praise as we do today, joining our hearts, minds, and voices to that chorus who already give honor and glory and confession to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord.
These words are an incredible and beautiful gift. They stand as a very important part of the theological foundation of Christian faith. They call us to seek a new and different way of living that is beyond our expectations and our worldly ways. And they challenge us to figure out how to get a brain transplant as we take on the mind of Christ for ourselves. Paul’s concluding words give us a little more guidance as we think about how we are to live all this out. He knows that each of us will approach taking on the mind of Christ in different ways, so he concludes by encouraging us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” This does not mean that we should be afraid that we will get it wrong, because the reality is that we will! But Paul makes it clear that we really don’t have so much to worry about: “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for [God’s] good pleasure.” All our best attempts at sorting all these things out will fall short, but God will always be working to transform us beyond what we can understand.
God is replacing our minds with the mind of Christ bit by bit. God is performing the ultimate brain transplant on each and every one of us day after day, not trying to make us all the same but trying to bring us together to live and work as God has shown us in Jesus Christ our Lord. So may God open us to this powerful movement in our midst as our minds are transformed into the mind of Christ, so that we too might live with humility, obedience, and hope and join in God’s transformation of the world until all things are made new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.