Scholars believe that verses 6-11 of Philippians chapter two were originally lines from a hymn that had been written by the early Christian community. The hymn would have been composed by someone or a group of people whose names are long lost to us, and the song would have become known by different little Christian communities that were popping up in cities all over the Roman Empire. As Paul is writing to the church in the city of Philippi he comes to a point in his letter when he is talking about humility. He writes this: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Paul invites this community into something that he calls being “of the same mind.” He says, “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” He goes on to say, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
When he gets to the point of describing, elaborating on humility, and what it means to be of “the same mind” as Christ, he changes gears. He stops writing in the form that he had been using and turns instead to the poetry of this hymn – as if what he is trying to say is best expressed through the beauty of a song. All we have left of the song are the words here in this letter, but we can imagine some kind of melody behind them. So, he writes “Do nothing with selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” And then, the words of the hymn: (have soloist sing from HWB #333) “Christ, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
The hymn speaks of humility as authority and power; self-emptying as actually filling the whole universe with praise – something not easily communicated. When the early Christians were trying to capture the specialness of Christ and the meaning of his life, they felt the need to go beyond rational explanation and description. One of the ways that they did this was by putting together this hymn and singing it together. The mind of Christ. Humility as authority – a strange and wonderful song to sing.
When I read this about being of the same mind, or being of the mind of Christ, and think about the life of the mind, I think about a speech that I watched online recently. (Click HERE for to see video.) At www.ted.com there are all sorts of interesting videos of speeches by some of the best thinkers in their field, talking about how what they are discovering can contribute to a better world. One of these is by a brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor who had the unique experience being a brain scientist who had a stroke, and while she was having her stroke she had the awareness of mind to reflect on what it was that was going on with her, and since her recovery has been able to share her insights into her experience. She describes these insights in physical neurological language, but also in spiritual language.
The brain, she notes, has two distinct hemispheres, which function almost like two different minds. The right hemisphere is filled with an awareness of the present moment. It is always right here and right now. It thinks in pictures and images and learns through all of the senses and movement of the body. It is constantly taking in the energy of the world and registering what the world sounds like, looks like, feels like, smells like, tastes like, and turning that energy into explosions of information and images. The consciousness of the right brain is one of connection to all that is, and knows no boundaries between things or individuals. You and I are all part of the one energy field and we are of one mind.
The left hemisphere of the brain, she describes, is a very different place. It thinks linearly, and is filled with an awareness of the past and the future. It organizes and sorts and files information from the right hemisphere. It collects the information that we take in from the present and associates it with all that we know of the past, and projects it into the future as we think about possibilities and options. The images get turned into language and it speaks to us with words. It differentiates between what is this and what is that and what isn’t this or that. This is a piece of paper, and this is a lectern and this is a shirt. And, most importantly, she says, it gives us a sense of personal identity. This is me. I am. It sets us apart from our environment and tells us that we have boundaries between what is me and what isn’t me. I am Joel. I am married to Abbie and live at 4233 Brownway Ave. and am the pastor of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.
On the day of her stroke it was the consciousness of this left side of her brain that she lost. It started with a pounding pain behind her left eye, and then she started to lose a sense of being in her body. She watched her arms and legs as they became undifferentiated from what they were holding on to and touching. She thought this was rather bizarre but then when she lost the ability to move her right arm she realized she was having a stroke. She would get flashes of consciousness from her left brain that enabled her to make sense out of what was happening. I’m having a stroke. I need to call someone for help. Then she would lose that consciousness and have to wait until she regained it back to figure out what it was she was doing. Eventually she called for help and was on the ambulance getting taken to the hospital. And she describes her experience of recognizing that this might be her time to die, and of feeling herself expand beyond her body as the left side of her brain shut down, losing all sense of personal boundaries and limits. She says that she came to the point where she surrendered her spirit and felt total peace.
And then, after however long, she realized that she was going to live, that the doctors had been able to save her. And as she is realizing this she is wondering how this expansiveness that she felt in her spirit, this connectedness and harmony that she felt to all that was beyond herself, would ever fit back inside that little body that she had. And then she had what she calls her stroke of insight. She felt like she had to keep living because she believed she had something that she wanted to share with people. Something important to teach about how we go about our lives. And so this was a great motivator for her to recover.
She ends her talk by asking the question “Who are we?” and challenges her listeners to recognize that we have access to both hemispheres of the mind. We are one, single, life force, a part of the same energy field, connected and interdependent, emptied of ourselves, and full of the whole world. We are each unique individuals, persons with personalities and identities and differences. She doesn’t use the word humility, but her message is a call for a great humility in how we live. To have the kind of humility that recognizes that we as separate individuals, also share in one mind, and that in the one mind, there is no need for the unnecessary pride and arrogance that tend to define so many of our relationships.
I don’t mean to say that the Apostle Paul and Dr. Taylor are saying the exact same thing when they talk about being of the same mind. I don’t mean to reduce being like Christ to a proper proportion of left and right brain activity. But I do feel that this scientific model of how our minds work help sheds light on what we are being invited into as imitators of the mind of Christ. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” What is the mind of Christ? How is it different than the one we are socialized into? According to this hymn, it is a mind that is both connected to the eternal God, and aware of its own fragility. Christ gained fullness by emptying himself. He humbled himself and submitted himself to death. The consciousness of the right mind and the left mind were in perfect harmony with each other and it allowed him to be in the world in a way that opened up a new path. There was no conflict between the ego and the spirit. The I of Christ and the I of the Father were one, even though Christ was also separate, in his body.
The hymn presents all this as bearing great authority. Humbled, yet exalted. Submitted to death, yet raised up to life. This is an authority made up of humility. The power of humility isn’t the power of forcing us into anything, but the power of drawing us to itself out of the beauty that we see in it.
This authority that Jesus carried with him was something that caught the attention of people around him and also brought him scrutiny. At one point early in his ministry, we are told, “(The people) were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). One day toward the end of his ministry when he was in the temple, teaching, the chief priests and elders of the people came up to him and asked “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” The temple was a place where there were supposed to be clear lines of authority. The chief priests carried the authority of being appointed to this position. They could wield the authority as they saw fit. A significant part of the authority of the elders and the scribes came from the family that they were born into. And Jesus comes onto their turf without any of this, but with some obvious power behind what he is saying and doing. Where does it come from? What is it? It was coming from a different place.
In classic Jesus style, he doesn’t answer the question directly as it is asked of him, but comes at it sideways. He says: “I will also ask you one question: if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” At first glance this may appear that Jesus is just punting to the other team. You tell me and then I’ll tell you. But what it actually gets at is the very nature of authority that Jesus carries that the chief priests don’t have. The question sends them into a huddle where they start discussing their options of how to answer. They know that they have rejected John as a true prophet from God, so they aren’t able to answer that his authority came from heaven, otherwise they’d be admitting that they should have believed what he had to say. But they know that if they answer that there wasn’t anything special about John then they had a fear for the crowds because they all felt that John was a prophet. They get stuck in their calculating minds. They are acting out of fear. They don’t want to appear to be rebelling against God or rebelling against the people. Their main concern is trying to protect their good name. We might say that they are operating out of the limitations of the left brain. Trying to establish their self over and against other selves.
Not seeing a way that they can get out safe with option A or B, they opt for choice C, “We do not know.” They supposedly carry with them great authority, yet they are motivated by fear and self-preservation. In other words, they carry no real authority. They don’t get Jesus’ authority because it is the opposite of their own. Jesus is able to possess authority without being authoritarian. There’s no coercion and there’s no manipulation in how he relates with people. He’s not grasping on to anything, not even his own life.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” This way of being human is not something that comes naturally for us. We have to be converted into the way of Christ – rewired and remade. Our pathways have to be rerouted. The way of Christ is foreign to our system. Hopefully, we don’t have to have a near death experience in order to get it, although scripture does talk about our baptism as being like a death where we are brought back to life. Hopefully there are ways each day when we can allow God to shape us and form us into the mind of Christ. Humbling us. Emptying us and filling us.
I come back to this useage of the hymn in the letter to the Philippians. Sometimes in order to get something, we can’t be changed by a logical argument, but have to experience it in a special way. We have to be confronted with it in a way that breaks through our rational, calculating mind. We have to sing it, put it into poetry, in order for it to make its way into us through the side door. The path of humility is one that we can’t just think ourselves into. We have to sing it, feel it vibrate in our throats and our bodies, be a part of a chorus that is surrounding us and singing it together in order for it to make any sense. We have to experience it coming at us from others. That’s part of what I see us doing together in our times of worship. We sing about strange and wonderful things that we may not be able to experience if they weren’t put to music. We let our minds be filled with the thoughts of Christ and watch as they slowly change us into new people. We bring our individual selves, but also let ourselves be expanded to include the whole community, to be not just separate isolated bodies gathered together, but to be the body of Christ. The body of Christ, learning to have the mind of Christ.