Philippians 2:1-13: Year A, Proper 21

Hey there! I’ve had a handful of posts sitting neglected in the drafts folder, several of which are working out some of the questions I was wrestling with when I preached on Philippians 2:1-11 a week ago. I’m not ready to post them yet, but I did come upon some resources that seem like they might open up some ideas for fellow preachers taking up the epistle this Sunday.

George Hunsinger offers an ecclesial reading of the Christ hymn. It’s the best section of his commentary on Philippians so far. He reads the hymn, allowing Chalcedon especially to bring the song to life. Readers might also find his essay in Disruptive Grace on the Chalcedonian shape of Barth’s theology super helpful. It is always worthwhile to make recourse to the Chalcedonian Definition. (You may also be interested in a post from earlier this year, about Ian McFarland’s book which champions a “Chalcedonianism without reserve.”)

Jeremy Begbie discusses tension in music as training us to live gracefully in tension in our lives. One of Hunsinger’s insights is that the hymn pushes us to the limits of language, citing church fathers who use phrases like “God suffered impassibly.” In his book Theology, Music, and Time, Begbie draws from Kathleen Marie Higgins, a professor of philosophy and the arts, who writes, “Musical experience can be described as enjoying tension.” While Higgins is dealing with ethical tension, and Begbie associates her insights with the tension of already-not yet eschatology, I think the hymn of Philippians 2 introduces a theological tension that is not meant to be resolved, but “gracefully navigated within a texture of external and internal tensions.”

Hymns and contemporary songs have brought this passage to life in beautiful ways. Many hymnals will have Charles Wesley’s powerful “And Can It Be?” incorporates the passage in close textual similarity:

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace!
Emptied Himself of all but love
And bled for Adam’s helpless race!
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free
For O my God it found out me.

But contemporary songs, like “What a Beautiful Name,” draw deeply from the passage as well:

You didn’t want heaven without us
So Jesus, You brought heaven down
My sin was great, Your love was greater
What could separate us now

What a wonderful Name it is
What a wonderful Name it is

I think also of the new song by Cory Asbury, “Canyons,” which has in the bridge this powerful line: “How can I fall, when you already took the fall for me? Beyond the stars, to the very breath I breathe, there’s no end to Your love for me.”

This is an incredible opportunity to invite the congregation to reflect on worship as a sign of and schooling in unity. During these troubling and divisive times, unity is not assumed anywhere. Division is. Yet, Christians gather for the shared work of worship (and leitergos does show up in 2:17 and 2:30, though neither appear to refer directly to communal worship), where singing and unified responses are central actions. What is happening in these actions? What do they do to us? How do they shape us? This is the direction I took, wondering if Paul may have hoped the congregation would recognize the song and begin singing it together, so that the letter reader could simply say, “See, you can be united! Now live like it!”

I hope this was useful to you. Share your own ideas and insights below. God bless you as you preach!

Zen

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