“Therefore God also 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 should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:9-11
I know that to people who already have a strong faith in Christ, this passage is at once a relief, an inspiration, a cause of rejoicing, a humbling reality (or so it should be), and more. We’ve staked so much of ourselves on this one hope: that God exists, Jesus is real and died and was raised, and God loves us and at death will take us to be with him in our home of homes called “heaven.” It is truly a great risk in the sense that it’s nothing that we can prove, yet it still demands our total allegiance. We who feel like we’ve known Jesus, and felt his love for us, and understood even a fraction of his sacrifice for us, we’ve had moments of being ready to fall face-down before the King of kings, just like this. We’ve been ready for the whole world to acknowledge the majesty and great love of our God, and ready to see Jesus in his glory once and for all. It’s that big moment of confirmation of faith, when the possibility for doubt or debate will be wiped away, and the truth will just be evident.
I feel that, and it is so good. But a passage like this certainly gets me thinking about so many around me, friends, family, strangers, etc., who don’t have such a faith and who wouldn’t welcome this day of the Lord the same way. In their shoes, shoes that I’ve been in once before, this passage strikes a whole other mix of feelings. Right away, it’s so exclusive; it talks about a very specific God (the God of Israel and the Jews) and it gets even more specific by claiming that this God is found in the Messiah-man, Jesus. Scripture like John 14:6, and others like it, come to mind that hint that this Jesus and faith in him is the only way for humans to be made whole or enjoy life after death. The gospel of Jesus is one that sums up all the hope for happiness, fulfillment, or good relationships, in this one man. He talks in covenant terms, and in sacrifice terms, and obedience terms. To admit that any of that is true, is to thrust oneself into a worldview that demands much — there are things I can no longer comfortably do; there are things I can no longer comfortably leave undone; there are very specific and even exclusive attributes of God and what God requires of me. There’s much to gain, like purpose and forgiveness and the promise of the Holy Spirit, and communion directly with God and repaired human relations and a unique respect for the earth, and more. But even those benefits carry burdens — to believe in grace is to admit my own sinfulness, even a deep sinfulness, which is to admit that there is indeed a pretty objective sense of right and wrong in the universe (based on God’s heart). To believe in sin and grace is to admit that the only way I could be made right or set free was for this God-man to die in my place.
All this thinking makes some of us uncomfortable. We don’t want to be suckered in by the “opiate of the masses” of religion. We don’t want to be dupes, or acolytes to a false charade, or attached to history’s great hypocrites who gave us the Crusades. We don’t want to exclude other paths to faith or call someone else’s beliefs foolish, even though some of them conflict deeply with the grace-centered gospel of Jesus. We don’t want to feel obligated to suspend our disbelief/science/reason. This faith is too demanding, too controlling, and just too much. You’re telling me here that at this man Jesus’ name I, and everyone else, will fall on our faces. That sounds superstitious and cult-like. You’re telling me that I’ll call him, “Lord,” and I don’t like the idea of someone putting words in my mouth. At the end of the die I already feel like I’m a fairly decent human being, and God knows that, so what’s the big pressure to make a big choice, or go this way versus that way?
These are powerful emotions/ideas that well up in us when we’re not sure about buying into a Christian faith; and they pop up for some of us when we come across such direct and definitive statements like in Philippians 2. There’s so much that is assumed here, and we don’t wanna fall down that rabbit hole.
But that is putting so much pressure on what I think can be a simple meeting between people, in a way. By my faith I trust that Jesus is, and is yet alive; as much as he is God, he is a person, completely. Which means that he is knowable, today. You can meet him. Not in a ghost-like, Obi-wan Kenobi as if he can be conjured, but in real ways.
For those who are rubbed the wrong way by today’s reading, before you make any hasty decisions or pile up so much into this grand decision, start by going in search of Jesus himself. It’s simple that way. Maybe pick one of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, and get a feel for that perspective on him. Listen out for what he actually says, and does. Cast aside what you’ve been told, or what other “Christians” continue telling you. Make it yours. I’m not telling you to do to him what you yourself hate, which is to put words in Jesus’ mouth or bend him to fit your will. Let him be, and see who he is. And if you find yourself starting to believe, or hope to believe, that he exists, then try to transition from knowing him, to listening to him.
Prayer is the word for asking for help, or speaking into the dark, or directing your heart to God. At any time, if you want to be serious about this search, put to God your feelings. “Where are you? Are you there? Show me something? What does this part mean? Why did you do/say that? What do you want from me? Who am I to you?” And so on. There is no trick here, but I dare you to actually try.
All in all, if once you find that Jesus is, and he is who he claimed to be, then it’s time to wonder at what Philippians 2 means, and whether or not you feel the truth in it. After all, indeed, if the Gospel is true then what other response, or commitment, or celebration is due to Jesus than the kind of reception he has in these verses? What can we say or do or give to do right by him, to honor him? What could that day be like, when God sets aside a moment in time for all mystery to be thrown wide open, and the majesty of Christ Jesus to be revealed to all, and there be no room left for doubt or decision? Today, live with the possibility of that moment in mind.