Throughout human history, the desire to see oneself reflected back in something has been persistent. There are prehistoric mirrors that were made of intensely shined rocks, or pools of still water kept for just such a purpose. We even have a biblical reference to a mirror in which Saint Paul compares something to “seeing in a mirror darkly,” this mirror was likely made of metals that were polished the best possible, but wouldn’t possible compare to the mirrors we have available to us today. I have noticed that a recent addition to my daily rhythm is just how much I see my own image reflected back to me. Not just in my bathroom mirror or the mirror by the door, but also in the preview screen every time I join a zoom meeting or make a video call to a loved one. It is rare that a waking hour passes without me seeing my reflected image staring back at me. And as I was praying through the scriptures set for today, I couldn’t help but to think about all those times I see the reflection of myself as I read through this passage from Philippians.
Now, perhaps this is strange, because this isn’t the time in which Paul refers to a mirror; in fact, there is not reference to seeing our reflection at all in this passage, but there is just something so powerful about the ways in which Paul calls the church at Philippi to remember who they are that caught me this week. Paul is writing from his imprisonment, and yet provides encouragement to the church at Philippi, in hopes that they might lean more fully into who they hope to be as they pattern their lives after Christ. Paul encourages the people to have lives lived with compassion and sympathy, to regard others as better than themselves, and that they have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. What follows is known as the Christ hymn; it’s a poetic understanding of what happened when God came to be with us, when Immanuel was made known to us. Marked with humility and kenosis, or the self-emptying ,that we have come to know exemplified in Christ, this hymn encourages the people in the congregation to trust that the same God that was at work in Christ Jesus is at work in themselves, and that this always finds its fullest representation when we orient ourselves to Christ.
Now, Philippians is often thought about as a joyful, delight-filled letter of encouragement a letter from Paul while in prison to this church that was being actively persecuted; in many ways in less of an easy joy and delight, but more the hard-won hope and faith that God is at work with God’s people. One of the striking things to me as I read and reread this passage from Philippians has been that though it was less than 100 years after Christ’s death, the people in this congregation needed to be reminded. They needed to be reminded of who Christ was, that when Christ came to earth, God became nothing, God became a fragile baby born to a family in unstable conditions. That though Christ was fully divine and fully human, he emptied himself and took on death to conquer death.
Sometimes, I think that we can find ourselves in a very similar place to the congregations of people to which Paul was writing. They were spread out, unable to come together, and beginning to forget who they are called to be; that their lives are meant to be modeled on this overwhelming humility, not just in regards to God, but to every other human that walks the earth. It’s no small task, and it’s easy to forget who we are supposed to be. So this week, as my own image has constantly reflected back to me throughout the day, I have wondered how many times I make tiny adjustments to my appearance and fail to see the image of God. As I navigate the world today, how many times do I, as Paul exhorts, look not to my own interest, but to the interests of others? It’s the best (and worst) kind of convicting to have a mirror held up in front of us that asks that we see not ourselves, but the one that we follow instead.
I think it can be so easy to think of Christ in one of three modes: eternally existing with the Father, as the blessed baby Immanuel, or crucified on the cross. One of the things that Paul’s Christ hymn does for me to challenge this default way of seeing our savior, and to imagine the ways in which he walked around the earth and saw the abundance of death, sin, and despair. How did Christ feel knowing the ways in which God created us to love each other yet see us putting our own interest above others. In what ways did Christ grieve all the ways in which people failed to see how they were created to do such good, not just to succeed or to triumph or to be first, but to rest in the fact that God is at work within the world and is at work through humanity. Because just as humility is countercultural in our world today, it was so in when Paul was writing Philippians; it seems he set out to encourage the congregation to change their daily actions to more fully represent Christ, and he encourages them toward humility.
I’ll be honest, it is hard to know what you are looking like, what your soul looks like, when you don’t get the chance to look into the mirror. And for Christians, there is no greater mirror than read our holy scriptures, to receive the sacrament, and to be in fellowship with one another. This season of life is particularly hard because while our daily lives may have an abundance of reflections, how often do we get to see how we were created to be reflected back to us? It can be hard during this season of life to remember who we are and whose we are; it can be hard to remember that all the times that we see our images reflected back to us in mirrors or in screens that we aren’t seeing our full selves. At least not the selves that we promised to continually try to be when we had that water poured over our heads at our baptism. It can be hard, but it is not impossible. It was not impossible for the church at Philippi and it is not impossible for Christ Church in Bowling Green.
The letters from Saint Paul in our holy scriptures have hit me a little harder during this season: we are spread out, we are often unable to see each other and remember what our faith community can look like when it’s at its best, and there is so much despair happening all around us. Perhaps that why praying through Paul’s Christ hymn hit me this week. Because when Paul says “you” in this passage it is not the singular, but the plural; it is the community of faith. This call to orient our whole lives, our whole selves to Christ is not a singular undertaking, but is one done in community. And like the church at Philippi, when we lean into the fact that God is working within us, it is Christ who is not only reflected back to us, but also to others. So, when we take this Christ hymn from Saint Paul and hold it up to ourselves, I think it behooves us to ask who do we see? Who do we see when we respond to something on the internet? Who do we see when we interact with a group of people with whom we disagree? Who do we see when compassion is hard and love seems impossible? Who do we see?
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church via livestream on September 27, 2020 for Proper 21A on Philippians 2:1-13.