May 14th, 2018

Gospel Brain

A church is totally immobilized if it loses its unity. 

Philippians 2:1-11


Mommy brain

It’s Mother’s Day, so moms, let’s talk about your brain. You may have heard the phrase “Mommy brain” or the recently coined word, “Momnesia,” both of which come across as negative, as in, “A sleep-deprived mom can’t think straight.” Recent neurological studies have confirmed that pregnancy and breastfeeding literally alter a woman’s brain.[1]

A woman’s brain actually loses gray matter when she carries and nurses a child.  You may think that means she’s less intelligent than she was before the pregnancy, but the opposite is true. Our brains store much useless data, and when a woman goes through pregnancy she eliminates much of that clutter. Matt and Beth Amerto, whose baby Mia was baptized at the 8:30 service, told me that they’ve always been well-matched competitors when playing along on Jeopardy… until recently. Matt won every night this past week. That may well illustrate the phenomenon of “clutter removal.”

Motherhood literally reorders the neural pathways of a woman’s brain. From the moment she holds that baby, if not before, she is changed. She will think about her offspring all day every day until she dies, and that’s true even if the child dies before she does. She lowers her own status to that of a servant, and will readily even give her own life for the person she has borne. Moms, today we honor you for that.

There is a close parallel between “Mommy brain” and what I’m going to call “Gospel brain.” This is what the Apostle Paul lays out for us in Philippians 2.

Last week gave us a prime example of Paul’s “grammar abuse.” Not only did we find one of Paul’s classic run-on sentences in Philippians 1:27-30, but Paul turns nouns into verbs, which causes grammarians to cringe. Americans do this regularly. “Telephone,” “text,” and “email” were all nouns before they were “verbed.”

Last week, I honored the Apostle by “verbing” three nouns. Citizen yourselves worthily of the Gospel, he said. How? Two ways:  Military strong and Athlete together. It is to the latter command that we now give fuller attention. It’s not about uniformity. Diversity on a team is essential. You can’t win a game unless you athlete together.

Paul is very concerned about the unity of this church at Philippi. They are elbowing each other for power. They are acting in self-interest. They are grumbling and arguing. Philippians 2:1-11 includes Paul’s strategy to help them athlete together.

Why (1)

Paul begins his appeal to unity by reminding the Philippians of why they should exercise humility. He use four “if” clauses, but a better translation in each case is “since.” We often use the word “if” the same way. I could say, for example, “If you have any appreciation at all for your mother, today’s the day to show it.”

Let’s start with the first three “if” clauses. The NIV reads, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit….” The Greek has fewer words:  “If therefore any encouragement in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any Spirit-fellowship….”

That’s important because the NIV obscures the Trinitarian focus – Christ, Love, and Spirit.[2] Paul is grounding his appeal to unity in what the Philippians have received – encouragement from Christ, comfort from the Father’s love, and fellowship from the Holy Spirit. The word “encouragement” means “to come along side” (paraklesis), which is exactly what Jesus did in becoming human. “Comfort” (paramuthion) means soothing speech, what someone says to you when you’re in deep pain. God’s love provides that for us. “Fellowship” (koinonia) is having things in common.

If I lost you in that last paragraph, let me help you refocus with this paraphrase:  “Since Christ accompanies you, since God’s love supports you, and since the Holy Spirit connects you….” Each person of the Trinity is there for you and with you!

Paul adds one more “since….” “Since you have bowels and mercies.” That’s King James, and I quote it because it’s a good literal translation. The intestines were the seat of your deepest emotions in ancient thought. “Mercies” means “pity,” but it’s plural.

Paul is playing on their deep concern for him in prison. He spent most of chapter one reminding them of their mutual relationship:  “I thank God for you. I pray for you. I have you in my heart. I long for you. I want you to know I’m okay, even filled with joy because the Gospel is being preached and because even if I die, I’ll be better off!”

Nevertheless, the Philippians are worried about him. They don’t want Paul confined. They don’t want him chained to Roman guards. They don’t want him to face trial before Nero, who’s getting crazier by the day. They sure don’t want him executed.

Paul responds, “Since you not only have been provided for by the Triune God, but since in your gut you pity me, make my joy complete….” If you’re the Philippians, and you know Paul loves you that much – don’t you want to pick him up? “Yes, Paul! How can we fulfill your joy? What can we do?” Paul has established why what he is about to say matters.

How (2-5)

Now we come to the heart of the passage, but I’m actually not going to spend a lot of time here because I’ve preached on this text several times and this is where I usually spend most of my time. This is the part of the text that prompted my sermon introduction about “Mommy brain.” Paul tells them how to achieve unity.

I’m going to read verses 2-5 to you in the NIV, with one small change, but I will emphasize what Paul emphasizes –

…then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather in lowliness of mind[3], value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.

We tend of think of humility as something you say, like “You’re a better cook than I am,” or something you do, like “Let me wash the dishes.” It’s certainly true that humility results in words and actions, but it doesn’t start there. You have to think differently about people before you speak to them humbly or serve them.

In Romans 12:2, Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The pattern of this world is selfish ambition, vain conceit, look out for your own interests because no one else will. That kind of thinking has gotten the Philippian believers into deep conflict with one another. How do they come out of it? By allowing the Gospel to change how they think.

What (6-11)

Paul’s parallel to “Mommy Brain” is “Gospel Brain.” Philippians drips with the word “Gospel,” especially chapter 1. Paul is concerned about defending, proclaiming, and confirming the gospel. Last week we saw that Paul urges the Philippians to citizen worthily of the gospel. He has been setting you up.

We preachers get excited about passages like Philippians 2:6-11, but not as much as commentators. It would be hard to find six verses anywhere in the New Testament that get more ink than these verses.

This is among the clearest, most extensive, and earliest statements of Jesus’ identity anywhere in the New Testament. Those who say that it took the church 300+ years to come up with the idea that Jesus is “fully God and fully man” are dismissing this pivotal passage. Paul lays it out very plainly.

It’s not that everything in the passage is without controversy. One of the reasons it gets so much press is that some of the individual words are hard to pin down in terms of their meaning. Because of that, Christians use this passage to debate how exactly Jesus can be “fully God” and still “fully man.”

Something else that gets a lot of press is the literary genre, or form, of the passage. Most of your Bibles typeset this differently than the rest of Philippians. For the last century or so almost all scholars have concluded this section is a poem, probably even an early Christian hymn. This too, however, creates more debate. If it’s a hymn, did Paul borrow it from an earlier source? If so, from whom or what? If Paul wrote it, did he write it just for this letter? Or did he insert a hymn he had previously written?

What’s most important from my perspective is that this magnificent song would likely never have come down to us if the Philippian church weren’t squabbling. Paul inserts it here as a kind of “sermon illustration.” It is not his main point – it illustrates his main point about the grumbling, complaining, self-interested, power-hungry Philippians needing to alter the way they think about the other believers. The “what” of his appeal is to model themselves after Jesus Christ.

Since Paul can’t make them all have a baby to alter their brain chemistry, Paul uses what I might call a “gospel bat” to “smack them upside the head,” as we used to say. He gives the Philippians the clearest, deepest, strongest, most profound statement of who Jesus is. All along he clearly has in mind their thought patterns that have destroyed unity. We can almost read between the lines for their objections to Gospel brain.

“But you don’t understand, Paul! People don’t appreciate who I am.” Really? Jesus existed in very nature God (6). For a converted Jew like Paul, that statement alone is blasphemy worthy of death if not true.  So it’s powerful and significant. It also puts into perspective my complaint about my own status.

“But I have a right to be treated better than this.” Really? Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage… (6). Do you have any power, privilege, wealth, or control that exceeds his?

“Nobody appreciates me.” Well, Jesus made himself nothing (7). Literally, he “emptied himself.” In other words, the One who is omnipresent confined himself to one place, the One who is omniscient limited his knowledge to a few trillion brain cells, the One who is omnipotent emptied himself of his right to power, depending on his Father.

“Sometimes I feel like a nobody in this church.” Jesus took the very nature of a servant (7). Notice the word “nature” (Greek, “form”) in verses 6 and 7. He who was “in very nature God” now is “the very nature of a slave.” Paul may be calling to mind Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in the Upper Room.

“God can’t possibly know what it feels to go what I’m going through here.” Jesus was made in human likeness (7). The writer of Hebrews says this is so that we would have a merciful and faithful high priest who was tempted in every way as we are (Hebrews 4:14-16). He didn’t sin, but he became one of us – a physical, social, intellectual, emotional, sexual man.

“I go to church, but I don’t get anything out of the service or sermon.” Jesus was found in appearance as a man (8). Everything in his world was normalized like any other baby, toddler, boy, teenager, young man in Bethlehem. He sat in “church” (synagogue) every week for thirty years, listening to sermons from those who knew much less than he, and participating in worship from those who had no idea what heaven’s worship is like. He never complained. And he kept going.

“If people would listen to me, the church would be better off.” Jesus humbled himself… (8). There’s our word, our pattern, our model.

“I just feel like I deserve more than I get.” Jesus became obedient to death (8).

“You don’t know how deeply people have hurt me.” Jesus not only suffered death, but death on a cross (8). This was the most humiliating, shameful, painful, cruel, agonizing end conceivable for a human being. Some scholars who think Paul borrowed this hymn from another source believe he added this one line to make sure you didn’t miss it. It’s precisely because the cross represents a curse that Jesus had to go to the cross. Yet he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Paul doesn’t let the hymn end there, because Jesus’ story doesn’t end there. Either the hymn or Paul’s addition to it goes on to reverse the humiliation of Christ with his exaltation to “the highest place” (9). The Father has given Jesus “the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 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 begins and ends with the glory of Jesus.

Even that, however, is tied to where Paul began. The entire section of Philippians, and we’ll continue it next week, is all about the divisions that exist in the Philippian church. What Paul is doing in vv. 9-11 is reminding them that this Jesus who humbled is himself is their Lord. Nero is not their Lord, nor is he their model. He’s the ultimate expression of “selfish ambition and vain conceit.” It feels like this is the way to the top. It is not. The way to vindication and exaltation by the Father is the way of humility and service. Jesus, your Lord, the one whom you confess and to whom you bow, modeled and commanded a life where we give up our rights and privileges. That’s radical thinking, but it’s what Gospel brain does to you.

Gospel brain

Why is this so important to Paul? Because a church is totally immobilized if it loses unity. Unity is always endangered because we’re a collection of sinners. Jesus is going to finish what he started in us, but he hasn’t finished yet. So yes, there’s still selfish ambition, vain conceit, and divided opinion. We struggle with gossip and addiction and laziness and judgmentalism and lust and covetousness. What’s more, we tend to notice and even obsess over one another’s sins more than we see our own!

Still, I’m increasingly aware that a passion of my ministry over 25 years at Corinth has been preservation of our unity. If we allow the cracks of division to become chasms, then we can’t get anything else done! We can’t do Bible study and prayer. We can’t evangelize and grow. We can’t do discipleship or missions. We can’t work for justice or live out our compassion. That’s why Paul so urgently and eloquently appeals to the Philippians to get to the heart of the matter – or the mind of the matter.

What does Gospel brain look like in our every day life? For that, we return to verses 2-5.

Focus on what unites you. This is what Paul means by “minding the same thing.” We may have many differences in the church, so we must come back to what brings us together – the Gospel – and not allow other issues to divide.

Suppress selfishness and vanity. We will struggle with self-interest all our lives, but we can never give them a foothold. Let Jesus’ example be constantly before you.

Prioritize the value of others. It’s only natural to ask what’s in it for me. Resist what’s “natural.” This is supernatural, which is why we need the Spirit’s help.

Give the benefit of the doubt. Remember that when others are acting out toward you in rejection or criticism, it’s probably because of their own unresolved pain. See them through gospel eyes, through the same eyes with which God looks on you.

May God give us all a Gospel brain. Amen.



[1] See, for example, “The Neuroscience of Motherhood” “The Brain-Boosting Power of Motherhood,” and “Pregnancy Changes a Mother’s Brain.”

[2] Paul elsewhere orders the Trinity – Christ, Father, and Spirit (as in 2 Corinthians 13:13), and there is no possessive pronoun “his” in Greek before “love,” which would make the antecedent “Christ.” Love is the primary human-oriented attribute of the Father.  See Gordon Fee, Philippians (NICNT), 180-181.

[3] “Humility” (NIV) is a good translation, but I am using the literal translation of the Greek compound.

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