Essay / Theology

A Christmas Meditation (for Pastors)

At Morning Prayer on Christmas Eve, at least in my daily lectionary, the New Testament reading is Philippians 2:5-11:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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.

This is such a great passage on the day prior to the Nativity of the Lord, especially, I would like to suggest, for pastors. Why? Because the Nativity of the Lord, the day in which we celebrate the birth of the incarnate Jesus Christ, is the feast par excellence for pastors since it forces all pastors to view and engage their ministry as radically Christo-centric. What do I mean?

The epistle of Paul to the Philippians is loaded with a language of suffering. Beginning in 1:29, Paul sets the stage, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” This suffering, says Paul, is similar to the suffering that he has undergone and continues to endure. Whatever that suffering may be (and it is likely physical suffering—cf. 2 Cor. 11:24-28), Paul is admonishing the Philippians that they too should/must suffer. Nevertheless, to what extreme is a servant of Christ to suffer? Paul’s answer to this question is hard for us to hear today but it is the only answer.

In Philippians, Paul reminds his readers in Philippi that he was “a Hebrew of Hebrews.” That is, when it came to being a Jew, to being an heir of the promise made to Abraham, Paul was ahead of all others. He writes, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (3:4b-6). Yet, he now counts all of that to be “as rubbish, in order that [he] may gain Christ” (3:8). In fact, he is so spent that he would rather “depart and be with Christ” (1:23). Yet, in spite of his privileged position as both a Jew (i.e., one of God’s chosen persons) and an apostle of the Lord, Paul realizes that his true identity, his real self is found only in relation to the person of Jesus Christ: I want to “gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (3:8b-9). Paul is in Christ, his identity is wholly Christlike. The ramifications of this reality, however, are serious.

Paul knows that God called him for service to the church. Therefore, because of his complete identification with Christ, he is led to state that the depth of his own service to the church is so Christo-centric that he, like Christ, needs “to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of [the church’s] faith” (2:17). That is, Paul’s service as an apostle may require his death. This is not Paul simply being pessimistic or melancholic but rather Paul realizing that his identity is so Christlike that he must be willing to ascend his own cross. For what is the depth of Christ’s love for us? That he would “not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”? No. That he would make “himself nothing, taking the form of a servant”? No. That he would be “found in human form”? No. Rather, that he would do all of these things and humble himself “to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Thus, if we are to be truly Christlike we too must serve him to death, not just temporal death but being dead to self while living. Paul knew this well, structuring his own life in parallel to Christ’s life:

Jesus (2:7-9)

  • “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men”
  • “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death”
  • “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name”

Paul (3:7-11)

  • “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss”
  • “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish”
  • “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection… that I may attain the resurrection from the dead”

So, what has this to do especially with pastors? Well, allow me the right to focus on Paul’s apostleship, comparing it with God’s call on a pastor’s life. It is quite possible that Paul is exhorting all Christians to “live to the death,” if you will. But his call, I think, is most appropriate for those who have heard God’s call to vocational ministry. For the pastor, God called, the church discerned and the individual followed. By virtue of God’s specific call on our life as pastors, we are in a position to imitate the apostle Paul. Paul himself exhorts us in Philippians to “join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (3:17). In other words, imitate those dying for Christ who themselves imitate the one who died for us: “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27).

Yet, none of this was possible without the simple birth of Jesus of Nazareth to an obedient carpenter and his obedient wife. The Nativity of the Lord, Christmas day, reminds us that just as we have been called and sent, so too was Jesus Christ, God’s only son. The Nativity of the Lord should remind us pastors of our own calling to ministry, which should certainly lead to death, physically and to self. In an age where most are unwilling to die to self and to the world, will we as pastors lead the way? Will we let the Christ child be our model of complete humility, even to the point of death? Would we take the chance of losing one soul to gain the whole world (cf. Matt. 16:26)?

Not in glory and magnificence, but in poverty, wretchedness, and humiliation does the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth appear in the world; not a luxurious palace, but a humble cave, receives the King of those who reign and the Lord of those who rule. By this we are shown the greatness of humility, poverty, meekness, and simplicity, and the ruinousness of pride, riches, vainglory, and luxury. The first deemed worthy to hear the Good News of the angels concerning the Birth of the Savior of the world, and the first to bow before Him, were the simple shepherds of Bethlehem—pastors. (Sergius Bulgakov, Manual for Orthodox Priests)

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