A thick envelope among the bills, the message in voicemail, the text or tweet–however the news arrives about an event or opportunity for which you’ve been waiting, in which you’re eager to participate, you’re giddy. You feel it deep down; it sets up shop in a corner of your mind. Good is promised, more is likely, and the obvious, only response is Yes.
Lately I find myself reading the Bible’s commands more along these lines. Technically–grammatically–they appear as imperatives, and so can certainly function as prohibitions and demands. And many of these ‘rules’ are just that–although even then, ‘rule’ has a wide range of meaning: rules restrict options and movement; rules also make games possible, and enjoyable.
But what about imperatives that widen worlds, that include, that nurture and nourish souls? Such commands act more like invitations, and their effect is to bless. Take Paul’s word to his friends in Philippi (the lectionary’s epistle reading for this Sunday):
…have the same mindset as Jesus…
Read as a demand, this looks like a high bar, a long jump–one more brick for the bag of guilt. But as an invitation? It’s a word for building community.
One of Paul’s touchstones in this text is humility, which Jesus demonstrates, and which Paul commends to each who loves this Lord. (We are sometimes encouraged to ask God to humble us, but this is not really a prayer found in or commended by Scripture. We might ask God for strength to be humble, but we need not expect or even seek a humbling from God.) For Paul–as for Jesus–humility is a course of action we consistently follow; it’s an attitude we routinely display that bubbles out of deep-seated values. It’s a gear we stay in.
An invitation to humility piques interest, in part because to sounds preposterous with its bold presumption that hard-wired inclinations can be short-circuited. But then we’re reminded of how Jesus gladly humbles Himself (Philippians 2:8), and see in this the gulf between what our nature desires and what God incarnate chooses. The contrast sets up a rumbling dissonance in our hearts. My way. His way. Argh.
Humble has a lot of baggage. Paul seems to sense this, with his extended, even gentle, run-up to the matter. He doesn’t want to see others humbled, but rather is eager for them to experience what happens in deciding to take up the basin and the towel (to quote an old Michael Card song). It is a choice to serve another, to refrain from privileging one’s self, and Paul lays it out as such. But he also knows that answering the invitation to walk into this space links us to power that liberates. It builds community by noticing and esteeming others, it invests and spends prodigally. It turns noise into music.