The Mind of Christ
What does it mean to be human? I mean, here we all are, doing our thing, doing our best under the current circumstances, trying our best with the COVID thing. But really, what’s it all about? What sort of place is the universe? Beyond the challenges of living under quarantine and all the rest – what is life really all about? When we get to the other side of this – whenever that might be – what do we want our life to look like?
Or, to put it another way, in this amazing world of wonderful and horrifying things, of grief and joy – how do we live? What is the Good Life?
When we say: what is the Good Life, we are asking a very traditional question, the subject of much earnest discussion since at least the time of Socrates, and lying at the base of a lot of the debate going on in Scripture between, for instance, the demands of justice and the demands of worship.
Here’s a personal version of the question.
Back in the year 2001, Anne and I came on holidays to Australia from London where we had been living. We had been working hard, making good money, part of a good church, with good friends and all the rest. But we felt that the time had come to move on. We couldn’t spend the rest of our lives living in a tiny flat in London and working all the hours God sends; there had to be more to life.
We had a wonderful month travelling around, and a wonderful idea occurred to us: why not move to Cairns and use our savings and the proceeds from selling our flat to set up a little dive business? We could live on a boat and barbeque prawns in the evening sun. Compared to our cramped life in London, it sounded idyllic.
It was a vision of the Good Life.
Perhaps it wasn’t entirely practical: running a small business in a tourist town would have been a hard gig, and living on a yacht is probably less fun than it looks – otherwise lots of people would be doing it.
But let’s say we made a go of it. We would be living in this beautiful spot, making a living doing something fun and reasonably challenging. But then what? To what end?
And just say it didn’t work out? The business fails, the yacht gets plucked out of the sea by a cyclone and ends up smashed into the local pub. Or we just get bored by the whole thing.
It makes the Good Life very contingent on all sorts of things basically outside our control.
You can see this image of the Good Life whenever you turn on the TV. I saw a Mercedes ad yesterday, where a glamorous young woman takes the wheel of her beautiful car, flicking her beautifully styled hair, and the slogan comes up: keep exploring. How great to be that young and beautiful and rich! That surely would be the Good Life.
And that’s the problem with it. It’s great to be young and beautiful, and being rich is certainly more pleasant than being poor.
But is life really this story of continual ascent, of success markers achieved and beautiful objects bought, or exciting travel experienced?
What if you aren’t lucky enough to have what it takes in our culture? What if you aren’t smart enough? What if you get old? What if you can’t have children? What if you aren’t lucky enough to be born in the west? What if your life is a continual struggle just to get by, working in a hot factory every day and counting yourself lucky as you walk past the beggars in the street on your way to work?
And even if you do get the Mercedes and the glamorous job with the expensive haircut it needs – then what? There is always another, better car – a Maybach rather than a plain Mercedes, the anxiety about whether the colour I’ve painted my kitchen is precisely on point and on and on and on. There’s a technical name for this: the hedonic treadmill. You need the expensive holiday because you work so hard at your demanding job: you need the demanding job because it pays for the expensive holidays.
We live in a world where physical comfort has never been easier to achieve. We also live in a world in which deaths of despair are rife. Alcoholism, suicide, drug overdose, depression – these seem to be the correlate of the prosperous world we have created for ourselves.
Not that I’m against prosperity. I’m reading a book written by a friend of mine who goes off to work as a Physio in Ethiopia, and the astonishing poverty which people live with – where burns victims can’t afford to buy paracetamol for pain – is astonishing. I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with health and wealth and all the rest. When you read the Gospels, you can see how concerned Jesus was with the day to day realities of human health, how enmeshed in the daily realities of life he was.
But, by themselves, health and wealth and security are not the answer.
And if health and security and wealth aren’t the answer to life’s questions, if they don’t constitute the Good Life, then what does?
In the Classical world, they had a pretty clear idea of what constituted the Good Life. You needed to be born the right sex, race, and class. It wasn’t for the riff-raff. Be brought up appropriately and educated for success. Then a succession of roles in the military and civil administration, until you were elected the chief magistrate for your city, or, if you had the good fortune to be a Roman, you became Consul – the chief magistrate of the empire.
We have our own version of course. Good school, high status course at a red brick university – maybe Law or Medicine. Then a series of increasingly responsible jobs, with pay to match. Good deeds in the community, perhaps leading to an AO. Eventual golden retirement with a yacht and just enough consulting work to pay for the little luxuries in life.
But is this in fact the answer? Every sensible middle class bone in my body says: yes.
But in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a distinctly different picture of the Good Life is presented.
Instead of ascent, the picture is one of descent. Jesus isn’t born to a good family, but to one with problems. He doesn’t live in good suburb, get the good education, or the good job.
But his descent goes further. He is “in the form of God”, and so, we would think, entitled and able to partake of God’s power and status. Maybe that would be to a good end. Perhaps he could have seized power and made the world a better place by force – just like Satan suggested to him in the wilderness.
Just imagine all the good you could do, you can hear Satan whispering. And how much more pleasant it would be! To achieve so much, to bring peace and prosperity, and to retire peacefully, covered in honours, universally loved, and all for making the world a better place!
But, paradoxically, that is not the way that the world can be redeemed.
Instead of a story of ascent, Jesus descends all the way down, to the lowest point imaginable. Instead of being like God, he is like a slave. Instead of glory and honour and success, he is executed.
And that, it turns out, is the paradoxical way God works. Because it is precisely that emptying of himself which brings God’s vindication.
So what does this mean for us, and for our question about the nature of the Good Life?
The clue is in the beginning of the passage. Paul asks us to be in the same mind as Jesus Christ.
Our story won’t be precisely the same as Jesus – after all, we aren’t promised that God will give each of us the “name that is above every other name”. But it will be like Jesus’s life. It will rhyme.
Our lives are to reflect the priorities of God. Paul makes a pretty big ask here: He wants us to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” To look to others’ interests rather than our own, to not do anything from selfish ambition or conceit.
The course of most honour, the way of living which most reflects God’s own nature, the Good Life, is characterized by sacrificial love.
That can sound like a big ask, or even like yet more boring moralising. But I don’t think that’s what Paul is up to here.
At the end of the passage, he says that “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and work for his good pleasure.” “Enabling” sounds a little weak to me, a little passive. The Greek word which lies behind it is energon which is where we get our word “energy.”
So another way to read it might be: you are plugged into the ultimate energy source: God. It is God’s energy that powers you so that you not only do what God wants doing, but become the sort of person who actually wants to do it.
In the end, that’s what I’m after. It sounds like freedom. God gives us the power to live not out of our own resources, but from God. To be free of myself and my neurotic self-regard and endless concern with how I’m perceived, to get off the hedonic treadmill so that I can love people and be able to give sacrificially and experience that life as abundance, not as loss.
This life doesn’t require wealth, beauty, brilliance or success. It is available to all of us. As an idea, it isn’t going to sell a lot of sports cars, but it will be the most worthwhile life available, because it lives out of God, and it lives for God. It takes us out of the endless quest for more and better. It fulfils the ultimate purpose of our lives: to live in right relationship with God, and with one another.
And that is what it means to live the Good Life. Not a life of wealth and success, but a life plugged into God, filled with God’s energy, living with the knowledge of God’s astonishing love for us, and able to participate with God’s restorative work in the world.
A sermon preached on 23/9/20 at Preston High Street Uniting Church on Philippians 2:1-13 for the 17th Week after Pentecost, Proper 21(26) Year A
 Julie Sprigg Small Steps (North Fremantle, WA : Fremantle Press, 2020.)