on Philippians, gold foil and grenades

“Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, 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.” — Phil 2:1-11

This passage is one of my favourite in the entire Bible. Back in London my sifus called it the Jesus Song, because it was originally probably a hymn, which would make it one of the oldest hymns we know, plus it’s pretty epic, pretty Jesus.

You may have read it before. It tells us to be like Jesus, and it tells us why. He loves us, he loves his Father, and in fact loves both so much that he would obey his Father and die for us on the cross. When you hear this a lot, it becomes easy to forget how amazing this is. But I like to remind myself. There are two things I put on my desk to help me do that. These two items tell two stories.

One is a a text written in ancient Greek, written on a piece of gold foil paper. It’s written in Greek because I like to write Greek and I like to show off. And in fact it’s the Jesus Song written in the original koine

This piece of paper tells a ghost story. Not a regular ghost story with dead-people ghosts. I mean ghosts of the past.

On a cold night in London, a weird little kid sat down and thought about all the times his friends had amazed him with their kindness. This kid had lived a pretty sheltered life, so when he went to London to study and work, he knew pretty much nothing about the world. He had struggled, he had met some bad friends. He missed his family.

But then he met these people. They called themselves Christians, and they made him feel so loved. They were more than friends, they were family, because, you see, neither the weird little kid, nor those friends had their families with them in London. The kid thought about those friends: the one who had sat with him by the river eating strawberries, because he knew he was sad; the friend who had forced himself to play computer games with him because he knew he was lonely; the friend who had taught him how to cook bacon and spinach pasta; the friend who had stayed late at church with him, both of them scrubbing burnt gunk from a cooking pot; the friend who had taught him how to open a bottle of wine; the friend who had taught him how to snap his fingers; the friend who had randomly showed up at his office one day to give him tomato soup because she knew he had a sore throat; the friend from Scotland, who dressed him up in his own kilt, and made him do the Braveheart speech; all those friends who had talked through girl problems with him five, six, seven times without ever getting impatient.

The weird little kid loved his friends. He loved writing things in Greek. And he loved the Jesus that his friends had told him about. And so on that cold night in London he inscribed the Jesus Song on a piece of gold foil paper, as a remembrance.

Fast forward a few years and the weird little kid is now a weird little man. He really wishes to show the same love he felt in London to the people in his life. He tries to be patient, like his friends; he tries to teach people, like his friends; he tries to comfort people who need comforting, like his friends. But it’s hard. The weird little man is so, so tired. He gets impatient. He gets lazy. He poisons himself. He sometimes hates everyone around him. Some days, the weird little man can’t even look at old photos of his friends. He doesn’t see memories of happy days when he felt loved. He sees ghosts from the past. Ghosts that tell him he can never be as good as his friends, ghosts that tell him he did not deserve all that love that was shown to him, ghosts that tell him he will never be able to repay all that kindness. On those days, whenever he looks at those old photos, all he can think is ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’ve let you down.’ The ghosts of the past won’t leave him alone.

What does this gold foil paper say?

On happier days, I remember the message on the gold foil paper: Jesus Christ lowered himself to be a man. He humbled himself to die for you and me. He did not die so I could pay him back. Nor did my friends love me so I could pay them back, or pay it forward to others. Those friends loved me because they understand the message from today’s Bible passage, they were amazed by the truth: Jesus Christ lowered himself for the people who killed him. Christ died for me, the worst of sinners. Christ is alive for me, why am I afraid?

On happier days, I remember this message. On happier days, I can lay the ghosts to rest, because I can love those around me like Jesus, like the Jesus who loves my friends, the Jesus who inspired my friends to love me. There is no sorry, there is no guilt. There is joy that Jesus is alive. That I will see Jesus again someday, and be with my friends again someday.

That’s why I keep this inscription on my desk. To remind me about the one who loves me. If my friends could love me so much, how much more does Jesus?

The second item is a rubber grenade, a cheap rubber souvenir, nothing special.

Why do I keep this on my desk? There is a story from WW2 about an American general named Norman Cota. Cota was part of the Allied force that landed on the coast of France, and marched toward Berlin, fighting the Nazi German Army the whole time.

It was tough going for the Americans. They had a lot of men, a lot of big guns and tanks, but the German soldiers were very good at hiding and ambushing the Americans. And so many of them were very scared. Cota was there too, leading his men.

One day, some American troops passed by a farmhouse. It looked abandoned, when suddenly the windows spat fire and the Americans dove for cover. The German Army had a machinegun that could fire 20 bullets in one second, and made a loud sound like ripping cloth. So the Americans were terrified, lying on the ground and hiding while the Germans shot at them.

General Cota happened to be there too. He asked them “Why aren’t you trying to take the farmhouse?” To which one of the soldiers replied “Sir, they’re shooting at us, we can’t!”

Now if I were Cota, I probably would’ve yelled many colourful things at him. They’re shooting at you? You’re in a war, of course they’re shooting at you! Now do your job!

Cota, thank goodness, was not like me. He said, “Ok then. You watch me, I’ll show you how to take a farmhouse.” So Cota took a few grenades, took a few men, and sneaked around the back of the farmhouse. Then he ran toward the farmhouse, screaming like a madman, throwing grenades into the windows. There were a few muffled explosions, and the German soldiers inside suddenly burst out the back door, running for their lives.

Cota came back to the American soldiers who had been hiding. He said “I’ve shown you how to take a farmhouse. Now remember how to do it.”

In a way, that’s the kind of attitude that today’s Bible passage talks about. Cota was a general. He was a high ranking officer, and it was his job to tell soldiers what to do. He had authority over them. And yet, when he saw them completely helpless, Cota didn’t tell them to try harder, or do better. He put himself down to the level of a regular soldier, he fought for them. He put himself in danger for them. And he taught them how to fight. I imagine when some of those American soldiers at the farmhouse made it back home, they told this story. “General Cota did that for us! Amazing!” That’s the same reaction I get when I read this Bible passage. “Jesus did that for me. Amazing!”

So I have a weird collection of things on my desk. I put them there because they remind me of Jesus. I forget about him all the time, but he’s the first reason why there is a Greek inscription and a rubber grenade on my desk. We forget about Jesus all the time, or we just ignore him. But it’s weird how so many stories can point back to him. He refuses to be forgotten.

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