We can use ladders in lots of ways – for example when we are cleaning the gutters, painting a house, or getting a ball which your child has thrown onto the roof.
Ladders can also be used as a metaphor for getting ahead in life. We can talk about climbing the ladder of success. We hope that our football team will be higher on the ladder than other teams. We can also use the picture of a ladder to describe a person’s journey towards heaven, paradise, nirvana, enlightenment, personal fulfilment, or any other name for the ideal spiritual state.
Almost every spirituality, philosophy or system of human thought that I’ve come across in my life has the goal of climbing a ladder to a higher level of being human. Religions as well as secular humanist ways of seeing life aim to rise above where we are and move upwards towards something better. The goal of a lot of people’s lives is to be upwardly mobile, climbing whatever ladder we think is important, until we reach our objective.
When the Apostle Paul describes the incarnation and life of Jesus in Philippians 2:6-8, however, he points to a person who moves in the opposite direction. When billions of spiritual or religious people over the course of human history and in our own time have been trying to work their way up the spiritual ladder, Jesus, the one who was with God since before the creation of the world, left the comfort and safety of heaven and moved down the ladder to meet us where we are.
Paul tell us that Jesus began his downward journey by not thinking of ‘equality with God as something to cling to’ (v6 NLT). Jesus’ attitude is so very different from our natural tendency to either want to play God, or to look for the divine within us. Instead of trying to hang one to God’s glory and power, Jesus journeyed downwards as he ‘gave up his divine privileges’ and ‘took the humble position of a slave’ (v7). Paul’s use of the word ‘slave’ here is important because slaves were at the bottom of the social ladder in ancient culture. When Jesus became human, his entry point into the human experience was the bottom rung of the ladder. Then Jesus continued to move downwards as he humbled himself even further by ‘dying a criminal’s death on a cross’ (v8). Jesus’ downward journey hit rock bottom as he suffered the most painful and shameful execution which was reserved for the lowest of the low in Romans society.
Jesus moved in this downward direction and endured suffering and a shame-filled death to meet us where we are and to give us the promise of something better. He knows that we can never climb the spiritual ladder to be where God is or to reach heaven. It’s not just because we can’t do enough good or do it well enough. Our whole orientation is wrong. Jesus taught us to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and to love others like we love ourselves. If we are trying to climb the spiritual ladder for our own benefit, then we are not doing it in love for God or for others, and we have failed form the start. For all our efforts, we get no closer to our goal.
Jesus fulfils God’s command for us by loving us enough to sacrifice everything for us and descend the ladder from heaven to meet us in our human experience, and loving God by trusting that he will raise him up. Jesus embraces us in himself by taking on our humanity and becoming one with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t have to climb the ladder because Jesus meets us wherever we are, no matter how low or down we may be feeling.
Having embraced us as members of his body, Jesus displayed perfect faith in our heavenly Father by trusting that he would raise him up from the darkest depths of human existence and bring him back to where he belonged. In verse 9, Paul writes that ‘God elevated him to the place of highest honour and gave him the name above all other names’ (NLT). In his resurrection and ascension, God the Father honoured Jesus’ faithfulness by lifting him up to his rightful place at the top of the ladder again. When we are united with Jesus through faith, God also raises us up with Jesus as members of his body. We don’t have to try to work our way up the ladder because the Father has raised us up with Jesus from death to life eternal (see Romans 6:4; Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 3:1). This is the essence of the Christian faith: to trust that Jesus meets us where we are, embraces us in his own body and carries us upwards into the presence of almighty God for ever.
Paul introduces this passage by writings that we ‘must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had’ (v5). To trust in Jesus means following him down the ladders of life in the faith that our heavenly Father will lift us up again. The basic human problem is that we still want to work our way up the ladders of our lives. Especially in our relationships with each other, which is how the NIV translates verse 5, we tend to want the upper hand, to be in control of what happens and how things are done, and to see that we get our own way, even if it is at the expense of others. The way Paul says we are to live in our relationships with sisters and brothers in Christian community, however, is to follow Jesus in the opposite direction by serving others, looking to what benefits them even if it comes at our own personal expense, to give up our power and control and do what gives others an experience of Jesus’ downward movement into our lives through grace and love. As members of the body of Christ, we need to be placing ourselves below others in the faith that that is where we find Jesus and that God our heavenly Father will raise us up with him.
In which direction is your life heading? Are you looking for upward mobility with a greater sense of power and control over your life? Are you trying to find a closer connection with God, or looking for the divine within? If we are trying to move up the ladder in any sense, we run the risk of missing Jesus who heads in the opposite direction.
As we walk with Jesus through the events of his suffering, death and resurrection next weekend, we witness his downward movement into the darkest depths of human existence. That is where we find God. When he finds us there, and when Jesus makes us one with him, then our Father promises us, just as he promised his Son, that he will raise us up.
So don’t be afraid to look down…