A sermon preached by Intern Pastor Bob Schaefer
Fir-Conway Lutheran Church
Palm/Passion Sunday - April 8, 2001
Text: Philippians 2:5-11
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There is tension in the air this Sunday. Can you feel it? Look at the palm fronds all around our sanctuary, waving uneasily in the breeze. Fifteen, twenty minutes ago, we waved them and cheered, “Hosanna! Hosanna, Jesus! What a blessing you are-you come in God’s own name! Hosanna!” Such were the cries that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem; such are the cries that welcome him into our worship, as well. It is an ancient shout of jubilation, of gladness and celebration…but there are dark undertones here. Hosanna means, “Save us, we beg you!” That dark undercurrent in our shouts of acclaim is brought out now as our readings point us toward the cross, the place where our cries of Hosanna were answered in blood and bone, sweat and passion. Today we celebrate Palm Sunday: Jesus is exalted. Today we also observe Passion Sunday: Jesus is humiliated. And the Apostle Paul captures the tension in the air and brings it into sharp focus.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he asks us, and then goes on to tell us just what sort of mind he’s talking about. He quotes a hymn to the Philippians, one of the very oldest portions of the New Testament. The song is about the Incarnation of Jesus, his humiliation and death, and his exaltation to glory by the Father. It catches all the basic strands of faith and weaves them together into a dense, beautiful poetry. It is a creed, a statement of faith set to music. It tells us a story about Jesus, one that helps us make sense of the palms and the Passion.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The Apostle John began his gospel with those words, reminding us of the creation story--of Adam and Eve and the Garden--and placing Jesus Christ, the Word of God at the very center of everything. The Philippians hymn echoes John's thoughts: "He was in the form of God." The form of God. Don't be fooled by the awkward English phrase here. To us, being "in the form of" something implies copying, ripping off, deception, or an outward appearance. Paul certainly doesn't propose that Jesus merely appeared to be God, but was really something else! In fact, the word that ends up being "form" in our Bibles is only used when the outward appearance matches up with the inner reality. If Jesus is "in the form of God," very simply, Jesus is God.
But notice the humility! All the rights and privileges owed to God, Jesus shuns. In order to carry out the divine plan of salvation, Jesus empties himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. Jesus--who was inside and out, top to bottom, 100% pure God--now puts on the very essence of humiliation, becoming--inside and out, top to bottom, 100%--a slave. Someone whose only purpose is to serve.
What about this "emptying" business, though? What did Jesus empty himself of, exactly? Not surprisingly, the church has been puzzling over this question ever since Paul put pen to paper and recorded this hymn for us. Some have suggested that Jesus actually emptied out his divine nature. This is obviously not the case, though; the gospels make it clear that Jesus did not cease being God when he became a man. Many other possibilities have been proposed, but the answer the Philippians hymn gives us is so obvious that we read right past it: he "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness." His emptying comes from taking on our nature, not abandoning his own nature. One scholar observes "[Jesus] had every right not to choose the path of servanthood rather than claim His rightful status." But he does choose the humility of servanthood, "and as a result of this one act His whole earthly life became the life of a bond-servant, in which he does nothing, speaks nothing, knows nothing by himself; but all is under the power and direction of the Father through the Holy Spirit."
Even when that power and direction point him straight toward the place that is called The Skull.
The hymn does not end at the Place of the Skull, though…nor does the story of Jesus. In that moment of utter humiliation, God exalts Jesus--he lifts him up. Now, he does not exalt Jesus from the humiliation of the cross, but in that humiliation. Jesus is not spared one iota of the consequences of "taking the form of a servant," but that moment of supreme humility on the cross is lifted up by the Father as the moment of supreme glory!
Humility. Humiliation. Humbleness. They're words we try to avoid whenever we can. Who seeks out humiliation, after all? A sense of humility may get you somewhere in this life, but a healthy ego will probably get you farther. We may respect someone who is humble, but the idea of humbling ourselves is contrary to human nature. Or is it? All three words--humility, humiliation, humbleness--are kissing cousins to the word we use to name ourselves: human. It's not too much to say that when we are most humble, when our humility is the greatest, that is also when we are at our most human.
Jesus, at his moment of supreme humiliation--at his moment of supreme humanity--was lifted up by God. The God who creates from nothing took that moment of greatest emptiness, and through it brought forth the salvation of the world. The tension between palm and Passion, between glory and humility, is finally resolved in the cross. God is glorified in the lives of his servants, and he lifts them up in their humility--not out of it. When we share in the perfectly human himiliation of Jesus, God also gives us the strange glory of Christ's cross.
It is with all of this in mind that Paul encourages us to be of one mind with Jesus. He seems to hold two men before us, each one the image of God. One of them, Adam, considered that equality with God was not only something to be exploited, but something to be forcefully taken like an apple from a tree. That man's grasping after glory is the downfall of us all. On the other hand, there is Jesus, our new Adam. His likeness to God was even greater than Adam's, and yet, he didn't exploit his equality to God or cling to vain glory. This man's self-emptying and servanthood are the salvation of us all.
When Christ's mind is in us, we begin to understand what it means to love our neighbors the way we love ourselves. We begin to see that "humility is not thinking meanly of ourselves; it is not thinking of ourselves at all." No one but Jesus is called to bear the weight of the world on a cross--no one but Jesus could. What he asks of us is that we join our own palms and passions to his, that we become more fully human through sharing his humiliation, that we serve each other even as he has served us. Palms, passion, humiliation and service will come to us whether or not we join the to Jesus…he offers us a chance to be lifted by God beyond them.
"Hosanna!" we cry. "Save us!" And Jesus the Servant does. Thanks be to God. Amen.