A sermon on Philippians 2:5-11 preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church
The week of Jesus’ Passion is also the week of the Jewish Passover, and the Passover has provided a frame of reference for the Passion since the night before Jesus was given over to suffering and death, when Jesus took the bread and the cup at a Passover seder with his disciples and gave them the shocking new meaning: “this is my body that is for you…. this cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 11:24-25).
A song that has been sung at Passover since at least the ninth century AD, but that arguably has much more ancient roots, celebrates God’s generous kindness in rescuing Israel from Egypt by declaring that, had God only done a fraction of his works on Israel’s behalf, it would have been enough. Had God stopped anywhere along the way, he would have given Israel cause enough to praise him and to acknowledge themselves to be forever indebted to God for his goodness toward them:
If God had brought us out from Egypt, and had not rained down plagues upon them, he would have done enough for us.
If God had rained down plagues upon them, and had not smitten their first-born, he would have done enough for us.
If God had smitten their first-born, and had not split the sea for us, he would have done enough for us.
If God had split the sea for us, and had not supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, he would have done enough for us.
And so the song proceeds through God’s bringing his people to Sinai for the giving of the Torah, into the promised land, and to Jerusalem, and to God’s dwelling in their midst in the Temple.
A similar sense of grateful awe seems to undergird the hymn to Christ that Paul either composes or recites here in Philippians, as we are led to consider each step further that Christ took on our behalf in his incarnation and death. Indeed, I cannot help but hear the Passover song as a subtext for this early Christian hymn:
Had Christ given up his enjoyment of equality with God, and not humbled himself to take on human form, he would have done enough for us!
Had Christ humbled himself to take on human form, and not further abased himself to take on the form of a slave, he would have done enough for us!
Had Christ abased himself to take on the form of a slave, and not humbled himself further to become obedient to death, he would have done enough for us!
Had Christ humbled himself to become obedient to death, and not submitted to death on a cross, he would have done enough for us!
But at no point along the way did Christ say “that’s far enough to go for them.”
Over the decades I have often heard preachers speak as if there were some great disconnect between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. How, they ask, did we move in the space of a single week from a triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the acclaim of thousands, waving their palm branches as symbols of the Messiah’s coming victory and laying them in his path, to a gruesome flogging and crucifixion outside Jerusalem to the mock acclaim of Roman soldiers and of Jerusalem’s leaders, waving their fingers as an expression of their victory over him? I would ask, how could the week have moved in any other direction? In an environment in which several would-be messiahs had already announced their candidacy and ended up routed by the Roman “peacekeeping” force, how could staging such an entry into Jerusalem at a major festival in obvious alignment with an ancient prophecy have failed to win for Jesus his own cross? Nothing speaks to me as loudly concerning Jesus’ fixed intention to lay down his life – to be obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross – as his staging of today’s events. As we move through this week, we may see Jesus wrestling with the consequences of what he has set in motion today as he prays in Gethsemane, “if this cup can pass by from me,” but we can be sure of this: what Jesus was looking for today was not really a parade into the city, but a procession to Calvary.
The hymn in Philippians tells us something vitally important about Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross. This is not merely an act by a human being, giving up his life to the God whom people had alienated by their disobedience, to win pardon and reconciliation for them. It is that, of course. Obedience was precisely what we had not given God. Adam had also been made “in the image of God,” but Adam had considered being equal with God indeed something to be seized. This was the very enticement to disobedience employed by the serpent: “Eat, and you shall be like gods yourselves.” In that archetypal act are reflected all of our sins, every decision we’ve made to put ourselves and our wishes for our lives ahead of God and God’s vision for the same – the ongoing rebellion of created beings against the Creator’s claims upon those he had brought into being in the first place. Jesus charted a different path, the path of saying at every step of the journey “Not what I want, God, but what you want,” the path not of securing his own enjoyment of this life but of using this life to achieve God’s ends for it. In this way, Jesus’ offering of “obedience to the point of death” could become an offering for us, because Jesus had given to God all the obedience that we had not given – and did it specifically for our sake.
But this is not merely the act of a human being for human beings. Paul’s hymn also describes an act by a divine being, giving up divine rights and prerogatives, giving up his exalted dignity, lowering himself to our level and even below our level – “taking the form of a slave” – so as to break up the shell about our hearts that had been hardened against him and against our fellow creatures, our fellow human beings. On the cross of Jesus we do not see a man giving himself up to a torturous death to win over an angry, bloodthirsty God; we see God giving himself up to win over ungrateful, self-absorbed human beings. We see indeed the horror of the toll our sins have taken, but we see God having taken on flesh specifically so that he could bear that cost for us in the flesh. As Charles Wesley was led to exclaim, so must we: “Amazing Love! And can it be that Thou, my God, wouldst die for me?”
Paul, however, did not share this hymn with his converts in Philippi just to say something about Christ. He shared it primarily to say something about being followers of this Christ, introducing his hymn with these words: “Have this disposition among yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). Jesus’ willingness to lay aside his rights and prerogatives for the sake of accomplishing God’s purposes; his willingness to go the full distance and not draw any lines in the sand; his emptying himself instead of becoming “full of himself”; his willingness to divest himself of everything, even every last shred of dignity and of life itself in order to obey God and advance God’s desire to restore people – all of this reveals something of the mindset that must drive us who follow this Jesus, who are bound to give for Jesus as he gave for us, in whom Jesus must take shape, so as to restore in us the image of God.
Paul invokes the example of Jesus specifically to support the instructions he had just given on how to interact with one another within the Christian community he planted in Philippi:
Don’t entertain rivalry or conceitedness in yourselves, but in humility consider the others around you to surpass you in dignity, each one of you looking out not for your own interests but each for the other’s interests. (Phil 2:3-4)
While the Christian group in Philippi was one of the least troublesome for the apostle, they weren’t without their issues. At the moment, two leading women in the church – Syntyche and Euodia – were digging in their heels against each other over some disagreement that Paul was too wise to name, and were drawing other members of the church into their rival camps. Paul simply says “stop it.” As soon as you start treating the other Christian as if his or her interests don’t matter, as if he or she is less worthy of a hearing or deserves less consideration than yourself, you’ve lost sight of the issue that’s always going to be more important than the one over which you’re fighting – are we approaching the other person with the mind that was in Christ Jesus? Take a moment and think about a person in this church who’s gotten in your way, or opposed something you thought important, or failed to value you enough, or done something that moved you to contempt. What would it look like to take Paul’s instructions to heart in regard to that person? What would it look like to empty yourself – to stop being so full of yourself – and put yourself at God’s disposal to serve God’s interests for that person?
Every church, it seems, has its own special T-shirt that it gives out or sells to its members. One of the churches I had previously served had the number “1” on the back of every one of its T-shirts, the implication being: “Everyone is number one at Christ United Methodist Church.” I think they were trying to get at what Paul was after here, but maybe not quite strongly enough. After all, many of us already think we’re number one at our church. What Paul is trying to cultivate is more of an attitude that “everyone else is number one here at my church”; I am here to make sure the people around me don’t miss out on what God has and wants for them; I need to put myself at God’s disposal and at their disposal to facilitate their arriving at the fullness of life – both here and hereafter – that God desires for them. A church full of people who have adopted that mindset, the mind of Christ, would be a powerfully nurturing community indeed! Who in the midst of such a community could fail to meet head-on the challenges that life threw their way? Who would fail to persevere in faithfulness to Christ, supported so completely along the journey by the strangers who had become genuine brothers and sisters through their mutual investment in one another? And who would fail to be drawn to such a community, to sink roots into such a community?
How far should we go for one another here in this congregation, when we find ourselves at odds with a sister or brother? How far should we go, when we discover that there is a need in our midst that we might have the resources or energies to meet, if we go far enough? How far is enough for us to go for one another in the global Body of Christ, to give ourselves and what is ours away to show love to and solidarity with our sisters and brothers who have been driven out of their lands or beaten down in their lands because they wanted to hold onto Christ? How far is enough for us in terms of realigning our lives so that we serve God’s kingdom agenda more and more directly and more and more fully? Have we reached the point where we’ve said, “far enough”? Do we find our “far enough” too soon?
The mindset that we see driving Christ this week – the mindset that Paul captures so perfectly in the hymn he recites – in part may shame us, who are so full of ourselves and so bent on getting our way or being treated as we think that we deserve that we sacrifice harmony in the church, or even break fellowship with someone in the church or with the church as a whole. In part, what we see driving Christ this week obligates us, who have benefitted so greatly from Jesus’ pouring out of himself for others, to follow in his way, to learn from him to empty ourselves and seek the interests of one another, to learn from him that only all the way is far enough.
Now, if the end of Christ’s story had been that cross, none of us would be here today talking about him and celebrating this week. I think (or, at least, I sincerely hope) that it will not come as a spoiler to anyone here that the end of Christ’s story is something quite glorious – all the more as it actually has no ending:
Because of this, God also greatly exalted him and favored him with the name that is above every name, in order that, at Jesus’ name, every knee should bow – that of every heavenly and earthly and underworldly being – and every tongue should confess, to the glorification of God the Father, that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Phil 2:9-11)
The language deliberately echoes God’s own vow in Isaiah: “By myself I have sworn: … To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance” (Isa 45:23, ESV). No reader of Isaiah would miss the implications of Paul’s hymn about Christ: God has invested the one who humbled himself to become human, to take on a slave’s role, to remain obedient even to the point of the humiliating death of crucifixion – God has invested this one with the honor of Deity. The degradation of the cross was not to be feared: God had Jesus’ exaltation well in hand – not merely the vindication of the abused honor of the Son of God but the glorification of the human being that the Son of God had become. Therein lies the great exchange – Deity allowed itself to be brought down to the depths so that redeemed Humanity could be exalted to the heights with him.
Paul offers the end of Christ’s story as assurance about the end of our story if we follow in his way. The way of setting ourselves aside and giving ourselves over to others – the way of the cross – is, in fact, the way toward exaltation before God. This counterintuitive claim is rooted in Jesus’ similarly challenging saying, the truth of which is demonstrated most dramatically in Jesus’ own story: “if anyone wants to make his life secure, he’ll lose it; but if anyone gives his life away for my sake and for the sake of the good news, that person will make his life secure.” As we walk with Jesus through this, the climactic stage of his journey to “far enough,” I pray that God’s vindication of Jesus in the resurrection will awaken in all of us a firmer faith so as to follow Jesus far enough.