journeying through Lent and hoLy week with gLee: Jesus’ commitment

Philippians 2:5-11

It’s Palm Sunday. You knew that, right? Even if you didn’t know when you came in, you’d have picked up on that by now, right? The children paraded in singing and waving their palms. The sanctuary choir processed in waving their palm branches. We sang the celebrative hymn. We read the story. You might even assume I would preach on that story

But today, I’m actually less interested in the Palm Sunday events—which are, in fact, rather ambiguous …. depending on which gospel you read, it’s the crowds shouting out their acclaim (in Matthew (Matthew 21:8-11), in which case we’re dealing with the superficial accolades of those who shout “Hosanna!” who will shortly also shout “Crucify him!”) or it’s the disciples (in Luke (Luke 19:37-40) in which case we would assume a greater level of integrity to the acclaim). Which one are we? Which one are you?

Of course, today’s also Passion Sunday with its focus on Jesus’ agony in the garden, Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s betrayal, the trial and even the crucifixion. And we did note that strange juxtaposition in the Responsive Call to Worship, in which we read both psalms: the one chosen for a Palm Sunday celebration and the one chosen for a Passion Sunday emphasis. You noticed the one more celebrative, the other so much more bleak. Did you also notice, both refer to—both actually end with references to God’s steadfast love? As if that love transcends particular circumstance. as if it’s as important during the triumph as during the betrayal. As if that’s what you lean into regardless of what others say.

But I’m actually less interested in the Palm Sunday events or the Passion Sunday events than I am interested in what prompted all those events—interested in what initiated what were, in effect, those very different responses to Jesus. And I just answered my question, didn’t I? We remember this day, very different responses to Jesus—the person of Jesus—the way Jesus lived and related to people and to the systems of his day—very different responses from different people and very different responses within individuals.

So what I’d like to do today, instead of reflecting on what those reactions were, is to consider the provocation. Let’s consider Jesus who, “though he was in the form of God ….” okay, there’s just so much there—so much there. What does it mean to be in the form of God? The Greek word we translate as “form” is one that refers to what can be apprehended by our senses (Morna D. Hooker, The Letter to the Philippians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume XI (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000) 507)—which doesn’t make too much sense when it comes to God…. does it?

Now there is the Old Testament glory of God that does seem to have been something visible—something people saw (Exodus 16:10; 24:16; Leviticus 9:6, 23; Numbers 12:8; 14:10). There’s perhaps the best-known story in which Moses asks to see God’s glory (Exodus 33:18), and God puts Moses in a cleft in the rock, covers Moses with the divine hand, and passes by, uncovering Moses after passing by. “For no one shall see me,” God says, “and live” (Exodus 33:20).

Of course, then there’s also the New Testament affirmation of Jesus as “the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). And we have the irony of the mash-up of the Old Testament glory of God that kills, and the New Testament incarnation of God who, being in the form of God, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” who is himself killed.

The word translated “exploit” (which, by the way, occurs only here in the New Testament [Todd D. Still, Philippians and Philemon in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2011) 68]) has two basic meanings: one along the lines of grasping, clutching, possessively gripping, the other along the lines of stealing, plundering, snatching at, seizing. While both have to do with a general acquisitiveness, one implies exploiting what you have, the other taking what you don’t. While some try and figure out what appropriately refers to Jesus, the dual meanings suggest not just Jesus, but us as well! And throughout our text, scholars point to an implicit comparison (Gordan D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1995) 209) between Jesus and Adam (or us): the one, in the form of God, equal with God, not grasping, the other, created in the image of God, grasping to be like God. Which one are we? Which one is you?

Not to mention the truth we believe that Jesus comes as the form of God with us. Not to mention that if Jesus is, in truth, in the form of God, then what he did not exploit was who he was, which if he had exploited would have robbed him of God’s form—of equality with God. Think about that for a while! If Jesus had sought to possess God, Jesus would have lost God. If, as God, Jesus clung to being God, he wouldn’t be.

It’s absolutely fascinating. There is so much written on this text. And so much of it focuses on attempts to find the one true origin for the hymn (it predated Paul; someone else wrote it; Paul tinkered with it, or, Paul wrote it), to find the one true structure (it’s got two verses: one dealing with what Jesus did, the other with what God did in response; it’s got three verses: one dealing with the preexistence of Jesus, one with the incarnation, one with God’s response), the one true background (Jewish tradition, a Middle Eastern redeemer myth, Hellenistic Gnosticism, Jewish Gnosticism, the servant passages in Isaiah, the story of Adam in Genesis, Hellenistic Jewish Wisdom). But while scholars grasp at one meaning—one interpretation, that may never have been Paul’s interest. He may never have regarded one meaning to be exploited, but have reveled in association and resonance and meanings all mashed up. That’s part of the nature of poetry.

So it’s not that there’s the Old Testament glory of God that’s contradicted or supplanted by the New Testament Jesus, but rather different expressions of truth—different truths of God—all mashed-up in this text to create a greater truth—a greater, truer truth of God—somehow mashing together the glory of God and Jesus—the unnameable God, and Jesus—the invisible God and Jesus—the all-powerful God and Jesus—none of which seem to belong together and yet none of which can be separated. Remember Moses asking to see God’s glory? Before Moses asks to see God’s glory, he asks to see God’s ways (Exodus 33:13). Maybe they’re the same—just not the way you might expect!

And so for Jesus to be in the form of God and equal with God means that, somehow, our experience of Jesus equals our experience of God and our understanding of Jesus informs our understanding of God. What we know of Jesus is what we know of God—and our own experience of Jesus tells us what is true of God. Paul mashes different truth claims up into the mystery of Jesus that is the mystery of God—less interested in explanation than in wonder—less interested in explanation than in wonder.

“But Jesus, in the form of God, equal to God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” “Emptied himself” could also be translated “poured himself out.” The incarnation is a pouring out. We tend to think of sharing from our fullness—our overabundance—making sure we grasp, possess, enough for ourselves. Whether or not we ascribe to it as a viable economic theory, most of us live into a trickle down theory of being rather than a pour out theory of being. Jesus poured out self. He did not thereby lose self. That is his self. It’s what you can pour out and still be full of. Kind of like preaching: you can pour it out and still be full of it!

Here’s one of the connections to the writings of Isaiah, by the way, who, in describing the servant of God, wrote: “he poured out himself to death” (Isaiah 53:12).

“Jesus, in the form of God, equal to God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Note the parallel: Jesus goes from the form of God to the form of a slave. Just in case you’re interested, these two occurrences of this word are the only occurrences of this word in the New Testament (Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians in Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1983) 81). This continues the shocking juxtaposition, that the glory of God could be manifest in a human being, and not just in a human being, but in a slave. If we stake the claim that in Jesus, we experience God—know God, then there’s something about God not made incarnate in a king, a president, a rich person, a person of power, prestige, status. God is not made manifest in anyone full of themselves.

It is crucial (and I deliberately choose that word for its etymological roots to the cross)—it is crucial to note this is not about telling people who live lives of emptiness that they need to be poured out. This is not about telling anyone else that they should be emptied or should empty themselves or should find value in their emptiness. If anything, we have to say to the empty, that God finds value in them in their emptiness. We do not ever—we do not ever—justify dismissing anyone.

And now, as if we didn’t have enough on our plate, we’ve now also got that whole preexistence thing going on!—Jesus existing as God or in the form of God before the incarnation. Another resonance with the prologue to the fourth gospel: that whole in the beginning was the Word thing (John 1:1). In the beginning with God (John 1:2) … participating in creation (John 1:3), and then the Word became flesh (John 1:14). Again, Paul’s not explaining anything. Wonder at this. Wonder at it.

“And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” The emphasis is on what he chose—not on what circumstances or the choices of others determined for him. The emphasis is also on humility and obedience—not what we tend to admire! A ferocious determination to live as God would have us live—to prioritize the will of God—to do the work of God—to be in the form of God. And this—this—led to all the various responses to Jesus we acknowledge this day: the fascination of the crowds, the faltering of the disciples, the betrayal, the ways of God put on trial and humiliatingly executed.

He emptied himself—poured himself out—in humility and obedience to the point of death. So, it’s important to affirm: death does not equal Jesus being empty—Jesus poured himself out until there was nothing left and then died. No, it was rather his confrontive, creative, challenging, world-transforming, provocative fullness that could not be ignored. “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16).

“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God.”

More resonance with—more parallels to Isaiah. In chapter 52, Isaiah writes that God’s servant “shall be exalted and lifted up and shall be very high” (Isaiah 52:13), and in chapter 45, God says “to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (Isaiah 45:23). And even in the poetic resonance, Jesus is mashed-up with God.

So what is the name above every name? Two options, right?: Jesus or Lord—the New Testament name of a human being or the Old Testament name for the God who could not be named, but the truth is actually both, isn’t it?—mashed up—Jesus and God—the crucified one and the exalting one. Note—please note—that Jesus is exalted because of his obedience. Resurrection is not a part of any of this. Now, you can certainly read resurrection into it. Many do. But it’s not explicitly here. Exaltation does not equal victory. Nor does it constitute a state of being other than the state of being for which he was exalted—a self poured out in humble obedience unto death. This is not, in other words, an Easter hymn. If anything, it’s a Good Friday hymn! Therefore exalted.

Part of the reason we went with the idea of mash-ups for our Lenten and our Holy week worship theme—why we made you sing some of your favorite hymns all chopped up with other hymns—why we have that weird invocadiction—is all because the way we usually celebrate tends to emphasize sequence, and I think the truth is more mashed up than any kind of chronological order. The way we usually celebrate tends to emphasize cause and effect, and I think the truth is more mashed up than that. Cause and effect too easily leads to strategy. “If the first will be last and the last will be first, then I’m going to be last.” “If Friday leads to Sunday, bring it on.” The truth, is, rather, something about who and how we choose to be—decide to be—work to be not because of what it will lead to but because of who we want to be like. The truth is ongoing truth—eternal truth: God is always pouring out God’s self, and exaltation is always not just for what was, but for what is.

We skipped the first sentence of our text. You notice? Let’s go back to that. Does it surprise you at all that it can be translated two different ways? Because there’s actually no verb in the Greek. So there are two basic options reflected in different ways of translating. We have the translation we read: “Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.” But if we had read the New International Version, for example, we would have read: “Have this mind in you which is yours in Christ Jesus.” Subtle difference, but important. Not just a word game. Is this about what it means to be saved? To be in Jesus? Or is it about ethics? To imitate Jesus? Or is it both? Is this what we strive for? Or is it what we have in Jesus? Ring a bell? Is it something to hold onto because we’ve got it? Or to try and snatch because we don’t? Or is the truth a mash-up? That which God offers us in Jesus is ours, and yet, it’s that toward which we strive. It’s now and not yet. It’s that which will always lie beyond us—even as it defines us—calling us further into the mystery that is the will, the work and the truth of God.

Paul typically wrote his letters in response to some particular issue in a church. We don’t know what prompted our text today. Two women at odds with each other? That is mentioned later in the letter (Philippians 4:2-3). Or the preaching of those invested in the rituals of Judaism? That comes up later too (Philippains 3:1b-6). Personal reactions to Paul himself? (Fred B. Craddock, Philippians in Interpretation: A Bible COmmentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985) 37) We still have those! Overkill? Paul tends to pull out the big guns for what we might deem minor issues. Because the ways of God, manifest in Jesus’ being are to pervade our own being in all things.

In another letter (1 Corinthians 8:6), Paul writes “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist,” and he wrote that in response to a fuss about the menu at church fellowship! To encourage a more generous offering to help the poor he wrote in another letter (2 Corinthians 8:9): “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (Craddock, 43).

“Y’all are supposed to represent in your being,” we can almost hear him exasperatedly saying, “Jesus who is God. You’re supposed to be as God in the world. And when you squabble—when you get all bent out of shape over the littlest things, that’s no little thing. When you prioritize what you want the way you want it when you want it … when you regard you as that which to grasp and hold onto, what you reveal to the world is not what you’re called to.”

Do you remember in John’s gospel, when Jesus poured water into a basin and washed the feet of his disciples? He said, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). Let this way of being, be in you. The ways of God are the ways of Jesus … the glory of God is the ways of Jesus, and the glory of the way of God is a walking lightly, a holding loosely, an ongoing self-giving—an explicit and consistent concern for others and for the least of these. Let this be you even as it was Jesus as it is God. For this is the light that shines in the darkness. This is the good news amidst the chaos. This is the living in joy and not out of fear. This is the living out of an abundant fullness that will provoke the world even as it transforms the world. These are the ways of God, then, now, and forevermore. Hmmm.

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