St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church. Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020, Beth Christianson
Well, I think this may go on record as the strangest Palm Sunday I have ever passed in my life in the Church. Last year at this time, we were parading in St. Mary’s with palm branches, palm crosses, and banners. We sang, we lit candles. When I think back, my imagination conjures up sound and motion and color. Today, I am thinking of each of you in your homes, with your loved ones. I hope that you are singing together, and that you found something to stand in for palm branches!
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. This is the culmination of our Lenten disciplines, the time where we settle into the darkness that comes before the dawn of the resurrection. Every year at this time, we confront the darkness in ourselves, our sin, the reason it was necessary for Jesus to come and live as a man among us, why he had to give up his life so that we might be forgiven and live. We are all experiencing the brokenness of our world in a new way right now. We confront an enemy we can’t see and have but small defense against. It is in such times we learn what we’re really made of; what we’re willing to sacrifice, in order to care for our neighbors. I don’t imagine anyone intended to give up quite so much for Lent.
It is really fascinating in this context to read from Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. Paul is in prison in Rome, and the Philippians have pooled their money and sent a care package to Rome for him with Epaphroditus, one of the Philippian brothers. Epaphroditus then stays in Rome to help take care of Paul. This is the letter Paul writes back to the church, thanking them for being such faithful friends to him. Even though he is in prison, he’s still preaching the Gospel of Jesus to everyone he meets, and he tells the Philippians that everyone in Caesar’s guard has now heard the Good News!
Paul writes a letter full of joy and love and encouragement to his friends whom he can’t see because he’s under house arrest. Who would have thought that we’d ever have some inkling of what that experience is like! So think of this as my letter to you, my dear friends at St. Mary’s. Though we cannot be together right now, and though we and our whole society is facing danger, I exhort you, as Paul exhorted the Philippian Christians, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
In your relationships with each other, have the same mindset as that of Christ Jesus. What mindset is that? This gorgeous little gem of a Christological poem sets out what the nature of Jesus’ incarnation is; what it means that God took on a body like ours. What is in the mind of God, of Jesus, that can also now be in our minds?
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” Christians have spilled plenty of blood, sweat, and tears over the centuries trying to articulate exactly what it means for Jesus to be both fully human and at the same time fully God. But that is what Paul is talking about right here in this poem. Jesus, fully divine, having the same nature as the Father. “Did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” Who in their arrogance did try to “become like God, knowing good and evil?” Adam and Eve, of course, in the Garden of Eden. But Jesus isn’t like that. He actually is equal with God, but rather than seeking his own advantage, Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, and being made in human likeness.”
Why would Jesus choose to do this? Cast your minds back to the story we read in John’s gospel
(was it only four weeks ago?!) When Jesus was talking to Nicodemus, what did he say? God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. The mindset of Christ Jesus is to give up everything, to humble himself to the point of becoming a human. What kind of human? A rich and powerful leader who can draw us up, help us aspire to his level? No. Jesus humbled himself further than any of us have ever done. He took on the nature of a servant, our servant. This is the mindset of Christ Jesus as he relates to us. This is the mindset we are being called to have as we relate to one another.
But even that is not all. Jesus goes further. Having humbled himself to become human, and a human servant, Jesus humbles himself further. We read in our gospel lesson this morning from Matthew the Passion narrative, the first of several times we will hear this story if we follow the liturgy for Holy Week through to the end. Jesus became obedient all the way to his death. And again, not a glorious death in battle, the kind that songs were written about, that the Philippian Christians would have been familiar with. Jesus died the most ignominious death the Romans could devise, the one reserved for the lowest of the low in society.
It’s hard for us to grasp sometimes just how counter-cultural it was to believe in the 1st century that Jesus, a dirt-poor itinerant preacher from the backwoods of Israel, which was itself the back of beyond in the Roman empire, that this Jesus was in fact God. Not only that, but that he was the ONLY god! We are so steeped in the language of the Church, and even our culture, though it’s thoroughly secular now, has long and deep roots in Christianity, and speaks the language, whether it acknowledges this or not. But think of how this would have sounded to the Christians in Philippi. Philippi was a major Roman colony in what was Macedonia, now northern Greece. The city was full of retired praetorians and government officials. They were educated, and totally steeped in Roman culture. Their idea of god-like, heroic behavior would be the exploits of Achilles or Odysseus. They believed their Emperors turned into gods when they died. Gods are not humble. Gods do not become human. Heroic humans can sometimes become gods, if they are really amazing. Gods do not die on crosses.
But Paul had come to Philippi and boldly preached exactly that. And miracle of miracles, many Philippian citizens believed what he said. They believed in this God who, in order to save us, because he loves us, humbled himself enough to become one of us, and to let us torture and kill him. That is the mindset of Christ Jesus. That is the mindset we are called to have.
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
After he emptied himself, all the way to death for all our sakes, now Jesus is revealed again in his full divinity, having the name that is above every name. Forget Achilles. Forget Odysseus, or Augustus, or Alexander the Great, or Zeus. Everything, everyone, in heaven and on earth and under the earth will know that Jesus Christ is Lord.
So how can we have the mindset of Christ Jesus? Goodness knows, in these extraordinary times, we all have lots of time to practice humbling ourselves in our relationships with the people who share our houses! Jesus laid down absolutely everything in order to draw us up out of our sin. We need to be willing to lay down absolutely everything for one another. We are giving up our freedom of movement and freedom of association to keep one another as safe as we can from COVID-19. A lot, a lot of people have had to give up their livelihood to that cause as well. We need to be there for those who’ve lost their jobs. If you’re sharing your quarantine with family, you’re having to give up your privacy and your space. Be gracious with each other.
We can also pray for each other. We may be isolated from the church, but we aren’t isolated from God. Lift one another up in prayer. And pray for our leaders, who are having to make choices they couldn’t possibly have imagined when they ran for office. And pray for our health workers, and everyone else who is still doing their job out in the world, making sure the stores have food and toilet paper! They are risking a great deal, and we must be grateful.
Finally my friends, be gentle with yourselves. If you don’t read War and Peace or write a novel during your quarantine, that’s okay. If you need to binge-watch Tiger King, go ahead and do that. And if you need help, ask for it. We’re all just a phone call away. And maybe you could find some time to read Philippians. Paul has lots of suggestions on how to have the mindset of Christ Jesus.
May God grant us, in our direst need, the smallest gifts: the pebble at the mountain’s peak, the kiss in despair, the one right word. In darkness, understanding. Amen.