Sermon for Palm Sunday 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 13 April 2014: Year A, Palm and Passion Sunday

SERMON
Texts: Matthew 21:1-11
Matthew 27:11-56

Obedient to death

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Fresco in the Parish Church of Zirl, Austria. Wikipedia

We have heard a lot of scripture today. We have heard the stories that stand at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. He have heard of how he was welcomed as a king, but ended up on a cross- the great reversal of fortune that lies at the heart of the drama of Holy Week.

There is so much of which I could speak about today- the symbolism of the palm branches and the donkey, the fickleness of the crowd, the discomfort of Pontius Pilate, the mocking, the pain and the painful death which Christ suffered. Perhaps there were things which struck you as we heard these stories again? I know that I am always moved by that point when Matthew the Gospel writer suddenly breaks into Aramaic, as if he wants to tell us, yes, Jesus actually said these words as he hung on the cross: ‘about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”‘; and then Matthew gives us the translation: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’- terrible words, words of despair, words which many people still ask- and there they are, on the lips of someone we often see as a paragon of faith. For Jesus, it is the end of all hope.

Today, the Lectionary- the weekly list of Scripture passages– gives us yet another Biblical text to consider. It takes us away from Jerusalem, and to Rome, some thirty years later. The Apostle Paul languishes in a prison cell, accused of what in Scotland we would call ‘breach of the peace’ because he preached the Gospel: everyone knows, he says, ‘my imprisonment is for Christ’ (Philippains 1.13 NRSV). As always, Paul trying to make sense of things- trying to make sense of the story of Christ, trying to make sense of his own situation, trying to make sense for the sake of those who look to him for help and inspiration. The charge is serious enough that he seems to fear for his life (20f). There are, then, some parallels to his situation with Christ’s situation as he stood before Pilate. A messenger from Philippi, a Greek coastal city, has brought news from the Christian community there. Philippi is important to Paul, for it was the first Church he founded in Europe. But there are difficulties and divisions in the Church of Philippi, and questions the Philippians would like their revered founder to answer.

So Paul appeals for them to be united in love for one another: ‘make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind’. But how can they overcome the serious divisions that they have? Whenever we get into an argument, even within the Church, we can be tempted to think that the point of the discussion is to win the argument. That’s because we are all naturally egoists. We want to knock down our opponent, and come out on top. Paul cautions that this is not the way Christians should behave. We are not to try to come out on top, trample on others, always try to get our own way. Quite the opposite. If we love one another, we will put other people first: ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others’.

Always in Paul, and especially in this letter, Paul returns again and again to Christ. Indeed, it has been calculated that in the Letter to the Philippians, the word ‘Christ’ is the most common noun in the letter1.. He relates his own situation, and the problems of his beloved Philippians, to Jesus Christ. And so he writes to them of Christ, of who Christ was and is and will be, and what sort of a person Christ was. ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others’. And to show what he means, he directs them to Christ:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
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 the Father.

Philippians 2.5-11

When we have questions, concerns, arguments, when we wonder about what’s the right thing to do and who we should act, how often do we go back to Christ? How often do we ask, what can the story of Jesus of Nazareth ask us? In fact, if we stopped to ask the question more often, we might well often find that we can think of something- a saying of Jesus, perhaps, or an incident from the Gospels- which would help us with our questions.

Yet Paul doesn’t do that exactly in this case. Instead, he gives us something like a confession of faith, a creed, if you like. He tells the story of Christ in its entirety. He doesn’t give much detail: nothing about the birth at Bethlehem, nothing of Christ’s teachings or incidents from his life… except a significant detail about how he died: he ‘became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross’. At the centre of Paul’s reflection is the cross. From his prison cell in Rome, Paul reaches back for some answers to Good Friday in Jerusalem.

Wondering about how to encourage the Philippians to be humble, and to put others first, Paul refers them to Christ: ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’. They are to think like Christ. And Christ, says Paul, was someone who had good reason not to be humble: ‘though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited’. Paul conceives of Christ as the embodiment of something which has always existed, something that was part of God from before creation. This is an exalted status- and if any of us ever feel exalted, then, very often, we want to make the most of it. If we know the owner of our favourite restaurant, we’ll use that influence to get a good table. If we are well-off enough to send our children to a good school, we’ll do so. Such is human nature. But Christ did not exploit his divine status, says Paul: ‘though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself’. How hard that is for us to do. How hard it us for us not to use what position, influence, status we have. We always take our opportunities- even if it means putting someone else down. If I am in an argument, and I think I can win by displaying my superior knowledge, or my gift of the gab- then of course I will use these things. But this is precisely what Christ did not do.

He emptied himself, says Paul. This is a deep concept, but what I think it means is that Christ really rid himself of all his divine attributes. He allowed himself no longer to be God- he chose to be no longer like a God. Ancient people were quite conversant with stories of gods who became human, but usually the god can’t resist the temptation of using their divine powers if need be. But Christ gives it all up: he deprives himself of his divine nature, he empties himself: ‘taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness’. Without the power and status of God, Christ came among us. He lives as a human being, as human as you or I.

And he is as powerless as you and I would have been, when events conspire against us. A friend betrays him. The religious establishment arrests him and puts him on trials. He stands speechless when he faces the representative of Roman power, Pontius Pilate. He’s mocked and scourged and nailed to a cross- and he does nothing, he can do nothing. Paul says he became like a slave, for slaves were at the bottom of society, with no power, no status, no option except to do as others told them to. And so dies like a slave. Some seventy years before Christ, six thousand survivors of the slave revolt led by Spartacus were crucified along the Appian Way, one of roads leading to Rome. Paul knew of what he spoke when he said that Christ’s self-emptying had turned him into a slave: ‘And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross’.

Fedor Andreevich Bronnikov (1827-1902). The damned box. Place of execution in ancient Rome. The crucified slaves. the year 1878. Oil on canvas. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. (Wikipedia)

 

At this point in Paul’s telling of the story, there is a ‘Therefore’. Because Christ chooses the way of the cross, ‘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 the Father’. Because Christ has chosen the way of the cross, therefore God exalts him. The one who stood silent before Pilate is now exalted to a status which leave the Roman Emperor looking very small indeed. The one who was accused of blasphemy by the religious leaders is now the one whose name will be confessed by the entire creation one day, to the glory of the God the Sanhedrin thought they were serving. And so we come to the paradox at the heart of the Christian message- that it is precisely in his weakness that the strength of Christ is most clearly seen. It is precisely in his powerlessness that the power of Christ is seen. It is precisely because he chooses humility that every knee will one day bow before him.

And so Christians will always sing the praise of him who died. Like Paul, we will return again and again to that terrible place, Calvary, and venerate that terrible instrument of execution, the cross. Not because we enjoy death and blood and murder, but because we know that all that is defeated. Those of us who have any kind of power or status are challenged by the cross. For it suggests that it is those who are powerless, those who suffer pain and death at the behest of the powerful, who are the ones who might have most to teach us about God. Christ lost everything- even, perhaps his faith (my God, my God why have you forsaken me?). But it is in those moments of utter despair, deadly pain, when all certainty is at an end, that God is to be found.

‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’, says Paul- calling us to learn humility, to make more of others than ourselves, to see that it is in serving those who suffer and who are powerless that we will find God. Unless we go where Christ went- along a hard way that might even lead to the cross- then we cannot really understand what the fuss is about at Easter.

Ascription of Praise

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo