Category: Passion Sunday

From Glory to Glory by Way of Death – Lectionary Reflection for Passion/Palm Sunday (Philippians 2)

Philippians 2:5-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

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,
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.

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                The Sunday before Easter presents the church with two choices when it comes to the lectionary. Should we go with the Palms or the Passion? As there is no established second reading for Palm Sunday, the choice has been made for us by the creators of the lectionary. That’s because I’m currently working through the second reading in this cycle. Therefore, the reading comes from the Passion Sunday selections. In this particular year, this seems to be an especially appropriate decision in any case. Since the world is facing a pandemic that has led to the cancelation of worship services across the globe, which will result in few if any palm processions (and the same goes for in-person Easter services this year).

The appointed Gospel reading comes from Matthew 27:11-54, which takes us from Jesus’ appearance before Pilate through the crucifixion to the Centurion’s declaration “Truly this was God’s Son!” (As a side note, I can’t read this without hearing John Wayne intone those words in The Greatest Story Ever Told – a 1960s Jesus movie starring Max Von Sydow as Jesus). Here in Philippians 2, we hear a word about the incarnation of the one who was in the form of God but did not exploit his equality with God but chose to empty himself of his pre-existent heavenly state, become human, and face death on a cross, all of which leads to his exaltation to the position of ruler of the cosmos. Paul offers this Jesus to us as an example, so that we might find unity as the body of Christ by becoming servants to one another and thus being of one mind. If we read between the lines, the Philippian church, which Paul founded, was experiencing a time of conflict.  Thus, Paul tells them to take on the mind of Christ, as revealed in this ancient hymn that Paul has appropriated for this purpose. The hymn reminds us that Jesus endured humiliation for our benefit and was vindicated by God as a result. The one who was crucified was then exalted by God so that he might move from humility to glory.

                When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippian Church, he was sitting in a jail cell (Phil. 1:12-17). Where he was being detained is unknown to us. Paul doesn’t identify the location though he does mention the Praetorian guard. That would suggest a cell in Rome. It’s a clue but not proof. That he is in prison, suggests confinement at best and perhaps a degree of suffering as well. That is his situation. The letter suggests that the congregation was facing its own sets of difficulties. While Paul was the founding pastor of this congregation, he could only reach out to them virtually, offering guidance by way of a letter.

 Regarding the internal concerns, he asks that they exhibit unity. He asks them to make his joy complete by having the same mind, love, and unity. He asks that they not do anything out of selfishness or conceit. Instead, he asks that they have the same mind as Jesus (Phil. 2:1-5). That request leads to what many scholars (and I tend to agree) consider an early Christian hymn that takes note of Jesus’ pre-existence with God (his divine status), his self-emptying (humility) that leads to the cross, and finally, his exaltation by God, thus vindicating Jesus by establishing him as ruler of the cosmos. Thus, to fully embody God’s realm, one should embrace the way of Jesus, which has the promise of exaltation.

                The hymn takes note of three distinct phases of the Christ event. We begin with an affirmation of Christ’s pre-existence. The hymn states unequivocally that “though he was in the form of God . . . but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7). This isn’t quite the same wording as John’s prologue (John 1:1-18), but it’s close. The second phase is Christ’s self-emptying of himself of divinity so that he might become human and face death on a cross. Finally, the second half of the hymn celebrates God’s vindication of Jesus by exalting him to the position of ruler of the cosmos [Ronald J. Allen, Connections, Kindle loc 4177-4192].

                For those of us who affirm the divinity of Christ, this is one of the most direct statements (along with John 1) in support of that position. Pre-existence doesn’t prove divinity, but it suggests that in Paul’s estimation that Jesus has a status that is ultimately different from us, even if he experienced life as being fully human. Karl Barth writes that “this equality of Christ with God is, so to speak, the fixed, ultimate background from which his road sets out to which he returns” [Epistle to the Philippians, p. 61]. This is the starting point for a movement from heaven to earth and back, so to speak. But the point here is not his equality with God, but what he does with it that is the point. That leads to the emptying of himself of his stature as the Father’s equal so that he might become a human and ultimately face death on a cross. Thus, his humanity fully covers his divinity, and this was of his own doing, his own choosing, and yet it was an act of obedience. This is the point of Passion Sunday, the willingness to go to the cross, to experience death, and not just any death, but the most humiliating of deaths. He descended to the depths in his self-emptying and bore upon himself the brokenness of the old age.

                This is not the final word in the story. The second part of the hymn (verse 2) reveals that God vindicated Jesus by exalting him to the position of ruler of the cosmos. This exaltation is revealed in the name given to him, which stands 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.” As I read this, I can’t help but think about the context in which it is revealed. Caesar is the exalted one, to whom every knee would bow, and whose name would be confessed as Lord. In this confession, Paul (or the hymn writer) reveals that Jesus, the one whom Rome crucified, had been exalted above Caesar. Thus, Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. While Caesar might rule an empire, Jesus ruled the cosmos and that to the glory of God.

  

                Paul opens up this reading by asking that we be like Christ, who emptied himself of his glory so as to taste life as we live it, even to the point of death, as a result, God vindicated him by raising him to a position of glory. If this is true for Jesus, as those who are his people, might we participate in what is his by nature? As we ponder this question, I leave you with this word from one of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Festal Orations:

Let us become like Christ, since Christ also became like us; let us become gods because of him, since he also because of us became human. He assumed what is worse that he might give what is better. He became poor that we through his poverty might become rich. He took the form of a slave, that we might regain freedom. He descended that we might be lifted up, he was tempted that we might be victorious, he was dishonored to glorify us, he died to save us, he ascended to draw to himself us who lay below in the Fall of sin. Let us give everything, offer everything, to the one who gave himself as a ransom and an exchange for us. But one can give nothing comparable to oneself, understanding the mystery and becoming because of him everything that he became because of us. [Gregory of Nazianzus, Festal Orations, p. 59].

                As we begin a Holy Week like no other I’ve experienced in life, may we take up the mantle of Jesus, and find in him a path of obedience that leads to salvation.
                  
                 

 

The Vindicator Is Near – Lectionary Reflection for Passion Sunday (Isaiah 50)

The Master on the Way to Calvary – 15th Century – Huntington Library
 
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
    he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
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                Preachers and congregations who follow the lectionary and the liturgical calendar have a choice to make for the Sunday prior to Easter. On one hand there is the possibility of celebrating the Triumphal Entry. Palm Sunday can be a glorious celebration in itself. We can wave palm fronds and shout praises to the king of kings. On the other there is Passion Sunday, which allows congregations—many of which will not have a Good Friday service (congregational or community service)—to consider the crucifixion of Jesus before gathering for the great celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Skipping from triumph to triumph neglects the reality of suffering, both that endured by Jesus and that endured by humanity and even creation itself. Somewhere in Holy Week we need to lift up the cross and ask what the cross has to say to us about the nature of our faith.
Since I am focusing my lectionary reflections on the First Reading, which is generally taken from the Hebrew Bible, I am left with the reading for Passion Sunday, as there isn’t a Palm Sunday reading from the Hebrew Bible other than the reading from the Psalms. So, with Passion Sunday being the only choice I have, I will focus my attention on this third Servant song of Second Isaiah. While there is no consensus as to the identity of the servant who is referenced here, it is appropriate that we consider the prophet himself to be the servant (the traditional alternative is Judah, but I think the prophet makes more sense, at least in this particular song).  
 
If we begin with the premise that the servant present in this song is the prophet, then how might we interpret this passage in light of Passion Sunday? How might the cross emerge here? The Servant Songs of Isaiah have traditionally been applied to Jesus, to give theological meaning to his sufferings on the cross. This is appropriate as long as we do not discount its original reference point. It is not as if this passage lay unfulfilled until Jesus arrived.
Isaiah begins by identifying the servant as teacher, and Jesus is understood to be, first of all, a teacher. He is addressed on multiple occasions in the Gospels as Teacher or Rabbi. We know him in his teaching role, sharing the news of God’s realm through parables (synoptics) and through sermons (John). As a teacher, Jesus offers a word that sustains and uplifts the weary. Not only does he teach, but Jesus faces opposition and oppression.
The servant, whether Second Isaiah, Jesus, or some other entity has the “tongue of a teacher,” so that he can sustain the weary. This teacher is wakened by God morning by morning, so that he can listen “to those who are taught.” As we meditate on this word, thinking first of the prophet and then of Jesus, might we also think of those called to the teaching/preaching ministry? The “tongue of a teacher” might be seen as a spiritual gift. To be effective, we who are called to such ministry would be well served by listening to those who are taught. That is, if a word is to be shared that will sustain the weary. But, while it is necessary to listen to those who are being taught, let us remember that it is the LORD who opens his ear. Thus, we listen not only to the people, we also listen for the voice of God, for that is where the word will derive. As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson point out:

Those who speak need to be excellent listeners, to God and to those to whom they speak. We need an open ear when we listen to God in our prayers, in our studies, and in our attempts to live out in word and deed the faith that is ours. Too often in prayer all we do is talk. There is a Jewish saying that study is a higher form of worship than prayer, because in studying we listen to God while in prayer, the only thing about us that is open is our mouths. [Allen and Williamson, Preaching the Old Testament, p. 39].

As this is Passion Sunday, the teacher in question is Jesus. He is the one with the open ear, listening to the people and to God, bringing to us a word that sustains the weary. That those called to the preaching/teaching ministry are given the same task, requires of us that we look to Jesus for guidance and as an exemplar.
The teacher (the prophet) listens to the people and to God. He does not turn his back on God, and yet not everyone is ready and willing to hear his teaching. He commits himself to bringing a word that sustains, but instead of this word being received, he is humiliated. His back is struck and his beard his pulled out. It’s understandable, in light of the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, why this passage would be chosen for Passion Sunday. Jesus is, after all, a teacher, who listened to the voice of God and shared God’s word with the world, not all of whom were willing to receive it. He was flogged and beaten and humiliated.
The word that is often necessary isn’t a word easily received. Words of judgment and words that call us to account for our actions are difficult to hear. We might resist. Prophets are often rejected and even killed. Elijah fled the authorities and Jeremiah was kidnapped, just to name a couple of possibilities. David Garber invites us to consider what it means to be “woke.” 

To borrow a phrase from the African American community that refers to someone who has become aware of our society’s injustices, the prophet was literally “woke.” If the church is to have the mind of Christ and the spirit of the Servant, it must also awaken to contemporary social injustices, while equipping itself to speak the truth about these injustices effectively. [Green, et al, Connections: 2 (Kindle Locations 3866-3869). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition].

 

If the word that is required will make people uncomfortable it’s no wonder that this calling is accompanied by suffering. While the cross isn’t mentioned here, we can infer it in the case of Jesus. It comes about after Jesus is fully humiliated, due to his teachings of the kingdom, a teaching that did not sit well with those in power.
This suffering is not endured for the sake of suffering. It isn’t sought out. The servant doesn’t have a martyr’s complex, but he is willing to endure the suffering because he believes he will be vindicated. Because the LORD helps him, he won’t be “put to shame.” The servant asks: “who will contend with me?” Where are the prophet’s enemies? The prophet invites them to confront him. He’s not afraid, because God helps him. God will vindicate him. So, who can declare him guilty?
As we approach the passion of Jesus, we will hear the story of Jesus’ humiliation, along with his suffering and his death. This is a central piece of the story that defines our faith. When they lay him in the tomb, all will seem lost. Or is it?  If we would turn to the words of Paul in his Philippian letter, a passage that is designated for the day, we will hear a word about Jesus emptying himself of his prerogatives of being equal with God, taking on the form of a slave, and being obedient to the point of death on the cross. That is the first word, but it is not the final word. Paul on to declare that “God so 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” (Phil. 2:5-11). Or, as Isaiah proclaims, “it is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (Is. 50:9a). With the promise that  “Vindicator is Near” let us begin the journey that is Holy Week.