A Sermon for the Sunday of the Passion
Palm Sunday – 13 April 2014
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
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
If you look up at the hymn boards you’ll notice 3 hymns listed there – as is typical of most any Sunday. And, as is also typical, we we’ll sing all three of them. But this morning, there is a hymn that’s not listed, nor will it be sung; but it’s considered by Biblical scholars to be a hymn none the less. It’s contained in the part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we just heard.
The hymn contains one of the most complete and accurate descriptions of Jesus in the New Testament. Even though he wrote decades before any of the four gospels were written, Paul seemed to understand the very mind of Christ and invites us to have that same mind. He wrote that Jesus emptied himself and he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death. Then he was exalted by God and given a name above all others so that at the mention of it, every knee should bend and every tongue should confess.
What does it take for us to literally fall to our knees and confess to Jesus? In Paul’s case, it took a lot. Before he became Paul, he was Saul of Tarsus. And after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Saul, a Jew, was authorized by the high priest to arrest and persecute any followers of Jesus in the city of Damascus. On the road leading to that city, however, Saul and his traveling companions were struck down by a blinding light.
And then he heard a voice saying to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). As is natural for anyone hearing a strange voice, Saul asked who was speaking to him and the voice replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:5-6).
Saul did what he was told, most likely because he literally couldn’t see to do anything else. Meanwhile, Jesus appeared in a vision to a man in Damascus named Ananias. He told Ananias to go seek out Saul, because as Jesus explained, he had chosen Saul to deliver the gospel to the Gentiles, their kings and the people of Israel. Ananias was shocked by what he heard Jesus tell him, because he knew all too well Saul’s reputation for being a persecutor of Christians. Nevertheless, Ananias did what he was told, too. He found Saul and laid his hands on him, at which point Saul’s sight was restored. Saul was then baptized a Christian and his name was changed to Paul.
It’s amazing to me how Paul knew the mind of Christ as well as he did because he spent so much time and energy opposing it. Then with his name change came a change of heart and an embracing of Jesus’ teachings. Paul not only lived by those teachings, but he encouraged and expected others to do the same. That’s why his visits and letters to communities such as the Philippians were so important in helping them stay unified in the face of opposition. After all, Paul had been on both sides of that opposition which gave him a unique perspective and quite a bit of insight into the mind of Christ.
Paul knew that the essence of that mind was humility and captured it in his hymn. He wrote that though Jesus was “in the form of God, he did not equate equality of God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself” (Philippians 2:5-6). And those last two words “emptied himself” are what I keep going back to.
Do you know what it means to “empty yourself?” It means dismantling every shred of our carefully formed image and not comparing or caring what people think of us. It means becoming a slave and always putting the welfare of others before our own. Only then, wrote Paul, will we know the mind of Christ Jesus. Why would any of us want to do that? Why would we want to have our lives be controlled by the constant needs of others? Wouldn’t the consequences be that we would end up with nothing?
Jesus entered this world curled up in a wooden manger and full of possibility; and he left this world outstretched on a wooden cross with not one worldly possession to his name. That’s what he got for emptying himself. But he didn’t end up with nothing. He left this world with the same heart full of unconditional love for all of us as he did when he entered it. And he left this world with his humility intact. After all, it was on Palm Sunday, just days before his death, that Jesus chose to enter the City of Jerusalem on a donkey instead of on something the size and stature of a Clydesdale which would have fit the image that the Jews had in mind for their Messiah.
So, when you think about it, maybe humility is the one thing no one can take away from us. We can be stripped of our power, our status, our prestige, even our dignity, but no one can strip us of our humility. Because once we humble ourselves, we’ve emptied ourselves and by definition of empty, there is nothing left to take.
Think for a moment how hard that would be to have nothing left but our humility, when we are so used to judging ourselves and self worth by all the things we have in relation to what other people have. I am especially guilty of that! I love fine things – cars, clothes, jewelry and I don’t try to hide that fact. But the truth is that I’m probably using those things to fill an emptiness related to feelings of self worth. It’s one thing to have a feeling of emptiness which many of us try in vain to fill up, and quite another to actually empty ourselves. That shouldn’t be confused because it’s only the process of emptying ourselves that transforms us.
When Saul was knocked off of his horse and struck blind and realized that Jesus was talking to him, he was profoundly changed. Probably for the first time in his life, he became needy and vulnerable. He had to empty himself of everything that defined him as the persecutor Saul, so that he could become the apostle Paul and help believers connect with the same mind that was in Christ Jesus.
And though emptying himself for the sake of the gospel landed him in jail more than once, he was not left with nothing. He, too, was left with his humility which affected everything he said and did for the rest of his life.
The good news for the congregation in Philippi and for us on this beginning of Holy Week is that once we are stripped of everything that seems important to us in defining who we are, we are not left with nothing. We may be humbled to our knees by the struggles that we encounter in our lives, but we are not down and out. We may be empty of everything our ego holds near and dear to it, but we are not nobodies.
Isn’t it true that if we’re not empty, then we can’t be filled up? If our cars aren’t empty, how can they be filled with gas? If our stomachs aren’t empty, how can they be filled with food? If our souls aren’t empty, how can they be filled with the Holy Spirit? Being empty doesn’t mean being left with nothing. And being empty is not the same thing as feeling empty because feeling empty is simply an ego in trouble – a fear of not measuring up.
Becoming empty by humbling ourselves transforms us into people full of possibility as Paul knew so well – the possibility of being filled with the life giving, love giving mind of Christ Jesus. And no one can take that away from us.