Every Knee Shall Bow - A Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday (Philippians 2)
Do you remember starting each school day standing beside your desk, placing your hand upon our heart, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance? Did you raise any questions with the teacher about this practice? Although, we probably didn’t understand the implications of our pledge, we recited the words and then sat down and began the day. It’s quite possible that the wording that some of you used was different from what I recited, but the implications are the same. We pledged to be good citizens of our country.
I do need to add that there was one child who stayed seated during the pledge. He was a Jehovah’s Witness. They refuse to say the pledge, because they believe that it is a form of idol worship. Since the rest of us didn’t have any religious qualms about the pledge or the flag, we did our duty and got on with our day without much thought.
When I went to church as a child, during my Episcopal days, each Sunday we recited either the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed. I preferred the Apostles Creed because it’s shorter. I don’t remember raising any theological questions about the wording of the creed. I just recited it along with the rest of the congregation. We did the same thing with the Lord’s Prayer and the other prayers in the liturgy. I must confess that I didn’t understand everything I recited, but it helped form me as the years wore on.
Last Sunday we heard about Greeks approaching Philip. They asked him: “Sir, May we see Jesus?” They didn’t just want to see Jesus, they wanted to get to know him, because they believed he had something to offer that they needed. We have come this morning for the same reason. We come hoping to see Jesus and receive what we need from him.
Since this is Palm Sunday, I invite you to imagine yourselves standing along the road leading into Jerusalem. You’re waving palm branches as Jesus rides by on a donkey. You shout “hosanna to the king.” Maybe you lay your coat on the ground in front of him. It’s a glorious moment, but all is not as it seems. The third stanza of a Thomas Troeger Palm Sunday hymn reminds us that the triumph of Palm Sunday quickly gives way to the horrors of Good Friday:
Lest we be fooled because our hearts
have surged with passing praise,
remind us, God, as this week starts
where Christ has fixed his gaze. [Chalice Hymnal, 193].
Palm Sunday offers us a certain excitement. After all, it features a parade, and everybody loves a parade. Not only is there a parade, but Jesus is the Grand Marshal. So, let’s get into the spirit of things and shout hosanna! Or should we? As Troeger’s hymn continues, we sing: “instead of palms a winding sheet will have to be unrolled, a carpet much more fit to greet the king a cross will hold” [Chalice Hymnal, 193].
We have come to see Jesus, but will we go the distance? Are we ready to make our confession of faith in Jesus, pledging our allegiance to the mission of God that is revealed to us, not in Palm Sunday’s triumphal parade, but on the road to the cross?
Disciples claim to be a non-creedal people, so we rarely, if ever, recite creeds and confessions in worship. But, Disciples do affirm the New Testament witness to Jesus. When we come to Philippians 2, we encounter an early creed that invites us to be of the same mind as Jesus.
Paul wrote the letter to the Philippian church from prison. He writes the letter to address problems erupting in the congregation. He encourages this divided congregation to come together in the spirit of Jesus, who, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” We come here this morning seeking to know Jesus, and Paul offers us this powerful revelatory statement about Jesus. He tells us—Let Jesus be your guide and let him form your identity.
On Monday evening, Anne began our council meeting by inviting us to consider a variety of confessions of faith. Some of them can be found in the Chalice Hymnal. What we discovered was that no confession fit everyone’s theology, but we also discovered interest in occasionally reciting a confession of faith in worship as a way of exploring our place in the Christian community.
I’m not sure Anne knew where was I going with this morning’s sermon, but she did get us thinking about how we confess our faith in God. In his Philippian letter, Paul invites us to confess our faith in the one who “was in the form of God,” but “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” That first confessional statement is theologically loaded. We could spend a couple of hours unpacking it, but we have to quickly move to the next declaration. The one who “was in the form of God,” “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” That declaration is also theologically loaded.
The Greek word that appears in the NRSV as “emptied himself” is kenosis. Like many Greek words kenosis can carry a variety of meanings. So, what does it mean for Jesus to “empty himself?” What does he give up to become a human being? What does this emptying of himself have to do with the cross?
One of the theologians who has helped me wrestle with this declaration is Tom Oord, whom I hope to introduce to you this fall. Tom has been writing and teaching about what he calls “essential kenosis.” He uses this theological term to speak about the centrality of love in God’s nature. If God is love, and if Jesus is in any form God, then Jesus is love incarnate. Instead of translating kenosis as “emptying himself,” Tom speaks of God’s “self-giving, others empowering love.” Jesus didn’t give up something to be human. He became human to share God’s “self-giving, others empowering love” with humanity. As Tom puts it: “Jesus’ kenosis reveals that God self-gives to promote overall well-being.” [Uncontrolling Love of God, p. 160.]. Unfortunately, not everyone embraced God’s self-giving love, and so Jesus faced the cross. But as we see here, that wasn’t the last word.
In this confession of faith recorded in Philippians 2, Paul starts with Christmas, then moves to Good Friday’s cross, and then he moves on to Easter and the day of Ascension, when “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.” You might say that Palm Sunday is a premature celebration. There will come a time for celebration, but first we have to go to the cross, which was foolishness to some in the first century and a stumbling block to others. People asked: Why should we follow a crucified messiah? Isn’t he a loser? Didn’t Caesar come out on top? Doesn’t might make right? Inquiring minds want to know why we should follow someone like Jesus? Paul responds with the declaration that God has “highly exalted” Jesus and has given him “the name above all names.”
After God exalts Jesus and gives him this “name above all names,” every knee will bend “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” Even as God exalts Jesus, we bend our knee before God, and “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” In doing this, we fulfill our calling in life. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which the Campbells and Barton Stone would have known quite well, declared: humankind was created to glorify God and enjoy God forever. May we embrace this call to follow Jesus to the cross and beyond, as we move through Holy Week toward Easter’s glory, when every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord and everyone will glorify God in him.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
March 25, 2018