There are a number of choices for Scripture readings on this Sunday that we call Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday – one week before Easter. But very often I find myself most drawn towards this text from Philippians chapter two. Side-by-side with the narrative account of what Jesus did during his final week in the world, and what was done to him, this passage from Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi gives us a poetic rendering of the events of Holy Week.
The verses Marianne read for us today are universally accepted as taking the form of a hymn. We don’t know if it was a hymn that Paul composed himself, or whether he was using a hymn already known to the Christians at Philippi to strengthen his message to them. But either way, a hymn was a good way to communicate and remember a message, as well as to express key aspects of early Christian theology.
The key aspects of theology expressed in this hymn have to do with the nature of Christ – that he was divine, having equality with God. And although he was God, he chose to humble himself to the form of a human being.
As 21st Century Christians, we’re very used to this idea of God becoming human in Jesus Christ and living among us. For most of us, it’s the only idea of God that we’ve ever known. But the Christians at Philippi in the 1st century knew a lot more about other gods that received the worship of their neighbours.
Biblical commentator, Edward Pillar, explains that “There were numerous examples of gods taking human or animal form – with texts, most obviously Homer, using the same language as we find here in Philippians. However, what is described in these ancient texts is often that the gods – being divine, are all-powerful and therefore are free to do as they please – to transform themselves and take whatever form pleases themselves and allows them to take greatest advantage over humans, and in many cases allows them to abduct and seduce the beautiful and desirable.
“The power exhibited by the Lord Jesus is profoundly different. The Lord Jesus is in some manner transformed and becomes in appearance as a human being. However, rather than seducing women and men, or insisting upon their obedience, or removing their free will, the Lord Jesus instead literally ‘pours himself out,’ and takes the form that perhaps is most undesirable – that of a slave: powerless.
“The power of the Lord Jesus then is not power-over, but is rather love, compassion, mercy, and companionship alongside. The form taken by the Lord Jesus seems to be a deliberate indication that God’s desire is not for the fulfillment of his own divine self, so much as a desire for the blessing of humanity.”
So the hymn is a good tool for teaching about Jesus the Christ – explaining that yes, he was divine, and that’s not negated by the fact that he died on a cross like a common criminal. He chose NOT to exploit his power. He chose to empty himself, to humble himself, and to love human beings even when we did not love him back. In the end Christ was raised, and God’s power and love triumphed over hatred, violence, and death itself.
But Paul’s intention here is not just an academic lecture. He shares this hymn in a pastoral context. He writes it out in the middle of a letter to one of the Christian communities that he founded in Philippi. He’s in prison at the time, suffering terribly, longing to continue his ministry in person, and just hanging on to the hope that God can continue to work through him in the form of letters and messages.
Meanwhile, the Christians at Philippi are struggling too – most certainly from persecution, perhaps also with getting along with each other as they endure the hardships of being first-century Christians. Paul very much wants to be free to come and visit the Philippians, but he can’t, so he writes his encouragement to them in a letter. Just before quoting from the hymn, he writes this:
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 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.”
It’s a beautiful description of what a Christian community should be like. It’s a description that every one of our congregations falls short of, but to which we are called to aspire. Just imagine a community in which each individual is fully committed to look to the interests of others. A place where there are no power struggles for control, no arguments over preferences, and everyone is cared for because everyone is looking to the interests of the others around them.
And then Paul provides the key to creating this beautiful community of love. He says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” I’m aware that it’s not really a command. It’s not, “Live like Jesus. Be like Jesus.” But it’s more like a prayer: “May the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
The one who humbled himself, the one who came along side, the one who gave his life for service, the one who loved his enemies and betrayers and abandoners, the one who poured himself out… Imagine a community, or even a world, in which each one of us has those priorities in mind, who embraces that kind of love.
We are blessed to be celebrating a baptism this morning. And we’re not only blessed to be welcoming this beautiful little boy in our church community, and to be celebrating the gift of his life with his parents.
We’re also blessed to be celebrating a baptism because it prompts us to remember our own baptisms. Whether we can literally remember the day makes no difference at all, but we are all invited to remember that we too are beloved children of God.
That means that Christ took on human form, humbled himself, and poured himself out for our sake – looking to our interests rather than his own – and was willing to suffer and die so that we would come to know God and God’s love for us.
As the water of baptism is poured, we can know that Christ poured himself out in love for us. As we witness the cleansing of this ritual, we can be assured that our sins are forgiven. The water that rushes over us in baptism reminds us of the power of death. But even as we die with Christ, we are raised with him to new life by the power of God.
Of course, Baptism is not only a blessing, but it is a calling. It is first a declaration of God’s amazing love for us, and second a sending out for us to live as God’s servants in the world. As followers of Jesus, we are called to follow his way of service, sacrifice, and love. We are challenged to look to the interests of others, and even to pour ourselves out for one another and for the world God so loves.
It’s not an easy call, but it’s not one that we do not need to answer through our own strength and determination either. In our baptism, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit that is poured out into our hearts. Indeed, the mind of Christ is so near that it is within us to guide us on the way.
Thanks be to God for this gift, that we may follow Jesus and live together in love.