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The Emptied Christ

Sermon - 4/01/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Philippians 2:5-11

We celebrate this Sunday not only as Palm Sunday, but also as 'Passion' Sunday, that is, looking ahead to the passion of Christ as we think about the events of holy week.

The text for this morning is more for the latter, passion Sunday, from Paul's letter to the Philippians, chapter two, verses 5-11:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

9Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
10so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

 

You might want to keep that text open this morning, as we reflect on it, to take another look at it in light of my comments.

There's a saying in most sports that you don't want to leave anything left on the court, or on the field, or on the track, whichever the case may be.  And those of you who caught the [Duck] game last Sunday (you were all in church last Sunday, and didn't leave to catch the game, right?), you know that Aaron Brooks and the Ducks left nothing on the court.  They played their hearts out.  It was one of those heart-breaking losses that you still felt good about -- they made it to the Elite Eight, we would have liked them to have gone further, but we can hold our heads up high, knowing they were defeated by the national champs from last year (and I think from this year as well).  At any rate, that's an example of team players who gave it all--left nothing on the court.

I wanted my kids to know something about another Duck legend, of track & field fame -- Steve Prefontaine.  I rented one of the two movies made about his life, to watch a few weeks ago.  I had totally forgotten that that was also the 1972 Olympics with the incredible tragedy where the terrorists attacked the Israeli team and ended up killing 9 of those athletes in that raid.  As I was reliving all of that, and remembering it, recalling, even though I was just a junior in high school at the time, in Albany, not too far North from here, I couldn't vividly recall that incredible tragedy, but what I did very vividly recall was that last lap of Pre's race.  It was the 5,000 or 10,000 (I forget), when he took the lead and desperately tried to hang on to it, as first one and then a second and then finally at the very finish line a third passed him and left him out of the medal round in the Olympics.  Broke all of our hearts, those from Eugene.

Teachers can almost always tell when a student is really giving it their best.  Or when they're just coasting.  We speak of those who give their lives in the line of duty -- the firefighters or police officers or soldiers -- as those who 'give it all'.  There's a new movie out, just released on DVD, The Guardian, we watched the other night.  Tells the story of another entire class of rescuers who are frequently called upon to risk it all, that we don't think about -- the Coast Guard swimmers.  The men and women who jump out of the helicopters into the freezing water and the raging surf in order to save a life.  The movie tells their story very well.

And so we speak of Jesus as someone who gave it all.  Who entered Jerusalem in triumph, but knowing how easily the voices which praised his arrival would turn into shouts for his death at the end of the week.  Typically, we consider his sacrifice to be greater than all of those others I've mentioned because he gave his life not for a handful of friends or a boatload of strangers, but rather for all of humanity.

It's interesting, therefore, that Paul has a different take in this text this morning.  Sometimes we refer to this as the Philippian Hymn, because of its very rhythmic, poetic quality.  Many scholars think it may have been a hymn sung by the early church, and that Paul is simply quoting back to the people, that they would have known these words, would have been very familiar to them.  It says in it nothing about the crucifixion as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity.  It says nothing about those for whom Jesus gave his life.  Instead, the 'all' given by Jesus, according to this hymn, is vastly greater than any human sacrifice because that 'all' was the very form of God.

Bill Gates has set new records at philanthropy by giving away billions of dollars through his foundation.  Meanwhile, his net worth is still something like $60 billion dollars (give or take a dollar or two J).  Should we be impressed by his charity?  I know people in this church who give larger percentages of their income than does Bill Gates.  That's not to say I wouldn't welcome Bill as a member of this congregation J.

We talk about the tithe of 10% as being the baseline for Christian giving.  That means for us, charity does not begin until we go beyond that.  Jesus, on the other hand, literally had it all.  Paul says he had 'equality with God'.  It doesn't get any higher than that.  And rather than take advantage of such status, power, wealth, whatever the case may be, he gave it all.  He held nothing back.  He left nothing on the field.  

We're so used to thinking of Jesus as the Son of God, as the second person of the trinity, the Word that was before all thing and through whom all things were created, it really does not strike us how incredibly absurd such a claim would have been in the first century.  It was totally and completely opposite to the conventional wisdom.  Contrary to common knowledge.  If you were to ask anyone on the streets of Philippi, a community to which Paul was writing (or Corinth, or Athens, or Rome, pick your city), whose name is above every other name, who is Lord and Savior confessed by every tongue, to whom does ever knee bow, who would they name?  Caesar.

I spoke about that a few weeks ago, you might recall those images from archeology and coins and stones proclaiming Caesar as the Son of God.  If you've attended any of the classes I've taught the last couple years or read any of the books by Dominic Crossan or Marcus Borg and many others, you know the answer.

But like the pastor in the children's moment, gathered the kids, pulled out a dollar bill to make some illustration and said to them:  "I will give this dollar to the child who can correctly name who's picture is on it".  The children looked carefully, one little boy raised his hand real tentatively.  The pastor called on him, and he said:  "Well, it looks like George Washington, but I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus" J.  When you're in church, the answer is supposed to be Jesus, right?!

But if you've been paying attention at all, as obviously you have, to the things I've said the past few years or to what modern biblical scholarship is telling you, you know the name above every name, the Lord and Savior of the world, the one considered to be in the form of God in the flesh was Augustus Caesar, under whom Jesus was born, and Tiberius Caesar, under who's authority he was crucified.

In the world of Paul, therefore, if you wanted to know what the form of God looked like, you had to look no further than Caesar on the throne in Rome.  Someone who ruled land and sea, built bridges and ports and temples, subjugated foreign lands, lived in enormous palaces, had such enormous power and wealth.  That is the form of God.

And so for Paul to claim -- in the capitals of the provinces of the Roman Empire, no less -- that a Jewish peasant, crucified by Rome, was in fact the true Lord and Savior of the world was not only bold, it would have been dumbfounding.  Jesus was everything Caesar was not.  A peasant, not a King.  Poor, not rich.  A Jew, not a Roman.  A preacher, not a politician.  The victim of violence, not a military conqueror.

To claim, therefore, that his way was the divine way, was a direct challenge to the popular opinion and the dominant power of the empire.

Now there's still plenty of challenge for us in there.  But to make it even more daunting, Paul says:  "Have this mind in you, the mind of Christ Jesus".  In other words, this isn't just the way of Jesus to admire, it's the way of discipleship for us to follow.  

Our mission to Mexico travelers, on their way home this very moment, will be here this afternoon, spent their Spring Break vacations down there in 90+ degree heat, working 10-12 hours every day.  I've just heard from Elaine this morning that the report was on Friday, when they were due to pack up and come home (to begin that long journey home after a long week building 3-4 homes), that they painted the orphanage before they left.  

They begin that trip, every year, when they arrive down in Mexico, with the same speech -- I've heard it several times when I've been down there.  Namely, that they are called to have the heart of a servant.  That's why they're there.  Not to have fun (they do), but to serve others.  And in so doing, they are serving Christ.  Paul would say they are "in Christ".  To be Christ-like is to empty ourselves for others in service to God.

There are many examples of those we could name who have done that, who have inspired us with their lifetime of service.  From Mother Teresa to those mentors of faith, Sunday school teachers, camp counselors, youth sponsors, parents, grandparents.  But is that the sum of what it means to empty ourselves in service to God?

Dominic Crossan puts it this way:  "If Jesus had been a leper, if he had suffered years of rejection, not just 1 week or a few days, if he had suffered a slow, agonizing death in a lepers colony, or if he had simply been assassinated like Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi, would his death have the same meaning?"  In other words, what does the form of his death -- a public execution by official Roman authority -- tell us of the one who was in the form of God?  And is it not at least this:  that the justice of God exposes the injustice of empire.  And though the latter may prevail initially, the grace of God's love revealed to the non-violent emptying of God's power by Jesus ultimately prevails over oppression and violence every time.

The point of this Philippian hymn, I think, is not just that Jesus emptied himself, sacrificed his life for us, like those of rescuers.  But that he laid down all power and authority to show the bankruptcy of human power and authority when opposed to God's justice and love.

The power that Christ did not exploit, could not exploit, for such would not be divine power if he had, was the power to coerce, to control, to dominate, to destroy, to kill.  The power of Caesar to wage war, to subjugate foreign people's, to confiscate land, to impose burdensome taxes, and execute bothersome messiah's.  Such power, the power of empires old and new, is contrary to the very nature of the Christ who emptied himself, humbled himself, became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, the official means of execution for troublemakers by Rome.

And thereby reveals to us the true nature of God's power.  The complete opposite of Caesar's, then and now.

Therefore, Paul proclaims his name, not Caesar's, not the names of Kings and Queens or Presidents and Prime Ministers.  His name is above every other name.  And therefore the hymn sings that every knee should bow, every tongue confess that Christ is Lord.  Not because he took Jerusalem by storm and threw out the corrupt leaders and Roman oppressors.  Not because he won both the electoral and the popular vote of the united tribes of Israel.  Not because he sent his nuclear-powered military to overthrow a hot-air powered dictator.  But because he emptied himself, gave up the form of God to take up the form of flesh crucified, therefore, he is the Christ, our Savior.

The first presidential contender in this long election campaign coming up will be in town tomorrow.  Dennis Kucinich, speaking at First United Methodist Church, a favorite of many peace activists.  And as much interest as I take in such campaigns, because there is so much at stake, it is so important for us to be well-informed, to bring our values as Christians to the public square where elections are won and lost, it is still critical for us, of all people, to remember that Dennis Kucinich, Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, or my current favorite (today, it may change tomorrow), Barack Obama, that none of them, despite all of the election rhetoric, none of them qualify to be our Lord and Savior.  Which is precisely why churches should not, must not, endorse candidates or parties, as many have come so dangerously close to doing.  Ask me about the appearance of a party official that came to a church in Eugene (I attended), informed the pastor's there how they could educate their congregation to vote the 'correct' way for the members of that party, without being partisan.  That kind of thing, I think, goes over the line.  Of course, I never get political J.  There's a fine distinction to be made between being partisan and political.

Our loyalty is to one person and one person alone.  Not to any candidate.  Not to any President.  Not to any party.  Therefore, we unite together as Christians, as Republicans and Democrats, as Green and Libertarians, whatever, under the one name above every other name, in service to others working for God's justice and compassion to the ends of the earth, for all. 

As followers of the emptied Christ, we are called to empty ourselves.  To leave nothing on the court, but the love of God.  

Such was the mind of Jesus.  May it also be ours.

 


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