Palm Sunday is a
transitional Sunday. It moves us from the season of Lent into the season
of Holy Week. And so this Sunday, I wanted to do a wrap-up of our series
we have been covering through the the five Sundays of Lent on the
covenants in Scripture. As we take all of that into account and reflect
on what all of that means then for the covenant we have in Christ.
And the text I have chosen for that is from Paul's letter to the
Philippians, chapter 2, verses 5 through 11:
Let the same mind be in
you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but 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.
9 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.
So before I go
deeper into this text, I want to explore two related texts. And first
look at the new commandment that Jesus names in the Gospel of John, and
then the new covenant that he talks about at the Last Supper. And then
we'll come back to see how this concept of new covenant and new
commandment come together in this text--to define the foundation of our
faith in Christ, and the essence of what it means to be a Christian.
So, in academic terms, this is "Christian Theology 101" and "Biblical
Interpretation 499" -- we've got a little bit of something for
everybody, from the beginner to the advanced student. So let's start
then with the Gospel of John.
John tells his story of the entry into Jerusalem (that we just reenacted
here in our own little way) in the twelfth chapter of his Gospel. Now,
those who read "The Last Week" by Marcus Borg and John Donna Crossan a
few years ago, that book walks you through each day of the week, and
shows what the Gospels say happened on Monday, and Tuesday, and
Wednesday, etc -- each day. The Gospel of Mark, which that book focuses
on especially, one third of that Gospel is about just this one week.
The Gospel of John, however, is entirely different. In the Gospel of
John, the author takes us from Palm Sunday almost immediately to
Thursday. In fact, spends -- beginning in Chapter 13 -- spends the next
five chapters on just that one day, describing all of the events. What's
intriguing about John's depiction of that one day, is he leaves out one
little detail very familiar to us. What is the detail the Gospel of John
leaves out? The Last Supper -- those very familiar words about 'this is
my body, this is the cup', etc -- that's not in John.
We, in our Disciples of Christ tradition, much like the Roman Catholic
tradition, consider the Lord's Supper to be so important that we observe
it every time we worship. It is integral to who we are as Disciples --
we are people of the table, and John leaves it out! Wooops!
But he's got everyone there, he's got a table, he's even got bread in
his story because he tells that when Jesus says "The one that I give the
bread to after I dip it, is the one who will betray me". But that's all
John says about the meal they share together.
And in place of that very familiar description of the Lord's Supper,
John instead has something else that Matthew and Mark leave out. Any
ideas? The washing of the feet! It's only in the Gospel of John. Did you
know that's what happens on the last night they spend together? That's
where that story occurs? That says something right there.
And after Jesus washes their feet,
and Judas leaves to betray him, Jesus then says: "Little children, I'm
with you only a little longer. You will for me, as I said. Where I am
going you cannot come. I give you a new commandment -- that you love one
another just as I have loved you. You also should love one another. By
this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one
Now, John is the last of the four Gospels to be written. And in the
Gospel of John, frankly, Jesus talks differently. He just sounds
different than in the other three gospels. So we can't say for sure if
Jesus used these exact words, but the essence of the message of Jesus is
conveyed very clearly by John, just as is it's clear the Disciples don't
get that message. And immediately, they began to question Jesus: 'where
are you going?' 'Why can't we follow you?', as if they didn't even hear
what He said about this new commandment.
Now, why? Well, the fact is, there's really nothing new about it. Jesus
said many similar things; they heard him talk about love all the time.
It was a central part of their Jewish tradition. As Jesus himself says,
when someone asked him: what is the greatest commandment? What does he
say? Love. Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
That's very much part of their tradition, that's right out of the Torah.
So I totally get why the Disciples respond to Jesus with a 'Yeah, right,
we heard it already, all you need is love' :). Any Beatles fans in here?
Only, they immediately skip to the other part -- 'what do you mean we
can't follow you?'. But they don't really get it. And the part they
don't get is the second half and that commandment -- love one another
as I have loved you. And you see, that's the new part of the
And what exactly that means isn't going to become fully clear until the
next day. And that love, then, is demonstrated in the sacrifice of
Earlier in the Gospel of John, the good shepherd, Jesus says, is the one
who lays down his life for his sheep. Now, never mind that in the
totally in the history of the world, there has been no job description
of shepherds that says this is what a shepherd must do. I mean, this
just doesn't compute, because if you're a shepherd and you do that, then
the sheep are left shepherd-less, right? So that's not part of the
normal job description for a shepherd, this is something new that Jesus
suggests the task of the good shepherd. The point he is making -- this
is the ultimate act of love.
Now, there are those people in our lives, in history, other examples, we
can cite of people who have made that sacrifice.
I add to that the example that just
is always so clear in my mind, was from 20 years ago or so, an airplane
taking off out of Reagan International Airport (whatever it was named
back then), on a winter's day, 20°, and they hadn't adequately de-iced
the wings. The ice built up, the plane loses lift, it becomes to come
down, the pilot (like that pilot in New York) skillfully guides the
plane to land on the river. This river being the Potomac. Something
happened, it might have struck a bridge, but when it struck the river,
the fuselage broke apart. The front half of the plane immediately sinks.
Just the tail is left. Only six people survived the impact, only five
lived to tell the tale. A helicopter immediately responds, lowers a
rope, and this un-named gentleman takes the rope, and he helps the
stewardess who was in the back of the plane, and gets her on the rope
and the helicopter takes her to the shore. Comes back, once again he
takes the rope, and he helps the next person, ties them on, helicopter
takes them to shore.
Five times this helicopter makes this trip, back and forth. Comes back
the sixth time and the tail has sunk, and the man is gone.
We tell those stories of heroism and sacrifice as an example, as as a
way to inspire us to be better people. But if we with that in mind, to
look for some way to give my life for others, we'd all be dead! Who's
going to come to church? :)
So to be blunt, the last thing we need is a church full of martyred
saints. See, that's the whole point of the sacrifice of Jesus, that no
one else has to do this. He gave his life that we might have abundant
life, not more death. So when Paul says 'Have this mind in you that was
in Christ Jesus', I don't think he meant go out and find a way to get
yourself killed in the name of Jesus. I don't think that's the mind he's
One more thing I'm absolutely certain Paul did not mean. It's described
in a story Diana Butler-Bass tells in her new book we've been talking
about, "Christianity After Religion". It was a Baccalaureate service in
a prominent Christian college, a well-known preacher was chosen to give
the Baccalaureate sermon, and the text was this same text from
Philippians 2. He reads the text, he talks about the calling to humility
that this text calls for, humble service. He points out that it in the
text, Paul uses the term 'Lord' (Kurios), is the same word given for
Caesar. We've talked about that before, everyone knows that. In other
words, Paul is saying Jesus Christ is our Caesar. All true, good, well
Then he goes on to say, the day will come when Jesus will become the new
Caesar, and assert his imperial power over us, and force every living
thing to it's knees, to confess Jesus as Lord, just as everyone had to
pay homage to the Emperor as Lord, serving on the throne of Rome. And
this triumphant Jesus, as the warlords of old, would defeat all his
enemies, thereby turning God, Butler-Bass writes in her book, "into a
vengeful King out to get those who had killed his son".
Then he said, and this she remembers this verbatim: "You will confess
Jesus is Lord someday", preacher says coolly, "therefore, believe and
confess Him now". And then she told us, she wanted to run out of that
auditorium and puke (she didn't use those words in the book :). Instead,
she slipped out quietly, she literally was shaking, and a friend who
came out with her put her arm around her to comfort her. And she cried:
"How could he do that? He turned Jesus into a hierarchical, tyrannical
monster. That's not my God. And if that's what Christianity is, I don't
want any part of it". Neither do I.
So let me be clear, unless anyone has
any question: that is not the Christianity we claim. Indeed, I believe
it's the opposite of what we claim.
So how do we explain this exultation of Christ, whereby every tongue
shall confess that Jesus is Lord? And it's really very simple. Scholars
have long recognized this is a hymn. If you look in your text, check
your pew Bibles, notice it is printed in poetic form. It's something
Paul is quoting. It's very similar, by the way, to 1 Corinthians 13.
Probably something that the congregation knew and sung, it's very
poetic. It might be something he composed and taught to the congregation
in Philippi, maybe not, but the point is it's something they recognized.
This is a technique he uses in his letters, quoting back to something
that's very familiar to them, as part of his argument.
The point is, hymns are poetry. They're filled with all kinds of
metaphors and allusions. When you read Robert Frost's poem about the
fork in the road: "Two roads converged in the woods, and I, I took the
one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference". Do we say
to him: "Mr. Frost, where was that? Can you show me on a map? I want to
go and see where that road is". No, we understand this is metaphor.
So, Paul never intended for us to take this literally. It's a poem, it's
a hymn. It is the confident boast of faith which says, at a time when
Christians barely existed (they weren't the 99%, they weren't even the
1% -- they were a very small minority), and this is the confidence of
faith that says we are so sure that this is the way of God, the way God
wants us all to live, that we can say with such confidence that there
will come a time when everyone will recognize this is the way of God.
That's all this is saying. Well, that's not all, this is saying a lot :)
So, what is this way, this way of Christ, if it's not martyrdom?
That brings us to the second text, where Jesus talks about the new
covenant. Now, Jesus talks about this way of living in a variety of
different ways -- the parables, the aphorisms he gives, etc. But the
disciples don't get it, and all the Gospels make this point -- Matthew,
Mark, Luke, John -- they all make this point. The disciples just don't
get it. And then something happens on that last night. Something so
powerful, that later when they gather together to break bread (as Luke
tells it in that wonderful story of the 2 on the road to Emmaus) their
eyes are opened, and they see Jesus. So what is it that happened?
This is the way Paul describes it,
and remember, Paul is the first one to write about it. Paul doesn't have
Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John -- he can't look it up and see what Jesus
said, right? It's still an oral tradition, he's the first one to write
about it. In telling this story, he recounts the words of Jesus using
that image from Jeremiah 31 that we talked about last week, the new
covenant written on our hearts that is internalized, it's part of us.
And this is the way, the tradition, then, that is so familiar to us, is
"For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you. That the
Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread and
when he had given thanks, he broke it and said 'This is my body that is
for you. Do this in remembrance of me'. In the same way, he took the cup
also, after supper, saying: 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood,
do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me'".
This is the part John leaves out. And instead, John, writing 30-40 years
later, to describe the power of this event, has not bread and cup, but
bowl and water. Not 'break this bread in remembrance of me', but 'wash
your feet, serve one another in remembrance of me'.
And both of these accounts of Jesus, of giving himself, differently and
yet in the same way, our captured here so beautifully in this very
poetic description from Paul, of Christ's self-emptying.
Now, I read at the beginning of the sermon the New Revised Standard
Version that you also have in the pews, but listen to the way Eugene
Peterson puts the first half of this text in his paraphrase "The
"Christ had equal status with God. But didn't think so much of himself
that he had to cling to the advantage of that status, no matter what.
Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privilege of deity and
took on the status of a slave. Became human. Having become human, he
stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process".
Indeed it is, it always is. This is the mind we are to have in Christ,
or, as Peterson puts it "To think of ourselves in the same way as Jesus
thought of himself". That is, to put all privilege and status aside to
serve one another. This is the essence of Christian character. The
meaning of our covenantal relationship in Christ.
Fred Craddock, that
great Disciple preacher, I think captures it so well in a story I've
told once before, but it's been years ago. When he was studying in
Germany, in Tübingen, and traveling on the train, and of course this is
back in the dark-ages of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and all of that.
He's traveling in Germany, and you have to have been on a European train
to picture if (it's not Amtrak, like a bus), there are little cubicles,
six people to a cubicle, and you face each other. He's in this cubicle,
and one woman, a middle-aged woman that he's riding with, and you can't
help but strike up a conversation in some way, began asking things like
where are you from. He says "America", and she says "Yes, I know" :)
Very obvious. And he asked her where she was from, and she said "Rostach".
And he thought, wow, that's in East Germany. "Are you a Communist?" He
kind of just blurted it out. And she said "No, I'm a Christian". And he
said "So am I".
And so they begin talking together, what it means to be a Christian in
America, and what it means to be a Christian living in East Germany. And
after awhile, she pulls out an orange and begins to peel it, and Fred
thinks oh my gosh, I've got to find some food to share. He had bought a
sandwich in a vending machine, and if you know German bread, you know
it's not Wonder Bread, it's good bread, it's thick, and if it's been in
a vending machine for 3 days, it hasn't risen yet. He's got to break it
somehow, he's struggling with it, trying to break this bread and share
this sandwich with her, and by the time he gets it into two pieces, she
has divided this orange into sections, and she offers him half of the
orange. And he half his sandwich. And they share together a meal, of
orange and sandwich. And continue that fellowship and conversation.
And they part their ways eventually on the trip, and they wish each
other well. And he gets back to this country, and he got to thinking: "I
wonder how far it is from Rostach to here". And he got out his map, and
he measured it, and he computed it, and he figured out exactly how far
it is, from Rostach to right where we are. And he says: "It's the
distance across that table".
We, called to be servants of Christ, to serve one another, know this is