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 The Christ Covenant

Sermon - 4/01/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Philippians 2:5-11

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 another".

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 commandment.

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 Jesus.

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 talking about.

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 enough.

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 told:

"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 Message":

"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 love.


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