A Meditation on Philippians 2:1-13
The Fifth Sunday in Lent 2018
This morning I want to trace two arcs across the six weeks of our Lenten journey. In the first, Yael has asked us to consider what it is that makes us come alive. I hope you’ve had a chance to do this, and that you’ll continue doing it. What makes you come alive? You know, Jesus goes out to the desert, for forty long days, to work this out for himself. What makes him come alive. He meets the Hinderer there, the Satan, who tests and tempts him, tempts him to choose an easier way, a quicker fix, even a power trip. But Jesus looks to God and chooses life and love and deep joy. His own unique vision and his own precious ministry.
So Yael asked you and me, you remember; she asked you and me to do the same. To spend this Lenten season discerning joy in our lives, and creativity in our hearts. And there’s a bright and glorious poster in the narthex this morning, a poster bearing witness to all the ways you’ve responded. All the pursuits, all the ministry, all the practices that make you come alive. As human, connected, spiritual beings. Later this week, by the way, a stunning art show will take over this very space, this same sanctuary: and next week, next Sunday, you’ll catch a glimpse of the wildly diverse energies that stir in our many hearts. We come alive in a thousand different ways! So that’s the first arc we trace, this arc of discernment and temptation and joyful practice.
The second begins on Ash Wednesday, in the humility of prayer and the ashes we trace on one another’s foreheads. “Child of God,” we say on Ash Wednesday, “you come from the good earth, and to the good earth you shall one day return.” And this second arc extends across the Lenten season, day by day, week to week, all the way to Maundy Thursday. Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday. As disciples of Jesus, we turn to his own example, to his humanity, to what Walter Brueggeman calls the “pattern and sequence of Jesus’ own life.” He too was a child of God, a frail and hopeful, broken and joyful child of God. He too came from the good earth and returned, in the end, to that same good Palestinian earth.
On Maundy Thursday, then, eleven days from today, we trace this second arc all the way to an Upper Room in Jerusalem: where Jesus ties a towel around his waist and kneels by a basin of water; where he washes the feet of his friends—much to their surprise and even frustration. “If I’ve washed your feet,” he says that night, “you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” We make meaning in our lives, we find purpose in our faith, by kneeling in kindness before our friends, by humbling ourselves as servants and lovers and prophets.
Again, it’s Walter Brueggeman who says that “Lent is a time to face the reality that there is no easy or ‘convenient’ passage from our previous life to a new, joyous life in the gospel.” No easy or convenient passage. So from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday, we look deliberately, intently, prayerfully at the “pattern and sequence of Jesus’ own life.” Preparing ourselves for the moment we too might fall to our knees and wash one another’s tired, dusty, human feet. The second arc.
|Obelisks, Meteora, Greece|
As I think about these two arcs—the one about joy and creativity, the other, humility and human connection—I’m reminded of the moment four years ago when I fell in love with Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. I was sitting on a huge boulder outside a quirky Orthodox monastery in the steep hills of Central Greece. Not far from Corinth and Athens and Philippi, cities Paul himself had visited and served. I had my writing pad with me that day, and a new book about Paul and his legacy to read. It was a sweet, shimmering, sunny day in the hills, and ancient obelisks rose up from the Greek plain, in every direction, forming a kind of holy cathedral of rock and cliff and light and shadow. From deep within the monastery itself, I heard monks chanting an old Greek liturgy. “Kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison.” That’s the day I fell in love with Paul and his Letter to the Philippians.
It’s important to note that Paul wrote this letter, and the passage we’ve read this morning, from a Roman prison cell, somewhere in the Mediterranean basin. Maybe Ephesus. He wrote it to friends in Philippi to encourage them in a difficult time, a conflicted time, to urge them to build a community of mutual care and common purpose and collaborative spirit. He’d spent time in Philippi sometime previously, preaching Jesus’ gospel, creating a new church, growing leaders. And now, from prison, he recalled an old hymn, maybe one they’d learned together, to offer Jesus’ example to his friends. It may be the oldest hymn in Christian memory. It’s set apart in verse form in your bulletin:
Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus, Paul wrote.
Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a servant
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth
might bend at the knee
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God.
Remember this. Paul, writing this, remembering this, singing this hymn perhaps, was in a Roman prison cell. He wrote to the Philippians from that cell. I can’t imagine Roman prison cells were anything but miserable, dark and scary. There was no doubt, on the inside, who was in control, and who wasn’t. So Paul had firsthand experience, grim, personal experience of Roman power and pride. And he knew that any resistance to Roman authority, any critique of Roman theology was met with quick and crippling force. Paul did both: he resisted authority and he critiqued the empire’s oppressive theology. And for this, he paid a price. Rome said that empire was the ultimate force in the world and Caesar the bearer of the only meaningful salvation. Paul said, Foolishness! There’s a better way. There’s a holy way. There’s a life-affirming, justice-honoring, community-building way. And it’s the way of Jesus the Christ. Paul’s preaching is clear. The kingdom of God stands against the kingdom of Caesar.
So on that brilliant day in Greece four years ago, I considered the old hymn and Paul’s celebration of the hymn in a whole new way. I confess that I’d often bristled at the notion of all knees bending before Jesus, or the idea that every tongue had to confess his name. As if the whole point of Christianity was uniformity of thought or conformity of practice or the triumph of one way of life, one idea of divinity, over all others. I’d heard Philippians used in just this way by evangelical preachers on TV and even the great Billy Graham himself in a college auditorium. “Let every knee bend before Jesus,” he’d crooned that night, “because bending knees are saved knees.”