Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Way of the Cross (sermon for Palm Sunday on Philippians 2:5-11)

In 1949, a young American student named Jim Elliot wrote these words in his personal journal: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’.

This is important, so let me repeat it: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’.

Seven years later, Jim Elliot lived out the truth of those words. He was serving as a missionary in Ecuador, attempting to reach a remote tribe who had never heard the good news of Jesus Christ, and on the morning of January 8th 1956, he and four other missionary companions were killed on the banks of the Cururay River by the very people they had come to reach. Writing about this event some years later, Jim’s wife, Elisabeth Elliot, wrote these words: ‘The world called it a nightmare of tragedy. The world did not recognize the truth of the second clause in Jim’s credo: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”’.

About fifty years later, on March 9th 2006, the body of Tom Fox was discovered on a garbage dump in Iraq. Tom was an American Quaker; he had gone to Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams, to work for peace and reconciliation between people who were at odds with each other. Tom was doing this because he believed that the God who Jesus revealed to us is a God who loves his enemies, and who calls us to love our enemies too. He was one of four CPT workers taken hostage by Iraqi insurgents in November of 2005; the others were eventually rescued, but it was too late for Tom Fox. There has been strong speculation that the fact that he was the only American in the group was the biggest factor in his death.

Whether that’s true or not, what is very clear is that the world seems to have a different idea about his death than did Tom Fox himself. The world was shocked and angered by his death, but he himself would not have been surprised by it. He had written about it beforehand in his letters and papers, making it very clear that he always knew death was a possibility. In fact, the whole philosophy behind Christian Peacemaker Teams is that Christians should to be as ready to give their lives in the service of nonviolence as soldiers are in the service of their country.

Why am I telling these stories today? Bear with me for a minute, and all will be made clear!

The Book of Revelation is the last book of the Bible, and it seems to have been written at a time when Christians were beginning to pay the ultimate price for their faithfulness to Christ. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if the early Church had seen their deaths as tragic defeats, but that’s not the way the author of Revelation sees them. The way he saw it, Christians who refuse to renounce their faith, but are willing to pay the ultimate price for their allegiance to Jesus, have not suffered a defeat; they’ve won a victory. Revelation chapter 12 talks about the accuser, the Satan, who has been waging war on God’s people, and it goes on to say, ‘But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death’.

Curious: they’ve won a victory by being defeated. They’ve saved their lives for all eternity by refusing to cling to their lives in the here and now. Sounds like something Jesus talked about, doesn’t it? “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

Paul reflects on a similar theme in our epistle for today, Philippians 2:5-11. The context, as far as we can tell, is that some people in the Philippian church wanted to be the stars of the show. They were the kind of people who are always looking for the next big promotion in the church; they wanted the top jobs, the limelight, the applause of others in the community.

Of course, that kind of thing happens all too often, even today. There are clergy who spend their whole lives climbing the ladder; they want to get the bigger churches, the more prestigious positions, maybe even becoming bishops one day. But it’s not just clergy. There are many, many Christians who give their time humbly and unselfishly, out of love for God and a desire to serve him, but there are others who have a deep need to be recognized and admired, and they find that the church is an excellent place to get that recognition and praise.

Paul has no time for that attitude at all; in fact, he calls it by its true - and ugly - name in Philippians 2:3: ‘selfish ambition and vain conceit’. That, he says, is not the way of life you learned from Jesus.

And then he goes on to give us what seems to be a remarkable early hymn about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Let’s start at the end of the passage; look at verses 9-11:
‘Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’.

The name that is above every name is in fact a title: ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ (v.11). The Greek word that Paul uses here is ‘kyrios’, and it was one of the official titles of the Roman emperor. So when Paul uses this title for Jesus he is claiming for the crucified carpenter from Nazareth a title that everyone knew belonged to the Lord of all the earth, Caesar, far away in Rome in all his pomp and glory.

How did you get this title ‘Lord’ in the Roman Empire? Often, you got it by winning it in battle. Some of the emperors had actually won it by overthrowing and killing previous emperors. For example, Julius Caesar was murdered in a conspiracy, but then his nephew Octavius gradually seized power from the conspirators until he was crowned as Caesar Augustus, Lord of the whole known world. He would never have won this title by sitting quietly by and letting his enemies defeat him; he had to fight, and fight hard, and kill a lot of people along the way, before the world acknowledged him as Lord of all.

We’re very familiar with this kind of thing today. Recent history is full of stories of political leaders who gain their positions by their ruthlessness; anyone who stands in their way gets taken down without mercy. In the ancient world, when a man became king of a city or country, it was common for him to immediately kill all possible contenders for the throne, for the sake of his own security. And of course, in modern political leadership campaigns, it’s quite unusual for winners to promote their former opponents to high positions in their governments; there are exceptions, but they tend to be rare. It’s a dog eat dog world, and the winner takes the spoils.

Well, that may have been the way that Roman emperors won the title ‘Lord’, but we all know it’s not way Jesus won it. Jesus was not like an ambitious politician with his eye on the next promotion or the next cabinet seat; he wasn’t like a general who would stop at nothing in his bid to win the crown of the empire. Jesus’ sights were not set upward, but downward. And so Paul lays out for us the remarkable story: Jesus was in the form of God, but he didn’t consider equality with God as something to be exploited. He wasn’t like the first human beings who were told by the snake, ‘You will be like God’, and couldn’t resist that temptation. Jesus was already in the form of God, but he voluntarily gave that up; he ‘emptied himself, talking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’  (vv.7-8).

Jesus’ life was not about trying to dominate others; it was about serving God and serving others. We see in Jesus the same pattern we saw in Jim Elliot and Tom Fox – and that shouldn’t surprise us, because of course they were patterning their lives after Jesus. Jim Elliot was a brilliant Greek scholar who could easily have achieved an academic career at an American seminary, but he chose instead to give his life in the service of a tiny jungle tribe most people had never heard of. And of course there are many others like him. I think of Jean Vanier, the son of the Governor-General of Canada, who was at the beginning of a promising career in the British Navy, but who chose to give it up and dedicate his life to providing a safe home for people with mental disabilities – a movement that eventually became the worldwide L’Arche community. I think of Dr. Paul Brand, a brilliant surgeon who would probably have been the head of a medical department had he stayed in the west, but who chose instead to go to India as a medical missionary, where he spent his life caring for people suffering the ravages of Hansen’s Disease – leprosy.

These are just a few of the many people down the years who have followed the pattern of Jesus. They didn’t say, “I’ve got a right to enjoy my life and get ahead for myself”. No - they asked how they could best serve God, no matter how humble the position, and then they got on with it without making any fuss.

But a funny thing tends to happen with people like that: in the long run, they turn out to be the ones who benefit most from their lives of service. Christian writer Philip Yancey once commented that in his career as a journalist he had interviewed all kinds of high profile people in politics and sports and academia, and also people nobody had ever heard of - people working in low-profile positions serving the needy, people with PhDs in linguistics who were translating the Bible into unknown jungle languages, people working in free medical clinics who served the poor and so on.

Yancey called these two groups ‘the stars’ and ‘the servants’. He said, “A strange thing happened over the years. I had expected to admire the servants, but I had not expected to envy them”. But that is exactly what he found himself doing: his observation was that in the long run, it was the servants who experienced the most happiness, the most peace, the most contentment in their lives.

Today we begin Holy Week, a week when we remember Jesus on the way of the Cross -  Jesus serving the Father faithfully, Jesus patiently accepting suffering and death, Jesus loving his enemies and praying for them rather than retaliating and taking revenge. Jesus did all this out of love for his Father and for us - to save us from sin, to reconcile us to God, to make it possible for us to be born again to a new life in relationship with God. But he also did it to set an example for us, and that’s the reason Paul was reminding the Philippian Christians of this story. Let me remind you, as I finish, of the words that come just before our reading for today; I’m going to read them to you from the New Living Translation:

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
(Philippians 2:1-5 NLT)

What is that attitude? Simply this: forget about making a reputation for yourself; concentrate on serving God and others, and let God worry about your reputation. And as we follow Jesus in this way of life, serving wholeheartedly without looking for a reward, we will in fact be richly rewarded: as Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).


Carry on.

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