Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Every Knee Should Bow": A Sermon for Palm Sunday

[I am occasionally afforded opportunities to preach; this Holy Week, I begin with a sermon for Palm Sunday's Epistle, and end with a Good Friday meditation. I will post the sermon texts here as delivered, flaws and all.]
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
--Philippians 2: 5-11

Today’s Epistle has been, not unlike Paul himself, all things to all people. Some focus on the last two verses—that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and every tongue confess Him Lord—and create a Christian triumphalism—we’re right and you (pretty much every one else in the world) is wrong, and you’re going to have to admit it, one day, not that it will do you any good, because you’ll be in Hell.

(Seriously, people do believe this, and not just the fundamentalists we all like to be sure we know better than—even Thomas Aquinas held this view, calling it a “forced confession” from those "under the earth," in Hell, that is, where they would remain.)

Others prefer to focus on the obedience of the Son to the Father, on the sacrifice made by the second Person of the Trinity merely by becoming human. As C.S. Lewis once phrased it, in one of his less felicitous moments, “think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.”[2]

But I’d like to suggest that we have to read the passage as a whole, not seize upon one thought or another. What is the whole passage saying to us?

Two writers, over 1500 years apart have something to tell us, I think.

Origen who lived from about 185 to 354, found hope for all in the verses Aquinas relied on because, as Aquinas says, “when he heard that every knee should bow, which is a sign of subjection, he believed that at some future time, every rational creature, whether angels or men or devils would be subjected to Christ by the allegiance of charity.”[3] In sum, Origen believed that, God would win every soul not through force but through love. That in the fullness of time, when we all come face to face with God, and truth is fully revealed, we will each of us know fully, and accept the Divine Love, which we now only see, to steal a line from St. Paul, through a glass, darkly. Subjection to Christ, for Origen, is about realizing our true selves, our best selves.

Charles Gore, who lived from 1854 to 1932, taught that Christianity was first and foremost a way of life—he called it, like the early Church, simply “the Way.” He emphasized the importance of loving our neighbor, concretely by assisting those in need, and in seeking a more just social order. Gore used today’s passage to explain the importance of lives of service as an integral part of the Way. Gore taught that Jesus as He lived among us, emptied himself of the attributes and powers ascribed to the divine. He explained:
God can express Himself in true manhood because manhood is truly and originally made in God’s image and, on the other hand, God can limit himself by the conditions of manhood, because the Godhead contains within itself eternally the prototype of human self-sacrifice and self-limitation, for God is love.[4]

If Jesus, who was equal to God the Father, nonetheless was willing to abandon all that that means, to come among us as one who serves, even to the point of giving up His own life, and did not count it loss—surely that tells us something about the nature of the God we pray to, of the Jesus we call Christ? And that, Gore says, surely gives us a pretty broad hint as to how to follow Him—to love one another, and to serve, as He served. This passage is especially for deacons, my sisters and brother, if Gore is right, because we are called to model the life of service in imitation of Christ.

We are now entering Holy Week, when Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem swiftly unravels to become the horror of the Cross, only for that then to be transformed itself into the astonishing triumph of Easter. Astonishing, because there is no conquest, no revenge. No epic battle. Just a quiet reappearance that transforms the pain and loss of Good Friday into an irresistible invitation to walk the Way with Jesus, through service to our sisters and brothers, not because we are forced to, but because in doing so, we will make up our souls on our journey to union with God.

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, (Trans. F.R. Larcher, O.P. 1969), at ch. 2, 2-3

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952), at 155.

[3] Aquinas, supra note 1.

[4] Charles Gore, The Incarnation of the Son of God: Being the Bampton Lectures for the Year 1890 (1891), at 162; see also id. at 159-161; A.M. Ramsey, An Era in Anglican Theology: From Gore to Temple at 30-35. The centrality of the kenotic theory to Gore’s theology is posited and helpfully explored in Chapman, Gore, Kenotic Theory and The Crisis of Power, 3 Journ. Angl. Stud. 197, at 203-205 (2005).

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