Sermon for Palm Sunday -
Who is Jesus? Who is God?. -
Who is God in Holy Week? Did God require Jesus to go to the cross as a sacrifice for our sins? Was everything neatly planned out – the donkey exactly where Jesus told the disciples it would be? Did Jesus have no choice but to do God’s bidding? Do we hear the crowds singing glorious praise or will we hear “Hosanna!” for what it really means – “Save us?” On this first day of what we Christians call Holy Week our question is not only “Who is Jesus?” but also “Who is God?”
This Sunday has two names in the church – not only is it Palm Sunday, the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, it is also Passion Sunday, the first day of Jesus’ terribly downhill week that will end with his arrest, torture and death. It is a day, as scholar Barbara Lundblad points out, filled with dissonance, like music that sets our ears on edge.
While we lived for four years in Manhattan, New York City, my wife, Kris, and I were members of Advent Lutheran Church at 93rd and Broadway, a wonderfully active congregation where Pastor Lundblad was one of the pastors. One of the many nice things about Advent’s location is that the #1 and #2 subway lines both have a stop at 96th Street and one of the exit stairs comes right up in front of Advent at 93rd Street. You can get from the subway stairs into the church in seconds. Great for cold and rainy or snowy days.
On Palm Sunday Advent begins worship outside, on the street, on Broadway. There the congregation waves palms and sings and prays. There are taxis honking and people passing and many other street noises, even on a Sunday morning. The people say “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” And, as often as not, someone coming up from the subway also yells, “Stop blocking the sidewalk!” A great example of the dissonance of this day.
Philippians 2:5-11 is the second reading for this day and also the text for the words of today’s Hymn of the Day. Listen once again to these poetic words from St. Paul:
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Dr. Lundblad points out that this text includes a dissonance also, one that we may miss if we focus only on the last verse – “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth….” We can hear that only as an exaltation – and perhaps proof that we are right and those who don’t name the name of Jesus are wrong. But we will miss the fuller meaning of this text if we don’t see what comes before the exaltation. We’ll also miss seeing something about God.
The verses are set on the page like a poem – you can tell they are different from the verses that surround them. This poem or hymn is set within Paul’s letter to believers in Philippi. That city was a major Roman colony name for Philip, one of Herod’s sons. Paul loves these people and they love him in return. He longs to see them again, but knows that he may never be, because he is writing from prison. Some scholars think that Paul may have learned this poem/hymn from the Philippians themselves. If that is true we can feel the deep sense of community that marked Paul’s relationship with the Philippians. Paul was not only a missionary to them; he honored their faith and learned from them. Paul urges them “to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit.” His plea was not for good manners, but for a way of life shaped by Jesus. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes. In Greek, the word “mind” is not a noun but a verb – be minded! Live this way with one another, Paul admonishes. To back up his plea, Paul quotes the hymn poem he may have learned from them.
Scholar Lundblad suggests we should diagram this text and our diagram should be a large “V.” Starting up high – Jesus was “in the form of God,” and shared equally with God. And then down, down. “Jesus did not count equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” Now we are down on our knees. “And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” Now we are down about as far as we could go. We are lying on the floor. Jesus “emptied” himself, not as a victim of someone else’s oppressive policies or actions, but as a path freely chosen. Instead of remaining in a place of honor with God or trading it for human honor and prestige, Jesus lives as the lowliest of human beings, a slave, and accept the form of execution reserved for slaves, namely death on a cross.
Now, following Lundblad’s “V” diagram idea, the poem moves upward. We get up slowly off the floor. From this low place, this emptying place, God exalted Jesus. God lifted Jesus up and gave him the name above every name. Up, up, up we go with Jesus, back to the very heart of God. But God is no longer the same. Even God has been changed. The one who was equal with God has gone to the depths of human life and brings his suffering, dying-slave-self back into the life of God. God is no longer far off, but near.
Today, this Palm Sunday, there will be dissonance on the sidewalks outside of Advent Lutheran Church in New York City. There will be dissonance in many other places in this world also, from Syria to Nigeria to cities and towns throughout the world and this nation, even here in Santa Monica, I am certain. And, maybe, even in our own lives. Who is God during Holy Week? Not a great puppeteer in the sky moving Jesus on the donkey. Not a distant prime mover who set the world in motion and then slipped away. God is changed by the one who “became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
It is Palm Sunday. Jesus is entering Jerusalem. Like Barbara Lundblad’s “V” diagram, Jesus is up and down and up again this week.
And, again this week, God is coming to us anew. And, because of Jesus, God is no longer out there somewhere. No, God is right here, rejoicing with us and suffering with us just as Jesus rejoiced and suffered during this holiest of weeks.
In the midst of any dissonance and trouble in our lives, Jesus comes again. Jesus comes for this world. Jesus comes for us. Jesus comes to love us. Jesus comes to save us. Thanks be to God who has given us victory over life and death through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Who is Jesus? Who is God?
Sermon for Palm Sunday
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
March 28/29, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica