A Sermon for Sunday, September 25th
“At the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” From St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The second chapter of Philippians is not on the Scriptural “Hit Parade.” I have never seen it quoted on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker, never heard it read at a wedding or a funeral. It is a bit long and it does not lend itself to “sound bites.” Many other Scriptural passages are more beautiful and touch our hearts more readily: John 3:16—“For God so loved the world”--or 1 Cor 13—“Love is patient, love is kind”— or the marvelous 23rd Psalm—these Scriptures make up the Bible of our memory. But I believe we would be well-served to have Philippians 2 engraved upon our hearts and minds as well. Here we find the saving gospel of Jesus Christ as proclaimed at the dawn of the Church, perfectly preserved like a prehistoric insect in amber. Scholars today generally agree that Philippians 2:6-11 is a quotation from one of the earliest Christian liturgies, perhaps from one of the first hymns that honored Christ in worship. It may be a hymn that Paul himself learned when he was baptized into Christ’s Body only months after Easter. This “Christ hymn,” therefore, reflects the message that the apostles preached while their hearts still glowed with the fire of Pentecost. And what a remarkable message it is!
“Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to horde up, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of human beings. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God super-exalted him, and gifted him with the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” This is my own very literal translation of the original Greek. The Greek has rawness and vividness that should not be smoothed away, as many modern English translations do. We need to feel the same punch this morning that those first believers felt as they sang in adoration of our Savior. We need to hear these words as the Christians of ancient Philippi did when St. Paul’s letter was read aloud to them—immediate and clear and uncompromising.
These days it is not difficult to find an ill-informed person arguing in a book or on television (or even from certain pulpits) that Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be divine, but that “divinity” was imposed upon him by later Christians long after his death. I’ve heard dates given for this “transformation” as late as the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., as if Christianity were some sort of conspiracy cooked up by the emperor Constantine! My friends, this is poppycock! We hear the truth today in the ancient Christ hymn: from its origin on the day of Pentecost the Church has always proclaimed that before He was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary the pre-existent Christ possessed equality in godhead with His Father. “Equality with God” belongs to Christ by His very nature. Yet, out of unbounded love for His creation and unswerving obedience to the will of His Father, God the Son laid that equality aside, “emptying Himself” and “putting on the form of a slave.” And the Greek word used here (doulos) is best rendered in English as “slave”—to translate it as “servant” is to downplay its harshness. The imagery is one of stark role-reversal: the Master of the Universe took on the form of a slave in a voluntary act of self-humiliation that is beyond our comprehension. Imagine, if you can, a human being freely choosing to become a worm purely out of love for worms. The idea is both preposterous and disturbing. And yet, the chasm between Creator and creature spanned by our Lord’s coming in the flesh was infinitely greater than the divide between a human and an insect. In truth the Incarnation is a once both too beautiful and too terrible for the mind to grasp. How could God do such a thing? How can we possibly understand such love? And yet it is so.
The form in which Christ chose to be born, the hymn tells us, was that of a slave. At first blush, this reference to slavery may seem nothing more than a poetic reference to the humble origins of Jesus, the carpenter’s son. After all, Christ was born, not in a royal palace, but in a borrowed stable. Jesus had to earn his living by the sweat of his brow, and life surely was no easier for Him than it was for other people in Palestine who worked in the building trades. But the reference in Philippians 2 to Christ’s being “born in the form of a slave” does not relate to His socio-economic status. Instead, this slave-like form is equated with “in the likeness of human beings.” The reference, therefore, is to all of us—the entire human race.
Every human being on the face of the Earth who has not yet been freed by Christ remains a slave—a slave to sin and death, in bondage to all the things that draw us from the love of God, subjected to spiritual forces that corrupt and destroy His creatures. This slavery is our heritage as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. It is the human condition in this fallen world. And this is the “form” of slavery into which Christ was born. He took our human nature upon Himself, bearing the form of our enslaved humanity, becoming like us in all things except sin.
And it is not only the human race that groans in bondage to corruption and death. By choosing to become one of His own creatures, the Son of God incorporated Himself into an enslaved Universe. All of “creation has been subjected to futility”, St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans. Humanity is not alone in its misery. Our sin has tainted everything around us. As a result, the entire created order must wait for the day when it “will be set free from its bondage to decay.” That is the broken world our Savior gave up everything to enter. Flawless Divinity emptied itself out so that God might share in our brokenness. How can we possibly understand such love? And yet it is so.
Of course, Christ became incarnate in this fallen world in order to free it from its chains. By becoming “obedient unto death, even death on a cross,” Christ submitted Himself to the ultimate yoke of our slavery. Death had mastered the fallen human race from the day we were driven out of Eden. If Christ were truly to bear the form of our slavery, He too must present Himself before the gates of Hades, subjected to the power of death. But thanks be to God death proved to have no power over Him! For the obedience of Christ was neither to the dread lord of darkness, nor to the prince of this age. Uniquely in the history of the human race, Jesus Christ conformed His will to that of the only Master worthy of service. Our Savior was utterly and completely obedient to the will of His Father in Heaven, even if that meant taking all the pain and grief the world has ever known--or will ever know—into his own body and soul. And by this perfect obedience to our true Master--obedience even unto death on a cross--Christ shattered the chains that have bound His brothers and sisters to the false slave masters of sin and death since the dawn of time. How can we possibly understand the power of such self-giving obedience? And yet it is so.
The cross to which Christ was nailed in humility became the vehicle of His exaltation. Infused by the power of “the Lord and Giver of life,” He trampled down death by His own death. “Therefore God super-exalted him, and gifted him with the name that is above every name.” We see here that the ancient Christ hymn demanded more from human language than it could deliver. The mere word “exalted” was insufficient for what they needed to say. You see, not only will the angels in Heaven adore their King; not only will the faithful on earth reverently worship Him; but even those under the earth—the very demons of Hell—will cower before Him in submission. The earliest Christians had to make up a whole new word for that kind of Majesty—God has “super-exalted” Christ, they marveled!
Of course, the full reality of our Lord’s exaltation is simply too great for human speech to convey. The Savior’s present glory has implications for the entire human race. For the humanity of Christ has been exalted along with His divinity. The name that is above all names is a human name, Jesus of Nazareth. The hands that now hold the scepter of universal dominion are human hands, bearing nail scars that no longer testify to our slavery but to our freedom. Everyone who has been baptized into Christ Jesus our Lord, everyone who partakes of His precious Body and Blood in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar, has received a share of His exalted, divinized humanity. The day will come, in God’s own time, when the Church triumphant will share in the fullness of her Lord’s exaltation. The humanity that we bear is destined to become as spotless as the Lamb who was slain for our salvation. That is an awesome thought, confusing…even frightening…and wonderful beyond description. How can we possibly understand the future glory that Christ has won for us? And yet it is so.
So I commend for your prayerful consideration the second chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the proclamation of Christ’s Church from its earliest days. May it remain her proclamation until there is no one on the face of the Earth who has not received its astonishing message. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.