First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Passion and Palm Sunday

William Loader

Passion/Palm Sunday: 20 March Philippians 2:5-11

Paul writes from prison. His letter reassures the Philippians that his ministry has not collapsed in defeat. He remains engaged with the gospel, both where he is and through his contacts which keep him informed about how his churches are going (1:12-26). As we saw last week the Philippians are vulnerable to influence from Christian missioners opposed to Paul. We should assume that this is also in the background of our passage. Before it he has been encouraging the Philippians to hold firm in their faith against opposition. Part of that is holding together in unity. This theme is strongly present already in 1:27-30. Perhaps the opponents are Christians priding themselves as Jews and portraying Paul and Paul's churches as renegade Jews and Gentiles, which might lay them open to abuse not only by other Jews but also by the authorities, because they were not a recognisable or acceptable group. This is probably Paul's own situation. He and his Philippians have much in common.

In 2:1-4 Paul urges mutual love and the abandonment of arrogant factionalism. The factionalists would have seen it differently. For they saw in Paul a way of preaching the gospel that went against scripture as they interpreted it - and were prepared to split the church for the sake of their serious concerns. Such situations are never easy. Paul's response is not just to urge unity (which is not always possible or appropriate), but to turn people's attention to Christ. At least if we are going to disagree, let us remain connected to Christ and Christ's way of being. We depart from that the moment we start attacking people who disagree with us on a personal level and seeking to strengthen our position not by sound reasoning but by strategies of humiliation and abuse, calling the integrity of others into question when there is no ground to do so. Hate lurks as a demon looking for a ride - and has a wonderful time when Christians in dispute start to fight and hate instead of listening to each other and taking each other seriously.

There is something wonderful about the consistency with which Paul keeps bringing us back to the centre and to what matters most. He does so here by quoting what may have been an ancient hymn. It is certainly very stylised and succinct such as we might expect from a set piece. It has some elements in common with other such pieces. These include references to Christ's beginnings, his death and exaltation. Usually the image of his exaltation reflects language of enthronement or royal coronation. Similarly the images of his beginning reflect language about God's wisdom or word, pictured as sharing in God's being, working with God in creation, bearing his image and reflecting his glory.

If you read 2:6 trying to pick up associations of ideas from the world of Paul's day, you might hear two different kinds of things which are related. You might think of Genesis which describes Adam as made in God's image and goes on to report that he followed the serpent's enticement to eat the forbidden fruit so he could be like God. Then you would see Jesus as a replacement Adam, who also bore God's image like Adam but refused Adam's sin of wanting to be equal to God. There are plenty of people who want to be like God and when they succeed, it is a disaster both because of the kind of being they think God is (selfish and demanding) and because they make themselves blind to their own limitations. Others would think more mythically of wisdom or the word, often described as God's image. Paul probably merges both ideas, creating a flow of ideas from one stream to the other. Although he never makes as much of it as we might think he would have, Paul assumes that Christ did exist in the beginning with God in some way - as a heavenly Adam or Son of God . His main point is not so much Christ's status, but how he behaved. Christ accepted his subordination to God. Some translate the passage in a different way with the result that it talks about Christ not holding onto the equality he had (not exploiting it). I think that is less likely.

Instead of seeking more power, Christ sought to express love. The shift from the mindset of power to the mindset of love is conversion at its most telling. This is Christ's way of being. It is also God's being, who, as it were, chose not to take up the whole space, but made space for others to be. The hymn depicts this act of love as a willingness even to abandon the status which one has. The form or image of God which he abandons is not his humanity (human beings are in the image of God), but his honoured status with God as the wisdom and word of God with God from the beginning. In fact the lower status is that of being a normal human being, as 2:7 makes clear. 2:7 begins by speaking of an emptying. It also says Christ became a slave. 2:8 tells us he died as a slave - executed as rebellious slaves were commonly executed, on a cross. Taking the form of a slave (instead of staying in the form of God and seeking advancement to be like God!), humbling himself and becoming obedient to death on a cross (2:8), depict in the briefest form what for Paul lies at the heart of the good news. In Jesus' coming and his death we recognise an act of liberation.

Elsewhere we hear a range of explanations of how this deliverance worked. Some might hear it and think that the key element was to make mortals aware of their immortality. This would fit well with views which saw liberation as escape from the material world to the world above. They might have read the death as a moment when a superior being broke through a barrier leaving the way open for others to follow. Paul understands the human predicament as problematic not because we are what we have been created to be, but because we have become estranged from God. Using a range of images, cultic and non cultic, Paul depicts the death of Jesus as achieving a breakthrough of a different kind. Christ died for us or for our sins. The result is that we may now be reconciled to God. His approach makes the death so central, that he sometimes speaks of preaching the cross, as a kind of shorthand for preaching the gospel. It explains his minimal interest in what Jesus actually said and did during his ministry. The gospel writers reflect a different balance, recognising that if we are to speak of liberation as a restored relationship, that started happening already during Jesus' ministry and belonged to a greater vision of a transformed world. The hymn is so concise it leaves open the issue about just precisely how this act of Christ achieved its goal. Paul's point is that it happened because Christ embodied and enacted an attitude which put love first, even when it was costly.

While we usually associate death with resurrection, it was equally common among the first Christians to speak not of resurrection but of exaltation. The point was never when or how often Jesus appeared as risen from the dead with a new form of being but that through resurrection God had vindicated and rewarded Jesus for his act. That is what we find here. Behind the concise description in the hymn is a scene according to which a person is rewarded by being given a name. In this case the most honourable person gives the person to be honoured his own name and by doing so appoints him his deputy or representative. Whoever wrote the hymn pictured God giving his name to Jesus. So Jesus receives the name above every name. That name is "Lord". Had the hymn been written in Hebrew it would have been Yahweh. We are almost back where we started: Jesus is almost made equal to God after all! But he got there a different way. In the complex history of thought about Jesus and God which followed in the succeeding centuries people came to affirm that Jesus and God really were equal, but they could only do so by insisting that Jesus was not a separate or second God. The Trinity then held together these tensions in a way that sought to do justice to all the key values without ever neatly resolving them.

In its world the granting of the name is an act of authorisation which made the recipient not equal in an absolute sense, but representative and authorised to act on another's behalf with their authority, almost as an extension of their person. The story line of the hymn ends with the implied assertion that from now on if people want to recognise God they need to look to Jesus. That is a fundamental tenet of Christian faith: that we take Christ as a our reference point for understanding God. For some, including some biblical writers, that is rigidly exclusive. For others it does not exclude recognising God elsewhere, but it uses Christ as the measure. In a way it is very easy to slip back into power priorities in espousing the value of the hymn and its claim, which then puts us back into the stance of wanting to win, instead of the stance of wanting to love.

Paul cites the hymn for a very practical reason. He wants the Philippians to let the same attitude rule them and determine their responses to one another. Partly that means taking Christ's act as an example. Partly there is much more to it. It means living in Christ or letting Christ live in us so that such attitudes and behaviours are a fruit of a dynamic process. 2:12-13 say exactly that: "work out your own salvation, for God is the one involved in doing the work". We are to put some effort into keeping a process going in which God's being and attitudes more and more fill us and affect our behaviour. For Paul it goes without saying that that is exactly what was happening in Christ. God was in Christ doing the work of reconciling compassion through him. A wonderful pattern for spirituality.

Gospel: Palm Sunday: 20 March Luke 19:28-40
Gospel: Passion Sunday: 20 March Luke 22:14 - 23:56

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