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Saturday, April 16, 2011

You Gotta Get Down to Go Up

Palm Sunday A


Philippians 2:5-11 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking 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. 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.

Matthew 21:1-11 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 
‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ 
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ 
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

The 1989 film The Abyss is an underwater version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which workers on a high-tech undersea drilling rig are saved from Russian attempts to detonate a nuclear device by non-human aliens who live deep in the sea. In one sequence, Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio are trapped in a small sub that is damaged and begins to fill with water. There is only one dive suit, and only one of them can swim to safety. The woman decides to let the man, who is a better swimmer, swim to help, while she drowns. Because they are at great depth in very cold water, she hopes that even though she drowns, the man will be able to pull her to the undersea lab and revive her. The sub fills with water, she struggles, drowns, he drags her through the water to the drilling rig and . . . well, I don’t want to spoil the movie for you.

As the waters rise around her, the woman realizes she cannot live by going up. She can only live, paradoxically, by going down and drowning. She cannot know whether she will actually come back to life or not. She has a hope, and a theory. But to rise again, she must first go down, and drown. That is the Easter Story. That is the paradox of Jesus’ life. In order for him to live and to bring life, he cannot go up. From the heights, he must go down, and down, and down, even to drown, before he can rise.

The Palm Sunday lesson from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of the most important passages in the entire Bible in understanding what Jesus is all about. Scholars call this the Philippian hymn, because it seems as though part of the passage is a poem or song already at use in the early church that Paul quotes to make his point. When I was a child all sermons had the same structure: three points, a poem, and a prayer. Often the poem was a hymn text. Paul does the same thing, and some of us may know a modern version of the Philippian hymn sung in churches today:

Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess

That Jesus Christ is Lord .

Let the same mind be in you, Paul writes, that was in Christ Jesus. This is what you should be like. Want to know how to live as a Christian? Paul’s going to explain it to you in five verses. If you want to know one passage of Scripture to memorize other than John 3:16, this is as good as any you’ll find. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped – held on to – exploited. There is a wonderful little film made about twenty years ago that nobody noticed called Saving Grace. It’s about a Pope, played by Tom Conti, who is puttering around in the Vatican Garden one day when a breeze blows his hat over the wall. He’s wearing gardening clothes, and when he goes out the gate to get his hat, it locks behind him. No one recognizes him as the Pope, and he can’t get back in the Vatican. So, he hitchhikes down the road to a little town in southern Italy and lives there anonymously for a few weeks, helping some ordinary people. He doesn’t let anyone know who he is, but lays aside all his power and riches as the Pope to live as an ordinary man. That is exactly what Jesus does. He puts aside all his heavenly power to enter the common life of the world, and become just like us. That’s the Christmas story, of God born of a simple peasant girl in a stable on a cold winter night.

He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. The Greek word for emptying is kenosis. It means to be poured out, as a pitcher is emptied at a meal. This image of being poured out is a powerful one for what will happen to Jesus this week, as his life and blood are literally poured out for the world.

And being found in human form, he humbled – lowered– himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Notice what’s happening here? Here we have Jesus, sitting at the right hand of God, with life and position and power and glory forever and ever amen. But because of his love for the Creation – his love for you and for me – he gets down off of that throne and strips himself of all his glory and power, and becomes a baby born in a manger. He comes down from the throne, goes down to the earth, goes down to Bethlehem, and down into that manger. More than that physical and spiritual downward mobility, Paul says, Jesus also undertakes an emotional downward movement, into humility and obedience. Instead of growing up to be a leader and order-giver, Jesus eats with the poor and sick, he heals the lame and blind, he washes the feet of his disciples. He says he came not to be served, but to serve. This leader, this Messiah, only leads by showing what it means to follow. He claims no power, no authority, and no perks. Finally, he is obedient to God right to the point of going down to Jerusalem, down to Pilate, and down to death. You just can’t get much more humble than dead. Then he goes down to the grave, and, the creed says, down to hell.

The word Paschal comes from the Hebrew word pasch – the sacrifice that is at Passover. The Paschal Paradox is that Jesus brings life only by dying. Jesus, Paul says, is only Lord because he was a servant. Jesus is raised because he has gone down as far as he can go. Maybe it’s not a paradox at all. Jesus goes down from heaven, down from power, down to earth, down to humility, down to servanthood, down to death, down to hell. Jesus goes down so far there’s only one place left for God to bring him, and that’s up. Up to life on Easter morning. Up to heaven, up to Lordship and power and authority over all Creation. But to go up, first Jesus has to go down, just as the woman in The Abyss has to go down and drown to live, and the Pope in Saving Grace has to become a common man to learn how to be a good Pope.

So, Paul says, have the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. We all want to go up. We all want to go up to popularity and power. We all want to go up to life. We all want to go up to love. We all want to go up to joy. But the only path up is the path down. There is no way out of this sinking world except to go down and out, even if we drown. Even on Palm Sunday, when all the crowds want to make him king, Jesus is headed down to love, down to servanthood, down to death for the people he loves.

And, deep within our hearts, we know the same is true for us. It’s that path down at three in the morning when the baby is crying and we’d rather stay in bed. It’s that path down when the kids are sick and we’re wiping their fevered faces. It’s that path down when we’d rather be watching the ball game or fishing but there’s a poor person’s house to be repaired. It’s that path down when we’d like to buy some new bauble but there’s a neighbor in need. It’s that path down when we’d rather sleep in, but God is calling us to prayer and praise. It’s that path down when we don’t want to serve, but God needs a servant.

And tell me, tell me – when you take that path down, don’t you find, again and again, yourself being lifted up by arms from somewhere else? When you go down to your humanity, when you go down to obedience, when you go down to the death of your own will – don’t you find, way down there, yourself being raised up? That’s the Paschal Paradox: that the way down becomes the way up, and the way to your death becomes the way to eternal life.

The crowds today would raise Jesus up, but he is on his way down. Down to humanity, down to obedience, down to servanthood, down to death. And then God does what neither the world can do for him, nor Jesus do for himself: God raises him from the dead, and the heights of glory. That’s why he is Lord – because his path down is also ours, so his path up can be ours as well.

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