Sermon: Philippians 2:5-11
Lent 6 - March 25, 2018 - Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
Do you know how to be a Christian? Many of you might begin answering this question by talking about what you believe as a Christian. But my question isn’t really about what you believe, but how you live. I have a concern that in our church we teach and learn quite well what to believe as Christians, but we do we always reflect our faith and belief in how we think and act? Do we always know how to be Christians? Do we consciously think from day to day, “How should I live my life today since I am a Christian.”
In my confirmation class I tell the students that I can teach them the truths of the Bible and what we believe about Jesus Christ. I can teach them the Ten Commandments and what God’s will is. But to have the will to actually be a Christian, to think and live like a Christian, to know how to be a Christian, is not something that I can really teach or bring about in someone’s life.
So how do we learn how to be Christians? How do we learn to live like Christians? Our text on this Palm Sunday from Philippians 2 teaches us a lot about Jesus, but it also teaches us how to be a Christian, to think and live like a Christian. Today we consider that
PALM SUNDAY TEACHES US HOW TO BE A CHRISTIAN
This reading, Philippians 2:5-11, has a very special and close connection to Palm Sunday. Most Lutheran churches, as well as many other churches, follow some type of series of scripture readings in Sunday services, usually a three year series. In other words there are certain scripture readings that are assigned to be read each Sunday for a three year period. When the three years are over they start over again with the first of the three years. If you look in the front of our hymnal on pages 163-166 you’ll see all the readings for each Sunday over a period of three years, years A, B, and C. We’re currently in year B.
If you check more closely you’ll also see that the scripture readings in each of those three years for each Sunday are different. For example, to use last Sunday, the 5th Sunday of Lent, as an example, the readings for that Sunday are all different in year A and year B and year C. There are some exceptions to that rule, and one of the notable exceptions is Palm Sunday where Philippians 2:5-11 is the Second Lesson for all three years.
If you look on page 166 you’ll see an alternate set of readings, a one year series. If we used this one year series we would repeat each year the same readings on the various Sundays. But even in this one year series Philippians 2:5-11 is still the Second Lesson. And that’s significant because this one year series is really what was once called the historic pericopes. As the name indicates this series of readings has been used in churches for many, many years.
There’s actually evidence that the beginnings of this historic set of readings goes all the way back to A.D. 452. And following a specific set of readings for each Sunday follows a similar practice in the synagogues on the Sabbath days in the Old Testament. Some theorize that the reading of regular portions of scripture goes even back to the time of Moses.
These historical facts about prescribed scripture readings tell us something very important about Paul’s words in Philippians 2:5-11. First of all Christians have regularly read these words from the 2nd chapter of Philippians on Palm Sunday going back very likely for centuries. Today we joined our fellow Christians from generations before us in this wonderful and age-old tradition. And Philippians 2:5-11 has a very close connection to Palm Sunday which is a little intriguing because on the surface this reading doesn’t really say anything about Palm Sunday or Jesus riding into Jerusalem.
But this text on the Sunday before Jesus’ passion does tell us in very profound and beautifully poetic words what Jesus would do for us on Good Friday. These words tell us the depth of Jesus’ humiliation as he stepped down from heaven as God, took on a human nature, and died a horrible death by crucifixion. But these words also tell us what happened to Jesus one week after Palm Sunday. God the Father exalted him once again. Jesus rose from the dead and will come again to judge the world. On this Sunday before Jesus’ passion Philippians 2:5-11 is a very concise, but doctrinally detailed, review of what Jesus did for us in holy week.
But there’s still another reason, really the main reason, that the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write these words. They tell us how to be Christians. They tell us how to think as Christians. They tell us how to act as Christians. That’s why I say that Palm Sunday, and these traditional Palm Sunday words, teach us how to be Christians.
At the beginning of Philippians 2 Paul encourages us to imitate the humility of Christ. And so he begins in our text, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” The key to knowing how to be a Christian is to know Jesus Christ from the Bible. When you really know Jesus by faith you’ll learn to be like him.
If you or I were given the responsibility to teach someone how to be a Christian our first inclination would be to teach them what the Bible says about Jesus and to believe those truths. We’d probably also come up with a list a things they needed to do to be a good Christian. I could write a ten-point sermon about what to do to be a Christian. I could write a twenty-five-point Bible study over a period of twenty-five weeks about how to be a Christian.
There might be some merit in those ten-point and twenty-five point efforts, but note carefully what Paul does - how Paul tells us to be Christians. He writes about five or six verses, five or six verses of beautiful poetry, that might have been part of a hymn that Christians were already singing about Jesus in those early years of the Christian church.
And note carefully that in telling us how to be Christians Paul doesn’t give us ten directives or twenty-five imperatives or commands to follow. What does he do? He tells us about Jesus. He tells us how Jesus humbled himself to be our Savior, to save us from our sins. And then he says, “Be like Jesus. That’s how to be a Christian. Be like Jesus.” Instead of ten or twenty-five points or directives he gives us just one imperative in all the verses of this text: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” In other words in your mind and heart think like Jesus. And if you think like Jesus in your mind and heart, you will also live like Jesus, you’ll be like Jesus, you’ll know how to be a Christian.
And nothing tells us how Jesus thought and what Jesus was like more than what Jesus did for us on Good Friday two thousand years ago, more precisely in early April, likely in the year A.D. 30. This ancient Christian hymn in Philippians 2 says this about Jesus: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross!”
We call this Jesus’ state of humiliation. We’ll confess these truths about Jesus, that he was conceived, born, suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed following our sermon.
What’s Paul saying in these words? Jesus was fully God who lived in all the glory of heaven. He humbled himself to step down from heaven into the world he created and took on a human nature. Even though he was God he “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” Jesus remained God all the time, but he didn’t feel the need to hang on to his deity, to parade it around as a prize for all to see. Putting it in simple words, Jesus didn’t go around in his ministry bragging about being God. He didn’t even look like God. He lived in this world, and while he lived in this world he seldom made use of his divine power as God. He submitted to the laws of nature, the laws of men, and the laws of God. He gave himself up to die, and to die one of the most gruesome and horrible deaths ever - death on a cross, crucifixion.
Seven hundred years before Jesus lived Isaiah prophesied why Jesus would die in this way. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Jesus paid the penalty for our sin and guilt. He paid the wages of our sin so that we would not go to hell and face God’s eternal judgment. John the Baptist had said that he was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
On this Palm Sunday Paul wants us to know and believe what Jesus did to save us from our sins. But Paul also wants us to be like Jesus who humbled himself to the point of dying for us. And this is how you and I learn to be like Jesus. We learn to know who Jesus is. We learn from the Bible what Jesus is like. We ponder and appreciate in our very heart and soul what he did to save us. Then we will have Jesus’ attitude, and when we have Jesus’ attitude, when we think like Jesus, then we’ll also learn to be like Jesus, how to be a Christian. That’s why Palm Sunday, and these traditional words of Palm Sunday from Philippians 2, teach us how to be Christians.
God the Father rewarded Jesus for so faithfully humbling himself to the point of death on a cross. “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 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.”
God the Father raised Jesus again from the dead to prove to us and the whole world that he really had atoned for the sins of the world, to prove that you and I are justified, declared not guilty of our sins. We celebrate Jesus’ resurrection next Sunday.
And now Jesus sits at the right hand of God, but he will come again to judge the world. And until that day comes let your attitude be the same as Christ Jesus. That’s how to be a Christian.
And then when Jesus comes again our knees will bow before him, and we will proclaim our Palm Sunday praise, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Amen.