The Beginning of Another World—Philippians 2:5-11

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

As we are prepared to empty ourselves, we can experience “the beginning of the other”, the Reign of God.

5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus, 
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name, 
10 so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
11 and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

There once was a philosopher who set out to find the end of the world. On his long journey, he passed many mountains and many seas. Sometimes he thought he had arrived; then he would stop for a while, but only until he got restless again. Then he would commence his journey again.

On his way he passed many temples and met many teachers. They each said they had found what he was looking for, and that his journey was over. For a time he would believe them, but sooner or later he told himself that the end was not here; he needed to go on.

The philosopher finally came to a place that looked like the end. There were no temples, and no teachers; he was absolutely alone. The horizon had disappeared, and there were no further destinations for his journey. There was a sign stating: THIS IS THE END OF THE WORLD.

Our philosopher was standing on the very edge of the world, a great cliff beyond which there was nothing but chaos and emptiness. All of a sudden he became frightened, very frightened. He had not expected this. There was no God and no paradise. Standing there at the edge of the cliff, trembling and shaking, the philosopher became so frightened that he turned back on his heel. He ran back in the direction he had come from, and never looked back on his quest.

He returned into the world and lost himself in it. The more he played the games of the world, his memory of his journey faded. He banished the dangerous cliff from his dreams, and with it his dream of finding the end of the world. Because the philosopher took off so fast, he never got the chance to notice that the sign board had some small print underneath the big letters he had seen. Underneath the words, THIS IS THE END OF THE WORLD, there were more letters, smaller ones, stating, THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF THE OTHER.

The story describes two attitudes we all know well, control and faith. The philosopher was all about control, and when he came to the end of what could be known, he didn’t have the faith to make the leap into nothingness. We all have met people who have trouble giving up control and therefore never really believe or trust in anyone. But, on Palm Sunday, we are drawn to think about the One who was not afraid, but embraced the end: Jesus took the plunge down that cliff.

The images of Holy Week haunt us: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The trial. The complicity of the religious establishment. The contempt of Herod and his soldiers. The odd “friendship” between Herod and Pilate. The release of a man deserving execution. The daughters of Jerusalem weeping. The crucifixion. The words, “Father, forgive them”. The soldiers mocking Jesus. The darkness. The death.

Every move Jesus made since his entry into town was guided by the vision he had spelled out for himself (Mark 8:31): “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected … and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Much as Jesus had his agenda, those who thought of themselves as the main actors of the story had their own.

The chief priests, appointed by Roman officials, had to get along with the Romans if they were to stay in office. Although their prestige and status were topmost in their minds, they tried to alarm Pilate by appealing to his concerns. The charge: wanting to be a king and stirring up the people. Both charges would worry the person responsible for maintaining order and upholding Roman rule.

Pilate, more amused than worried, sent Jesus to Herod, knowing that Herod had used the title “King of the Jews” himself. Herod played along and sent Jesus back, dressed in a kingly robe. Pilate toyed with the chief priests, telling them that neither he nor Herod had found Jesus guilty, but the “chief priests, the leaders and the people” cried out for Jesus to be crucified. When they called again for Jesus’ crucifixion, Pilate became frightened.

Even though Pilate, Herod, and the religious authorities all were at fault with the injustices heaped on Jesus, Jesus intended all this to happen. He went into Holy Week with open eyes because he was driven by his vision. That vision is spelled out in verses 5-8 of our text from Philippians, words that have been called one of the New Testament’s most majestic writings:

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.

In his incarnation, Jesus emptied himself of his divine power. He took on human form and limitations, embracing humanity in body, mind, and spirit. Jesus was aware of all the suffering among those cast aside by society, and even of the suffering of those who were doing the casting aside. He was moved to compassion. As the physician to suffering souls, he preached and taught and healed, bringing as many as possible in touch with the Reign of God.

Then his utter compassion drove him to the ultimate deed. We just heard about Jesus’ desperate struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36): “Abba, Father, … remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” In order to give hope for all of suffering humanity, Jesus had to become the vessel that would contain all of human suffering, by dying on the cross and transforming death.

The second part of our text expresses how Jesus transformed death, and in some ways, it is a text about his resurrection: “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.”

Jesus’ self-emptying service to humanity, embodied in his death, is vindicated by God. His death is the end of “death as we know it”. His death shows that death is but a door to go through.

Jesus sacrificed himself and his life, everything he had ever seen and heard, learned, achieved, received, and enjoyed. Since there is no such thing as a partial sacrifice, during communion, you receive all of Jesus: “This is my body, given away for you. This is my blood, given away for you.” To see the way and the truth and the life, even now, even today, Jesus is a good guide to follow. That’s why Paul urges his congregation to live a true life of service, in imitation of Jesus and his self-emptying: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

To return to my philosopher story, Jesus took the plunge down that cliff. Jesus was willing to leave his head behind and followed his heart. Jesus was able to go forward because he was not attached to the things of this world, and because he replaced worrying with trusting.

If absolute control is one extreme—represented by the philosopher—the other extreme is absolute faith—represented by Christ’s self-emptying. “This is the end of the world—this is the beginning of the other.” In order to face the abyss (rather than running away like the philosopher), we need to empty ourselves of the things prized in this world: our possessions, our good name, our degrees, our families, our heritage, our privileges, and our good fortune.

As we self-empty, we will become lighter in more ways than one; we become ready.

As we take the plunge, we experience “the beginning of the other”, the Reign of God.

As our human ego takes its leave (under great protest), we become one with the only life that matters, life eternal: the life of God.

Imbued with Christ’s compassion, our love will reach out to the world around us: a world caught in fear, anxiety and blame; a world that believes in a god of military might.

It’s our gift and our task to preach the kenotic and cruciform God to them: the God of power-in-weakness.

Martin Luther related the story of how when he went mountain-climbing one day, he saw two mountain goats meet head-to-head on a very narrow ledge. On one side was a sheer vertical cliff that could not be scaled. On the other side was an abyss. There wasn’t any room for the goats to pass each other. Luther observed that neither goat tried to challenge or dominate the other. There wasn’t any fight to determine which one got thrown into the abyss; instead, they just looked at each other. Neither goat lowered its head. Then, one goat lay down so the other could walk over him. One humbled himself so both could remain alive and continue on their way.

If it’s true that we should preach the Gospel at all times and use words “only if necessary”, Luther’s goats show us how to preach compassion, love, humility, mercy, solidarity, wisdom and peace—all without a single word.

We pray. Almighty and ever-living God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

2 thoughts on “The Beginning of Another World—Philippians 2:5-11

  1. What a wonderful and appropriate godpel interpretation for this time and season. Thank you for reminding me/us that only by emptying ourself of the quest for conquest of earthly great ess can we be truly open to receive that which only God can fill us with…love, real and slefless love.

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