A Lectionary Reflection on Philippians 2:5-11, Palm/Passion Sunday

Image credit: Gustave Dore

Palm/Passion Sunday frequently leaves preachers with the dilemma of choosing one over the other. Moreover, another dilemma is, if preachers choose to focus on Passion Sunday, then what pericope does one choose to preach on—given the lengthy gospel reading. It is very difficult to preach on the gospel adequately—unless the preacher focuses on only a portion of the gospel—given all of the events in the Passion Narrative. Consequently, some preachers opt for a dramatization of the Passion Narrative instead, involving the whole congregation in participating in a play or a dramatic reading. This latter option affords the Passion Narrative to ‘preach’ on its own. Another option may be to choose to preach on the epistle pericope.

Indeed, our pericope from Paul’s letter to the Philippians affords the preacher with an opportunity to deliver a sermon that celebrates both Palm and Passion Sunday.

New Testament scholars have often referred to this pericope as an early Christian Christological hymn that Paul either composed himself or cites from another earlier, unnamed source.

The opening verse 5 is an exhortation to the church at Philippi to have the same mind—the same way of thinking, the same attitude toward God, one another, and the living out of life—that was in Christ Jesus.

In verse 6, mention of Jesus being “in the form of God” may refer to his divine pre-existence, similar to that motif in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.

As the hymn continues in verses 6b-8, there is an emphasis on the humility of Jesus, his self-emptying, even to the point of “taking the form of a slave.” A slave, of course, is regarded as the lowest form and class of a human being. The word humility is derived from the word humus—from the earth, or to put it another way, down-to-earth. This emphasis reminds the church at Philippi and us of the extent to which Jesus went to lower himself to be in solidarity with all of humankind. Indeed, his public ministry epitomised his humility by reaching out to society’s outcasts, sinners, the poor, etc., and drawing them into his divine realm—transforming them from being the lowest and the last to the highest and the first.

These verses focusing on Christ’s humility connect with his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when he chose to enter that city by riding one of the humblest of animals, a donkey. This was the extreme opposite of what many believed at that time about the Messiah. Instead of a non-violent, peaceful, humble Messiah, riding on the humblest of animals; many believed that the Messiah would be a powerful political and military figure riding on a white stallion or riding in a decorative chariot drawn by white stallions to celebrate his victory campaign of overthrowing the Romans.

Another aspect of Jesus’ humility as the Messiah was when he: “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” This obedience, which led to his crucifixion, the most humiliating of deaths of criminals; was God’s way of offering atonement and salvation for the whole world. Therefore verse 8 especially of the hymn connects with the celebration of Passion Sunday, and may remind readers of the Suffering Servant pericope of Isaiah chapters fifty-two and fifty-three.

It should be emphasised however that Paul’s exhortation here in this pericope should not be misinterpreted to mean that obedience involves spousal or child abuse in marital and family relationships; or the acceptance of injustice in society by oppressive governments and affluent individuals and organisations who influence governments. Rather, the crucifixion of Jesus was God’s saving action to bring humankind liberation from all forms of abusive power, inequality and injustice.

Verses 9-11 shift the focus from the humility and humanity of Jesus to his exaltation and divinity as followers bend the knee and confess him as Lord in an act of faith. “Jesus Christ is Lord” was one of the earliest Christian confessions, and, as in this early hymn, likely an integral part of worship services. It is a Lordship over the tyranny of the ancient Roman empire as well as one rooted in true love made incarnate through servanthood. A love and servanthood that turns the ways of this world upside-down—or, better yet, rightside-up—ushering in God’s realm.

Advertisements