A life celebrated in its entirety

February 19th, 2015

Philippians 2:5-11

I remember vividly the first time I saw a professional production of the life of Christ acted out upon the stage. There were beautiful sets, talented actors, and lots of activities to focus upon as many extras moved about the stage. I saw many familiar scenes from the life of Jesus recreated before my eyes. I saw a nativity scene where Mary and Joseph welcomed the Christ child in humble surroundings. I witnessed some of the healing miracles as Jesus laid his hands upon the sick and the outcast. I heard the words of Jesus delivered in the Sermon on the Mount. I gazed upon the scene of the final Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. I even experienced anew the horrors of Jesus’ crucifixion, and celebrated as I watched Jesus come forth from the tomb following his resurrection.

The thing that was most impressive to me however, was the final scene of the play. The play concluded with a reenactment of the ascension of Christ. The disciples were gathered around to hear Jesus’ departing words of commission and as they watched Jesus ascended into the sky. I am not exactly sure how they did it so convincingly, but through the use of lighting, screens, and an elaborate scaffold, the actor playing Jesus ascended into heaven surrounded by angels. The angels held trumpets and offered arms outstretched in praise, as they celebrated Christ’s majesty and his glory. I remember standing there with goose bumps on my arms. It was a transformative scene for me. I realized, for perhaps the very first time, the entire scope of Jesus’ experience. I had caught glimpses of the story before, but I had never been able to reflect upon the entire sweep of the divine drama that was played out in the life of Christ. In this play I had not only beheld the human experience of Jesus’ life, but also now beheld the divine celebration of Jesus’ life.

The gift of this passage in Philippians is that it also invites us to take into account the entire sweep of the divine drama that took place in the life of Christ. In the space of these few verses, Paul reminds us of the very nature of Jesus as it was revealed in his actions. We are encouraged to celebrate both the divinity and the humanity in the experience of the Christ event. First, Paul reminds us that Jesus was the preexistent Lord, who indeed was “in the form of God.” Jesus’ existence did not begin in a manger in Bethlehem, but rather he was present from the beginning, at the right hand of God. The one who came and dwelt among us was the Son of God. As the Son of God, Jesus had every reason to enjoy the status and rights of the divine life.

Yet, Paul tells us, Jesus “did not regard equality with God / as something to be exploited, / but emptied himself, / taking the form of a slave.” Here Paul reminds us of the mystery of what we call the incarnation. We are sometimes guilty of celebrating the mystery of Jesus’ incarnation only at Christmas, but it is perhaps here, during this season of the journey to the cross that the incarnation most fully realizes its scandal. Jesus’ birth in the humble surroundings of poverty lies at one end of the incarnation, but Jesus’ suffering and death at the hands of humanity lies at the other end. Paul marvels at the wonder of Jesus’ willingness to lay aside his divine privileges and power, “taking the form of a slave” and ultimately becoming “obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Jesus, the divine Son of God, literally pours out his life on our behalf. Jesus sets aside his own will for the will of God so that we might know that power of God in and through him.

Finally, once Jesus had lived this human life of radical obedience and humility through his death on the cross, Paul reminds us that God exalted Jesus to the highest level. We are shown the divine approval of Christ’s actions on our behalf, “that at the name of Jesus, / every knee should bend . . . and every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord, / to the glory of God the Father.” It’s this final scene in the drama that gives us goose bumps. It is only when Jesus loses his life for our sake that he receives it back again. It is when Jesus humbles himself that he is most highly exalted. Jesus’ act of self-emptying is the act that God works in most powerfully.

I believe that during this most holy season of the year the church sometimes fails to focus on the big picture of Jesus’ journey. As we approach Holy Week we sometimes look only at the human suffering of Jesus on the cross. Yet when we focus only on the humanity of Jesus’ experience we lose the very essence of its mystery and power. Palm/Passion Sunday calls us to celebrate the tension inherent in Jesus’ self-emptying and radical obedience. We are called to lift up both the humanity and the divinity of Christ, for only in doing so can we realize the power of Jesus’ surrender. We are called to struggle with our cries of “Hosanna” one moment and “Crucify him!” the next. We are called to ponder anew the mystery that God is most glorified in the moment of Jesus’ most profound weakness and suffering. We are called to remember that the one crucified “King of the Jews” is also the “King of the Universe.” We are called to remember that Jesus’ radical obedience in death leads ultimately to his resurrection, glorification, and ascension through the power of God. The overwhelming love of Jesus is revealed to us most fully when we contemplate the fullness of all that he offered up and sacrificed on our account. If that doesn’t give us goose bumps I don’t know what will.

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