Scripture Text: Philippians 2:1-11
Long ago, in a world which was in some ways much like ours and yet so very different, a dark world, a brutal world, there lived a young man, a young man who was ambitious. His uncle and adopted father had done the unthinkable. He defeated the undefeatable, the wild men to the north, and upon his return from war, in glory and he became lord of all he surveyed. Many believed that the young man’s adopted father was a god, for only a god could achieve such greatness. Upon the death of his adopted father, through cunning and guile this young man took what Gaius Julius had built and forge it into an empire that would last a thousand years. He became master of all masters, able to do what he pleased and dominate those who opposed him. All knelt, all bowed before his greatness, and those who would not, those who dared to rise up, he would raise up, on a cross, to suffer and die. All the world knew his name, and all the world feared it. He was called Augustus Caesar, lord and savior, son of god.
Long ago, in a little Galilean backwater, there lived a young man, a young man who was kind. Although demons trembled at the mention of his name, although he had the power to make the world bow, he didn’t. He healed the sick, comforted the afflicted, and lifted up the lowly. He sought out the outcasts, the rejected, those with no standing and no rights and told them that they welcomed, that they are loved, that they are important. Ultimately, he did the unthinkable. He surrendered himself to death, even to death on a cross. The one whom humanity turned it’s back on long ago, became sin for humankind. Suffering a death that was meant to both agonize and humiliate, the weight of all sin, all the blood and bile of everyone who was, is, or ever will be, was held on his titanic shoulders. And in his death, death itself died. Murdered by an empire, crushed beneath the heel of Rome, he would not long lie vanquished. Three days later, he thrust off the boot that thought it had ground him to dust, and with the carcass of death itself, glut the grave. We know his name, for his name we praise. He is Jesus the Christ, lord and savior, son of God.
In a post-Constantine world, in a world where Christians where no longer a small persecuted sect, but a dominant religious power, in the church and in those lands touched by both the church and the old Roman empire one of the great spiritual and ideological battles has been between two ideals of greatness: the ideal of Caesar, and the ideal of Christ, between the crown and the cross. On one hand is the ideal of Caesar, the notion that greatness is found in dominance, in pride, in the ability to “show ‘em who’s boss” and put others in their place, to have the strength to beat down. On the other is the ideal of Christ, the notion that greatness is found in humility, compassion, and love, that to be truly strong is to have the strength to lift up. What is greatness? Where is true strength found? Is it in the crown or the cross?
Even after all this time, Paul’s words, Paul’s description of Christ, is still shocking, still scandalous and counter-intuitive.
“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.” – Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV)
God is humble? Strength incarnate is gentle? Glory made flesh is humble? The scandal of the Christian faith is that it teaches that the most glorious thing that has ever been done, the ultimate act of greatness and strength is when the God of all creation emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and being found in human form humbled himself to death, even death on a cross. There is a reason Paul emphasizes that Christ humbled himself not only to death, but even to death on a cross. Crucifixion was not a normal form of execution. There is a reason that all of the rebels who were captured and executed after Spartacus’ slave rebellion were crucified. It was a death meant to both agonize and to degrade, to humiliate. The most glorious thing that has ever been done, the ultimate act of greatness and strength is when the God of all creation emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and being found in human form humbled himself to death, even death a humiliating a degrading death on a cross. (Pointing to the cross) This is glory, this is greatness, this is strength!
As scandalous, as counter-intuitive, as absurd as it may sound, there is something inside of us, there is somewhere where the prevenient grace of God speaks to our souls that says that it must be true. As silly of an image as it may be, I cannot help but think of the old episode of The Twilight Zone, where Rod Sterling came out in black and white and introduced story of a mean-spirited child with magical powers, who used his powers to terrorize his family and get whatever he wanted. Somewhere deep inside there is something which tells us that that is the attitude of a petulant child. Somewhere deep inside something tells us that a strong person would use such power to heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, and lift up the lowly, to seek the outcasts, the rejected, those with no standing and no rights, and tell them that they welcomed, that they are loved, that they are important. Somewhere deep inside something tells us that to be a strong person is to be like Christ
Yet, the appeal of the ideal of Caesar is strong, it speaks to a part of us, an old vice, a vice that has been with us since the very beginning and which was exploited in a lie as old as humanity itself, the lie told by the old serpent so long ago: “Exalt yoursssself. Forget your God, take what you want, and you will become like God.” The example of Jesus, the actions of the incarnate LORD of all creation show us just how foolish the old lie and the old vice really are.
Church, we have a choice to make, both as a church and as individuals. Who will we be? What ideal will we strive towards? Will we bow at the alter of the false god, of the old emperor who has long died, and stayed dead? Will we be proud and dominating and seek the strength to beat down? Or will we offer ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice to our true Lord and savior, the one true son of God? Will we follow his example of humility and love? Will we do the hard things that we do not want to do, because as difficult as they may be, they are kind? Will we seek the strength to lift up? Unless we are to resign ourselves to total apathy, we will ultimately choose one or the other. What will it be? Where will your heart lie? The crown or the cross?