The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, Year A.
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
It started with the man from Macedonia, or rather a vision of a man. Though the man had called them to Macedonia asking for help, they never found him. Or perhaps they did find him, though not in the way they had envisioned. They had no intention, or perhaps it had not yet crossed their minds, to go to Macedonia. They had plans to go to Asia, and failing that, Bithynia, but both had been thwarted. Without a “Plan C” and unsure where to go, they ended up in Troas, the nearest city where they had a small office, to plan their next move. Here where they were lost and unsure to what God was calling them, is where the man from Macedonia called, asking for help. Without question, hesitation, or even really knowing where they were going (Macedonia is a large region after all,) or who they were meeting, they set sail for Macedonia.
Macedonia would, like all their previous travels, present unique difficulties and dangers to the Mission. Unlike the far-flung and obscure colonies of the Empire they had worked in that had a, to put it politely, complicated relationship with the capital and the Emperor, Macedonia was a region of patriots. Macedonia was a place where battle-hardened veterans reaped their rewards. Many of the Macedonian citizens were retired legionaries, as much of the land was designated as the pension for long-loyal, though now aging, soldiers. Talk of a new king would not be welcomed, and any pragmatic campaign manager would advise them not to waste their time in Macedonia. Yet they had been called, and so they went.
They ended up in Philippi, one of the premier cities of the colony, bearing the prestigious name of Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great and conqueror in his own right. They did not find the man who had called them, but a woman, Lydia, a trader of purple cloth. She opened her heart and her home to them, and they settled in for what they assumed would be a season of Mission.
Their stay with Lydia was cut short.
While they were conducting their work, they got into trouble. They freed a woman from her exploiters and were arrested for disturbing the peace and threatening the city’s traditional values. They were beaten in public and thrown into jail.
Yet their stay in jail was cut short.
This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that they would be imprisoned. Even in jail, they continued their Mission, befriending their jailors, singing songs, and telling the story. Some of their jailors opened their hearts to them, and whole households joined the Mission. They were soon released from jail when the magistrates realized they had made a procedural error respective to their rights as citizens. The magistrates were forced to apologize to the company, and asked them to respectfully leave the city, so as not to cause more trouble for everyone.
They declined the request and went to stay with Lydia again.
Yet their stay with Lydia was short. Though they had not spent much time in Philippi, nor met the man from Macedonia that had called them, the Mission was already maturing past needing them. Lydia, their former Jailors, and others were now sharing the story themselves. Though their stay was brief, they had made lifelong friends, and with hurried goodbyes they left. They had to go sooner than was expected, as trouble was brewing in Thessalonica. [Acts 16]
Years later, a man named Epaphroditus was sent from Philippi to with a mission to visit a prisoner. He brought with him money, food, and well-wishes from Philippi to the prisoner. He also brought news: their community had grown in number and vibrance. The Mission had seen success, and the story was being shared all over the region. Yet, with the success had come resistance. The authorities were not keen to hear about a new king, nor were they pleased with the challenge to their traditional values. Macedonia was the home and heritage of kings and conquerors, not servants or condemned criminals. Their community, as all communities do in times of stress and growth, was also suffering from internal struggles. Questions of leadership, procedure, rivalries, and petty squabbles had become distractions from the Mission the prisoner had brought to them so long ago. With delight at the gifts and good news, Paul the prisoner, writes a short letter with thanks, and some advice, to go with Epaphroditus back to Philippi.
The heart of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is the Christ-Hymn which comprises our reading. Unlike Paul’s other letters where a single theological point is developed over a long-form argument, the letter to the Philippians is full of vignettes around a central theme. We are unsure exactly who composed the Christ Hymn, as it is one of our earliest explicitly Christian poems. It may have been Paul, or Paul may have modified an existing poem for his theological point, regardless it is one of the most important, and concise, expressions of the doctrine of Incarnation in Christianity. Yet it’s historical significance, prominence in the Bible, and prestige of its association with Paul distracts us modern readers from the radical challenge to the status quo. We have become so familiar with the story of Jesus, the shocking revelation that the pre-eminent, eternal God, Word of Creation, would become man, not to be met with rejoicing and parades in the street (at least more than once), but to suffer, be persecuted, humiliated, unjustly punished and ultimately executed, has become domesticated, quaint even, to modern listeners of the Mission. Even when hearing the Christ-Hymn, our eyes glaze over the poem so quickly we miss the command that Paul is giving us: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ”.
The opening of the hymn, the command to be in the same mind as Jesus Christ, is often disregarded in favor of the rest of the poem, yet it is the challenge that both inspires the poem and is the central focus of the letter. The wording is a bit clunky in English, which might be why it is so easily overlooked, but the central theme Paul is trying to convey is the challenge of Christians to see their own story as imitating the story of Jesus. In other words, “Living as a Christian means seeing your own story as a lived expression of Jesus’ Story” [-Timothy Mackie, The Bible Project: Philippians]. The Christ-hymn is a condensed version of Jesus’ story, provided as a reminder that the followers of Christ are to imitate Christ, particularly when facing hardship and suffering.
Paul uses himself as an example in the beginning of his letter to the Philippians. After the necessary greetings and thanks, he cuts to what his friends are most concerned about: his imprisonment. Yet Paul is not at all worried about his circumstances, as he interprets his own suffering through the story of Jesus. For Paul, any outcome of his own circumstances would glorify God, because through is faith and sharing of Jesus’ story, he is participating in Jesus’ salvific act on earth. He writes, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again” (Philippians 1:20-26). Paul recognizes the dire situation he is in, he may be executed for sharing the Gospel, but because he sees his own participation in Jesus’ story of sacrifice and triumph, no matter what happens, Paul knows it will ultimately be made good. It will be redeemed through Christ. If he dies, he will be reunited with his Lord and get to reap the benefits of a citizen of heaven. If he lives, then he can continue his passion: sharing the Gospel of Jesus’ saving grace.
Seeing oneself as part of Jesus’ story is the wisdom that Paul shares with his friends at Philippi. For a city that prides itself in its patriotism, especially for citizens of Rome, Paul reminds all Christians that they are citizens of heaven. To see that oneself as a citizen of heaven is a kind of optimism that Christians, having heard the Good News of Jesus and how the story ends, can see beauty, hope, and the Gospel in all of life’s circumstances, even the most dire. That each and every one of us can see our stories as being part of Jesus’ story. That in all things we are given the privilege and responsibility of sharing the Gospel to the world. That our suffering is redeemed through the suffering and triumph of God.
This passage is chosen for Holy Week as a reminder of what we are meant to do in these last days before Easter. Holy Week is where we in a very literal sense participate in Jesus’ story. On Palm Sunday we serve as both the cheering crowd at Christ’s entrance to Jerusalem, and the ruthless mob screaming for Christ’s execution. We will be with Christ and the disciples in the upper room, at the foot of the cross. And if we approach with faith, on that fateful morning, we will be among the women who discover the empty tomb. With them, we will rediscover Christ’s redemption of suffering, and triumph over death.