The Same Attitude

Sermon for Palm Sunday
March 24, 2024

In our Bibles, between Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians, we find another letter—the one to the Philippians. Paul wrote it while he was in prison. But since Paul had been arrested more than once, we’re not sure exactly which time this was.

The church Paul wrote to was in the Macedonian city of Philippi, which was named after the father of Alexander the Great. The city was destroyed by the Turks in the 1300’s, but during Paul’s day, it was a major Greek city.

When Paul first visited Philippi with Silas, the pair was accused of disturbing the peace because they were preaching the gospel. Since he founded the church there, Paul had especially warm feelings toward the Philippians. And so he was especially upset when someone came after Paul, teaching this church that faith wasn’t enough, that the gospel wasn’t sufficient. There were certain other things they needed to do before they could be considered to be “in Christ.”

I can relate, I think. A couple of years ago, the United Methodist congregation I grew up in was sort of forced to merge with a much larger congregation in my hometown. They put the building up for sale that held so many memories for me. I can understand why this had to happen. But what I couldn’t understand was why—a year after the merger—the new church that was formed voted to leave the denomination.

This happened to another church that I served as an interim pastor. The pastor they called at the end of my time with them disliked the United Church of Christ and as soon as he’d driven enough of the old guard off, he had them vote to leave the UCC.

Obviously, I don’t think it’s a good thing to abandon a denomination that helped make a church what it is. And I relate it to how Paul felt when some preacher came in after him and tried to lead a church he loved in a direction that he felt was wrong.

One of the things that this new preacher taught—and the thing that seems to upset Paul the most—was circumcision. Paul says that, for Christians, circumcision is spiritual, not physical. And he says that it’s evil to teach it as something required in addition to faith.

Another major theme in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is the incarnation. This is a fancy word for fleshing-out—and reflects the idea that Jesus Christ is God-in-the-flesh. The first time we read about this in the New Testament is in the first chapter. Matthew (1:23) connects Isaiah’s prophecy (7:14) about the birth of Emmanuel (God-with-us) with the birth of Jesus.

I’ll circle back to this later, but first, Why is this passage from Philippians read on Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week? First of all, Philippians 2:5-11 is probably the most magnificent poem in any of Paul’s letters—maybe the most beautiful canticle in the New Testament outside the Gospel According to Luke.

Some people believe Paul wrote these verses himself. Other people believe that Paul was doing something that modern pastors still do all the time: that he was quoting a hymn that everybody in that day and age knew. Either way, the words are still beautiful—and deeply meaningful.

The song opens with a call for the church—everybody in the church—to be like Christ, to have the same mind, the same attitude toward life that Christ had. He might have come into the world as the most exalted of all beings—a being that was equal to the Almighty. But he didn’t.

Do you remember the passage I read at the beginning of the service—the one that told the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem? That event is one of the ways that the mind of Christ—Jesus’ attitude—was revealed. He was Messiah, the Son of God. He could’ve entered Jerusalem as a conqueror, on the finest horse in Judea. But instead he rode a donkey.

The Prophet Zechariah (9:9) wrote about this: Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—riding on a donkey’s colt. Instead of looking like a king, Jesus looked like a servant. And the donkey wasn’t just for show—his life had been spent serving others. He lived as a servant and taught servanthood, so to enter his capital city in any other way would’ve been false advertising.

I mentioned a minute ago that the incarnation was a theme we find in Philippians, and here’s what I’m talking about: Verse 2:7 says that he gave up his divine privilege; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. There’s really no clearer description of the incarnation anywhere in the New Testament.

And if Paul didn’t pull any punches in that last verse I mentioned, in verse 8, he goes to the extreme. He’s telling the absolute truth, but it’s a truth that’s hard to hear. Paul says that when God became human, his humiliation was so complete that he died—not honorably, but as a criminal, by being crucified.

Christians have tried for two thousand years to capture the message of the cross in pictures and in words. Paul’s hymn here in Philippians 2—(once again) a hymn that he either wrote or was quoting—is probably the best. But we know countless others—to name but a few: The Old Rugged Cross, In the Cross of Christ I Glory, or the song we’re going to sing later in the service,

When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died,
my richest gains I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?

It’s only after the cross of humiliation that Paul gets to the glorification. Here and in the Gospel According to John, in fact, we see that Christ’s humiliation was his glorification. To be lifted on the cross out of commitment to his saving mission was to be lifted above all things, so that at the Name of Jesus, every creature should lower their body and raise their voice in worship of the One who was crucified.

Christianity seems normal to us, and Christians are associated with good citizenship and good morals in most of our minds. But when you think about it, ours is a weird religion. It teaches us of God, who came to us not to be served, but to serve us. And in so doing, he taught us that there’s glory in service. Yes, he was a victorious King—but the cost of that victory was beyond the human ability to calculate it.

And so, if we would have the same mind—the same attitude—that was in Christ, then we must first learn humility and service. It’s how we need to enter the holiest week of the year. And it’s what we should remember when we wake up next Sunday. We can only reach the empty tomb, the Easter flowers, and the hymns of triumph by carrying a cross.
—©2024 Sam Greening