A Provocation: Sunday of the Passion: April 14, 2019: Philippians 2:5-11

Philippians 2:5-11
2:5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

2:6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

2:7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,

2:8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.

2:9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,

2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

2:11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Once again, my Provocation for Palm Sunday from three years ago (look for it in the archives of this blog) is worth looking at this year, as well. There I reflect on the odd way the Palm Sunday story is told in the gospel of Luke. You can find it at http://tinyurl.com/ProvocationPalmSunday2016

I offer you this reflection on the passage from Philippians that is part of the lectionary for the Sunday of the Passion.

A Question or Two:

  • Why do so many singers and interpreters sing about domination and ultimate victory when they think about Philippians 2?
  • Why does Paul sing about humiliation and crucifixion, not power?
  • How does our love of power and victory and obvious happy endings distort Paul’s song?

Some Longer Reflections:

The Name above every name is not “Jesus.” This passage assigns to Jesus the Divine Name, the Name never pronounced so as not to drain it of its dynamic content. This song gives to Jesus the Name of the Mercy Attribute, the Name (the rabbis tell us) that is used when the storyteller is narrating God’s loving nurture for all of Creation, when God is claiming the Chosen People.

This Name is never spoken for reasons that make great sense to me. When my daughter (a professional now well-established in her career) wants to joke about manipulating me, she calls me “Daddy.” And then she asks me to do something she knows I would do without manipulation. That is the point of the joke. When one of the few people on earth who can call me
“Daddy” asks, the answer is yes. It just goes with having been given that name by your own child, just learning to talk. No one else can use that name, and it would be creepy if they did. It would empty it of the content and context that make it wonderful.

That is what “using God’s Name in vain” means, of course. “Vanity” draws its strength as a word out of the metaphor of hollow emptiness. Jews avoid with loving care any use of God’s Name that would hollow it out, empty it of the warm mercy that raises the Name above every other name.

The substance of that Mercy, in this passage, is the Incarnation, the emptying that transforms God into one who is NOT above it all, not exempt from mortality, not immune to death.

Stop and think about that. What does our fragile mortality contribute to our life?

  • A certain nagging fear, to be sure. When we drove away from the assisted living facility in which my parents spent their last years, we did it knowing that each parting might be a final parting. We know the same thing when our children get in the car to drive home, or when one of my students leaves my office.
  • An intense awareness of how precious time is. During the two years that my sister lived with ALS, we discovered that the delight of tree-ripened peaches was not diminished by her diagnosis. If anything, living in the presence of an invariably fatal disease made the taste wilder, more alive, more shockingly sweet.
  • A very real vulnerability that abusers know and exploit. Have you worked for a boss who reminded workers that it was easy to replace them? I have. “What are you going to do if you leave?” That’s a question abusers of all sorts ask of the people they have made vulnerable. We are murderable, and tyrants remind us of that fact to frighten us. That was the point made by Pilate’s crucifixion of Jesus. That is the point made by the current president of the U.S. when he mentions “Second Amendment remedies.”

So what is the impact of this embodied Mercy? First of all, God is now set in the context of real mortality, not above it. God learns what it means to be murderable. This transforms the way we are able to speak about God. And second, death is now set in the context of resurrection. “O Death, where is your sting?” sings Paul in another epistle. This is not a song to be sung lightly. We are no less murderable than we were before the Incarnation. We are no less fragile, and no less afraid. It will not do to pretend about this. But the resurrection of the murdered messiah directs our eyes to the teachers we need: Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Winona LaDuke. You can add to this list. You will think of people that I do not.

In a moment in history when “Second Amendment remedies” are mentioned by more people than the current president, when angry voices play at threatening civil war should an election go against them, remember that the life we need is often on the other side of death. That, unfortunately, has always been true. That is one of the points of giving the Name to the crucified messiah. That is one of the lessons taught to us by the children and students and grandmothers who faced fire hoses and police dogs on the way to getting an education or the right to vote. While you reflect on the murderable messiah and the Mercy of God, read the stories in Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. This is not the first time we have had to learn that death and resurrection are not nice little religious concepts; they are a matter of life and death.

LORD have Mercy.

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