April 17, 2011

W. Gregory Pope, preaching

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                                                    Matthew 5-7; Philippians 2:5-11

Since the Epiphany of our Lord, three and a half months ago, we have been mining the depths of the Sermon on the Mount.  Today as we enter this most holy of weeks, when the life of Jesus meets its consequence, we will see the ways in which Jesus practiced what he preached.  He taught and embodied his vision for a new world.  His words took on flesh.

Paul Tillich used the term “the New Being” to describe Jesus.  He is the One in whom we see what humanity will be in God’s new order, the vision toward which we all aspire.

This is good news and bad news for us.  The good news is this Magna Carta of God’s kingdom is the only way of life that can save this world gone so terribly wrong.  The bad news is when we live as Jesus taught and lived, we are likely to meet the same fate he did.


Jesus is the Sermon on the Mount, the One in whom all the Beatitudes seem to take flesh.

He was born meek and poor, a refugee, living under occupation of the world’s lone super power.

He died poor in spirit, at the end of his rope in the Garden of Gethsemane, crying out on Calvary in godforsakenness.

He was a man of many tears.  He mourned over Jerusalem.  He wept at the death of Lazarus.  He cried inconsolably in Gethsemane.  He mourned those things that broke the heart of God.

He was pure in heart, seeking first and only the kingdom of God he brought near.  And in his heart, we could see God.

He was merciful.  My, how he was merciful.  Shame was not his way.  He met people trapped in their sin and he lifted them up, and with grace gave them a new way of life.

He was a peacemaker.  Even at his arrest, he told Peter to put away the sword.  That’s not how things are done in the kingdom of God.  He was a reconciler, and in him all things will one day be reconciled.

He was persecuted because of his hunger and thirst for justice

He was the great light shining upon people who walked in the darkness of this world.

He was the salt that flavored the earth with love and grace.  And the welcome of God could be seen in the warmth of his smile.

He came to fulfill the law of God by pointing us toward the heart of what the law and the prophets were trying to teach in order to keep from us from falling into legalism and making the law a burden.

And yes he got angry, especially when religious leaders made the law a burden to carry or used the law to exclude.  It was a righteous anger, not the kind of anger he warns about that leads us to hate and to act violently, but an anger that corrects injustice and breathes holy fire when people are mistreated.

He never treated women as second-class objects of lust.  He had the self-control to speak with women in public (something not done in his day), and he lifted them up.  He listened to them with respect.  He taught them as a rabbi would teach a disciple (again, something not done in his culture).

He did not allow men to discard women through an easy divorce, leaving women homeless.  He called men to responsible living.

His words were truth and grace, yet full of divine mystery.

He gave to all who asked, never expecting anything in return.

He was beaten and spit upon, yet he did not retaliate.  He was tortured and did not lash out.  He loved the people who hated him and forgave the people who were killing him.

David Augsburger says, “Jesus chose the way of the cross as the clearest expression of how God confronts and deals with human evil - not by responding in kind, returning evil for evil, but by extending self-giving, nonresistant love.”1

He was a man of sincere piety and devotion, a person of fasting and prayer as he sought God’s path for his life.  He qualified his prayers with the words: “But not what I want, Abba, what you want.”  He was brave to pray for what he most wanted, most needed, but left the prayer in God’s hands to answer according to God’s deepest and best purposes.  He knew God not as a tyrant you had to appease, but a Father, a strong and tender motherly father, fatherly mother who cared about our every need and longed to hear our voices in prayer - not to hear us beg, but to enter into a deeper communion with us.

He had no possessions to store up, but trusted daily without anxiety in the goodness of God for food and clothing, for his very life.  His aim was higher than acquiring things for himself.  His eyes were set on the kingdom of God and the justice God wanted to see in the world.

He refused to judge.  And told us to do the same. 

He summed it all up, the call to just and righteous living, in words of gold that cover everything God has ever tried to tell us through the law and the prophets: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

This was his way.  He knew it was a narrow way, but it is the way that leads to life.  And to build our lives on doing his words is to build on the strongest of foundations.  It is to have a life of integrity that can stand when storms blow our way.

As followers of Jesus, we do what he taught in order to become the kind of person he was. He invites us to a way of living that transcends what our culture and often the church would consider the normal course of action.  Without a commitment to the kingdom of God and the strength of the indwelling Christ, we cannot do this.  Alone we do not have the capacity to behave in these extraordinary ways.


The life of Jesus was so extraordinary Paul put it to music in what is believed by scholars to be an early Christian hymn, either written by Paul or inserted by Paul into his letter to the Philippians.  No other passage in the New Testament pictures for us with such clarity and beauty who Jesus was and what he did.

Let the same mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus.

the same disposition of heart, the same internal perspective, the same inner life be in you that was in Jesus.

      who though he was in the form of God

with the power of God at his disposal

      did not think equality with God as something to be grasped

exploited, used to his own advantage.

That’s the way of the world, is it not?  We are taught from day one that the way to get ahead is to grasp all you can, to climb the ladder on top of other people, to conquer the world.

Jesus is about another way of living, another way of acting, another way of being human, another way of being divine in the world.

Jesus did not understand that equality with God meant snatching and holding on to almighty power, taking everything for himself.

But emptied himself, being born in human likeness, 
      taking the form of a slave.

Jesus did not consider that being equal with God meant taking everything for himself, but rather, giving everything away for the sake of others.

Are we being called here to rethink what it means to be like God?  We assume that God-likeness means having your own way, using your power to get what you want, controlling people and events.  But Jesus saw God-likeness essentially as giving yourself away.  Jesus came to show us that God is a self-giving God.

To be equal with God, then, does not mean filling oneself up, but emptying oneself out, serving humanity.

This is so vividly portrayed when, on the night Jesus is betrayed, takes on the role of a slave by picking up a towel and washing the feet of his disciples. Since God was in Christ, God through Christ became a slave. God entered human life as a slave - as a person without advantage, with no rights or privileges of his own for the express purpose of placing himself completely at the service of all humanity.  Christ’s whole life was characterized by self-surrender, self-denial, self-sacrifice.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient even to the point of death - even death on a cross.

The ultimate humiliation. 

The Latin word for cross is “crux.”  Crucifixion, or the cross, was far more than a painful way to die.  “Crux” was shorthand for shame, humiliation, embarrassment, dishonor, being cursed by God.  Some think the word “crux” was a swear word, another four letter word no one would dare even speak.  Unbelievably shameless.

But this is our humiliated God.  This God revealed in Jesus knows how to suffer and to give.  This God asks not “Who can I conquer?” but “Who can I serve?”  Our God is not selfish.  Our God is the endless, sacrificial, self-giving God.  This is not a God to obey because we are afraid of God.  No.  We follow God because this God captures our heart.


Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard told a parable about a king who one day was out surveying his kingdom, and he spots this beautiful maiden.  He gets back to his palace but can’t stop thinking about her.

This king was like no other king.  Everyone trembled before his power.  No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush any one who opposed him.  And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden who lived in a poor village in his kingdom.  How could he declare his love for her? 

In an odd sort of way, his kingliness tied his hands.  If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist.  No one dared resist the king.  But would she love him?

She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly?  Or would she live with him in fear, nursing a private grief for the life she had left behind?  Would she be happy at his side?  How could he know for sure? 

If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving bright banners, that too would overwhelm her.  He did not want a cringing subject.  He wanted a lover, an equal.  He wanted her to forget that he was a king and she a humble maiden and to let shared love cross the gulf between them.

So the king, convinced he could not elevate the maiden without crushing her freedom, resolved to descend to her.  He takes off his crown, steps down from his throne, dresses in peasant’s clothing, takes up residence in her village, and seeks to woo her on level ground. 

This was not just a disguise.  The king took on a totally new identity.  He emptied himself of all that made him king.  He renounced his throne to declare his love and win hers.


Does it work?  Only you can decide.  Because this story is not about a humble maiden.  It’s about you and me.

This is what our God is like.  Not coercive, almighty power.  But the power of love.

N. T. Wright says: “This is a God who is known most clearly when he abandons his rights for the sake of the world.”  This was embodied in the life of Jesus.

      Therefore, God has highly exalted him

exalted him to the highest place

and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Through the humiliation of “crux,” Jesus is “exalted.”  Being subjected to the ultimate shame doesn’t prevent Jesus from being highly honored.

How does that happen? How did shame and humiliation get turned into exaltation?  How did  something horrid get turned into something beautiful?  How did something so bad get turned into something so good?

It is the law of the kingdom of God.  In the divine order of things humbling oneself in self-emptying love leads inevitably to exaltation and honor.  Like Christ, we do the descending, and God does the raising up.

So in this most holy of weeks:

      Let us walk with Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem.  
      Let us sit with him in the upper room. 
      Let us pray with him in Gethsemane. 
      Let us be his companion all the way to cross.

And let us wait outside his tomb with hope that God will vindicate his life as the way to life and with resurrection power grant us courage to walk in newness of life.


1. Quoted in James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Life, InterVarsity, 2009, 128