The Sunday before Easter is Passion Sunday or Palm Sunday, which introduces Holy Week, the most celebrated and important week in the Christian calendar that hallmarks the final days of our Lord’s passion. The distinctive ceremonies of the day are the blessing of the palms, the procession representing Jesus’ so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem a week before His resurrection. The Passion Sunday procession is attested for in Jerusalem as early as the 300’s. The palms themselves carry the symbol of the victor’s entrance into the city. The entire ceremony and biblical texts are full of irony and miscalculations on the part of the people, missing the true meaning of Christ’s intent to conquer by the cross.
Today’s Gospel and Epistle readings of the Messiah’s passion set forth the central act of God’s self-revealing love for humankind. In the reception of the Lord’s true body and blood, the Church receives this life-giving love.
The Palm is an ancient symbol of regality and victory – an appropriate symbol as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, the seat of David. But so far from ascending the throne of David as the new Solomon, Jesus is coronated on the Cross. It would be from Golgotha that Jesus will reign over the kingdoms of the earth. Our procession of palms bears resemblance to the character of a protest march, a veritable political witness that Christian allegiance is to “the kingdom of our once-crucified Lord” and not to “the kingdoms of this world.” Indeed, it is fidelity to Christ and not Caesar.
The temptation will be to gloss over the epistle for exclusive proclamation from the Gospel lesson. This would be a mistake. Preachers would do well to allow Philippians 2 to illuminate and provide depth to what takes place during Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem perhaps. It says, yes, this is the world’s rightful King, but a king not like the world has ever seen. This King gives and does not think being equal with God a thing to be taking from others. It is a sobering meditation, in fact, a song in stanzas, on what Christ gave up for us, opening a door to the Four Gospels’ respective accounts of the events of Holy Week.
This King gives and does not think being equal with God a thing to be taking from others.
Paul sets before us a glimpse at the two ages of which Scripture speaks and of which our reality is composed. There is “this present age” that Jesus refers to more precisely as “this present evil age,” and the “the age to come,” which is already here for the children of faith; it has dawned for all who have been baptized into Christ. For those who live by faith and not by sight, the two ages overlap in our life within the Church here and now. We are living in the age to come, right now, although not fully, but in part.
Now bear with me, these two ages are encapsulated in one principle theme and pattern laid out for you in Philippians chapter 2. The theme and pattern, in fact, is another way of understanding all four Gospels. Paul wants us to see this “present evil age” is dominated by a theology of glory and “the age to come” is dominated by a theology of the cross. They are two ways of understanding and interpreting all of reality, but especially the ways and nature of God.
We find both theologies-the glory one of this present evil age and the cross theology of the age to come-right here in Philippians 2. Christ was God but, contrary to the self-styled gods who were the Roman Caesars, the Creator of Heaven and Earth came, “...in the form of a servant.” It turns out the Anointed King of all the Earth, “...did count being equal with God a thing to be taking [snatching!] from others,” but rather astonishingly self-giving. “He made Himself nothing, being born in the likeness of men,” though He was the glorious Son of God. In the face of the extravagance and entitlement of Tiberius Rex, King Jesus, “...humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.” That is the theology of the cross, the theology of the age to come, the theology of God’s coming Kingdom which has already broken into our reality by way of a grizzly execution on Mount Golgotha and the surprising vacancy of a nearby tomb. This theology stands in stark contrast to the theology of glory which seeks after signs and wonders and spiritual intimacies with a toothless and domesticated Jesus who panders like a bellhop to satisfy one’s felt needs.
Everything in this present evil age is power, wealth, glory, and pleasure. But it is laws and power-plays, manipulation, status, image. In a word, the theology of glory is the ideology of entitlement. It manifests itself through conspicuous consumerism, selfishness, the small-mindedness of envy and the celebration of the cult of celebrity. It is about glossy tabloid pictures. It is about getting your own, your due. It is about “show me the money,” and while you are at it, show me the glitz, tell me my fortune, and get busy catering to my felt needs. It is about entitlement yielding a culture of compensation. I want to experience God and it better be more glorious, more titillating than I can imagine – just as the TV prophets say. “Show me your face O God; Moses was not worthy, but I am; because, after all, I am a North American Christian with a robust self-esteem. Let me peek behind Your curtains and catch You in Your glory and splendor. Show me the Jesus of the resurrection!
But the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the age of Christ to come, is not a kingdom of power and glory but of suffering and humiliation. With a theology of the cross, the emphasis is on His suffering and His humiliation. It is our Great King beat up, bloodied, and crucified naked for the world to see... and mock if they so choose. Get that picture and you begin to get an idea of what Paul is getting at in Philippians 2. That is what Palm Sunday is all about. The theology of glory calls it the “triumphal entry.” Meanwhile, Jesus is weeping, lamenting the reality of the situation. The people hail Him, and all the while are plotting to betray Him and see Him killed. The theology of glory wants to see Jesus and His entourage take up residence in Jerusalem’s Royal Palace. Instead, Christ’s theology of the cross has Him beat down the Via Dolorosa and take up residence on Golgotha. The theology of glory has Jesus ascending David’s throne in Solomon’s portico. The theology of the cross has the Messiah nailed to a tree for His coronation. Perceive the ironies and you catch a glimpse of what Christ gave up for us. Get the picture and one might perceive God as God is in Himself.
The theology of glory has Jesus ascending David’s throne in Solomon’s portico. The theology of the cross has the Messiah nailed to a tree for His coronation.
What Christ gave up for us were two things. First, there is glory. He made Himself of lowly estate, and thereby shocks our sensibilities. We expect Him to be living large in the city’s palace. Instead, he is betrayed by a friend whom He loved. The rest of the disciples leave Him for dead in the cemetery of Gethsemane. No, the glory we expected was left behind. He exchanged it for the glory of a public execution.
Second, Jesus gave up blood for us. For many, this smacks of slaughter-house theology. There are nails, blood, spears, torn flesh, and a corpse left on a cold slab. Our eternal salvation is carried out in grotesquely physical categories without the magical waving a spiritual wand or the granting of a chit we could cash at the great repository of forgiveness in the sky. No, it is these two things – glory and blood – that Christ, our God, gave up for us. His beatific glory He left behind in Heaven. His blood He left behind on the instruments of His torture and the cross of His death.
Jesus Christ, the true Son of God, gave up His blood for us. Leviticus 17:10-11 says:
“If anyone of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face upon that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes the atonement by the life.”
In the Old Testament one was forbidden to eat, that is, drink blood because the life is in the blood. Then Jesus comes along and explodes the Jewish worldview by declaring in John 6:
“Truly, I say to you, unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him.”
It is this life-giving, sin atoning blood that is offered to us in Holy Communion. “Take, drink. This is the cup of the New Covenant in My blood poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.” The atonement began with His bloody birth, His eight-day circumcision, and it continued with His blood-sweat agony in Gethsemane and scourging in the Praetorium. Then it climaxed with his crucifixion and the piercing of His side from which blood and water flowed. It is this blood, given to us under the auspices of wine and Holy Communion, we are to take and drink for our salvation. What was once forbidden because animals cannot fully atone for sins, now through the Christ whose blood truly atones and bears the health which is the divine life we are bid to have our most intimate communion. It is to commune not with the animals, but with your life-giving God. Christ gave up His blood for us while in the inglorious state of a humiliated servant and, thereby, the Messiah of God saves us from our sin, from the judgment due us, and even from death.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Philippians 2:5-11.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Philippians 2:5-11.