A Sermon for Sunday: Palm Sunday | Revd Dr Robert Wilson

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Almighty and everlasting God, who didst will that our Saviour should take upon him our flesh and suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility; mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience and also be made partakers of his resurrection.

Today is Palm Sunday and we once again have represented liturgically to us the drama of the events of Holy Week. The Collect recalls how the Saviour not only took upon him our human nature and dwelt among us, but above all came to suffer and to die that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility. We pray that we may both follow the example of his patience and also be made partakers of his resurrection.

The words of the Collect provide a summary of the content of today’s epistle in which St. Paul exhorts the Philippians to follow the example of Christ’s humility. He then expounds on this theme by quoting from what is usually thought to be an early Christian hymn. Christ “who being in form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man.” Though Christ fully shared in the divine nature he did not think equality with God was something to be grasped at, but he rather emptied himself and took our nature upon him and dwelt among us. God’s almighty power was shown most chiefly in showing mercy and pity, for it is the nature of the divine love to give of itself. “He humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” The extent of the divine compassion is shown in that not only was the Word made flesh and dwelt among us, but that he was also a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, who was wounded for our transgressions and was chastised for our iniquities. Hence, he became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. “For which cause God also has exalted him, and given him a name which is above all names: that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth and under the earth: and that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.” Having shown the depth of the divine compassion and humility, the hymn concludes by making the extraordinary claim that the divine name has been bestowed upon Jesus. This is done by quoting from one of the strongest statements of the divine sovereignty in the Bible, in which the prophet Isaiah states that at the name of God every knee should bow and every tongue confess. But now St. Paul (or the hymn from which he is quoting) states that the Lord to whom every knee should bow and every tongue confess is the Lord Jesus Christ. He used the Greek word Kyrios, meaning Lord, which is the word that the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Old Testament which was used by Greek speaking Jews) uses for God. In other words, St. Paul is making absolutely clear that Jesus fully shares in the nature of God.

It is important to emphasise this point because it is often supposed that the message of Jesus was later corrupted by the early Church into one of unnecessary theological complexity by forming doctrines about the Incarnation and the Trinity. Such a statement, though often made, simply does not fit with the evidence. In claiming that Jesus was divine the early Christians were not abandoning monotheism and adopting the cult of a pagan style divine figure. On the contrary they were reaffirming monotheism for they were still worshippers of the one God of Israel, by whom every knee would bow and every tongue would confess. But they now knew that this God had fully revealed himself in Jesus Christ, who fully shared in the nature of God, but had also taken our nature upon himself, and had lived on earth and dwelt among us, even to the extent of suffering and dying for us. The divine nature was most fully revealed, not in power and might, but in showing mercy and pity. All the later elaborations of the debates about the Trinity and the Incarnation that were clarified by the Councils of the early Church are simply elucidations of what St. Paul is saying in today’s epistle.

Today’s epistle also shows that Jesus Christ is not only fully God, but also fully man. Whereas the first Adam had thought that equality with God was something to be grasped at and had consequently fallen into sin, the Second Adam, though he fully shared in the nature of God, did not see this as something to be grasped at but rather humbled himself and so did for us what we could not do for ourselves. He thereby reversed the curse of sin and death that fell upon our race as a consequence of the sin of the first Adam.

As Newman’s great hymn has it:

O loving wisdom of our God

When all was sin and shame

A second Adam to the fight

And to the rescue came

O generous love that he who smote

That did in Adam fail

Should strive afresh against the foe

Should strive and should prevail

Our race has been cursed from the beginning by the sin of pride. It would be redeemed from the sin of pride, of grasping at equality with God, by the humility of God coming in person to rescue us from sin and death. The world saw power in terms of force. Indeed, when St. Paul was writing the cult of the Emperor was the fastest growing religion. In saying that Jesus Christ is Lord he was not simply indulging in a piece of speculative theology but saying that Caesar, the apparent ruler of this world, was not the true Lord. The Roman Empire was based on the cult of the strong leader, the belief that Caesar is Lord. But the Christian faith was based on the one who revealed his power in showing mercy and pity. The kings of the Gentiles, Jesus said, exercise authority and they are called benefactors, but it is not so among you. For in the Kingdom of God the humble will be exalted, the first shall be last and the last first. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

O love how deep, how broad how high!

How passing thought and fantasy

That God, the Son of God should take

Our mortal form for mortals sake.

He sent no angel to our race

Of higher or of lower place,

But wore the form of human frame,

And he himself to this world came

For us for wicked men betrayed,

Scourged, mocked in crown of thorns arrayed;

For us he bore the cross’s death;

For us at length gave up his breath.

For us he rose from death again,

For us he went on high to reign,

For us he sent his Spirit here

To guide, to strengthen and to cheer.

All honour, laud and glory be,

O Jesu, Virgin born to thee,

All glory as is ever meet,

To Father and to Paraclete.

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