This week, I had the opportunity to preach at two relatively different services at my internship site. I took that opportunity to actually prepare two different sermons. This one is based on the Epistle text, Philippians 2:5-11.
WWJD? What would Jesus do? You’ve probably heard this phrase before—maybe even in a sermon. WWJD was a slogan that became really popular back when I was in elementary school. Everyone seemed to be wearing it on their wrists and using it as a morality measure. When making a decision, you were to ask “What would Jesus do?” and then act accordingly.
It was more than that, though—looking back, it was also a measure of who was “in” and “out” of the loop as a Christian. Wearing one of those bracelets or asking that question—WWJD—meant you were a “good kid” or, even better for some, a “cool adult.”
In our letter to the Philippians today, we see some of that tension of who’s in and who’s out. Paul talks about what people ought to strive for and what they should try to avoid. Now, typical of Paul, he doesn’t address an issue if there isn’t a problem. In the first four verses that lead up to today’s reading, Paul says that one should avoid selfishness, vanity, and conceit while pursuing unity of mind, love, spirit, and purpose. In essence, put aside your arrogance for the sake of a united church body.
One point of clarification should be made here—Paul is not trying to promote a robot-like community where everyone thinks the same thoughts and says the same words. His letters as a whole lift up the richness of variety that comes with utilizing and celebrating the different gifts and opinions of each person in the community. If you’ve ever heard a great piece of music, you might have an idea of what Paul is trying to get at.
Music isn’t made by holding the same note forever, nor is it achieved by playing or singing a single-note melody line. That sort of music may be nice and good, but it takes on a whole new level when harmony is introduced—different notes complementing and completing each other to make them better than they were alone.
It is highly appropriate, then, that Paul uses these next verses to quote what has been deemed by some scholars as the “Christ Hymn.” Rather than using religious slogans or practices to determine who is “in” or “out,” Paul uses this commonly held piece to remind the Philippians what they hold in common and what sort of attitude or motivation should be underneath all that they do—however different they may be. Paul wants them to live in harmony—blending their differences beautifully with a common base.
How does he do this? He doesn’t invoke guilt—nor does he ask what Jesus would do. Paul simply reminds people what Jesus has done, which is probably more appropriate. One of my professors at seminary informed our class that was a better question to ask anyway, since not even Jesus’ closest friends could determine what Jesus would do. Look at our celebration of the entry into Jerusalem today—people are waving Palms and shouting “Hosanna!” expecting Christ to overthrow the Roman rulers. That’s what they thought Jesus would do.
But Paul gets it—he looks at what Jesus has done and asks others to do the same. Jesus had equality with God, yet he did not see this as something to be exploited. Equality with God and he didn’t exploit it?! I get excited if I get an A on my term papers—and I work to achieve them and keep them, and then I tell everyone if I actually get do succeed…and I don’t take an “F” in place of it. Jesus had equality with God and yet humbled himself to becoming human—becoming one of us—and dying on a cross. Dying on a cross—a worse death than most humans can imagine or will experience. That is what Jesus has done.
This text is especially appropriate for today as we remember that triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the expectations that everyone had for Jesus. We are reminded, even as we wave our Palms around, that Jesus wasn’t about earthly triumph or success. In fact, by the standards of the world, what Jesus did looked like failure at the time.
Then we read the second part of the hymn. God exalts Jesus, and at his name every knee should bend. Not just every knee on earth, either, but every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth. And it doesn’t say “your” knee, as though it’s just you and Jesus here, but “every” knee—including yours—so that it’s you and Jesus and each and every person you encounter that is included in this relationship. Again we’re back to that harmonious community. It’s a personal relationship, yes, but it’s more than that—it’s communal, not private, not something you can or should hide away, but something you experience within a larger community that is deeper and more beautiful when it’s brought together with its common attitude of service.
Today we start Holy Week—a week that will continually remind us that Jesus is not about arrogant triumphalism or self-centered achievement. Jesus is someone who went to death on the cross in his humility. We will live through this pain, and we will go deeper into the meaning of it all as the week progresses. Eventually, we will get to Easter, where we find not earthly victory but something much greater.
Christ is raised, and death is conquered. As it says in verses 9-11, God has exulted him, and that is why we confess Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of God.
Looking at this hymn of the early church, we are reminded with the Philippians of our common foundation in Jesus Christ, our redeemer and king. This foundation informs our beliefs, which inform our actions. Paul reminds us of what Jesus has done, the question now is what we will do.
Will we try to live in harmony, asking how we can complement and live for one another while using our own gifts?
Will we try to hide away our gifts, hoping no one will notice?
Will we live for ourselves alone—looking out for our interests?
Chances are, we will end up doing a little of each—we are human, after all. But that is what community is for—remembering who we are and whose we are. We are God’s, claimed in baptism forever, freed from sin, and called to live in harmony as we sing our praises to God with our whole lives. Amen.