Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sermon: Be Like Jesus

Philippians 2:1-11 (Matthew 21:1-11)
Be Like Jesus
James Sledge                                                                                       April 9, 2017

When I was a young boy, my grandmother would sometimes sew matching Easter sport coats for me and my younger brother. There are pictures of the two of us in our pastel shorts, plaid jackets, and bow ties. Some years the Easter baskets made the picture as well.
I’m talking about Easter a week early because when I was a kid, Palm Sunday and Easter pretty much ran into one another. Palm Sunday was when you started the pre-Easter celebration. The new sport coats and ties and Easter dresses would have to wait another week, but on Palm Sunday we got to wave our palm branches and parade around, pre-game festivities before the big event.
I’m sure I learned about the Last Supper, Jesus’ arrest, and the cross. They must have  come up in Sunday school. Plus the Lord’s Suppers that happened four times a year were mostly focused on Jesus’ sacrifice. But for me, Holy Week started with a parade, and then, next stop, Easter baskets and candy and new clothes and an overflowing church singing and celebrating. From one celebration to the next.
If only there were not a cross between this Sunday and next. That would make this whole Easter business so much easier. Christianity without a cross would be so much more fun. The crowds in Jerusalem who shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! could just keep shouting. They could join me in exchanging their palms for Easter baskets and new sport coats.
But it turns out there is a cross, and the crowds don’t much care for it. Jesus was supposed to rescue them, throw out the Romans, make their lives better, put the Democrats or the Republicans in power, depending on how you read your scriptures. But Jesus gets himself arrested and by Friday the crowd is shouting, “Let him be crucified!”
We have an advantage over the crowds. We’ve seen how this movie ends so we can just stay away on Thursday and Friday if we want. We can skip the cross and exchange our palms for Easter baskets and new Easter outfits.
But not if Paul has anything to say about it. What a spoilsport. Just because following Jesus has gotten him beaten, run out of town, and imprisoned more times than he can count, he seems to think that all Jesus’ followers need to embrace the cross.
Of course Jesus says the same thing, says that no one can be his follower without taking up their cross. He’s pretty insistent on that point, but his own disciples run when Jesus gets arrested. They didn’t yell, “Let him be crucified!” like the crowds, but like the crowds, they hoped to exchange palms for Easter baskets and new sport coats.

Only after that first Easter do Jesus’ teachings start to make sense to them. Then the disciples start speaking and acting as Paul does. They get arrested and beaten, and some get executed.
Paul himself is in prison when he writes the congregation in Philippi. The famous part of our scripture today probably isn’t written by him. It’s apparently a hymn sung by the earliest Christians. Paul borrows it to make a point, like a preacher quoting a song or poem. But before employing the hymn, Paul makes the plea that the song supports. Although he is in prison, he will be filled with joy if the Philippians are living out the gospel.
“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Put the interests of others ahead of your own. Don’t be divided left and right, blue and red, Republican and Democrat. Don’t take advantage of your position or power. Instead use it to help others, just like Jesus. Be like Jesus. Then the hymn reminds us what Jesus is like.
Be like Jesus. Perhaps that seems a tall order, but we sometimes speak that way. We say we’re children of God, and that makes us brothers or sisters of Jesus. Surely there should be some family resemblance. And we talk of the church as the body of Christ. I’m pretty sure that requires looking and thinking and acting a bit like Jesus.
“Let the same mind be in you…” Think like Jesus, says Paul. I know how to think like a consumer, to think like an American and a southerner and a white male and a pastor and a Presbyterian. But I’m not sure any of that means I know how to think like Jesus. Besides, I know that it has something to do with a cross, and I prefer parades and Easter baskets.
In the second of the two creation stories in the book of Genesis, the one sometimes called the Adam and Eve story, the temptation that leads the human creatures to disobey God is the promise that they will be like God. Who wouldn’t want to be like God, to be in control, to have power, to answer to no one. Well of course they grasped for that forbidden fruit.
This story is often misunderstood and misused, as though it were an explanation for how the world got in this mess or, worse, a reason to subjugate women. But the story is actually the story of every man and every woman. It is a story teller’s account of the human condition, describing the human grasping and striving that can lead to great advances, but that also leads to great tragedies and suffering.
Yet in our grasping and striving, our desire to become like gods, it seems that we have made a fundamental miscalculation. We’ve misunderstood the nature of God. We’ve projected our nature onto God and imagined that God is simply our striving and grasping and achieving taken to the nth degree. Then Jesus shows us the face of God.
God turns out to be much different than we had expected. God is relational and self-giving within God’s very being. Jesus does not exploit, hold onto, or grasp his divinity. He lets it go, offering himself for the sake of others. The Jesus of Good Friday completely upends our notions of power and greatness and, finally, of God.
It is a bit unsettling, which is why it is so tempting to rush from palms to Easter baskets. But if we would go with this one who calls us to deny self and embrace the cross, who says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” we must stop and linger on Friday. For it is at Golgotha, at the cross, that we will see God most clearly. It is at the cross, that we will discover the meaning of faith, and of our full humanity.

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