Sermon from February 2, 2020. 4 Epiphany A. Matthew 5:1-12.
Borrowing generously from Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Benediction, “Blessed are the Agnostics.”
The other day I was skimming through Facebook and saw this ad:
Disciple Fast Track. I had to do a double take. Seeing this add made me stop and consider what the purpose of this program might be. I read a little bit more about it.
“Fast Track … is ideal for busy people who want to fit a comprehensive Bible study into their schedule.”
I no doubt think that the producers of this curriculum have the best intentions. In fact, it looks like it could be something that everyone would benefit from: a 24 session overview of both the Old and New Testaments. But I think the title of the series misses several crucial pieces of discipleship.
Busy lives are counter-productive. You don’t need me to remind you about sabbath. Sabbath is anti-empire. Sabbath makes us acknowledge that we aren’t really in control of anything. Instead of producing curriculum to meet the needs of busy lives, why not invite people to reorient their lives into something more holistic?
Discipleship is slow. Jesus walked around with his crew for three years. Relational bonds take an investment of time. Disciples are grown and cultivated, watered and nourished. You can’t mass produce them or assemble them in a production line.
Following Jesus is not a race. Calling it a “fast track” implies that there is competition. It implies that there is a slow track where all the losers end up. Arriving at the disciple finish line first means you win.
We don’t ever finish our participation in Christ. We never stop growing into the reality of what it means to be in Christ, guided by the Spirit, living lives of love to the glory of God. We don’t follow Jesus on a race track and there is not a faster lane. It is a journey, it has scenic views and side trails. Going faster doesn’t get you to the destination more quickly.
As I’m preparing to deliver the message at church this Sunday, I’m thinking about food deserts.
From Wikipedia: “A food desert is an area, especially one with low-income residents, that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. In contrast, an area with supermarkets or vegetable shops is termed a food oasis. The term food desert considers the type and quality of food available to the population, in addition to the number, nature, and size of food stores that are accessible. Food deserts are characterized by a lack of supermarkets which decreases residents’ access to fruits, vegetables and other whole foods. In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that 23.5% of Americans live in a food desert, meaning that they live more than one mile from a supermarket in urban or suburban areas, and more than 10 miles from a supermarket in rural areas.”
For those of us that live with an abundance of food security it can be hard to imagine not having whatever we want readily available to us at all hours. The gospel for this Sunday tells about how Jesus miraculously fed thousands with just a small amount of food available. Jesus was concerned about their well-being. He wanted the people to be really nourished, not just spiritually fed. What does that mean for us? How does the fact that we assemble around a table for communion every Sunday lead us to action?
The table is not just a place for us to commune with God privately. It is a sign of God’s overflowing abundance and desire for all to be fed, physically and spiritually.
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This passage, known as the “Christ Hymn,” is one of the most well-known parts of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It casts a vision of the fullness of Jesus’ identity. We hear the juxtaposition of Jesus’ humanity and deity. This hymn calls us to imagine the heights of his glory and the depths that he stooped down to in the incarnation.
An introduction to the book and structure of the letter to the Philippians:
It is significant that these are not just words, but lyrics. Paul was quoting an artistic representation of the person and work of the crucified and risen Christ. The use of hymns was not uncommon in early Christian worship, or in the surround culture.
“That the early Christians sang hymns is no surprise, for in addition to sharing a common meal and offering sacrifices, libations, and prayers to a deity, singing a hymn to honor and worship that particular god was common practice for ancient Mediterranean religious groups. To sing a hymn to a god or to a supremely powerful king or ruler was considered an act of worship, a way of bestowing respect and benefactions upon one whose powerful acts were worthy of divine honors.”
It is possible the text of the Christ Hymn was used in another way in worship, perhaps as a creedal statement or responsorial reading. The origin of the lyrics is also unknown. Paul could have written it. It could have been previously composed by another author and already widely disseminated amongst the early Christian communities. Or perhaps it was not well known and Paul was attempting to promote the hymn and advocate for its adoption in the church’s assemblies.
The text for the hymn makes several major theological points. First, it testifies to the preexistence of Christ (vs. 6 “he was in the form of God”). This idea is affirmed in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ…of one Being with the Father.” Jesus, the eternal Word of the Father, “was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). This theological concept has Jewish roots in the preexistent figure of divine Wisdom found in Proverbs 1:20-33, 8-9, Wisdom 7:22-10:21, and Sirach 24.
Second, the hymn points to a contrast between the first and second Adam’s choices. The first Adam was created in the image of God but desired to be higher through eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In turn he was brought lower, forced to work the soil for survival, and banished from the garden (Genesis 2:15-3:24). The second Adam (Jesus, Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49) was created in the form of God yet willingly went lower into a human form that was subjected to suffering and death. In turn he became exalted to the highest place through his humility.
Third, Christ’s humility to the point of death reframes another Jewish source, the suffering servant found in the prophet Isaiah (53:12). The bending of knees and the confession of tongues at the exaltation of Jesus is also a quotation from Isaiah (45:22-23). This hymn would have been a word exhortation to the community at Philippi. “If the one in the ‘form of God’ could humbly abdicate the dignity of his original status so as to suffer in order to show love for humankind, can the Philippians refrain from following his conduct?”
Join the Discussion – If you’d like to collaborate further and share your ideas, join the “Hymns in the New Testament” Facebook group.
For further study check out:
 Joshua W. Jipp, “Hymns in the New Testament”, n.p. [cited 13 May 2018]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/passages/related-articles/hymns-in-the-new-testament
 Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 350.
 Michael Cook, “Christ Hymn,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 357.
 Cook, “Christ Hymn,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 357.
 Cook, “Christ Hymn,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 357.
Did Jesus have to die in order to forgive the sins of the world? Consider this:
First, a few ideas about sin. Consider the creation and fall narrative from Genesis. Adam is perhaps best understood not as a historical person, but as a metaphorical character based on the people of Israel. Adam was created in the dust (Egypt), brought into the garden (promised land), given regulations (Torah), and was removed from the garden for breaking them (exile). The point I make is that the story of Adam is less about how sin entered the picture, and more about the wisdom of how God works amidst the people of Israel. In fact, sin is not mentioned as a punishment for Adam’s mistake. Death is the consequence of Adam’s trespass (Genesis 2:17). God’s response to the disobedience is the curse of labor (both in childbearing and cultivation, Genesis 3:16-19). The idea that sin entered the world through a historical couple is not found in the Old Testament, but is a theological development that occurs much later. (Check out this podcast from Pete Enns, from whom I borrowed this idea: https://www.peteenns.com/5-things-jesus-wants-know-adam-story/)
Second, I think death is the real issue being addressed in Jesus’ own dying. God comes to us (the whole world) in human form to live and die that death might be defeated. Jesus goes face-to-face with death in his own dying, so that the decay, sorrow, brokenness, and all the other messed up stuff in our world can be undone. Jesus dies to defeat death and bring new life. Why are things not perfect after Jesus death then? Because of the already-but-not-yet-ness of God’s kingdom and the new creation. We see slivers and peeks now.
Third, I feel that substitutionary atonement is less favorable when trying to explain all this. The Christus Victor motif, in my feeling, helps us understand this defeat of death in Christ’s dying. It helps us understand the shift from things decaying to things being in an everlasting state. It is in Christ’s weakest state that the true power of God is displayed. I would spin this as the triumph of life over death. Jesus’ death destroys our image of a wrathful God. God, “refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism” (Forde, p. 30). Left to our own theological deplorability, we make God out to be like us: vengeful, bean-counting, and insecure. Jesus came to take that notion of God to the grave and replace it with love. Jesus takes the mantle of a wrathful God and buries it down in the grave, rising to a new life where God is love.
Fourth, I think it is significant that the gospel writers tell us that Jesus quoted Psalm 22 from the cross. Was Jesus claiming forsakenness? Or was Jesus defaulting to the ingrained liturgical patterns of his Jewish heritage by speaking/singing David’s words? Or was Jesus starting to quote Psalm 22 with the intent of making it to the end and fulfilling the words, “To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (vs. 29-31)?
The degree to which Jesus Christ was knowingly involved in the politics of his time is a widely debated subject. Truthfully, we cannot say for certain. As much as we think we know the mind of Jesus, and as many books and sermons that have been written to give us insight, we still do not know whether his life and ministry were purposefully plotted for political reasons.
We do know King Herod, the political leader of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth, was terrified at the prospect of a newborn child that would threaten his power (Matthew 2:1-12). We also know that Jesus lived in a time and region that was politically charged. The Roman Empire was the latest in a line of regimes to claim control of the Palestine territory. There were several factions of Jewish people that presented ideologies for how they should be in relationship with Rome. Jesus didn’t completely align with any of them. John the baptizer influenced Jesus (Mark 1:4-11). It is thought that John was part of the Essenes, whose solution to the political question was to withdraw completely and not participate. Jesus caught the attention of the Pharisees when he ate with the wrong people. The Pharisees’ political agenda was to maintain purity through strict observance of Jewish laws (Mark 2:15-17).
In the end, Jesus was executed by the Roman state, at the request of the Jewish people, for sedition (Matthew 27:1-66). Jesus’ death was certainly for political reasons.
I am returning home from a week spent at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. I am beginning the work of my Master of Divinity degree and the road to Word and Sacrament pastoral ministry in the ELCA. The week was beautiful, thoughtful, and helped me feel hopeful about the journey ahead.
One of the courses gave us a question to chew on: “If someone were to ask you to tell them about Jesus, what would you say?” The tricky part – you can only use 50 words to answer the question. Here was my response:
“I would say that Jesus was a man that lived in the ancient Near East approximately 2000 years ago and I believe that he lived, died, rose again, ascended to God, and is reconciling all things to God through the incarnational work of his body, the church, in the Spirit.”
Today is an important event in the church’s calendar. Really? On Thursday? Ascension is essential to the story of Jesus. But why do we never hear about it or even really celebrate it? We celebrate Jesus’ ascension every year on the 40th day after Easter – which puts it on a Thursday every year. That’s why it doesn’t get as much play as other holy days. Sometimes we will include it on the Sunday after, sometimes not.
6When [the apostles] had come together, they asked [Jesus], “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Why is ascension so important? It really is the conclusion of the story of Jesus’ time on earth. Jesus was born, lived, died, rose again, and ascended to the right hand of the Father. In the first few centuries of the church, the ascension was so central to the story that they tied it into the resurrection story and celebrated it on Easter Day. So Easter was just as much about Jesus rising from the earth as it was about Jesus rising from the dead.
The Good News of the ascension is this – Jesus was a real human. He was like you and like me. He knew all the ups and downs of life that we know. And that same human Jesus ascends to join the Father and the Holy Spirit for eternity. Jesus goes ahead of us and leads us on in modeling that our lives are not just about our present realities. We have an eternal future ahead of us, and we see glimpses of it occasionally when things line up with the way God orders things. Jesus ascends because he is made new in the resurrection, and we in turn get to be new because of Jesus. And not only us but all of creation gets to be made new as we anticipate a heaven and an earth that are joined together with God.