Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) Year B

Philippians 2:5-11 is one of the New Testament’s truly majestic texts.

April 5, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11

Philippians 2:5-11 is one of the New Testament’s truly majestic texts.

I encourage the preacher to consider this text for Palm Sunday instead of, or at least alongside, the Gospel lection of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The breadth of its Christology catches the breath of even the most jaundiced exegete. It should not frighten away timid preachers, who might inadvertently deprive congregations of a gospel they can sink their teeth into. Let me suggest three possible entrance points into Paul’s testimony.

First, consider the stark distinctions within the text itself. Whether or not we accept Philippians 2:5-11 as a pre–Pauline hymn, there’s no denying this lection’s concentrated juxtapositions.

It unfolds in two perfectly balanced stanzas: verses 6-8 and verses 9-11. Within each are evocative contrasts between:

  • divinity and humanity,
  • true being and fraudulent calculation,
  • death and life,
  • humiliation and exaltation,
  • bending and raising,
  • heaven and earth,
  • things above and below,
  • self–imposed slavery and God–bestowed lordship.

The theology is reminiscent of Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-28. Adam once transgressed the divine command in a catastrophic attempt to be like God, thereby drawing a curse upon creation (Genesis 2:16-17; 3:5, 14-19). In contrast, Christ emptied himself of inherent divinity, and for his supreme obedience unto crucified death, he was exalted by God for unending glory. By not bringing Adam explicitly into the picture, Philippians 2:5-11 keeps the focus christologically and theologically tight. On Passion Sunday, Paul keeps us grounded in what God, through Christ Jesus, is doing.

Second, one may fruitfully reposition this lection within Paul’s epistolary context, which unfolds to embrace our own.

Philippians radiates the apostle’s warmth for a community that has generously supported his ministry (1:3-6, 25-26; 4:14-20). “For God is my witness how I long for you all in the deepest feelings [splangnois: literally, “bowels”] of Christ Jesus” (1:8). Nevertheless, there are no rose blossoms for Paul, his colleagues, or his readers.

He writes from prison (1:7, 13-14), in circumstances that make death appear strangely attractive (1:22-24). A colleague, Epaphroditus, has been gravely ill (2:25-29), “having come near death for the work of Christ” (2:30). Paul and the Philippians are further beset by a host of disturbances from both without and within:

  • unscrupulous preachers (1:15-17),
  • unnamed opponents (1:28),
  • “enemies of Christ’s cross” (3:18),
  • “evil–working dogs” (3:2),
  • potential arrogance that can rip a church apart (2:3-4),
  • an apparent falling-out between two leading women in the Philippians congregation (4:2-3).

Whether in this letter brimming with joy or at the start of Christianity’s Holiest Week, sin, suffering, and dissension take no holiday. It is at the heart of the muck and the stresses of a church in the real world that God has planted the gospel of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:5-11).

When the truth of that cross–shaped gospel seizes us, we join with Paul and his addressees in regarding this world in a radically new light: adversity drives the gospel forward (1:12); “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:21). The same invincible power that raised Christ from death and has exalted him to everlasting praise continues to conform our humility and humiliation to the pattern of Christ’s kenotic glory (3:20-21).

Third, the preacher may juxtapose Philippians 2:5-11 with the Old Testament texts the Common Lectionary assigns for this Sunday (Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalms 31:9-16, 118:1-2, 19-29).

If so, the same pattern reemerges. The servant who “know[s] how to sustain with a word the one who is weary” (Isaiah 50:4c) is no stranger to chastisement. Morning by morning the Lord GOD has awakened that servant (50:4d) and scraped out his ear (50:5a). The Lord has supported him whose back has received the lash (50:6a) and has set like flint the face of one spat upon (50:6d, 7c).

The picture in Psalm 31 – one of scripture’s most heart–rending laments – is even more gruesome. The very one who trusts in God (verse 14) is surrounded by “terror on every side” (verse 13). The same one is wasted and miserable, broken and persecuted, an abominable thing (verses 9-10, 11, 12-13). The wonder of the LORD’S chesed, steadfast love (Psalm 118:1, 29) lies precisely in his selection as cornerstone of the rubble tossed aside by competent builders (verses 22-23). As Paul puts it, “For Christ’s sake you not only trust in him but also suffer for him, pitched in the very struggle you saw in me and now hear to be mine” (Philippians 1:29b-30).

The poetry of Philippians 2:5-11 rhymes with that of the Psalms and Isaiah’s Servant Songs. The only way that our torments – as persons, as a church, as a world – may be redeemed is by the decision of God’s Messiah to empty himself of glory and journey with us into the heart of darkness.

The challenge facing the preacher is a refusal to lower the stakes on either side: either trivializing the cross into shabby sentimentality or robbing the assurance of God’s victory with easy nihilism.

Many churches burn Passion Sunday’s palms into ashes applied to penitent foreheads on the first Wednesday of Lent in the year following. One year’s Christmas trees are reconfigured as crosses in next year’s Holy Week. These are liturgical expressions of what the Christ–hymn in Philippians 2 is driving at: the inseparability of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, God’s ultimate triumph nowhere but in the crucified Messiah.