Homily on 1 John 4:9-11; 1 Peter 2:24-25; Philippians 2:5-8; and Ephesians 4:32--5:2 delivered at Evangelical Congregational Church Retirement Village, Myerstown, Pennsylvania, on 18 April 2014.
I've always loved the hymn in Philippians 2. It's so sweeping in its scope: eternity before the world, to the life of Jesus, to Good Friday, through Easter Sunday, to the very end of the whole story when the whole story of God and us gets wrapped up in a big Jesus-shaped bow. I love the idea it starts with: Jesus "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped", or something to take advantage of. Some schoalrs suggest a more nuanced sense: Jesus "did not consider equality with God to consist in grasping".
Paul knew that the Roman emperors wanted people to worship them, or more precisely the so-called 'gods' of the imperial family. They wanted people to view them as "equal with God", and so they committed their lives to always grasping for more. More money. More power. More public honor. More domination of others. More self-indulgence. To a Roman eye, equality with God meant taking it all.
Things aren't that much different today, really. We talk about "getting ahead in life", as if the best goal were to somewhat defeat everyone else. We talk about "moving on to bigger and better things", as if the only way to live were "moving on up". We talk about the American dream, a dream of at least getting and having something of our own, something to keep for ourselves, something to guard jealously and call 'mine'. The heroes of American culture are people who live this way: celebrities who quest for more recognition; athletes who quest for more domination; businessmen who quest for more money; politicians who quest for more power and influence. We dream of having it all, of winning it big. And so, to an American eye, equality with God still means taking it all.
Jesus saw things differently. We talk about "moving on to bigger and better things". Jesus emptied himself and took on the outward appearance of a human servant - hardly 'bigger' or 'better' in the eyes of the world. We talk about upward mobility. Jesus lived out a gospel of downward mobility. We dream of taking everything. We think that, if we only had a big house or admirers or an overstuffed bank account or name recognition, we'd finally be fulfilled. We dream about getting more and more, bigger and bigger. Jesus made it a point to get less and less by giving it all away. He set aside his heavenly glory, he emptied himself, he took on the form of a servant, and he walked faithfully in obedience to his Father - even when it led him to the lowest of low points, the point Romans called "the slave's punishment": death on a cross.
That's what we remember today. Lots of people died on Roman crosses, but only one got there intentionally by walking away from outward displays of divine glory. Only one went there voluntarily for us. Being like God didn't mean what Rome thought, and it doesn't mean what most of America thinks, either. Being like God doesn't mean taking. Being like God means giving. Being like God doesn't mean satisfying yourself. Being like God means serving others in love, out of faithful obedience to the Father. Being like God means the cross. Take it from Jesus, who - unlike any Roman emperor or American celebrity - is the only one qualified to tell us what equality with God really means. Because he didn't just tell; he showed.
By his life and by his death, he showed us love when we least deserved it. We turned away from God. We broke ourselves, we broke each other, we broke the world. We lost the faith, we forgot the hope, we trampled the love underfoot. That's what sin is. We rebelled against the holy God who loves us. But he never stopped loving us, not even at our worst. He set in motion a plan to fix everything that went wrong. He picked the family of Abraham to bless the rest; within them, he picked the people of Israel; within them, he picked the faithful remnant; and when the weight of sin proved too much for Israel to bear, it all came down to a one-man Remnant - the Word made flesh, the Son of God become the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, the True Israelite, the Last Adam, who lived out the mission of God when no one else could or would.
And that mission led him to death on the cross. It led him to the cross to defeat and unmask the worldly powers for the frauds they really are. It led him to the cross to redeem Israel. It led him to the cross to bless the nations. It led him to the cross to unite Jew and Gentile into a new humanity, a new people of God to serve the world and live for the kingdom. For the sake of our peace, God's mission led Jesus to a painful and shameful death on the cross. It led him there because I sinned, because you sinned, because we all sinned, and we were faithless, hopeless, and loveless without him. And he came to the rescue, he obeyed his Father, he died so that, by dying to ourselves in his death through faith, we could be freed from the law's claims over us - and we could have a new beginning in him.
But it came at such a cost, a cost greater than we may ever realize. Jesus walked down the darkest of roads for us. Out of love, the Creator let himself be broken by the broken creation. Out of love, the Light of the world let our darkness engulf him. Out of love, the eternal Word of God let himself be brought to silence. Out of love, the Lamb of God went quietly to the slaughter. Out of love, the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his lost sheep. Over eighteen hundred years ago, a bishop named Melito preached a sermon on the Passover, and here's how he described the paradox of Jesus on the cross:
Hear and tremble because of him for whom the earth trembled: The one who hung the earth in space, is himself hanged. The one who fixed the heavens in place, is himself impaled. The one who firmly fixed all things, is himself firmly fixed to the tree. The Lord is insulted! God is murdered! ... For this reason the stars turned and fled, and the day grew quite dark, to hide the naked person hanging on the tree - darkening, not the body of the Lord, but the eyes of men. Even though the people didn't tremble, the earth trembled instead. Although the people were not afraid, the heavens grew frightened. Although the people didn't tear their garments, the angels tore theirs. Although the people didn't lament, the Lord thundered from heaven, and the Most High uttered his voice.
For us. It was all for us, all for the forgiveness of our sins, and the breaking of sin's power over us and over our world! Good Friday was a dark day, darker than any day before it and darker than any day after it. But love suffered that day of darkness to bring us everlasting light. Love accepted that cruel death in order to raise us up to eternal life. Because even through Good Friday, death and darkness do not have the final word. God shouted the ultimate word to the world on Easter Sunday: "Arise, shine, for your light has come! Behold, I make all things new!" But Christ's resurrection revives us because, on that old rugged cross, love suffered obediently, love paid the price, love fought for us, even at the greatest cost.
Will we live as people who have been bought with a price? Will we love and forgive and welcome one another, just as God loved and forgave and welcomed us? Will we be faithful and obedient to God, just as Jesus was obedient unto death on a cross? Will we be imitators of Christ's humility and his sacrifice? Will we reject the worldly ways that Jesus unmasked, and live according to God's wisdom instead? Will we accept Jesus' invitation to come together and join in God's mission to rescue and restore the world? Will we walk in the same Spirit that led Jesus to the cross, and through the cross to the resurrection? We who believe have said yes to God, but only because first, all God's promises are 'Yes' in Jesus Christ, our Lord who died our souls to save, and our world to save, and creation to save. Amen: come, Lord Jesus.