Sunday, May 14, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Kyrios: The Lord"

Philippians 2:5-11

5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: 6 Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. 7 But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, 10 so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Common English Bible)

“Imago Christi: Images and Titles of the Living Christ,” Week Four

It was a heartbreaking scene in Manikchak, a remote village in India that suffers from immense poverty: a young man, only thirty-five years old, had just died of cancer, and his neighbors were carrying his body for more than a mile and a half to the village crematorium, to say goodbye to him one last time and chant prayers over him before his body would be burned and his ashes deposited into a nearby river.

There was one twist, though, that made this scene not just heartbreaking, but heartwarming as well: the crowd of neighbors putting on this impromptu funeral were doing so for a friend of a completely different faith as theirs. Manikchak is almost entire Muslim, but the man who died, Biswajit Rajak, was a son of one of only two Hindu families in the entire village.

And so even with their differing faiths, Rajak’s friends were determined to send him off in a way that honored him and who he was by holding his cremation and funeral in accordance with Hindu tradition. On top of that, as Sreyasi Pal of the Hindustan Times notes, because Rajak’s family was so poor that they could not afford the cremation, the town covered his entire funeral expenses:

Rajak was suffering from liver cancer and died at his home on Monday. But when his family could not arrange for his cremation on Tuesday, villagers gathered at his house and requested Biswajit’s father Nagen Rajak to allow them to cremate his son.

Even the moulavi of the local mosque also went to the crematorium. The Muslim neighbors paid the money necessary for his last rites. The Rajaks are one of the two Hindu families in the village of about 6,000 residents.

“I had neither the money nor the manpower to take my son to the crematorium. I don’t know what would have happened if the villagers didn’t come forward for the last rites of my son,” said Rajak’s father, Nagen Rajak, with tears streaming down his eyes.

Haji Abdul Khalek, who took the lead in arranging the last rites told HT, “No religion preaches hatred towards others. Biswajit was like our brother. Allah wouldn’t have forgiven us if we looked the other way thinking that the family follows some other religion.”…

The Muslim neighbors of Rajak also paid for his treatment and arranged to send him to a hospital in Kolkata.

When we think of the nature of lordship from a divine rather than a human perspective, the establishment of such honor is always brought about by serving and by sacrificing. As Haji Abdul Khalek conveyed, the Muslims of Manikchak did their tradition such an honor in the funeral of Biswajit Rajak, and from a Christian perspective, I can say that I too saw the honor in their kindness.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter, which extends for the forty-nine days between Easter Sunday last week to Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as described in the second chapter of Acts. Much like Christmas, then, Easter does not actually end on Easter Day, but rather continues for a number of days afterwards so that we may continue our celebration of the good news that each of these two holidays represents and teaches us.

So for the 2017 Easter season, we’ll be using words to explore something visual—the images of the living and risen Jesus Christ that have been handed down from one generation of Christians to another throughout the centuries. Some of these images of Christ are almost as old as the church (the Way, in its Biblical incarnation) itself. All of them are rooted in Scriptural accounts of the Lord. And they each have something different to teach us about how different Christian communities at different points in time saw Jesus as the promised Messiah.

We began this series three weeks ago by rewinding to Good Friday to the image of Jesus the man being hauled out before the chief priests and temple authorities by Pontius Pilate, and we remained in Good Friday for the removal of Christ’s body from the cross, and the image of Mary holding her dead son’s body that was immortalized most famously in Michelangelo’s (the Sistine Chapel painter, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) statue of the two, called the Pieta.

Then last week, we turned to a very famous and well-known image of Christ that Jesus Himself conjures up for us in John 10: the image of Him as the Good Shepherd, leading His sheep, sheep that He describes in this passage as ultimately being of one flock, since, after all, they are all of the one God. And this week, we turn to perhaps the most fundamental image of all of Jesus: that of Him as Lord, which of course is a paradoxical image of Him, as He is Lord through His lowliness.

That lowliness is no small demonstration from God, either. The same God who fashioned heaven and earth from mere words, who was able to create light simply by uttering, “Let there be light,” that God was dedicated enough, and devoted enough, to humanity to decide to send a vestige of that divinity to us in the form of our own flesh. As Paul conveys in this hymn, it was a humbleness, an emptying out of power and splendor and wonder the likes of which the world had never seen either before or since.

It is an extremity—obedience as a slave even unto death—that might make us a bit squeamish, but it should not precisely because it illustrates the extent to which God’s devotion, and Christ’s devotion, to us reaches. It certainly made Peter squeamish, when Jesus took on the task of a slave in washing the feet of the disciples in John’s Gospel, yet after learning that he must allow Jesus this humbleness, Peter insisted on Jesus washing not just his feet but his hands and his head as well!

So we admire that lowliness and humbleness of Jesus, in part precisely because we are aware of His divine origins. Jesus gave up so very much to become human in the first place, even before giving up His own human life as well on the cross. So we would be right to look upon the very existence of Jesus, not just His crucifixion, as a sacrifice.

And it is right for us to admire such sacrifice, especially from a place of lowliness, whether from Jesus, or from His earthly mother Mary, or from a small village of Muslim Indians halfway around the world from us. But if all that Paul’s words evoke for us is a sense of admiration of Jesus (or of Paul, for that matter), then Paul has not taken us nearly far enough—and I think Paul would be the first to point that out to us.

For where this becomes an obstacle for Christians, then, is that as Bible scholar Ernest W. Saunders is keen to point out in his own commentary on Philippians, we are more apt to *admire* such lowliness rather than to *emulate* such lowliness. Saunders calls Christ’s lowliness “the scandal of the Gospel,” writing: “But how are we to make it real for our world where self-sufficiency and success are the most prized goals? People like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Martin Luther King Jr. may evoke admiration from us, but less likely emulation.”

Examples of selflessness and humility may evoke admiration from us, but less likely emulation. If there is a single sentence to sum up the existential crisis that Christianity has found itself in honestly probably ever since it went from minority religion to the state faith of the Roman Empire, this is it.

We are no longer willing to be Christian from a place of lowliness because lowliness, especially on a global scale, is no longer our starting or default position. We live in the wealthiest country in the world, even if we ourselves do not partake of the lion’s share of its riches, and we see in where we live a divine exceptionalism, an almost special-child status in the world.

But God is not an American. Jesus was not an American. And we can find in people like the citizens of Manikchak, who on paper may seem to have nothing in common with us but our humanity, a far more profound emulation of the ministry and values of Jesus Christ than what we see lived out in our own communities on a day-to-day basis.

This is a village of immense material poverty, that is already empty and devoid of so much financial wealth that we take for granted, and whose spiritual richness was put on display not for the sake of its own dominant tradition, but for that of a son who, much like Jesus Himself, died far, far too soon.

That is the scandal of the Gospel. That is why the Good News, good though it is, should scare us so—because it should remove from us any ability to claim exceptionalism before the throne of God. The same grace and mercy that covers me as a pastor covers you as a layperson. I don’t get special treatment either just because I’m a Christian who has gone pro.

So today’s mandate is a simple one: try to take some of your deep admiration of Jesus and transform it into emulation of Jesus. And not just in a schlocky, “WWJD?” sort of way. But in a way that is capable of fundamentally changing your very self into a vessel that more clearly and lucidly than ever reflects the One who has recognized you for who you are: a sinner called and redeemed, and who has since called you to go forth to help save and redeem other sinners.

So like Christ, empty yourself of those higher pretensions to which you might still cling. Empty yourself of those conceits that may guide you towards selfishness rather than empathy and ego rather than connectedness.

And in their place, let the need to not just admire but emulate the life of Jesus Christ burn brightly within you, lighting your way forward towards that God who highly honored Jesus as a result, and who highly honors you with an attention so caring and so loving towards you that you will never, ever be without it.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 14, 2017

No comments:

Post a Comment