Sunday, April 05, 2009

Palm Sunday Sermon 2009

“Christ, ... being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped.+

Today's Epistle is something very close to a Creed. Some modern translations of the Scripture indent this passage to signify its highly structured, poetic form, and the fact that it is probably a hymn. But it is not merely the structure to which I refer. The passage unites in a concise but powerful way the essence of the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement, and concludes with a sentence which doubles as an eschatological reference and an invitation to saving faith. (That this is a reference both to voluntary confession of Christ's Lordship by the Faithful, and any made to confess at the Judgement through force of Truth previously rejected, is implied both by the universality of the promise and the context of the quotation from Isaiah 45: “every knee shall bow”. There we have God both saying “Turn to me and be saved all the ends of the earth, for I am God unrivalled” and “”To him shall come, ashamed, all who raged against him.”) Perhaps the only thing lacking in this Hymn to make it a Creed is an explicit Trinitarian formula.

When I said that this passage unites Incarnation and Atonement, I meant exactly that. It is not just a case of bringing them into close proximity in its description of God's actions. It is more even than saying that the Incarnation – God the Son taking on human nature – was necessary as a means for the Atonement – the God-Man offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins and so uniting God and Man in Himself. The unity between Incarnation and Atonement here is more profound and complete.

For when St Paul writes of Jesus “emptying himself” (kenosis in the Greek) to become human, he then shows that the Cross is an ultimate extension of this self-humbling: “he humbled himself [yet further] and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”. Incarnation and Atonement are thus part of the same movement, the same impulsion of God's love for us.

That God, the transcendent source of all Being and Life, should so humiliate himself, so to speak, should be so willing to enter into the grit and grime of our existence, an existence not only earthly and weak, but, far worse, mortally affected by evil, is both amazing and beautiful. We do not ponder this enough. Now, theologians have made the point that this Divine “kenosis” or self-emptying” does not unGod God! No, throughout this Jesus remains fully Divine, with all the immutable Divine attributes. But, inasmuch as he became “God in skin”, what He emptied himself of, relative to us, is the all-consuming, visible glory and the invulnerability to suffering.

And because of this voluntary kenosis, Jesus as Man, and not just as God, is “highly exalted”, and his human name, Jesus, becomes the name above every name, the Word above every word. The great paradox of the kenosis is that it not only leads to a complete restoration of the manifestation of the power and the glory for God the Son, it incorporates into that restoration both his human nature and ours. Manhood is now exalted to that place of incomparable honour, in Christ. And our humanity is connected to His through His Body, as we belong to the Church; through his Body, as we spiritually feast upon it in the Eucharist, and “become what we eat”. And intimately associated with this, the Divine Life is poured into us by the Holy Spirit.

But we cannot forget that the immediate purpose of this hymn for St Paul was to remind Christians to imitate Christ's humility, his kenosis. He is saying, “If God the Son was willing to humble himself so completely, how much more should we do so, who next to him are as nothing, at best shattered and spoiled images of God, if without His grace.”

So, while we confess and praise our Lord Jesus Christ and his unreserved self-giving to and for us, and while we meditate with thanksgiving and wonder at the joy and glory of our resultant “deification” by grace, we must beware of deceiving ourselves by losing sight of the necessary road between the two. That road is our voluntary kenosis, our taking up the Cross, our penitence, self-denial and self-effacing love for brethren and neighbour. However, thanks be to God that we do this only by grace, by God working within us, as St Paul says later in the same chapter (Ph. 2.13).

To further illustrate this point, I will read now from St Augustine's Confessions.

' And I sought a way of acquiring strength sufficient to enjoy Thee; but I found it not until I embraced that “Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus,” ... calling unto me, and saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and mingling that food which I was unable to receive with our flesh. For “the Word was made flesh,” that Thy wisdom, by which Thou createdst all things, might provide milk for our infancy. For I did not grasp my Lord Jesus, — I, though humbled, grasped not the humble One; nor did I know what lesson that infirmity of His would teach us. For Thy Word, the Eternal Truth, pre-eminent above the higher parts of Thy creation, raises up those that are subject unto Itself; but in this lower world built for Itself a humble habitation of our clay, whereby He intended to abase from themselves such as would be subjected, and bring them over unto Himself, diminishing their swelling, and fostering their love; to the end that they might go on no further in self-confidence, but rather should become weak, seeing before their feet the Divinity weak by taking our “coats of skins;” and wearied, might cast themselves down upon It, and It rising, might lift them up. [ Bk 7, Ch. 18. (Referring to his pre-conversion state.)]

' How hast Thou loved us, good Father, who sparedst not Thine only Son, but deliveredst Him up for us wicked ones! How hast Thou loved us, for whom He, who thought it no robbery to be equal with Thee, “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross; ... of slaves making us Thy sons, by being born of Thee, and serving us. Rightly, then, is my hope strongly fixed on Him, that Thou wilt heal all my diseases by Him who sitteth at Thy right hand and maketh intercession for us; else should I utterly despair? For numerous and great are my infirmities, yea, numerous and great are they; but Thy medicine is greater. We might think that Thy Word was removed from union with man, and despair of ourselves had He not been “made flesh and dwelt among us.” ' [ Bk 10, Ch. 43]

For the second week in a row then, I ask that we think upon and trust in the Cross imprinted on the Heart of God, and in that faith, overcome the world to the glory of God. +


Jack said...

Thank you Fr. Kirby for the blessing and grace delivered in this homily.


Millo Shaw said...

Fr. Kirby,

Your homily calls to mind one of my favourite hymns - the old Latin hymn translated as "O Love, how deep! how broad! how high!" (no. 475 in the 1938 Canadian Hymn Book - often referred to as the "blue hymnal"). Two of its lines I find particularly moving:

"By words, and signs, and actions, thus
Still seeking not himself but us."

A blessed Holy Week to all!

Alice C. Linsley said...

He who emptied Himself of his divine glory and put on the robe of humility, rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. As he rodew into Jerusalem, the people used palm fronds to greet Him, acclaiming him as one to be enthroned. The connection between rulers and palm fronds is very old and still evident in West Africa and Arabia. Among the Yoruba, fresh palm tree leaves are “employed on occasions of installation to the position and rank of a sovereign, and to the office of a priest of high rank." So it appears that Jesus was greeted as both King and High Priest. Read more about the palm tree in connection with rulers and priests here: