This morning’s reading from the letter to the Philippians is easy to overlook. It has two powerful and dramatic gospel readings over-shadowing it, one shortly before, another very soon after. The story of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem comes first, and it is laden with irony since Jesus himself is the only one who has an inkling that the ultimate destination of this journey is a cross on Golgotha. We know, of course, which only makes it all the more poignant for us to witness the adoration of the crowds whose shouts of Hosanna will so quickly turn to taunts and murder.
Later, we hear the story of the whole of Christ’s passion, this year as St Matthew tells it. This reading naturally and rightly dominates the Palm Sunday liturgy, as we hear again the story of Christ’s betrayal, his arrest, his trials before Caiaphas and Pilate, his crucifixion and his burial.
Despite the long shadows cast by these two gospel readings, we should try very hard not to overlook the ancient and powerful words in the letter to the Philippians, because they provide for us the lens that helps us to understand (as much as we will ever be able to understand) everything that comes before and after. They tell us who these gospel stories are about. This Jesus is ‘in the form of God’ it says in our Bibles, although I much prefer the older translation that describes Jesus as ‘in very nature God’. The passage tells us that Christ’s sufferings represent neither failure nor unfortunate accident, but are rather the result of obedience, an obedience that has resulted in triumph. Christ’s victory is won by humble obedience even to the point of death on a cross. He triumphs over the two problems that human beings are powerless to address without God’s help – sin, and death. He returns from death with an offer of new life, eternal life, the life of God’s own self.
St Paul isn’t just explaining things to us, though. He is exhorting us to emulate Christ’s humble obedience, his willingness to suffer for the sake of others, to sacrifice himself to win a victory in which others might share. We are to have the ‘same mind’ as Christ in this respect. Our sacrifices will be smaller and our victories (very likely) less cosmic in scale, but our participation in Christ’s victory carries with it a willingness to share in his sufferings.
This year it really feels like it. Being a disciple of Jesus is hard, especially when we are unable to gather together for the support and encouragement of our fellow Christians. Being denied, by our own Church, the things that give shape and substance to our faith, is (for me, at least) agonising, and there is no knowing how long all this will last. We might well want to pray, with Jesus, ‘take this cup away’.
And yet I profoundly believe that how we conduct ourselves in these circumstances will set the agenda for the Church in this country for a generation. If we are content to retreat into our silos and wait things out, drawing what comfort we can from the worship and fellowship that we are able to continue over the phone and online, we will deserve the nation’s verdict that we are indeed not an ‘essential’ part of our shared life. If, however, we are relentless in reaching out by whatever means are available to us, sharing compassion and love with those around us, there may be a resurrection that surprises us with renewed life.
And that, as I far as I can tell, is exactly what we at St Nick’s are doing. I hear stories every day of how people are finding creative ways to support others with acts of kindness, practical help and friendly encouragement. I am deeply moved by this, as I am by the huge efforts that are being made to keep everyone in touch with the church as much as we are able. And the numbers who are asking for this contact are increasing daily.
Christ humbled himself and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross. That is the focus of our prayer and worship this week. May that same mind be in us, and may God bless you all,
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